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How to improve photo color in iPhoto

iPhoto doesn’t have near the photo editing capabilities of professional applications like Photoshop or even Apple’s more advanced Aperture, but it does have a range of color adjusting features that are conveniently grouped so you only need to get as advanced as you feel comfortable. In this video I demonstrate simple to advanced methods to adjust the color in a photo, as well as some other tips.

Video too small? Watch full screen by clicking the YouTube Full Screen button button here

All of iPhoto’s editing functions are revealed by clicking on the Edit button in the lower right portion of the iPhoto window. This will display a pane of editing functions on the right side of the window. The functions are grouped into three tabs:

  • Quick Fixes
  • Effects
  • Adjust

As far as adjusting the color of your photos, you can think of these three tabs as Simple, Intermediate, and Advanced.

Simple (Quick Fixes)

On the Quick Fixes tab you’ll find the Enhance button, which is a one-button simple method of improving a photo’s color. Clicking it causes iPhoto to makes its best attempt at enhancing the color, contrast, and brightness of your photo. After using this function you have three options.

  1. If you think iPhoto did a good enough job, then you’re done!
  2. If you think it did a terrible job, then click the “Revert to Original” button (or “Undo” if you made previous changes to this photo that you don’t want to undo).
  3. Or, if you think iPhoto did a pretty good job but could use a little manual tweaking, then follow it up with some of the intermediate or advanced methods below.

One iPhoto limitation is that most editing functions apply to the whole photo. Unlike more expensive applications, iPhoto doesn’t let you apply any of the color adjusting functions to just a selected region. There are two exceptions: “Fix Red-Eye” and “Retouch”. As shown in the video, “Retouch” is a handy tool for removing blemishes or unwanted helicopters (see the video) from your photos. Like it sounds, “Fix Red-Eye” can reduce or sometimes even remove the red eye effect caused by a bright flash on wide open pupils.

Intermediate (Effects)

The Effects tab gives you more control of your photo color adjusting, while not getting too advanced. Some of the functions work in pairs and reverse each other’s effect, like “Lighten” / “Darken” and “Warmer” / “Cooler”. Others only work in one direction: “Contrast” only increases the contrast, and “Saturate” only increases the color saturation.

In the lower section of the Effects tab is a mix of functions. “Fade” and “Boost” affect the color intensity, but they don’t cancel each other out as you might expect from their names. Play around with them to see if they improve your photos. As you’ll see, each can be applied one to nine times. For an artistic effect, try the “Antique”, “Sepia”, or “B & W” (black and white) functions. “Antique” can be applied one to nine times, whereas “Sepia” and “B & W” are either on or off. After playing with one or more of the functions in this lower section, you can quickly turn them all off by clicking the “None” button.

The others functions in this section create special edge effects. I demonstrate and discuss the edge effect functions in “How to crop photos in iPhoto”.

Advanced (Adjust)

When you really want to exert your full control over the color of your photos, you venture into the Adjust tab. Here you’ll discover even more options, most of which are beyond the scope of this article. But, remember, you’ve got “Revert to Original” and “Undo” buttons, so go ahead and mess around with them with abandon.

You’ll often find that some adjustments have very little effect on some photos and huge effects on others. For instance, as you saw in the video, changing the saturation had little effect on my photo with gray skies and sand. But on a photo with rich colors, even small saturation adjustments can have a big effect.

When I’m really trying to perfect my photos, some of my favorite functions are “Highlights”, “Shadows”, and “Definition”. “Highlights” can bring out details in overly bright areas, while “Shadows” can reveal things that you didn’t realize were hidden in the shadows! “Definition” can sometimes make photos look a bit too real so use wisely.

Here’s a quick example using a photo I took at the Tamaya Resort outside Albuquerque. As you can see my iPhone 3GS just couldn’t handle the combination of the poorly lit courtyard and the bright puffy clouds. So, let’s see if the “Exposure” setting can help.

Unedited photo

Unedited photo

Photo with max Exposure setting

Photo with max "Exposure" setting

Increasing the “Exposure” setting helps to show more courtyard details but causes the beautiful clouds to become a flat white sky. This is because the “Exposure” setting is primarily for photos that are uniformly over- or under-exposed. That is not the problem with this photo.

Now look at what the “Shadows” setting can do to bring out the details in the dark courtyard without losing the details in the sky. Then look how using the “Highlights” setting can bring out even more detail in the clouds.

Photo with max Shadows setting

Photo with max "Shadows" setting

Photo with max Shadows and Highlights setting

Photo with max "Shadows" and "Highlights"

I wouldn’t normally max out both settings like I did here to emphasize the effect, but it does show how well the “Shadows” and “Highlights” settings can work together.

It’s really quite amazing how much you can improve the look of a photo often in under a minute. Whether you’re doing it to correct for poor lighting conditions or going for an artistic effect, learning the various editing tools that iPhoto provides will take your photo collection to a whole new level.

BONUS TIP #1: Although not mandatory, when I’m about to edit a photo, I often make a copy of it using the Duplicate function (⌘D) in the Photo menu. Even though iPhoto will always let you “Revert to Original” so you don’t have to worry about not being able to undo any edits you’ve made, I like having separate copies of my original and my edited version just in case.

BONUS TIP #2: To maximize the size of your photo on your display and to hide all other possible distractions, use the “Full Screen” button in the lower left corner of the iPhoto window.

BONUS TIP #3: (Winner of the “how the heck would you know this unless you actually read the manual” contest) To temporarily switch back and forth between the original and edited versions of your photo, press and release the “shift” key while still in editing mode.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Frank January 29, 2012, 7:52 am

    What version of iPhoto is this??

    • Steve January 29, 2012, 11:02 am

      It’s iPhoto ’11 (also known as version 9).

  • Evert February 28, 2015, 1:33 pm

    How can I get the ‘Definition’ effect from iPhoto in Photoshop?
    What is more or less the equivalent?

    • Steve March 3, 2015, 9:15 pm

      Hi Evert, I don’t know if there is an exact Photoshop equivalent of the iPhoto Definition effect, but this article, Sharpen Images With The High Pass Filter In Photoshop, shows a more complicated multi-step process that looks like it will give you a similar effect.

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