By David Rosenthal.
Adjustment layers are really powerful tools that allow you to make changes to your image in a completely non-destructive manner.
Here we're going to punch up this image by using Curves Adjustment Layers and using Layer Masks to control them.
While we'll be covering the using Curves in this tutorial, if the concept is completely new to you, you may want to start with our Making Your Pictures Pop, Pt. 2 tutorial for an overview. This is really the next step after that tutorial.
This is the flat image, straight out of RAW processing. Let's see what we can do with it.
Start by making a new Curves Adjustment Layer. Holding the option key on a Mac, or alt key on a PC, click on the black/white circle at the bottom of the Layers Palette, and choose Curves.
You can then name your adjustment layer. This is a good idea, so that you can keep track of what you're doing. I'm going to start by working on the sky, so I've named my layer "sky".
Once you've done that, your Layers Palette will look like the one here. On the bottom you've got your image, and above that the Curves adjustment layer.
There are two boxes in the Curves Adjustment Layer. The one on the left will open the curves if you double click on it. The one on the right is the Layer Mask. It starts out white, which means that the adjustments you make will affect the entire image.
We'll set the curves values before we mask it out. Double click on the curves box on the sky layer (remember, that's the one on the left).
Since I want to start with the sky, I'm going to choose two points as references for the sky. In this case, I want to expand the range in the sky, so I want to set a point for the darker clouds and a point for the lighter clouds. You do this by command-click on the Mac (control-click on the PC) on each of those two points. This will add those points to your curve.
Here you can see that I've steepened the curve between those two points, actually what I did was move the brigter of the points so that it became brighter still.
Note that I have my curves dialog set up with darker values top and right. Your curves may not look like this, but the concept works no matter how you've got yours set up.
Once you're happy with the changes you've made, it's time to limit those changes to the area of the image where you want them. Most likely the change you made will worsen the rest of the image, but we're about to fix that.
Type "b" to select the brush tool, and take a look at your settings. In your menu bar to the left will be the brush settings menu. Pull it down, and it will look like this. You can set your diameter to whatever works for you. The bigger the better, but too big can get in your way. The important thing is to set your hardness all the way down to 0%. This will make your work very hard to see.
Make sure the Layer Mask is selected (the box on the right in the sky layer). You also want to make sure that you are working with black and white as the colors you're painting. Black will show the underlying layer (i.e. remove the curves adjustment you just did from your shot). To set your colors to black and white, type "d" (for default). You want to start with black on top. You can switch which color is on top by typing "x".
Toggle the Curves Adjustment Layer on and off to see what you've done. Check both the area that you want to affect and the one that you don't to make sure that you like the changes you've made. You toggle the visibility of a layer by clicking on the eyeball on that layer. This image, and the ones that follow require animation to be on for you to see the toggling effect.
When you're all done, you can easily toggle the before and after by opt-clicking (alt-clicking on the PC) on the eyeball of your original layer. This will solo that layer, turning off all other layers. Just keep clicking back and forth to make sure you're happy.
You can discuss this tutorial or ask questions on Digital Grin.