Salvaging Your Pictures with Photoshop

I recently got back from Mexico City. While I love solo travel, one of the downsides (for me, at least) is an album full of awesome shots of buildings, food, people, food, fauna and flora, food, etc... but little proof of you in them. Camera phones and selfies have made this less of an issue, but it's still nice to have some pictures of you doing something other than holding your phone aloft to get the most flattering angle. I try to make a point of relying on the kindness of strangers in hopes of getting a decent picture of myself each time I travel. But often, the results can be disappointing...

Like this.

I'd spotted a friendly-looking guy taking photos of his wife and kids and offered to snap one of the entire family. Then I asked, in broken Spanish, if they'd mind taking one of me. To his credit, my new photographer friend took a couple of shots and lined me up between the buildings on the second one. But it was also a cloudy, grayish morning and the shade cast by my hat didn't help matters.

Luckily, I know my way around Photoshop. I play around with the curves and vibrance on most of my travel snapshots. But some, especially those rare photos of me, require a little extra TLC. Here are the ten steps I used to take this image from recycle bin-material to possible profile pic:

1) Auto Lighten
Image>Adjustments>Shadows/Highlights is an incredible tool. It bypasses a lot of fiddly stuff and instead allows you to adjust the brightness of shadows or highlights alone, as well as offering an automatic suggestion for each pic. I usually prefer more depth of shadow than it suggests, but it's easy to play with. I literally gasped when I ran this photo through the tool - it often brings out data you never knew your picture had, but this was a particularly dramatic difference.

2) Saturation
One of the trends right now - one I follow - is overly saturated colors. I'll probably look back in ten years and cringe at how dated it looks (tumblr is already favoring a darker palette), but in this case, the yellow of my sweater is truer to life after being shopped using Image>Adjustments>Vibrance.

3) Straighten
90% of the time, my pictures list to the right, because when you press the shutter, the camera tilts slightly. Use Ctrl+A and Ctrl+T to straighten your image so your verticals are vertical, using the ruler guides if need be.

4) Pull Corners
Most point and shoot cameras get a bit distorted around the edges of a photo. Since there's no detail at the top of the photo, the picture seems bottom-heavy. I fixed this by pulling the top corners out while holding the Ctrl button, creating a trapezoid shape which was automatically cropped back into a rectangle thanks to my canvas space.

5) Crop
Because I'm the center of attention, natch. Cropping removes the cavernous doorway on the right, which was both distracting and darkened the overall look of the picture without adding much visual interest. However, I kept the kid on the right because his yellow shirt picks up on the color in my cardigan. (Meanwhile, the girl on the left in the red coat balances out my brilliant lipstick, which I was forced to buy at Sanborns, having forgotten to pack mine.)

6) Lighten
When I played with the lighting, I realized the background was actually pretty close to where I wanted it to be. (There's not a lot you can do for a washed out sky.) So rather than lighten the whole picture - which I typically do by using the Image>Adjustment>Curves instead of Brightness/Contrast - I copy-pasted an oval around my upper body and went around the edges with an eraser at 30% opacity. Then I lightened my new layer as needed, while attempting to keep the change in lighting gradual and natural-looking. You can still spot a definite halo-effect on the buildings in the background, but doing this on a separate layer creates a more even effect than using the dodge tool.

7) Lighten again
My face was still in shadow, thanks to my hat doing its job. This time, I copy-pasted just my head and lightened and upped the saturation on this layer. The top of my hat was now too light, so I erased that for a more natural look.

8) Liquify Arms
Because I'm vain like that. Liquify is probably the most controversial tool in Photoshop, as it's what practically every modern print ad uses to tuck in waistlines and lengthen limbs. I'm cool with using it within reason - as long as I still look like myself, I like to enjoy looking at my vacation photos.

9) C/P tile pattern so liquify isn't noticable
This is the super-important step that the Kardashians et al. always forget when liquifying their waistlines. Copy-paste the original floor, wall, door frame, etc so that you don't have give-away warping.

10) Fix my teeth
Because Photoshop is cheaper than veneers. It's less of an issue on pictures taken from a distance, but a dentist did a pretty horrible job with a dental bonding on one of my front teeth a few years ago, and it's something I'm still self-conscious about. Every time I save up the money to fix it, I decide I'd rather spend it on travel! So I'm now a pro at dental reconstruction on Photoshop.

Phew. After all that work - which took ten minutes, tops - I now have a lovely, memorable shot of me at the Castillo de Chapultepec. Pre-Photoshop, I would have chucked it out, or at least lamented about the weather and light that day -


This post isn't meant to be a tutorial, but to give you an idea of how you can rescue your own travel photos by playing around with Photoshop. I use Adobe CS5 as I was able to get an educators discount on it, but there are less expensive products out there that do similar things. Do you use imaging software to correct or enhance your own travel photos? If so, I'd love links to work (I'm always up for learning new tricks) - and if not, what's stopping you?


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