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Using Photoshop Selections for Color and Tone Adjustments

Great image color and tone adjustments start with a great selection.  Learn how to do this quickly and easily.

Follow along with these photos (provided for educational use only).

Watch and Learn

Using selections for color and tone adjustments from Photoshop Selections: Tips, Tricks, and Techniques by Richard Harrington

Read Along

Let’s make some basic selections using a simple concept: tone. By limiting a selection to a particular area, such as the shadows or midtones, we can make precise adjustments there.

  1. In Photoshop, I’ll choose File >Browse in Bridge, and I’ve navigated to the exercise files that I’ve downloaded.
  2. Open up the two files labeled 1.2. What you’ll have here is the original image and the afterstate, and you’ll see that this is quite a more dramatic photo.These details were in the image, but they needed to be unlocked.

Well, what’s happened here is pretty straightforward. You’ll see at the very beginning, we have our initial image. However, making a Curves adjustment allowed me to adjust the contrast. But the selection here isolates it to the actual rocks. I made another Curves adjustment on the water, and that really brought out the details. Then, a Vibrance adjustment could be applied to the rocks and the water independently. Now, you’ll notice up at the top here, I did one extra little trick, and that’s running Camera Raw on the image when it’s done.

Let me show you how we did this. Here’s our first image, and what I want to do is make a selection. So I’ll choose Select>Color Range. And I’ll simply make a selection here on the shadows. Now I can adjust the range and the fuzziness, and you see that it makes a general selection of the rock. Let’s click OK, make that a little fuzzier, and pull the range down some.

That’s good, and click OK. Now I have a new selection. We often call these “marching ants,” but these moving marquee lines here indicate that a selection has been made.When I click the Curves icon here, it’s going to apply that, and you’ll see a mask has been applied. Now, the Curves adjustment allows you to affect contrast, and one of the easiest ways to work is with the On Image tool here. By choosing this, you can now simply click on the rock itself, and it will add the corresponding point in the right place.

By dropping the contrast there in the midtones, and let’s go to a little darker shadow, I could really improve the contrast on the rock. Toggling that on and off, you see that looks really good. Well, once you’ve made one selection, it’s very simple to choose Select>Reselect, and load it again. And now we’ll add a Vibrance adjustment. Vibrance is selective saturation, and you see that it allows me to bring out the colors so the rocks get a little more lush.

Now let’s go after the water. Once you have a selection made, it’s very easy to reverse that selection and choose everything else. In this case, instead of choosing the rocks, I want to choose everything but the rocks. I can now choose Select>Reselect, and then Select>Inverse. Now the other areas are chosen. Let’s do the same Curves adjustmentand pull down the Curves on the water there. I like that.

In fact, let’s try an auto adjustment. Alt + Option or Alt + Click on the word Auto, and I’ll tell it to find the Per Channel Contrast and Snap Midtones. That’s not bad. Let’s try Find Dark & Light. That actually looks a lot better. The Find Dark & Light Colors works really well here. Snapping the midtones is okay, but I think I’m going to leave the color cast there. What this preset did, is it pushed the whites to white and the blacks to black,making it very easy to refine things. Plus, you could still use that On Image command there to pull the water down.

That Curves adjustment was very powerful and brought back a ton of detail that was lost. Let’s Reselect that again. Toss on another Vibrance adjustment and we can go after just the water, making it even a little bit more strong. Now these colors are looking dramatically different, and I really like the tone. It went from being washed out midday to being much more dramatic. Now I’m going to load the entire image and actually apply Camera Raw. Camera Raw is available as a filter, which unlocks some pretty cool options.

To do this, I’ll choose Select>All, and from the Edit menu, Copy Merged. Now the entire image is on my clipboard, so if I paste, you’ll see it adds a flattened copy. I recommend Converting this for Smart Filters, so now the filters can be modified. This allows you to go in and out of a filter to tweak it. Now from the Filter menu, choose Camera Raw. What we’re going to do here is refine the image a little bit. I’ll punch in to 100% and jump right over to the Details tab.

Let’s crank up the Sharpening Amount, and then, while holding down the Option or Alt key, I’ll drag the Mask slider so that my sharpening isn’t so broad. I just want to sharpen the edges and not add more noise into the water. That’s good, we’ll pull down the Amount just a little. Play with the Radius and the Detail. Using the Option or Alt keymakes it much easier to refine those results. That’s looking really good there. From the basic tab, I’m happy with how everything came out.

But you’ll notice that, if necessary, you could easily adjust things. I like the ability here to look at Clipping with the Histogram. And I can see that we have a few cold pixels here that are pure black. So by pulling up the Shadows there, or just the Black point ever so slightly, we can recover some of those. But they’re looking pretty good, and I don’t really need to push that too much further. I do have room, though, to bring the overall Exposure up just a little, and the Shadows down a little bit.

So if you want to refine the Exposure even more using the Histogram, this is great. To stylize the image, let’s put a little bit of Dehaze in. You’ll notice, though, that that does start to clip the pixels, so don’t go too far. But a slight Post Crop Vignette is going to draw the viewer’s eye into the center of the photo. I like that, there’s the Amount, and let’s just Feather that more for a gentler transition. There we go. And when satisfied, I can click OK. You’ll notice that that gives us a slightly sharper image with a little bit of a Vignette to guide the viewer’s eye.

But in this case, selections really came into play here, and we limited them based upon a property of tone. By starting with just the shadow area and refining it using the Select>Color Range command, we were able to be very precise and target an area for a specific manipulation. Now this really came in handy here, and I was able to make specific adjustments based on tonal range. If you want to quickly see the before and after, just go the Windows panel here, and choose History.

You’ll notice up at the top, you actually have some snapshots. So click to make a snapshot of the current state, and now you can click between them. There’s the original.Here’s the refined image. A dramatic improvement in color and tone, and it’s all thanks to targeted selections.

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