Learning Curves Adjustment Layers from David Nightingale

A few weeks back, I tuned into one of CreativeLive’s classes titled “Dramatic Post-Production” hosted by David Nightingale. I learned a lot from David about how to use Curve adjustment layers in Photoshop to really enhance a photograph.

David’s a master at this technique – and I struggled to follow along. I recently used his technique to enhance one of my Point Lobos images. Here’s the original image I had processed earlier and posted to my online portfolio:

Surf - Point Lobos - 2008

After watching Nightingale’s session, I decided to try to take this very flat looking image and make it better. While this version was very photo-realistic – it certainly wasn’t dramatic in the sense that David brought to his images. So, back into Photoshop I went to try another adjustment session – this time based upon Nightingale’s techniques.

Screen Shot 2011 11 07 at 6 28 44 PMI re-opened the image in Photoshop and began to apply Curves adjustment layers. As it turned out, I divided this image into three ranges for adjustments – the sandstone in the lower right of the image, the darker rocks in the upper right and lower left, and the water.

I applied three separate Curves adjustment layers to make these adjustments along with the layer masks to isolate the changes to just those areas within the image You can get a sense of my process by looking at this snippet of the Photoshop layers off to the right.

The final layer (on top) is a gentle vignette that I applied using Nightingale’s technique of selecting a border, inverting it, feathering it, and creating a new Curves adjustment layer to darken the edges. This kind of vignette is easy to apply in Lightroom – but knowing this technique in Photoshop is helpful as well!

Below is the resulting image. There’s more definition and “pop” in this image that I enjoy. Hope you do too! Click on the image to see it large. I welcome your comments!

Surf - Point Lobos - 2008

Note: I recommend David’s subscription-based tutorials that teach his techniques (affiliate link). In terms of my levels of Photoshop skill, his teaching and tutorials have opened my eyes to new techniques that I hadn’t known before. David’s a really great teacher!

Note to self: I was reminded while re-reading The Creative Digital Darkroom this afternoon that it’s possible to use Gaussian Blur on the layer masks to smooth out the transitions between the areas. I need to remember to use that technique next time!

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