Fix me please! How to edit dog photos

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This will be the first in an ongoing series on image processing called ‘fix me please!’, where I feature an image that needs some work, with step by step details of what I would do to it in Photoshop.

In my in-person consultations with photography clients I often find myself editing their images as we sit side-by-side in front of the computer. The feedback I have received from these clients is that it really helps them to see what I would do with THEIR images. It’s pretty fun for me too! Please keep in mind here I edit my images to please my clients, so I keep the owner of that particular pet in mind while editing. 🙂

This photo belongs to my dear workshops + portfolio review client Karen Denmark, selected with her permission (thanks Karen!). She took this photo of Millie during our workshop in Austin last year, and I thought it was really cute, but just needed a little bit of ‘tweaking’.

Original. Sweet expression, but too dark, some distracting elements and colors, and not enough detail.

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The first thing I did was play with curves, to bring the midtones up without blowing out the highlights. I ‘grabbed’ the middle of the curve (the straight line) and pulled it up to the left until it looked good, then adjusted the lower left part of the line (the darks) and the upper right part of the line (the lights). I was then able to tweak the blacks back to a nice rich tone. Lightening and darkening with curves provides a more sophisticated and natural look and nicer contrast than using shadow/highlight or levels. Using curves is actually a lot easier than you’d think. You can read more about it here.

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Ok, so now that I’ve got the exposure where I want it, it’s pretty much done, right? Not quite.

There are a few things that are bugging me. The first one is the blue color (I think those are pants legs?) in the background on the left. All of the colors in this shot are warm, and the blue stands out to me. Given that it’s a blurry background element, I don’t want any of the focus on the blue, so it has got to go. Sorry blue, nothin personal!

Here I use my Wacom pen tool (indespensable for editing), and select an area of dark red above and next to the jeans. (Note: if you don’t have a graphics tablet you can still do this with your mouse.) I feathered the selection out to around 6px, then went to ‘edit’ ‘copy’, then ‘paste’ over the blue area. I then adjusted the opacity in the layers palette to make it look more natural. I did this several times, copying and pasting, and flattening layers, and then cloned the area next to the ear with a small soft brush (17px-ish) to complete the removal of the blue. It’s hard to clone areas that have a gradient (where the colors blend from light to dark), which is why I chose the copy/paste route. You can actually still see a teensy line of blue next to her ear, which I would want to fix, cause I’m a perfectionist like that. Oh, I should also note that in this type of situation, it’s really helpful if you are cloning, to lower the opacity of your cloning brush to somewhere between 65%-89%. This gives you a wider margin for error, and produces a more natural look.

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Cool. Now the distracting blue is gone. So what else is bugging me? Well, Millie’s ‘white’ fur, which doesn’t look white to me. It looks, I don’t know, green? Grey? I can’t tell. All I know is it looks dingy and I don’t like it. Yucky dingy doggie fur. So what I did below is I used my pen and lasso selection tool and hand selected the white fur on Millie’s face (you can also use the magic wand tool to select the fur). I then went to ‘image’,  ‘adjustments’, ‘hue/saturation’, and greatly saturated my selection, then stared at it for a minute before returning the saturation settings to 0. Doing this enabled me to see exactly what colors I was dealing with. In this case, cyan is the culprit. I was close with my guess of green, right? Oh yeahh baby, whose the man? Wait, I’m a woman. Oh nevermind.

So with my selection still selected, and the ‘hue/saturation’ box still open, I selected ‘cyan’ from the drop-down and desaturated dramatically. While it was definitely better, it still didn’t look quite right to me, so then, while the area I wanted was still selected, I went to ‘image’, ‘adjustments’, and ‘photo filter’. I experimented with the warm photo filters, until I found one I liked. In this case I think I used the 2nd warming filter, the more yellowish one (LBA) and dropped the density way down to around 6%. You can also use this ‘saturate/desaturate/photo filter’ trick on fur that has gone too blue or orange, or tongues or lips & noses that have gone purple.

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I knew from the beginning that I wanted the focus to be on Millie’s eyes in this shot. I mean, look how cute she is. But first, I wanted to sharpen the overall image just a teeny bit. So I went to ‘filter’, ‘sharpen’, ‘smart sharpen’. (I have used every sharpening trick in the book, including the most popular sharpening actions- you know the ones, and also know how to do high-pass sharpening, and even have a high-pass sharpen action of my own I designed, and always come back to smart sharpen). The settings I generally use are radius 1.5px, then amount is anywhere between around 24 up to 135 for a very strong effect. It’s usually in the 45-85px range. Here it was light, around 27-35px. Reason being is that I’m not personally a fan of super sharp images. They feel weirdly intimate to me, like I’m looking into a scene that I shouldn’t be looking at. Like, ‘too’ real. Like the opposite of film. They make me feel like a voyeur. And sometimes I think they might just end up looking ‘trendy’. But that’s my problem. If you like sharp- sharpen away! 😉

Ok, so I used this sharpening overall. THEN, for the piece-de-resistance, my favorite part, I selected Millie’s eyes and nose with my lasso, and went back to ‘smart sharpen’. Only this time I used it backwards. For radius I chose 30px, and amount I chose 20px. Doing this really made her eyes pop and deepen her nose. I should note here that doing this also adds a bit of sharpening at the same time, so I usually do this *before* sharpening the rest of the photo (I did overall sharpening here first because I already knew what the ‘blend’ would look like). The result is what you see here below. Also, keep in mind that the best sharpening is done with the output in mind (web, print at 100dpi, print at 300dpi, etc). You can read more about sharpening here.

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And voila, the best part- the before and after! Some simple tricks you can use to take your images from ‘tossers’ to ‘keepers’. This is why I teach to focus on expressions over technical perfection in the beginning (ultimately with more practice and skill you want to nail both). Expressions can’t be faked, but you can create a lovely saleable photo in photoshop that your client will adore. And in the end, when you are a professional photographer and selling photography for a living, when it comes to editing/processing, the clients are all that matter!

What would you have done differently? What fun quick tips and tricks do you have that you’d like to share?

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16 thoughts on “Fix me please! How to edit dog photos

  1. thanks so much for sharing! i love the trick about lassoing the fur and bumping up the saturation to see the color that’s causing the problem. quick question: is this raw or jpg when you edit?

  2. Oooh – thanks for the color-cast detection tip! I’m semi-obsessed with sharpening and still looking for my holy grail (so much love out there for smart sharpening, but I’m just not felling it… yet?). It might be worth mentioning that if you don’t shoot RAW and want to experiment with sharpening, dial down your in-camera sharpening! Otherwise fur tends to take on that icky flocked-xmas tree look 🙂

  3. Hi Jamie,
    This is terrific explanation of the how’s and the how to do’s and the why’s. (Especially appreciate the links) The only additional step that I do in photoshop is before I sharpen, I use a filter I added to Photoshop called Imagenomic which is a noise deleting filter. This usually softens the photo b/c it removes the noise I often see when cropping my photos as extremely as I often do. Then I use the smart sharpen. I like your two step sharpening technique and will try that out. BTW, Millie is adorable, especially since she my love 🙂 Thanks for the helpful post and wishing you the best B-day ever 🙂 Karen

  4. This is great ps work. I still find curves tricky sometimes, I have a mental block on them and use levels when curves are the answer. The only other trick I would add here is to take your sponge tool, set it to desaturate and set the flow at a low number and rub it lightly over that red bar jutting out from the ear over to our right( her left). The sponge tool is a very subtle way to spot treat colors that may be a wee tiny bit too bright or the reverse you can set it to saturate if you want to make a color pop out. Oh and I would never have noticed the red bar if I had not been looking at the pics side by side so it is probably not all that distracting.

  5. Wow, Thank you! I found that so interesting…and after being extremely tempted to attend your NY workshop, this makes it even worse! Must make it work…

  6. Thanks Jamie. This is a wonderfully useful explanation to help further train one’s eyes to “see” what can be improved and how to do that. Thanks also for the link on curves – really helpful!

  7. Millie is adorable! This is such a helpful post, I always wonder if there is an easier way to fix an issue and this has taught me a better way…thanks! I hope someday SOON I can get to your workshop.

  8. Awesome! Thank you Jamie for such a wonderful tutorial! I really appreciate it!

    I try so hard to capture my own dog, Lily, and her personality but the eyes can be difficult. Often time there’s a shading from her hair that falls forward causing the eyes to look darker than they should. Something I need to work on.

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