I did not set out to write this tutorial today, but here it is, almost 8pm (and 80 degrees *melting*) and I’m writing this tutorial.
I’ll be totally up front, I post-process every single image I take with my camera. For the most part it’s because digital + photoshop has made me incredibly lazy, but it’s also because a lot of the times, my camera is not great at figuring out the color balance in my shot, and I don’t want to deal with futzing with my camera’s menu. So I just aim for a decent exposure and figure Photoshop can help with the rest. Which it often can.
The thing I use in almost every image is the Curves Tool. There’s a lot you can do with it, but I’ll show you the quick and dirty way I use it to color balance and fix exposure issues with my photos. If you want to see it in action, I made a janky little video which you can see at the end. There’s no audio but it shows an example of both fixing exposure and fixing color balance problems.
The first thing you do is open your image. (File -> Open, browse to image.)
Next you go to the menu and find Image -> Adjustment -> Curves.
This brings up a kind of intimidating pop-up, but don’t let it get to you! What it’s showing you is how much of your image is at the various values, from black to white. Notice in my graph there’s nothing on the right side which corresponds to white. Which makes sense, because my image is under-exposed.
So there’s a few little eyedroppers there at the bottom. One is for determining your blackest point, one is for determining a medium value, and the one we’re going to use is for determining our lightest value. Click that button and your pointer will turn to the appropriate eye dropper.
Now anywhere I click on my image, Photoshop will set that to white. That means anything lighter than that in the image will also be white. So if I click on a dark area, you will see the image turn into blown-out blech.
Instead, click on an area that you think is close to what you want to be whitest. This looks a bit better, although still a bit blown out. I’ll cover that in a second. I’ll note here that when I started using this tool a lot, I went to the local goodwill and got a $1 white sheet which I now use for the backdrop of many of my photos. I also make sure the sheet shows up in my photos even if I’m going to crop it out later, just so I have something white I can use this trick with. Yep, I’m that hardcore (read: lazy.)
Anyway, next up we’re going to fine-tune this a little bit. There’s a checkmark that is labeled “Show clipping.”
Click that and suddenly our image is made up of black and white and some colors. I ignore the colors and instead just focus on the white bits. Those white bits are everywhere that shows as white in the image.
Since I want to minimize the amount that is white (which is what makes it look blown-out), I click around in the white areas (which will set that color in the image (not the clipping thing you’re seeing) to white), and try to minimize the number of white pixels. It’s kind of like a little game.
You can check and uncheck the show clipping mask to see how the image is looking. When you’re happy, click OK, and voila! Properly exposed image!
You might notice that when you click on a white area of the image, the graph gets some colored lines on it. This is showing the color balancing it’s doing. So not only are you fixing the exposure of your image, but it’s doing color balance at the same time.
Here’s a quick before and after image of using the curves tool to get this white rabbit properly exposed and color balanced (it had a blue cast to it due to being in the shade late in the day.) The video shows the process I used (spoiler alert: it’s the same process) to do the color balance.
I hope that helps. I don’t know if other programs have something similar, but I assume at least some of them do!
And the video, as promised! If you find this useful, let me know and I’ll try to do a few more of these in the future. And maybe try to get better at taking videos, too. 🙂