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Tutorial: New Adjustment Panel in Adobe Photoshop CS4

By Ellis Vener

Modern raw processing software is very capable. You can use it to manipulate both global and local tone and color; remove some image defects; and create Web galleries, Web-ready JPEGs, and prints. What does Adobe Photoshop CS4 (PsCS4) still have to offer the busy working photographer that these products—particularly Adobe Photoshop Lightroom—do not?

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This tutorial covers the update of one of the more powerful Photoshop tools—layers—in conjunction with the new Adjustments panel (what we used to call a palette). If you do not already use layers in your way of working with photos, then you should, and PsCS4 makes working with layers and masks far more user friendly than before. Working in layers gives you the power to make progressive changes to an image without losing track of where and when you did what, which in turn makes it far easier to fine tune the photo and, as necessary, revisit a step. If you follow the strategy advocated by R. Mac Holbert of Nash Editions—work on global processing first before solving localized problems—and keep the layer stack tidy, you can substantially shorten your image processing time. The new Adjustments panel is a great boon in this respect.


There are 13 Adjustments panel options—Brightness/Contrast, Levels, Curves, Hue/Saturation/Lightness, Color Balance, Black and White, Photo Filter, Channel Mixer, Invert, Posterize, Threshold, Gradient Map, and Selective Color.

Access each option through the icons in the Adjustments panel. Clicking on any of the icons creates a new adjustment layer for that effect, including a built-in mask, and converts the Adjustments panel into the menu pane for each. To return to the main Adjustments view click on the arrow in the lower left corner of the pane.  

Starting with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II raw file made by former PPA president Jack Reznicki, the photo was opened in Lightroom 2.2. White balance was set to Flash and capture sharpening was done in Lightroom. The image was then exported as a 16-bit per channel TIFF using Adobe RGB (1998) as the color space, and opened in PsCS4, as seen below.

Image ©Jack Reznicki

The first problem to address is overall tone and color. It is close but slightly off. Correcting this first let’s you see the image’s proper color and tonal balances. It is addressed in three easy steps:

1.) Create a Threshold layer from the Adjustments panel and begin with the slider all the way over to the left and then bring it back to the right until you hit the first significant blacks. Use the Eyedropper tool in the Photoshop toolbar and hold down the shift key while clicking on a point in that area. Now that you have created a black clipping point related to your photo’s content, delete that layer with the Delete key—deleting layers this way is a new feature in PsCS4.

2.) Go back to the Adjustments panel and choose Curves. In the curves dialog first choose the black point eyedropper and click on the Color Sample point you just created (there will be a small indicator with a number) to establish this as the black point for your modified curve and change the layer blend mode to Luminosity. This limits the changes you will next make to just the grayscale data of your photo and will not change the overall color.

3.) Return to the Adjustments panel and again choose Curves. This time switch the blend mode to Color and use the gray point eyedropper in conjunction with the Info palette to help you find a suitable point or, assuming you are working on a well calibrated and profiled display, use your eyes to find where, in Holbert’s words, “the neutral tones fall into place.”

Cropping is a necessary evil. And cropping early in the workflow to the area you know you want to use for the final image lets you concentrate on just the area that makes the best composition or, as in this example, the specified deliverable. Cropping non destructively leaves an escape if you, or the client, later change your mind. Although non-destructive cropping is possible with Lightroom, if you ever need to re-crop a finished photo to a different aspect ratio, this is a handy way of avoiding having to re-do all of your post production work.

1)  Select > All
2)  Select > Transform Selection
3)  Click on Maintain Aspect Ratio (chain icon) and change width to 75% and then Confirm Transform (enter).
4)  Create a new Solid Color Fill Layer, rename it “Crop” and make the layer color solid black (R/G/B = 0/0/0). Click on the layer mask thumbnail to select it. Now click to the main menu bar and go Image > Adjustment> Invert. This will create a black border around your image. You can move this area around with the Move tool if you have the mask thumbnail selected. If you want to change the proportions select Edit > Free Transform.

If you already know what size your client needs, first mark one side of the crop with a guide. Choose the Crop tool and set the height and width proportions and made a temporary crop of that size over the photo, anchoring at your guide. Place guides where the other three edges should be for that proportion and click on any tool and choose the “Do Not Crop” option in the dialog window that opens. 

At that point select Edit > Free transform and drag either the corners or sides to your guidelines. (See illustrations below. Click for large view.)

We can now concentrate on basic retouching. One thing that can make for a lot less post production work in a tight head shot like this is to insist your clients wash their face well and follow that with a good skin moisturizer! Methodical pre-production efforts often save post-production headaches. As the subject of the portrait, I neglected to follow my own advice, with some dry skin touch-ups needed as a result.

Start by duplicating the background layer and then look at your photo at different magnifications starting with “fill the screen” and up to 100% magnification. If needed, go up to 200% magnification. Using the “mow the lawn” method of close examination, start in the upper left corner (keyboard shortcut: Home button), and move down that column, shift to the next column and repeat until you reach the lower right corner. Use the Spot Heal tool for the best blends. If a defect is so close to the edge of an area that you get an unwanted burst of tone bleed, undo and use the Lasso or Marquee tool to select just the area you want the Spot Heal Tool to work on. It helps to vary the size, shape and orientation of the Spot Heal Brush and vary the level of magnification from time to time to see if you missed a spot. Drop back to a full image view mode every now and then to see what you are doing in the context of the entire image.

Before retouching.


The final three steps for this portrait are a custom black-and-white conversion, an application of Mac Holbert’s mid-tone contrast enhancement action (available from Mac’s Web site:, and a tweaking of the brightness and contrast. Each step has its own layer and the first and last ones start from the Adjustments panel.

While some people swear by the old standby of channel mixer for their black-and-white conversions, and others rely on third-party plug-ins, starting from one of the optional black-and-white presets in Photoshop CS4 and then tweaking as needed these color individual sliders allows for a near infinite amount of control over the color-to-black-and-white renderings. Additionally, if you click on the tint button it works just like a toning bath for silver gelatin prints; by moving the color selection around, you have infinitely more flexibility. As with all layers, reducing the Opacity or the Fill amount of the layer fades the monochrome rendition back towards the previous state. Once you have created an effect you think you might want to use again you can save it as a custom preset for later use. You even use a white brush to selectively allow areas of color to come through the mask.

Holbert’s Mid-Tone Contrast Enhancement technique, the model for the Clarity control in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw 4 and 5, does exactly what its name implies. The difference between this action and Clarity is that by applying it as a layer later in the process you have more control over the effect and where it is applied. Once again, as with all layers you can control the intensity of the effect with the Opacity slider. This is just something to always keep in mind when working with layers keep in mind.

Mac Holbert Mid-Tone Contrast Enhancement at 13%.

Adding a Brightness/Contrast Adjustment layer further tunes overall tonal relationships before moving on to prepping the image for printing or distribution.  

This is just one path for one image. Other images or uses may need localized color and tone control—once again, done as layers—but you get the idea. When you have finished save your work as a master TIFF with all the layers intact and with some alteration of the file name to identify it as the master. Do not flatten the layers before saving the master; you want to retain flexibility you have created. Our digital processing skills continually evolve and, like shooting raw, saving the layer cake keeps your options open. When you make duplicates for specific uses, then you can flatten the layers in those derivatives.

Other Photoshop CS4 improvements to Layers allow you to keep a layer mask linked to a Smart Object, vary the opacity and feathering of a layer mask, and the ability to use your keyboard’s delete/backspace key to delete a layer. If you are so inclined, it is now also possible to convert layers into 3D shapes (including a 2D postcard) via the 3D menu.

So what are you waiting for? Start using layers and become a more powerful Photoshop user!