click for larger version

Original of TV in a snow storm.

And below - the version using Scott Kelby's fill flash technique in Photoshop Elements. (And yes, those are snow flakes beneath his wings!)

click for larger version

It was the middle of the afternoon of a winter day with snow squalls passing through and in the middle of one I came across this flock of Turkey Vultures coming over fast and low in the snow. I thought I got some good shots, but when I got home and looked at them I was disappointed.

In each case the camera had, of course, exposed for the relatively bright sky and that meant the underside of the birds was underexposed. I made a mental note to be aware of that for the future - and I tried to do some quick fixes with the Photoshop Elements enhancement tools. Nothing looked very good, though, until I discovered "the photoshop elements book for digital photographers" by Scott Kelby. Now here was a book that taught the way I learned - solving one problem at a time.

And in this case I found the answer to my vulture pictures in Chapter 3 under the sub-heading "When you forget to Use Fill Flash." It's a simple process, but somewhat tedious - especially when you have a subject such as this. But I think the results were worth it.

Here's what I did. If you want detailed instruction I recommend the book - if you are familiar with Photoshop Elements however, I think these steps will make sense. (They also work in Photoshop.)

1. I opened a copy of the picture and in the layers box and I dragged the "background layer" to "Create New Layers" icon at the bottom of the box.

2. I then selected this new layer and used choose "levels" under the "brightness/contrast" section of the "enhance" menu.

(In PS this shows up under the “image” menu when you choose “adjust” and then “levels.”)

By moving the middle input levels slider to the left I got the image to the exposure I thought I liked - that is, so the underside of the vulture was, if anything, too bright. Of course this washed out the background sky and provided little contrast between the bird and the rest of the picture.

3. Now comes the tedious part. You create a new blank layer and link it to the top layer. Suddenly you are back where you started - or so it seems. The image looks like the original.

Well, actually you link the top layer to the new blank. That is select the layer you lightened, then choose “group” in the layers menu – to group it to the new blank layer.

Then – and this is critical – you set your foreground color to black . Now you can begin painting in the fill as described.

4. So you go to the brush pallette, pick out a soft-edged brush, and paint your subject - in this case the vulture - with what acts like a "fill flash brush." Like magic, wherever you touch the brush, the subject gets lighter.

Oh - and in the end I felt I had made him too light - so I simply played with the opacity slider for that layer until he looked good to me. (Beat up he is, I will grant you, but it's been a tough winter for all.)

Yes, there are quicker, easier ways - but as with anything that is quick and easy, the results are a compromise. I can't wait to use this technique on pictures that mean something to me. I think the general rule is, if in doubt, underexpose. Under exposed pictures can be rescued. Blown out ones are another thing.

One more thing - the picture can, of course, be improved with an unsharp mask. Kelby recommends the following setting for Web use:Amount-400%; Radius: 0.3; Threshold: 0 - here's what it looks like when I apply these settings to the lightened picture above.

Posted by Greg Stone at April 1, 2004 09:48 PM
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