Making Adustments to Just Part of an Image in Photoshop, by Chip Phillips

If you use Lightroom, Camera Raw, or something similar, there are many adjustments that you can make to your RAW image with the adjustment brush, but it is somewhat limited compared to the options that are available in Photoshop. I usually take an image as far as I can in Lightroom, then import it into Photoshop to edit it further. The technique for applying adjustments to only part of an image was a real turning point in my editing. Prior to knowing how to do this, all of the adjustments that I would make to my images would be applied to the entire image, and I really felt like I didn’t have the control that I wanted. Now, pretty much every adjustment that I make to an image, is applied to a specific spot, or non-globally. I do this by first visualizing the adjustment that I want to make to a specific part of an image and then making that adjustment (as an adjustment layer) while only focusing on that particular area. A layer mask is automatically provided (with current versions of Photoshop). I fill the layer mask with black to hide the adjustment, and then paint it in (with the foreground color changed to white) to the area that I want to adjust. There are endless adjustments that can be made this way, such as curves, levels, saturation, and even some more complex ones such as noise reduction, sharpening, creative effects such as Orton, and adjustments from plug-ins such as NIK Color Efex Pro, etc. Pretty much anything that you do in Photoshop can be applied to only a portion of the image, and it’s pretty simple to do. I’ll explain in a bit more detail.

Here is a recent image after editing it about as far as I could in Lightroom:

The first adjustment I made to the image was a curves adjustment to bring out some blue in the shadows. I only wanted this adjustment to be applied to the shadows, so I made the adjustment like this:

Select a curves adjustment layer from the menu:

Notice that a white mask is applied automatically to the adjustment.

Next I selected the blue channel only and bumped up the lower portion to increase the blue in the dark tones.

Notice that even though I selected only the darker tones, it still looks too blue over-all:

To apply the adjustment to only the shadows, I did this:
If the foreground color on your tools palette is set to white, press “x” to set it to black:

Next press “Alt-backspace” on a PC, (or Mac equivalent), to hide the adjustment completely. Notice the mask color turn to black in the layers palette:

Now set the foreground color back to white with the “x” key, select the brush tool, and paint the adjustment in to only the shadows. You can adjust the opacity up to effect how much of the adjustment is applied, and adjust the opacity on the layers palette to decrease the entire adjustment if needed.

After a global levels adjustment and a slight curve tweak to bump up the contrast in the image, I am almost done. I wanted to bring out some glow in the highlights so I ran a subtle “Orton” action over the image that I developed from researching the “Orton Effect” on the web. I didn’t want the effect applied to the entire image because it can look a bit overpowering and I usually want it to be very subtle. There are many different techniques to achieving this effect, and I used my own version for this image. A very simple one that can be used involves using a high radius “Gaussian Blur” tuned down to a very low amount. It goes kind of like this:
Create a merged layer that combines all the previous adjustments applied already to the image, but keeps them all still visible and intact by pressing “CTRL/ALT/Shift-E” on a PC (or the equivalent on a Mac).

Now you need to create a mask for this layer because it isn’t automatically created like it is for regular adjustment layers. Do this by clicking the little mask icon on the bottom of the layers palette:

Next make your adjustment. Try using a Gaussian Blur amount of 50 pixels for a full sized file, then adjust the opacity of that layer down to about 7-10%.
Now, set your foreground color to black as before (with the “x” key) , hide the adjustment (Alt-Backspace-PC, or Mac equivalent) and paint it in to only the highlights. Adjust the Opacity as needed.
If you use your own “Orton” version, or plug-in software such as NIK Color Efex Pro, you can make the adjustments and paint them in with the same technique.
You can also paint in shadow/highlights adjustments and noise reduction, local contrast, etc.

Here is the finished image, with a boost in contrast, sharpening, and some other special touches applied with the same technique:

As you can see the possibilities are pretty much endless, and the control you get from a workflow such as this is pretty extensive.


~ by photocascadia on May 12, 2010.

2 Responses to “Making Adustments to Just Part of an Image in Photoshop, by Chip Phillips”

  1. Chip thank you! I’d used a canned Orton action before but never tried to develop one myself. Using the effect with a layer mask is a great idea – lots of possibilities.

  2. Thanks for the write-up, Chip. Although I’ve been working with layer masks for a little over a year now, I had never thought about using localized Orton Effect. I didn’t wait long to try it out myself on an image I just edited. 🙂

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