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First steps to better digital images using Elements

First steps to better digital images using Elements - Philip Andrews uses Adobe entry-level image editing program, Elements, to tweak the pixels of some newly created pictures.

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Category : Adobe Photoshop
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Most digital image-makers find that there are several enhancing steps that they always perform on a newly acquired picture. For the most part these changes follow a predictable sequence -

Import, Orientate or Straighten, Crop, Adjust Tones, Alter Colour, Apply Sharpness and Save.

These basic alterations take a raw image captured by a camera or scanner and tweak the pixels so that resultant picture is cast free, sharp and displays a good spread of tones.

No matter what image editing program you are using the tools and features designed to perform these steps are often those first learned. To accompany the review of Photoshop Elements also contained in this issue, I have put together the following tutorial that uses the new Adobe program to enhance a few sample images. If you are itching to find out for yourself just how well this product compares with the editor you are currently using , download the 30 day demo (53.4Mb) from the www.adobe.com site and work along with me.

Importing from a Camera or Scanner
When opening Elements for the first time the user is confronted with the Quick Start screen containing several options. Images can be created from scratch, opened (if previously saved) or acquired from scanner, or digital camera, sources. Clicking the Acquire option will provide the user with a list of image sources. The same list can be found in the Import section of the File menu.

So long as your camera, or scanner's, twain driver is correctly installed, there should be an item on the list for each of your peripherals. In the example shown below I selected the camera driver as the images I wanted to import were sitting in the memory of my digital camera.

A new dialogue appears showing thumbnail versions of the pictures. Though some twain plug-ins contain simple enhancement controls, most of these programs are only used for selecting images to be downloaded.

With an image select click OK to import the picture into Elements.

Changing a Pictures Orientation
Turning your camera to shoot images in portrait mode will produce pictures that need to rotated to vertical after importing into your editing program. Elements provides a series of dedicated Rotate options under the Image menu. Here the picture can be turned to the right, or left, in 90 degree increments or to custom angles, using the Canvas Custom feature.
There is an option to rotate the whole picture 180 degrees for those readers, who like me, regularly place prints into their scanners upside down.

Cropping and Straightening
Most editing programs provide tools that enable the user to crop the size and shape of their images. Elements provides two such methods. The first is to select the rectangular marquee tool and draw a selection on the image the size and shape of therequiredcrop.NextchooseImage>Crop from the menu bar. The area outside of the marquee is removed and the area inside becomes the new image.

The second method uses the dedicated Crop tool that is located just below the Lasso in the toolbox. Just as with the marquee tool, a rectangle is drawn around the section of the image that you want to retain. The selection area can be resized at any time by clicking and dragging any of the handles positioned in the corners of the box. To crop the image click the OK button in the options bar or double click inside the selected area.

An added benefit to using the crop tool is the ability to rotate the selection by click and dragging the mouse when it is positioned outside the box. To complete the crop click the OK button in the options bar, but this time the image is also straightened based on the amount that the selection area was rotated.

As well as this manual method, Elements provides an automatic technique for cropping and straightening crooked scans. The bottom two options in the Rotate menu, Straighten Image and Straighten and Crop Image, are specifically designed for this purpose.

Spreading Your Image Tones
Just as when a photographer produces their own monochrome prints they aim to spread the image tones between maximum black and white, so too should the digital image maker ensure that their pixels are spread across the whole of the possible tonal range. In a 24 bit image, this means from a value of 0 (black) to 255 (white).

Elements provides both manual and automatic techniques for adjusting tones. The Auto Contrast and Auto Levels options are both positioned under Enhance menu.

Both features will spread the tones of your image automatically, the difference being that the Auto Levels function adjusts the tones of each of the colour channels individually where as the Auto Contrast command ignores difference between the spread of the Red, Green and Blue components.

If your image has a dominant cast then using Auto Levels can sometimes neutralise this problem. The results can be unpredictable though, so if after using the feature the colours in your image are still a little wayward, Undo the changes and use the Auto Contrast feature instead.

If you want a little more control over the placement of your pixel tones then Adobe has also included the slider based Contrast/Brightness and Levels features used in Photoshop in their entry-level software. Both these features, levels in particular, take back the control for the adjustment from the program and place it squarely in the hands of the user.

Ridding Your Pictures of Unwanted Colour Casts
Despite the quality of modern digital cameras White Balance systems, images shot under mixed lighting conditions often contain strange colour casts. The regularity of this problemledAdobetoincludethespecialisedColourCasttool(Enhance>Color>Color Cast)l in Elements. Simply click the eyedropper on a section of your image that is meant to be grey (an area that contains equal amounts of red, green and blue values) and the program will adjust all the colours accordingly.

This process is very easy and accurate, if you have a grey section in your picture. For those images without the convenience of thisreference,theVariationsfeature(Enhance>Variations) provides a visual 'ring around' guide to cast removal.

Applying some sharpening
The nature of the capture or scan process means that most digital images can profit from a little careful sharpening. I say careful, because the over use of this tool can cause image errors, or artifacts, that are very difficult to remove. Elements provides several sharpening choices, most automatic, and one with a degree of manual control.

The Sharpen, Sharpen More and Sharpen Edges features found in the Sharpen selection of the Filter menu provide automatic techniques for improving the clarity of your images. The effect is achieved by altering the contrast of adjacent pixels and pixel groups. The Sharpen and Sharpen More options applies the effect to all pixels in the image, where as the Sharpen Edges only uses the filter on areas where the program detects edges.

The fourth option, the Unsharp Mask filter, provides the user with manual control over which pixels will be changed and how strong the effect will be. The key to using this feature is to make sure that the changes made by the filter are previewed in both the thumbnail and full image at 100 percent magnification. This will help to ensure that your pictures will not be noticeably over sharpened.

Saving Your Images
The final step in the process is to save all your hard work. The format you choose determines a lot of the functionality of the file. If you are unsure of your needs always use the native PSD or Photoshop format. These files maintain layers and features like editable text and saved selections and do not use any compression. If space is a premium, and you want to maintain the best quality in your pictures then you may decide to use the TIF or Tagged Image File Format. JPEG and GIF should only be used for web work or when you need to squeeze you files down to the smallest possible size. Both these formats lose image quality in the reduction process, so keep a PSD or TIF version as a quality backup.

Philip Andrews is the author of the book Adobe Photoshop Elements published by Focal Press. We have teamed up with the publisher to offer a special 10% discount - simply go to this link to order online from the Focal Press web site.

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