What I appreciate most about Photoshop CS5 (soon to be 6), is the depth of its features and the endless ways that it allows users to synthesize, combine, and devise new and subtly different ways of accomplishing a particular look or feel to an image. I learn a new way of doing an old task almost daily, and each one provides a little different advantage and appearance to your image. This ‘fungibility’ of product features is the most compelling aspect of this marvelous software.
For instance, you want to selectively lighten or darken (or both) different areas of your image there are numerous ways to accomplish this task depending on the composition and characteristics of each image. You can choose to simply create another duplicate background layer and use the stock ‘dodge and burn’ tools on the toolbar which renders very controllable and often stunning effects. Or you can create a blank adjustment layer above your background layer, fill it with 50% gray, and then paint your brightness or darkening in using a soft brush set to a very low ‘flow’ (this gives you the ability to step up gradually to your desired effect). Or you can make two separate exposures, one for highlights and one for shadows, using Camera Raw and then open them as separate layers in an image. Once layered you can mask off unwanted areas of the upper layer using a soft brush (white to reveal black to hide) revealing the layer below and its particular exposure characteristics.
Or say you wish to sharpen your image. Once again you have options as to how you might accomplish this. You can, on a separate layer, utilize the unsharp mask, sharpen, or smart sharpen tools to universally sharpen the image. Or if you want to sharpen just edges and not create any noise in the rest of the image you can create a duplicate layer, select the ‘high pass’ filter, change the layer blend mode from ‘normal’ to ‘overlay’ or ‘soften’ (depending upon the desired strength of the effect) and then use the opacity slider for that layer to moderate the effect even more. You can also selectively sharpen areas by making a selection around the desired area to be sharpened and simply apply the sharpen filter to just that area, or you may instead sharpen the entire layer and then mask off those areas of that layer that you wish to leave unsharpened, such as the sky or large graduated tonal areas of little detail. Again you may use the opacity or fill adjustment slider for that layer to moderate the effect.
If it sounds like I’m a shill for Photoshop I assure you I’m not, but it is, I believe the most powerful and versatile post processing tool on the market and it continues to amaze and dazzle me on a daily basis with new and surprising methods that I discover either on my own or through the kind tips of others who use the program.
If you haven’t had a chance to use the program, or even one of its smaller cut down versions or siblings such as Photoshop Elements, or Lightroom, you may wish to download a trial copy and play around with it.