Posted by Claire Wade

A few years ago I worked as a Digital Manipulator in a well known High street photographers. My job was to clean up the images and send them to print back at head office. Not only would I brighten the images, my duties also included digitally removing spots, softening wrinkles, cleaning fingernails and even removing baby sick and wee. There was a fair bit of reducing bellies and double chins, as well as occasionally stretching legs and covering bald patches!

I’m going to try to share some of the techniques I used, as there were quite a lot, I’m going to do this over a number of tutorials. I’m starting with cropping, backgrounds and overall colour as this is the order in which I worked.

The first photo I’m using is of my hubby (used with dubious kind permission! – although I think he’s perfect as is!) I took this photo during a studio session at college a year or so ago, so the quality is not quite as good as the photos I manipulated at my job, as I did work with professional photographers. But it will do for this purpose as I doubt many people following this tutorial are professionals either.

I am doing this tutorial in Photoshop, but I think most of it can be followed in Elements and other editing software.

1. Cropping

The first thing I’m going to do is crop the image. If I was doing this for print, I would need the correct dimensions. A lot of photo frames still come in inches and 10 inches x 8 inches is a good size and standard ratio. On your key board, press C.


If you have no rulers at the left and top of your image, press CTRl and R on your keyboard and the rulers will appear.

If you right click within the ruler area, a drop down menu will appear and you can choose which types of measurements you would prefer. I have gone for inches.

So when I type in 10 and 8 as shown in the image left, it defaults to inches. If I click the arrows in between where it says Width and Height, the measurements will swap.

I then click on the image and holding down the left mouse button, I drag over the image.


You can see the selected area where it will crop. The areas outside the crop are greyed out.

You can adjust the crop and when you are happy with it, press Enter.


2. Next is Levels. This part only works when editing a portrait with a white background.

Go to: Image – Adjustments – Levels OR press CTRL + L

There are three ‘dropper’ icons at the right hand lower corner of Levels Palette. Click the one on the right. This is the light dropper.

Wherever you click on the image with this dropper, that tone will then become the lightest tone in the photo and the remaining tones will adjust accordingly.

Click on a light part of the background to brighten it up and further lighten grey tones in the background. If when you click, the image looks over exposed and horrible, you have clicked on too dark an area, so try clicking elsewhere.

If it doesn’t work anywhere on the background, it may not be light enough and you may want to skip this part. I chose the top left hand corner of this image.


The arrow left points to roughly where I clicked. You can see that the photo has brightened up and the histogram on the levels palette has changed.

Click OK.


3. Curves

If your background was too dark for part 2 – levels, try using curves.

Go to Image – Adjustments – Curves or CTRL and M.

The curves palette will appear as in the photo left.

Click on the mid point on the curve in the graph and move it up slowly. Stop when you are happy with the brightness of the image and click OK.


4. Cleaning up the background.

If you want a pristine white background, you need to clean it up. You need your layers palette. If this is not showing, go to Window – Layers or press F7.

Click the small icon at the bottom that is a half black/half white circle. Click on this and a menu will appear. Choose levels.


The Adjustment Layer Levels Palette will appear.

Click on the little triangle pointer on the left of the histogram and drag it completely over to the right.


The red arrow shows where to drag the pointer to. As you can see, it looks rather odd!

Next you need to go back to your layers palette.


So on the layers palette, make sure you are clicked on the Levels 1 layer, it will be highlighted in blue.

In the box where it says Opacity, type in 50.

Now you can see where the supposed white background isn’t fully white.

Click on the background layer and in the large areas that are nowhere near the subject, paint over it with a paint brush (press b to get a brush and then press d to select black and white, then press x to make white the foreground colour, ie the colour you paint with.,

52So next click on the dodge tool. For more information on how to use the dodge, burn and sponge tool, please click here. You need to make sure the setting are on dodge, highlights and at around 10%. Then gently brush around the hair and face of your model.. Using the dodge tool at these settings makes it easier to whiten the background without losing the skin and hair. It’s a little harder with blonde hair, so go carefully with the fair haired folk!

resizedimage500282-56Be careful about not brushing over the skin area too much or you will be left with a pale patch. In the image on the left, you can see where I overdid it – don’t do that!

resizedimage501350-57When you are happy that the background is completely white, drag the levels adjustment layer onto the dustbin icon at the bottom to get rid of it.


You should now have an image with a spotless white background!


Click here for Part Two – Skin.