Archive for June, 2012

Photoshop-ing Spree: How We Use Photoshop For Blog Pics

Since Photoshop is our go-to tool around here for blog picture editing (and we get asked for a post with tips, tricks, or pointers pretty regularly) here it goes. But first, you should know a few things…

1. We’re not Photoshop experts: I took a digital photography course in college (in 2003) that taught me some basics and a few tricks, but it was by no means exhaustive. Sherry has a similar background, having used it a bit in art classes in high school and college. But both of us consider most of our skills to be self-taught. Basically just playing around and seeing what button created what effect on our photos. Sherry was a big fan of the “plastic wrap” filter back in the day. Seriously, she made a CD cover with her and Eminem on it with this filter to “cool things up” back in high school. Thank goodness she has matured, or else all of our blog photos would look like this:

2. We’re not photography experts either: Besides some of the basic classes we both took back in school, most of our photography is self taught as well (Sherry took a photo class in college but claims only to remember how to develop film and nothing about actually taking photos). We’re still not that great at it – or at least not as good as we’d like to be – which is partially why we’re grateful to have Photoshop, which helps photos that might not really capture how something looks in real life, look more like they do in person. Since we’ve yet to find a camera with a “capture this shot just like my eye sees it” function, we mainly use Photoshop to fix that (so you guys get an accurate picture of what a certain project/room looks like instead of being limited by our not-always-stellar photography skillz). Maybe someday we’ll be able to post photos straight out of camera (SOOC as the cool kids say), but we’re not stressing about that since just about all of the pro photogs that we’ve encountered do some degree of picture editing.

3. Photoshop is not the only photo editing option: We use Photoshop because it’s what we’re both comfortable with and by general standards, it’s the most comprehensive and professional-grade photo editing tool out there. However, it’s not cheap (aka $700-not-cheap). It was a business expense for us (and it was something we used for years beforehand and knew we liked) but there are definitely cheaper alternatives for those who aren’t ready to fully commit. Adobe sells “lighter” versions of it, like Photoshop Elements ($100), and there are other options like iPhoto ($15) or Picasa (free) that can do some basic adjustments too. We’ve also heard recommendations for free software like GIMP and Picnik, which is now apparently part of Google+. We haven’t used those others (except for iPhoto, which we rely on to organize our pictures and do basic functions like straighten and crop – see below) so I won’t provide advice on those.

Now, on to the meat of this post. I thought I’d start off by showing you the basic editing adjustments that we use on just about every photo you see. Again, these aren’t major things like changing a wall color or removing Sherry’s sixth finger – they’re just the tweaks we make to what you see on screen look closer to what we actually see in real life. Let’s use Clara and her dollhouse as our subject. Here’s the SOOC shot:

It’s not actually all that bad since our living room gets a fair amount of natural light and we remembered to white balance the camera before snapping the picture. But there’s still room for improvement so we open it in Photoshop.

The first thing we have to do is resize the image, since what you see above is only 20% of the actual size. If we were to post pictures at 100% they’d look something like this and our blog would be slower than molasses.

So we IMAGE > IMAGE RESIZE… (or Command+Option+I on a Mac) to resize it to 72 dpi (which is standard web resolution) and 350 pixels wide (which is the standard size we’ve chosen for vertical images on our site – horizontals are 500px). Be sure the “Constrain Proportions” box is checked so that Photoshop automatically adjusts both dimensions and you don’t end up with a weirdly stretched photo.

The next thing we do is up the color saturation a bit. This just makes the colors a bit more vibrant (they usually are flatter in photos and more vibrant in real life) and it can be found under IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > HUE / SATURATION… (or Command+Option+U). The adjustment shown below (+40) is more than we usually do (which is usually just +10) to help illustrate the difference. You can see the original picture at the left and the more saturated version on the right. But that’s way too saturated to look real, so we usually just do +10.

To keep the picture from looking too washed out, we also up the contrast which is found under IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > BRIGHTNESS / CONTRAST… (much to my annoyance, there’s no keyboard shortcut for this sucker). Again, we only do a +10 but I’ve shown a +50 below to make the effect more apparent. If you go too high the whites get washed out and corners get dark so again, just do what it takes to make the shot look more realistic, and don’t overdo it to make it look like crazyville.

We found that these two steps help counteract some of the washing out that seems to happen when we reduce the file size for the web (more on that later) so we do them to every single photo we post. To make our lives easier we’ve created a custom Photoshop Action to do it all (plus the resize) with the click of a button. So for every photo we open, we either click “Blog Resize – Horizontal” or “Blog Resize – Vertical” (depending if it’s a horizontal or vertical pic) and these adjustments happen on autopilot.

To make a custom action, find your ACTIONS window (make sure it’s checked under the WINDOW menu if you don’t see it). Click the New Action button, give it a name, and then hit the record button in the window that will pop up. Now proceed with the actions you’d like to record. It will record just about everything (even if you switch windows) so be sure to make sure you’re only performing the actions you want to perform. When you’re done, just hit the Stop button and your action will be saved (you can add new steps to your action by hitting the round Record button again). Then when it comes time to apply your action to a particular photo, just hit the “Play Action” button and watch it happen.

For about half of our photos, that’s all we need to do to make them web ready. Of course if we do an action and it looks less like real life we’ll just undo it and manually adjust, but most of the time it does the trick. We also might perform a couple of extra steps if the photo still doesn’t look as bright/balanced as it does in real life. The first thing we might do is adjust the exposure using the Curves function found under IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > CURVES… (or Command+Option+M). We just click and hold our cursor right in the middle of the diagonal line and drag it up a smidge (turning the line into a gently bowed curve). This adjusts the brightness of the photo while still keeping the darkest spots dark, which prevents it from washing out. That’s why we don’t use the Brightness function shown within the Contrast box mentioned above. Once again, you can overdo this if you pull too far, so we just go up a smidge and use “what it looks like in real life” as our guide.

The other thing we like to do to some photos is balance the color slightly. As we mentioned in this post, I’m a bit of a stickler for a photo’s color “temperature.” I prefer a picture to look as natural as possible, so I don’t like when it looks too warm (yellow-y red) or too cool (blue-y green). White balancing within our camera takes care of a lot of this, but it’s not a perfect system. So instead, I use the Color Balance tool (IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > COLOR BALANCE… or Command+Option+B) to even things out. This particular photo was looking a bit warmer than I liked (although it might be hard to see see the pinkish undertone of the white dollhouse at this size) so I slid the dial a smidge closer to the cooler colors (cyan & blue). It’s definitely a very slight adjustment and it’s not perfect, so when we have a couple dozen photos per post I’m not always a stickler or getting things ready for a post could take all day.

So here’s a side-by-side comparison of what all of those adjustments achieved. In this case it’s pretty slight, but sometimes we upload a photo that’s way too underexposed / way too washed out / way too warm / way too cool and we have to make some more dramatic attempts at getting it closer to reality. For those who don’t see much of a difference, try looking at the top right corner of the dollhouse. See how it’s bright white and not gray or sort of pinkish? Also see how that bright yellow/green paper in that corner looks vibrant (like it does in real life) and less muddy? And see how Clara’s hair looks more blonde with some red undertones and some brown undertones instead of flat light brown? It’s just a bit more like real lift in the picture on the right.

Oh, and the other thing that happens to all of our photos is saving it in a compressed format so that they’re small enough to load quickly. We use Photoshop’s built in function (FILE > SAVE FOR WEB & DEVICES… or Shift+Command+Option+S) to save them as a compressed JPEG. This step tends to reduce the color contrast on a picture, which is why we make some of the above changes in the first place.

The steps above are by no means a perfect system – but they’re the system that we’ve developed to easily and comfortably get photos that we’re generally happy with. If you prefer your photos to have a different “feel” to them (maybe a warmer vintage look? maybe a more vibrant, high-contrast look?) then you’ll have to find the settings and adjustments that work better for you. Just play around and see what you like.

Now that you’ve seen the basic tweaks we make to just about every photo, let’s cover a couple of the more intricate things that we have to pull out of our bag of tricks on occasion too. The first is using Photoshop to help make design decisions. Let’s say, just for kicks, that we were contemplating a new headboard for our guest bedroom. We’d open a picture in Photoshop like the one below and start to futz around with it.

The first step is to highlight the area that you want to change. There are a few selection tools with Photoshop to do this, so I’ll start with the most basic lasso tool. This one is called the “Polygonal Lasso” because it draws straight lines between points you designate by clicking. It works well for the top part of this headboard because it’s simple straight lines. The goal is just to click to turn corners and sketch the line around the entire headboard perimeter so it meets up with itself (when it connects to itself on that last click it’ll flash and the area within it will be selected.

The Polygonal Lasso might get a bit tricky once you get down to the rocky edge of the pillows, which is why sometimes we rely on the Magnetic Lasso (which can be accessed in a drop down by clicking and holding over the same lasso icon on your toolbar). The “magnet” in this lasso is usually nice and smart about finding edges in your photo, so as you roughly trace the outline of your object it will snap to the edge. It’s not a perfect tool (especially in low-contrast areas) but I find it to usually be better and faster than free-handing it. So I’d just go around the whole perimeter, and meet up with my first point to select the entire headboard.

To demonstrate another tool, since our existing headboard is pretty much monochromatic, I can also use the “Magic Wand” tool to make my selection. It allows you to select an area of similar color (you adjust exactly how “similar” by moving the Tolerance number up or down). I kept it restricted to Contiguous color only, so it wouldn’t add greens from the pillows to my selected areas. One selection didn’t get it all in this case so I held down SHIFT and added the rest of my headboard with another click of the mouse in that area.

With the area selected, the fun can really begin! If we were debating a new color, we’d probably turn to the Hue/Saturation menu that was mentioned above (IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > HUE / SATURATION… or Command+Option+U). By dragging the cursor along the Hue bar you can shift the color to anywhere on the color spectrum. You can also use the Saturation bar to make the color brighter or duller and use the Lightness bar to make it darker or lighter.

Another option is to create a new layer of color atop the existing headboard. This would make sense if our existing headboard was a crazy pattern or if we didn’t have any headboard at all. To do this I clicked the “Add New” button in the Layers tab (see bottom right below) and then used the Paint Bucket fill tool to add my new color. You want to do this in a new layer because if you tried to fill over the layer with your photo, you’d just end up filling any nearby pixels that matched the pixel you happened to click – instead of your full headboard area.

Now let’s say we wanted to add a pattern instead of just a solid color. I opened this photo of black and white stripes and dragged it into my headboard photo by clicking on the striped layer, holding my click and dragging it into the window with my headboard photo (you can see the ghosted icon of the stripe layer in the screen shot below, which shows until I release my click).

Doing the action above would just fill my entire photo with stripes. So to isolate it to the headboard area, we like using what’s called a Layer Mask. With my headboard area still selected, we just click the Add Layer Mask button (see the bottom right again) while having the striped layer active (sorry my screen capture shows the wrong layer highlighted). The Layer Mask basically hides all of the unselected areas and only shows the stripes in the area I had selected (aka the headboard). See the mostly black thumbnail added to the right of my stripes thumbnail in the bottom of the image below? That’s my Layer Mask – the black area is what’s hidden (or masked) and the white area is what’s visible to create the headboard shape.

If you want to play with your pattern – shrink it, twist it, whatever – just “unlink” your image layer from the layer mask. You can do this by clicking the chain icon between the two layer thumbnails (where the blue arrow is pointing below). This allows you to transform your image while keeping only the headboard area visible.

The last trick we use when mocking up design decisions is to sometimes mess with the layer’s “Blending Mode.” There are a bunch of options that will appear in a drop-down at the top of your Layers menu. We just try a few to see if anything gives us an effect that we like. We find the “Multiply” tool to be most helpful because it tends to help your top layer blend with the bottom layer more naturally (for example, when doing Clara’s monthly photos we set the text layer to Multiply so numbers and the word “months” seems to be printed on the texture of her shirt more realistically than it does when it’s just placed on top).

I’m not sure any of that exercise was really helpful in coming to a better headboard solution (we’re kinda cringing for the green and black guy above), but hopefully you get the idea of how you might be able to visualize different options within Photoshop.

This post has already been waaaaaay longer than I originally envisioned it, yet I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what can be done within Photoshop. So perhaps if you guys have specific questions within the comments we’ll do a follow-up post with some additional information (probably can’t realistically explain much in the comments without visuals, etc). We probably won’t know the answer to everything though, so feel free to chime in to help each other (and us) out too. We’re always game to learn new things!



Replacing An Shower Border Tile

First a little Facebook diatribe: we’ve been hearing from folks who no longer see our posts or Instagram pics hitting their Facebook feed and have learned that FB made a few changes, so if you’d still like to see our posts in your feed again, just take a second to do this:

  1. Click over to our Facebook page
  2. Hover over the button that says “Liked”
  3. Make sure the box next to “show in news feed” is checked. If it isn’t, just check it. Then everything should permanently show up in your feed again. Sorry for the trouble!

And now back to our regularly scheduled blogging…

In case you missed the post where the tale of “removing the dated tree border that makes us sing that song from The Lion King in our master bathroom” began (more on that here), we thought we’d share a few refresher pics. Exhibit A: the aforementioned tree-tile border that encircles the entire room, on all four walls – over and over again.

Exhibit B: The scene after a bit of Dremel-ing and prying with a screwdriver.

Exhibit C: The $50-ish box of clear glass subway tiles (called “Glass Snow” from The Tile Shop) that we’ll be installing in its place. You can read more about the tile we chose, and how Clara enjoyed lying on the floor of the store here.

This isn’t our first trip to the tile rodeo, so this task promised to be pretty straightforward. Plus, by now we’ve accrued a pretty complete collection of tiling accessories, so one of our only purchases for this task was a new container of thinset mortar (the adhesive that keeps tiles stuck to the wall) and thinset admixture (the liquid that turns the thinset powder into its final cake-batter-y form). We got both of these at The Tile Shop for about $28 along with our tile.

We mixed a small amount of mortar and admixture in a bucket using a trowel until we got it to the right consistency. Looking back at this photo, it appears a bit thicker than we usually like it (we snapped the photo prematurely, but kept mixing things to get it to the right consistency). In the end we like it to be spackle-like – like thick pancake batter.

Since our to-be-tiled area was so narrow, we actually used the same trowel that we used to mix it all to spread the thinset on the wall.

Then we went back over it with the grooved end of a small notched trowel that we picked up (the smallest one that Home Depot sold, for about $3) so we got that ridged surface that’s ideal for sticking tiles to the wall.

Actually placing the tiles was a cinch, since there was no leveling or anything needed. We just sort of plopped them in place (using some 1/8″ rubber spacers to maintain a gap for the grout). Some glass tile is completely translucent, so you have to be careful because your thinset lines can show right through it. Thankfully our glass tile is actually backed with an opaque film so you don’t see the thinset through it but it still looks completely glassy and clear (not frosted or anything).

We just repeated that process around all four walls, mixing up more thinset as needed.

Here you can see the first section tiled (on the wall to the right) and the next side all thinsetted and ready for tiling.

We did run into a few spots that required cutting (in a couple of the corners) so for that we broke out this tile cutter that we used back when we did the subway tile in our last bathroom. It’s a pretty cool tool (which sadly didn’t work when cutting our penny tile backsplash). You place your tile with your cut line aligned with the small raised ridge on its platform (the yellow stripe between the black rubber). Then with light pressure, you score your line by rolling the blade back and forth a few times. You can actually see my score line in the glass below.

Once scored, you move the angled metal pad atop the tile and press down until it snaps right along your score line (if all goes well). For us it’s the fastest, cleanest, and easiest way to get a straight cut on tiles like these.

Unfortunately we did have one spot where we needed to notch out just the corner of a tile (around the light switch) which meant we had to use a wet saw. It stunk that we had to set up the saw for such small cuts, but it just had to be done.

Here you can see the two tiles that got the wet saw treatment. The cuts aren’t 100% perfect, but the light switch cover will hide the imperfections at the corners.

All in all the whole process – from getting all of our supplies out to tiling and finally cleaning everything up again – took us all of Clara’s two hour nap. Not bad at all. One nap for demo. And another for re-tiling. This is our kind of project.

Of course, we weren’t completely done yet. Our new tiles still needed to be grouted and sealed, but all of that would have to wait for another day since we needed the thinset to cure completely.

But the next day came before we knew what hit us, and it was time to grout. At first we debated what color grout to do in order to try to get the best match to what we already had in there, but then we discovered that the previous owners had left us some of the grout they had used in the basement. It’s “Antique White” colored, which wouldn’t be our first choice against sleek glass tiles (we’d probably go with pure white or soft gray), but in this instance it was more important to match the grout in the rest of the room, so we sucked it up and proceeded.

Having mixed up our free leftover grout with some free leftover grout admixture (a bottle we didn’t quite use up during our kitchen project), we went to town spreading the toothpaste-y stuff onto the tile surface using a grout float.

Once we had worked the grout into all of the grooves, we gave it a couple of minutes to set and then used a damp sponge to wipe away all of the excess from the surface of the tiles. The whole grouting process took just about 45 minutes. We’ll call that 1/3rd of a Clara nap.

The last step – which we did the day after grouting so it all had time to dry – was sealing the grout lines so that they’ll stand up better to moisture and stain less easily. We had some sealer leftover from the kitchen, so we followed the instructions on the back and applied it generously with a sponge – then wiped off any excess a few moments later. This step took so little time that I did it while Clara was awake and playing in the other room. I know, I truly live life on the edge.

Sealing (plus putting a bit of caulk in the corners of the shower) was our last step to this whole project, meaning it took us just about 2.5 Clara naps (aka 6 hours-ish) to demo, tile, grout, and seal it. Not too bad at all. You can see in this picture below (on the left of the border) how the glass tile gleams as it reflects light around the room. It really makes the room feel fresher and more updated.

Admittedly we’re not always border-tile people, but the modern glass tile is a definite improvement from the trees, and for $50 in tile, it was an update worth making (we’ll get to the full budget breakdown in a minute). Reminder: that light switch isn’t really in our shower, this is just a really weird angle without the shower curtain in place  – but it’s actually located outside of the shower curtain (so it doesn’t get wet). 

It’s definitely one of those annoying these-photos-don’t-do-it-justice projects, so feel free to come over and use our bathroom to really see these guys in all of their glory.

It just feels simpler and less busy than the tree-drawings that used to encircle the room:

It definitely has come a long way from this shot that we took of the room before we started any updates (you can see links to all of our bathroom updates in order at the bottom of this post):

And although the tile is completely clear and shiny, it picks up the subtle tones in the art and the blue glass pendant light, so it brings sort of a cool tone to a previously very warm and beigey room. So even though those beige tiles certainly wouldn’t have been our first pick, they feel kind of balanced out by the new border tile.

We’re so glad we were able to use the same grout that the previous owners used to install everything originally – it really looks like this border has always been here, which is a lot better of an outcome than a new-border-installed-with-old-tiles look. Whew.

It looks especially glassy and sleek when it’s wet. We love how little drops of water collect on the glass surface and sort of reflect through the tile since it’s clear.

Here’s a shot that shows how it picks up some of the tones in the room even though it’s a clear glass tile – see how in this shot they look a little blue-green just because they’re picking up the art above them?

As for a budget breakdown, here we go:

Well, technically we also bought a Dremel Multimax (more on that here) which was $130 with the special grout head that we used, so the real total for this project is $214 if you count that, but our new Dremel has already come in handy for a bunch of other projects (we’ve used it on the deck and plan to use it on another project in the bedroom) so it’s definitely handy to have in our tool arsenal.

Oh and some folks seemed surprised that we were taking on another semi-big project like this along with our slow-going deck, but because we can only work on the deck one or two days a week (and it really demands full days of time, or at least chunks of 4+ hours) it could literally be a month or two until it’s completed. And this project was something we could tackle during Clara-naps, so we were excited to get ‘er done. So that’s what we’ve been up to in the bathroom. Wait, that sounded weird. Any bathroom projects going on at your house? Or are some tiling endeavors going on in another room, like the kitchen?

Psst- To follow this bathroom sprucing project from the start, check out this planning post, this painting post, this light-swapping post, this art and trim-painting post, this toilet-updating post, this window frosting and shampoo wrangling post, this toilet selling/buying and door-cutting-down post, and this pre-tiling post.