Images are a powerful component of promotion and marketing communications and today I'll share a few tips from my process for bringing out the best in your photos. But keep in mind that promotional photos for your client's website and promotional photos for a newspaper or a news magazine are two different animals. A heavy-handed use of the following techniques are better for branding photos and a softer touch is much better for newsworthy images.
I always start my process with a global adjustment, starting with a crop, cloning out offenders (in this case a bit of lamp poking from the top of the frame) and a lighting adjustment with Curves or Levels.
When adjusting the Curves or Levels, I'm not only looking to make a well-lit image, but to create nice contrast. I want my whites to be pure snowy and my blacks to be true black.
In Levels, I adjust the overall brightness with the middle grey arrow slider, then deepen my blacks with the black arrow slider and pop my whites with the white arrow slider. I do prefer Levels over Curves for this sort of adjustment as Levels affects the tones of your image--Curves affects both the tones and the color, which may make it a better or worse choice depending on the effect you want.
Guide the Eye With Light
Ansel Adams was a master of the dodge and burn techniques and he used it as a post-production method for guiding his viewer's eye around the image. Our eyes are drawn to the bright areas in an image, so you too can use light areas to highlight your subjects and dark areas to frame the subjects.
Photoshop has dodge and burn tools, but they are highly destructive (they'll make your images grainy and discolored) so I'll show you a safer, non-destructive method. Start by adding a new layer and setting this layer to Overlay blending mode.
Now grab your paint brush, set it to a big, fuzzy brush with a low opacity (try the 10-25 percent range) and lightly brush white and black. When the layer is set to Overlay blending mode like this, you won't see the actual white and black of your paint, but you will notice that your image gets brighter where you paint white and darker where you paint black. Above I have set my layer to normal blending mode just to show you where I applied my blacks and whites.
You next step is draw attention away from distracting areas by painting them darker. This is a handy technique for when you are working on promotional photos that will be sent to a newspaper since news publications don't like to publish photos that have been cloned. This way the items are there, but they aren't distracting.
Draw attention away by painting on a new layer with a low opacity brush and experiment with changing the layer's blending mode from Normal to Overlay or another mode of your choice.
This next technique and the final step in this tutorial is a special process of mine. You don't need it to create successful promo photos, but I find it is a nice way to add a little pop, boost the clarity and create richer black and white images too. I'll introduce you to my friend, the High Pass filter.
Make a copy of your background layer and drag the copy all the way to the top of your layers. Apply the High Pass filter and experiment with the settings. I find that less is more with the High Pass filter and for this image I only used 8.8 as the pixel setting. Click OK and set your High Pass layer's blending mode to Overlay.
Ta-da! Below shows a before and after demonstrating the change in tones, clarity, contrast and greater illusion of sharpness. I also find this technique to be a great touch for black and white images as it mimics silver gelatine or tintype prints.
Great for Black and White
This process is the basic foundation of what I use to create black and white images for promotion (it's also great for fine art images if you really play with the intensity). The High Pass filter and a greater amount of Overlay dodge and burn are more crucial in black and white in order to create truly glowing images. Of course, there's a lot more to black and white processing than that, but now you have enough technique to create much better images than if you set your camera to BW mode.