Add Sparkle to Your Digital Images!
The Beauty of Digital Post-Processing with Photoshop.

© Jim Hutchison June 2005, updated June 2008.

I used to wonder how nature photographers took such beautifully colored landscapes, achieving nicely saturated, punchy colors. Then I was fortunate enough to have a pro photographer show me a few of his tips on livening up digital photos. I was on pins and needles all the way home - I couldn't wait to try it out for myself! I went through pretty well all my published photos (...on this web site) and applied most of the steps described below. Being a person that likes to share what I learn, here's a few things you can do in Photoshop© to add sparkle to your digital images.

Isn't this Cheating?
You may ask "...but your manipulating the image; changing it from it's original in-camera state". There has been been much ink spilled on this subject. The fact is, both film and digital cameras do not capture what the eye sees and remembers. Film and CCDs and CMOS chips have a narrow dynamic range, and will introduce some kind of color shift if you only shoot JPEGs as opposed to shooting in RAW format. So to make the final image look like the original subject, adjustments are required to highlight and shadow strength, possibly color cast, and sharpening. It's up to you how much correction you apply.

First, you need a good quality pic...
As they say, you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear. Very true in photography as well! The digital image you want to impove must be of good enough quality to begin with, otherwise you'll just waste your time. For the most part, your original image (from film or a CCD or CMOS) must have highlight and shadow detail; no blown-out whites, and be nicely framed. It is worth mentioning that images scanned from film are by their very nature somewhat blurred because they are 2nd generation - they've passed through another optical and digital system. At the very minimum these images will require some sharpening. As well, digital cameras introduce some image blurring because of a protective film on the sensor.

There's something to be said about the attitude that "Hey - I can shoot whatever I want now, and fix it later in PS". Well, that's just plain wrong. You need to shoot as if Photoshop© didn't exist, so use filters as you normally would such as ND grads, polarizers, warming filters... most are as important now as they used to be. There are tricks you can do with images shot in RAW format to emulate an ND grad filter, but that's for another article...

Also, cropping a small portion of the photo will result in lack of detail, therefore fill the entire frame with your subject. Do this by either getting closer to your subject, or use a zoom lens. Scan at your highest DPI if you're shooting film, or in the case of a DSLR, use the highest resolution setting. For film, I use a Minolta film scanner which provides 2820 DPI. For large transparencies from my Mamiya medium format camera, I'll use a flatbed with a film adaptor (Microtek Scanmaker 5900). I'll scan those at 2400 DPI. Then of course, there's my 8.2 megapixel DSLR.


Here's a prime example of what I'm talking about... poorly framed, with no real defined subject matter. The original picture on the left was shot.. why? Dunno - there's way too much extreneous subject matter, so if I crop in to something interesting (shot #2), it gets better... but the subject matter is still tough to figure out. If you're wondering, it's 3 acrobats descending a building wall during the July 2004 Nelson Street Festival in British Columbia, Canada. So, if I examine the resolution at 100% (frame #3), you'll see that cropping in close results in a blurred image, mostly because I was shooting hand-held. A tripod would have resulted in a much sharper image. So even if frame #2 was interesting, a 8 x 10 print would be out of focus and tough to sharpen up acceptably.

8 or 16 Bit?

Some filters are not available in 16-bit mode.
16 bit images are twice the size of 8 bit. The math is easy. But the difference can be indistinguishable on a computer monitor; being half the file size does not equate to half the quality. However be aware that the more processing and filters you apply, the more degradation happens. You'll have to decide which mode to use based on the final use of the image - that will determine how picky you are. Another limiting factor here is the lack of tools available in Photoshop© when your image is in 16 bit. You loose many filtering options (...the menu options are greyed-out), though all adjustments are still there. I work in 16-bit mode as long as I can; if there are filters or any options I can't perform because it's not in 8 bit, then I'll convert it. From the menu: Images - Mode - 8bit.

Here's a before-and-after of what happens after applying a few adjustments and filters in 8-bit mode... the "combing" effect on the levels histogram demonstrates obvious information distortion.

So, best practice is to work on your image at 16 bit as much as you can, then convert to 8 bit when you absolutely have to. Only save it as a JPEG as the VERY last step. If anything is going to be visibly degraded, it will appear as posturization in gradual color changes, such as clear blue sky. And the histogram will reveal a combed pattern as shown above, indicative of missing color information. Again, the intended use of the image will determine how picky you should be when deciding between 16 and 8 bit.

Down to business:
Here's a run-down of the steps I take to enhance my images.

Image - Adjustments - Shadow / Highlight . Most pics look SO much better with a setting of about 10 to 20% shadows, and 0% for highlights. Play with the two sliders. This feature was a recent addition to Photoshop© which I'm glad for. The old way was to play with Curves. S/H is is much quicker.


Shadow / highlight correction improves the dynamic range of this photo to reflect more accurately what the human eye sees, as opposed to the restictions of digital sensors and color positive film. For those still shooting film, keep in mind the unique characteristics of positive (color reversal/slide film) so you can keep using it for it's unique qualities.

Image - Adjustments - Selective Color. Choose each of the colors, and play with the cyan, magenta, and yellow sliders. It's incredible how these will selectively punch up certain colors, such as fall leaves (oranges and reds), as well as remove color casts like cyan or magenta. Get used to this one. In the example below, just dialing up more saturation isn't the answer. The trees just right of center stand out more thanks to Selective Color correction.


Although the original may be somewhat acceptable, emphasizing the color pallette in certain frequency ranges is sometimes necessary when colors are a bit drab, and not representative of what you actually saw when shooting the image.

Image - Adjustments - Levels. Do this before moving on to the next step. Sometimes the darker portion of my images have specs of varying lighter colors, known as digital noise, creating an unpleasant effect when I sharpen the image. Moving the left hand slider of the input level will fill in the darker portions without affecting the lighter regions of the image. Noise reduction software is also worth looking at, the most popular being Noise Ninja.


I've demonstrated here the difference between an original image and the tweaked image, as well as the levels histogram. Note the difference between the left and right arrow position at the bottom...

Image - Adjustments - Hue/Saturation. The saturation slider is great for tweaking the color depth of your image. Don't overdo it; slowly move the slider back and forth till the picture looks like you want it to. I've sometimes REDUCED saturation after realizing I punched up the colors a bit too much using Selective Colors. Even "Auto Color" works wonders... here's an example of "Auto color", and deepening the saturation a bit:


For some reason my camera decided to add a strong magenta cast to this slide of an intimate water portrait, so some adjusting was required.

Filter - Sharpen - Unsharp Mask. The settings here are determined by your file size. You'll only need a pixel radius of about .5 if the image is web-sized, but more if it's meant for medium to large format printing. For the photo I worked on featured at the bottom of this article, I used a value of 5.2 when the image was still full-sized (not reduced for web consumption). The percentage amount varies the intensity of the effect, and the threshold should stay at 0%. If you plan on res-sizing your image, make this your last step. And - always view your image at 100% to see the true effect sharpening has on your photo.


Unsharp mask, as well as many Photoshop plug-ins, recover much of the sharpness lost when scanning film. Digital cameras are also plagued with soft images depending on your make and model, as some have a coating on the CCD or CMOS sensor chip.

Lastly, a useful tool to know about is the Fade command (Edit - Fade). This slider varies the strength of the last filter or adjustment you made to the image - quite handy for accurate tweaking.

What I haven't covered printing, and color profiles. That's for another article. One small piece of advice given to me by a pro is to assign either Adobe 98 or Colormatch profiles to your images (Image - Mode - Assign Profile). For a quick hit, what I do for color accuracy is compare my image to other samples on photography web sites such as Nature Photographer's Network. I can at least get a feel for color cast if I'm way off. I used to do that years ago (in another life) when I mixed down sound to a digital master... I'd first listen to a number of high-quality sound tracks to get a feel for equalization, instrument levels, etc. Referencing is valuable especially after a long marathon in front of the monitor (...or mixing console). One can loose objectivity over time.

So, good luck with spicing up your images. Although Photoshop© can be daunting, learning these simple few steps can go a long way to improving your photographs.

View the finished image here. (Opens in a separate window.)


Jim Hutchison is a part-time photographer who resides in Burnstown, Ontario with his wife Moira.