Brushing up on Aperture's new tools

Last week’s blog on Aperture 3’s adjustment presets appears to have helped some readers embrace new creative possibilities — but presets are just one component in A3’s armoury. This week, we’ll take a closer look at A3’s new brush tool.

First, an addendum to last week’s blog. Well, two, actually. Addenda. While adjustment presets are a lot of fun, you should be careful not to fall into the Word Art trap. Use a preset only when it really serves to enhance the image. Reader Genshin did just this with the Sin City preset I championed last week. He used it well to enhance a Tokyo scene. Red is a very Japanese colour theme, so enhancing the reds and muting blues with the Sin City preset just made sense. It was a nice fit.

This is not to say you shouldn’t experiment with presets. In the same way an artist needs to trial every colour combination to create their own colour palette, you should audition every editing tool in Aperture and other software so you know which one to reach for when the need arises. Also, don’t be afraid to use a preset as a starting point for enhancements and use A3’s other tools to fine-tune the result.

The other note is that while I encouraged you to stack presets on top of one another to create an effect you can call your own, you should know that you can combine presets with any of A3’s adjustment tools such as Curves, Exposure, Contrast or Levels, and save the result as a preset. There is, however, one adjustment that for the sake of a reliable outcome you should probably leave out of a preset recipe — namely a brushed-in adjustment.

Speaking of which ...

Because it’s usually the small things that compromise a well-planned image, pro users have welcomed the inclusion of brushes in A3 as they provide a very useful tool for making micro adjustments. Perhaps an unexpected highlight detracts from the subject. There might be a harsh shadow where you don’t want one. Human subjects can have skin flaws. Perhaps a brightly-coloured object has drifted into the frame and upset the colour harmony.

Brushes can help address these flaws. The way Apple has implemented brushes in A3 is mostly clever but at times infuriating.

At the clever end of the scale is something I touched on last week — the edge-detection feature that is usually an optional setting when applying a brush. This can help make an otherwise tedious task a lot more enjoyable. Recently, I grabbed a snap that had been metered for the highlights and as a consequence the faces of the family in the photo were underexposed. A quick application with the dodge (lighten) brush was a simple fix and with edge detection switched on the brush was prevented from applying the dodge to their hats or the background.

As another example of edge detection at work, if you look at the image above you’ll see that one of the entertainer’s brace straps has had its colour adjusted. I left the strap on the right untouched so you can see the difference. The edge detection feature made it a cinch to paint the tint adjustment in while leaving the striped shirt untouche

But here’s where A3 leans towards the infuriating end of the scale. There’s no way of editing the tint value of this brush. The tint value seems to be fixed. If it can be edited, then it’s entirely unintuitive, because I can’t figure it out.

Another infuriating element is that Apple has decided to limit the density of the dodge and burn brushes. So, for instance, you can’t use the burn (darken) brushes to brush something into blackness. It seems the burn tool will darken only to the equivalent of about two or three f-stops. The only way I can find to blot something out is to clone a black portion of the image. It’s not elegant, and it’s usually easier to roundtrip via a proper image editor like Photoshop if you really want to brush something into oblivion.

This may be sounding like a gripe session, but I didn’t set out to make it so. There are some limitations you should be aware of because they help answer the “do I still need Photoshop?” question that comes my way a lot. Short answer? Yes, you still need Photoshop, or the Elements version of it or, as I’ve previously suggested, Pixelmator, because A3’s brushes are in need of refining. That said, A3’s new tools, including the brushes, mean you can spend a lot less time doing roundtrip editing.

Where are these brushes, anyway? With the Adjustments panel open in the Inspector, click on the Adjustments drop-down menu positioned just under the image histogram (and next to the Presets button). Mouse over “Quick Brushes” and a list pops up indicating the available brushes. Going over what each of these brushes can do will grow tedious, so I encourage you just to jump on in and experiment.

You might like to duplicate an image before you start brushing away. Or not. Remember, you can choose to reset all adjustments to get the image back to its original state because A3 is a non-destructive editor.

Let me point out a few things about brushes that may save you some heartache. First is that you should release the mouse frequently while using the brush. This creates a save state to which you can undo. If edge detection fails — and if you are too aggressive in applying a brush effect the edge detection will fail — you’ll have to redo a lot of your work if you’ve applied the brush effect in one big swathe. So ... brush, release, brush, release, and so on.

The next is to leave any brushing until after the image has been colour corrected, cropped, and otherwise adjusted for contrast levels and other colour variables. Otherwise, you may find the brush effect changes in ways that can look rather ugly. I’ve noticed, too, that when applying presets I’ve downloaded from a third party, some of them ignored brush strokes already applied to an image, revealing the strokes themselves on a layer on top of the image. Yuck.

When you’re using a brush, the edge detection option is helpful, but it can be too aggressive. Be sure you at least try using a brush with that option turned off. And remember that the keyboard shortcut for “zoom to actual size” is the Z key. Using a brush is often easier with the image zoomed in.

Experiment with the “softness”  setting for the brush and make yourself familiar with how the brush cursor works. One adjustment will brush in a little differently to the next (by nature of the adjustment itself) so be prepared to moderate your technique.

Also, be sure you explore the options that are revealed when you click on the “gears” icon. This little icon really needs a better way of getting your attention because, even after two new versions of Aperture, I’ve known people who don’t notice it. That is a shame, because you’ll find it offers some very useful options.

Can’t see it? OK, when you select a brush, its HUD (Heads-Up Display) appears on screen. In the top right corner of the HUD is the gears icon. There you go. Click on it. Doing so reveals a set of options. My favourite choice there is the colour overlay option, which applies an overlay that indicates where you’ve already applied brush strokes. Also useful are the range options at the bottom of this pop-up list. These enable you to apply the brush effect to all the image or limit the effect to shadows, midtones or highlights.

There is also the option to “Clear from entire photo” in case you want to back out completely without removing all other adjustments. These options are only available from the floating HUD, which is a bit annoying.

You should keep an eye out for that gears icon elsewhere in the Adjustments panel. For example, go to the Levels adjustment and click on the gears icon. What you’ll find, among other options, is the ability to brush in the Levels adjustment. Yes, there are more brushes available than only the “Quick Brushes”, which appear to be the ones Apple thought you would most frequently want to use. A few other adjustment parameters can be turned into brushes, so get busy clicking through those gears icons. (Yeah, I know I could tell you which ones can be brushes, but it’s a lot more fun if you go adventuring.)

To illustrate one of these useful options further, do this: enable the Black & White adjustment by choosing it from the Adjustments drop-down menu, then click on the gears icon in the Black & White adjustments pane to choose the option “Brush Black & White away”. When you use the brush this way, you can restore colour from the original version of the image. A bit like Photoshop’s history brush. It’s fun for some arty effects, such as the way I've used it above to paint some colour back into the t-shirt.

Next week, I’ll cover off a few other new features in A3 that you may not have yet noticed or thought to put to work. In the meantime, have fun with A3’s brushes.

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