Editing in Photoshop

By Eduard Brantjes.

Last updated on May 14, 2009 by scottjungwirth

This is a guide for Photoshop editing of a digital aircraft image. The document guides you through the basic editing of a RAW image with Photoshop CS. When shooting in JPG-format, the RAW-section can simply be skipped. All actions, apart from the RAW conversion, can be done with other versions of Photoshop as well, although the menus might be arranged slightly different for each version of Photoshop. Of course Photoshop offers many advanced tools, however this tutorial is only covering the basic steps. When these are mastered you can advance to other techniques.

Prerequisites: Very basic Photoshop stills are advisable and also it’s recommended to do know how to operate your camera well. Explanation of basic photography skills can easily be found/learned on various sources on the Internet. For example, http://www.luminous-landscape.com and http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials.htm provide a lot of info to start with.

But of course make sure you study the manuals of your camera and know how it all works.

After all: Poor quality in, poor quality out!

In this guide, we use the following image:

Example Image

This is an uncropped 3072x2048 pixel sized RAW-file made with a Canon DSLR.

Before you start editing: Check the original

Shoot your pictures at the highest resolution your camera puts out and try to use the lowest ISO-setting to keep grain/noise to a minimum. Have a good look at the original image before you continue.

  1. Is the original sharp?

    Zoom in at 100% and check the details. Make sure there is no (or very little) motion blur and the camera had focused correctly for the whole image/aircraft.

    Our image zoomed at 100%

  2. Is the exposure correct?

    Check the histogram. (Menu: Image –> Adjustments –> Levels, or in the RAW converter):

    Photoshop histogram dialog

    This shows the presence of the different intensities of light in your image. The far left side is “pure black”, the far right is “pure white”. It should show a little ‘mountain’ that is not cut off on either side of the x-axis. If your image is overexposed, the ‘mountain’ is cut off on the right. If it’s underexposed it’s cut off on the left.

RAW conversion

skip to Editing if you work with JPEG

When opening the RAW image in Photoshop CS, you’ll see a screen similar to the following:

Photoshop RAW conversion screen

Adobe has already moved to PS CS4, but the general workflow is the same

Set the “Depth” at 16 Bits/channel for the best quality. When saving as a JPEG at the end of your editing, you need to convert the image to 8 Bits/Channel. For Internet purposes, set the “Space” as sRGB. This setting provides better colours when viewed with the Internet Explorer.

Note: For other RAW converters see their manuals/tutorials.

In the RAW converter I usually adjust the ‘Shadows’ to make the histogram ‘mountain’ start neatly at the left hand side of the axis (red arrows). On top of that I added some saturation so compensate the flatter colours of computer screens (this is usually not needed for printing). Don’t overdo the saturation, it can turn things into a very unnatural looking neon-like photo.

Photoshop RAW conversion screen

Changing the white balance is mostly done for photos taken in artificial light (like night photography on the airport platform). Generally these photos come out very yellow, but setting the colour temperature a bit lower (+/-4000) will result in more true colours.

More features are available but these are not covered in this document.

When all this is done, the JPG-style editing begins.


Step 1: Levelling the horizon

When possible, use landmarks with vertical lines to level your shot. Preferably buildings, as lampposts and trees normally are not exactly vertical. Be aware that when shooting with a wide-angle lens, vertical lines on the edge of the frame will not be exactly vertical. Use vertical lines in the centre of the image for reference.

If there’s no vertical reference, you can use runway/taxiways, although even those can be unlevelled. If there is no reference to be found at all, just make sure it “feels” good. In this example I use the runway as a reference.

Using the measuring tool (underlined in red)

The Measure tool asks you to draw a line to indicate which plain should be exactly horizontal or vertical. You can see I drew a line along the edge of the runway. Going to menu “Image -> Rotate Canvas -> Arbitrary”, you will see that Photoshop calculated the needed rotation for you. In this case: 1.08 degrees clockwise. Simply press OK to make the rotation.

Step 2: Cropping

Your image is now levelled, but you need to crop off the triangle bits around the sides and choose the final crop you’d like to have. For this, use the Crop tool.

Airliners.net requests you to use size ratio’s anywhere in between 3:2 and 4:3 (horizontal : vertical), the format of most camera film and sensors.

In the “options” window you can set this ratio. Do not fill in the resolution. Here a 3:2 ratio is chosen:

cropping the image

Draw the rectangle to create the desired crop. When you like your selection, go to menu “Image -> Crop”, and your image will be cropped.

Step 3: Levels

Go to menu “Image -> Adjustments -> Levels” (as mentioned earlier in the section “The Original”). You’d like the “mountain” of the histogram to nicely fill the graph. You can also do this the easy way using “Image -> Adjustments -> Auto Levels”, although this does not always create satisfying results.

To make the “mountain” fill the graph from left to right, adjust the black and white points. You can do this with the sliders on each end of the graph:

Photoshop levels dialog

The grey slider in the middle adjusts the overall lightness. Be careful that you’re not clipping the levels, as you will lose some detail (especially clipping the highlights).

Optional other actions can now be done in this stage, like:

  • Saturation adjustment
  • Contrast adjustment
  • Shadow/Highlight (beware to use this feature lightly or not at all)
  • Noise reduction (also use with care)

Step 4: Resizing

Now that all major editing is done, resize it to your desired size. If you’re a beginning photographer/editor, you’re advised to resize to 1024 pixels wide. Maximum width accepted to Airliners.net is 1600 pixels wide, however the image quality needs to be very good in order to get accepted.

Go to menu “Image -> Image Size” and choose width 1024. Photoshop will automatically calculate the vertical size (to 683 in this case).

Step 5: Sharpening

This step can make or break your image. Too little sharpening will cause an image to look soft, too much sharpening causes jagged lines, grain and a white lining around all edges with high contrast. It’s crucial to find a right balance between the two.

Sharpening is only useful for areas with high detail. Large areas without detail, like the sky, should not be sharpened. If this is done this will only lead to unnecessary forming of grain. The trick is to deselect the sky when sharpening.

First, duplicate the background layer for a later purpose. Right-click on the background layer and choose “Duplicate Layer”.

Use the “magic wand”-tool (see red circle below). This selects everything with the same intensity. You can set the tolerance in the Options toolbar (other red circle, set at 5 in this example). Press anywhere in the sky and it will select a big area. Press “shift” and click on an area in the sky that has not been selected yet. It will be added to your selection. Do this until you have selected the whole sky:

selecting the background

The amount of times you need to repeat this depends in the tolerance you have set.

Next, invert the selection: menu “Select -> Inverse”. Now you’ve selected everything but the sky. As sometimes the ‘marching ants’ that indicate the selection border now cover the airplane, expand the selection with 1 pixel, to make sure all edges of the aircraft are in the selected area: Menu “Select -> Modify -> Expand”.

Now you can sharpen. There are many roads that lead to Rome and this is just one of them. Apply USM (menu “Filter -> Sharpen -> Unsharp Mask…”) with the following parameters: 200, 0.2, 0.

To prevent a hard transition from sharpened to unsharpened areas; expand the selection with 1 pixel before applying another pass of USM. Repeat this until you find a desired level of sharpness. (Smooth transition from selected to unselected areas can also be done using the “feather” feature).

If in this process jagged lines appear, they can be smoothened again by using the Eraser-tool (with a small brush size). Sharpening was only applied to the Background Copy layer, so the background layer is still unsharpened. If you erase on the sharpened layer, the unsharpened layer underneath will appear (without jagged lines). Also, if grain has come out during sharpening, erasing in the sharpened layer can also reduce this.

When all is as desired: flatten the image (combining all layers).

Menu: “Layer -> Flatten Image”

(You can also create a new layer every time you do one pass of USM. Duplicate layer, USM, erase jaggies, flatten the layers and repeat the process again, duplicate, USM, erase jaggies, flatten. Etc.)

Step 6: Cleaning up

Removing of dust spots.

Duplicate your background layer again.

On this new layer, select “Equalize”. Menu: “Image - > Adjustments -> Equalize”. If there are any, dust spots should appear now.

cleaning up dust spots

Select the background layer

Use the Cloning Stamp to clone out the dust. The size of the cloning stamp can be adjusted with the Brush sizes (+/- 40 pixels).

Press the Alt-button and click on some sky near the dust spot. Then click on the dust spot itself. You will see no change, but on the background layer the dust spot will be cloned out. Repeat this for all dust spots.

When done, delete the Background copy layer. Your final image should be visible now, all cleaned up.

Step 7: Saving your image

If you started off with a RAW image, don’t forget to convert the Depth to 8 Bits/Channel. Menu: Image -> Mode.

Select “Save As” in the “File” menu and save as a JPG. Photoshop will ask you for a compression level: Set it at 12, minimal compression. This KLM 777 resulted in a 450Kb file.

Step 8: The Result

The final result

Step 9: Uploading

Before you upload take the time to do some checking:

  • How many pictures of this aircraft are already in the database? If the aircraft is common, acceptance standards go up.
  • Have you uploaded this particular aircraft already at the same angle? Ask yourself if you really need to upload it.

When uploading, always use the “get info” button. When multiple suggested types/names/cn’s show up, please search the Internet for the right info. Google almost always provides some info.

If you think your shot is a valuable asset to the Airliners.net database, upload your shot!

Do not forget to tick the correct category boxes. There are Help-textboxes is you are in doubt which category to choose.