a few weeks ago my girlfriend shot about 300 pictures of an event (personal collection) and asked me to improve colors and such with Photoshop. When I returned all the photos she told me many pictures decreased in sharpness and said the pictures weren't better, although the colors were improved.

For the record, I've used a combination of auto tone, auto contrast, auto color, levels, contrast, brightness and color balance. Not always together and especially not in that order. I mostly use levels to increase brightness, but easily add shadows/black to areas that require them.

I do not work on multiple layers, just the default layer.

Now we went on holiday and I've got a bunch of new pictures. I don't want to spoil them, so I would like some advice on 'beautifying' pictures, without decreasing sharpness and such.

What I'm exactly looking at is what's the best practice for increasing brightness and make colors (a bit) more vibrant, as I think the contrast is a bit too low, often. This, as these are the most important issues, if you ask me.

I do want to note: I do not need the perfect picture, just a better, good picture. I don't want to spend more than a few hours on those new 500 pictures, so 48 actions including multiple layers and masks is probably overdone, unless it's quickly achievable. Time vs quality..

What I'm actually looking

I worked on my secondary Dell monitor, but will work on my Macbook scree because of better color accuracy.


Before-after samples of the past edit

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4 Answers 4


I would higly recommend not to use any 'auto' corrections. Do them manually, so you have more control over the situation. As for the decreased in sharpness, I suggest you copy the actual image to a new layer [mode: overlay] and use a High Pass filter with a low radius. This will increase the sharpness. Hope that helps.

  • Should I copy the image after all edits or before any edit? And if before, should I make adjustments (levels, and such) to the duplicate or original layer? Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 14:37
  • You make all necessary edits and then apply the filter. I've tried it with your sunflower image. It worked. Oh, and speaking of the sunflower, it is slightly too bright after edit.
    – Mimi spo
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 14:40
  • Will try, thank you- and yeah, I noticed now I see it again :) Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 14:43
  • Note: highpass in overlay mode is same as running unsharp mask on base layer but non destructive
    – joojaa
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 7:00

Keep thing simple

Your doing bulk processing dont over do it. Get it to a acceptable level not perfect. Decide basic adjustment that fits most images i suggest levels. Then move important but hard cases to a will investigate further pile.

Dont spend time thinking a strategy for every picture. Raw math states that if you spend a minute on each picture then it takes you 300 minutes or 5 hours. You dont have time for thinking every picture.

Deciding what operations to use

As a general rule of thumb using white point, black point and gamma should be enough. Brightness is something you want to avoid, because despite its name it does not do what people expect when they want a brighter picture. So brightness is usually, just better white point, black point and gamma, this is also known as levels. All your example images fit this description.

Brightness is mostly to be used if you need cast removal, in this case you also need levels to compensate for lowering brightness.

Auto levels might work occasionally but I never use it. Not because I'm a snob but because it almost never works. Auto tone should be redundant if you use the color pickers in levels for gray point.

If you must adjust something other than levels, use clarity, vibrancy and a very small radius smart sharpen. Again I'm suggesting smart sharpen because it does what people think it does, unsharp mask also sharpens but works in a way that people dont expect.

More advanced use

If you need more advanced correction you should almost invariably consider using curves. Thing is curves requires a bit experience. If you do masses of photos then this is a good opportunity for practice. Its just that curves can also ruin a perfectly good picture. If you feel that you must adjust contrast then do it in curves instead and make a s shaped curve.

  • Note: deconvolution is not the same thing as local contrast enhancement; they accomplish quite different results, and Smart Sharpen is not a substitute for either high pass or unsharp mask sharpening. Nor is Levels an adequate substitute for a curve or curve set (which will allow you to put contrast where you need it). We didn't just change paper grades in the darkroom (even assuming you got the negative "perfect" using the Zone System); there's no good reason to step backwards when you have the whole panoply of tools in Photoshop at your disposal. Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 20:56
  • No deconvolution is better than local contrast enhancement, which was mostly used because we did not have deconvolving sharpen, in many cases the fundamental thinking on what to use are based on not having a real sharpen. They accomplish different things allright, but by all means if you need a hipass for dsp fine. Curves is fine, im just saying that if you need to do masses of color corrections and are a beginner you should keep it simple. Adjusting lot of curves quicly for a unskilled user can make things worse. But @StanRogers we should take this to chat.
    – joojaa
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 4:16

Perhaps the best way to simply improve a digital image is via the "Unsharp Mask" feature under " Filters < Unsharp Mask... " ...

This is a trick taught to me by a long-time ad agency creative director... you have to mess around a bit with the three settings to see the best outcome, but that is generally an easy process, especially if you keep "preview" selected in the checkbox. For images showing people (skin tone based images), he recommended a setting around 75 / 3.5 / 35 (sharpen amount / pixel radius / threshold).

This doesn't always work, but it is an easy way to improve images.

  • Theres no reason to keep using unsharp mask, since adobe actually rolled a deconvolving sharpen filter with smart sharpen.
    – joojaa
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 14:35

Those automatic adjustments pale in comparison to the ones available in the Camera RAW Filter.

Go to Filter > Camera Raw Filter and select the auto adjustments in the first 2 drop down lists in the options that open. They should achieve better results than the ones you've used.

You'll also find many manual adjustment tools for images there.

It's my first port of call for image adjustments as you can apply it as a smart filter and adjust every option later.

  • Yes true and you get all the central adjustments in one place.
    – joojaa
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 11:58

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