Öthe quintessential tool to fine tune a digital image.


We all agree, I hope, that photography is about light or more correctly put, capturing light in its simplest interpretation. Serious photographers always say, ďFirst get it right in the camera.Ē I could not agree more with this statement. However, I think there is a flip side to the it, which is, "Get your vision of what you saw into the digital image and, if you print, into the print". It is always what you see and what you feel that translates into how you work up your digital image. To me, seeing and feeling are the big reasons many of us take up photography. Those of us that use Photoshop CS2, CS3, or CS4 have developed a workflow for processing our images. I highly recommend you add the History Brush to the last stage of that workflow, just before sharpening, which is normally the last step for most of us. Many might ask, what is the History Brush?  Or better still, what does the History Brush do?  Well, in concept and practice it goes back 500 years to Leonardo da Vince.  Da Vinci invented a system called chiaroscuro whereby, instead darkening or lightening a color with black or white paint, he used a darker or lighter tone of the base color itself. Well, that is what the History Brush does and this technique can be used on color or black & white digital images.  All right, so how does the History Brush fit into the fine tuning an image?


When you have processed the digital image using either Adobe Camera Raw tools or those internal to Photoshop or Lightroom2, you arrive at what you think is your best effort. Now to create a superb image takes time and, in many cases, continual reworking until you get what you want in the final image or print.  Fine tuning is where you focus on local contrast and color using the History Brush to improve details of the image. Have you every wondered why some images appear almost 3 dimensional, as if you sense depth in the 2 dimensional image. It results from control of local contrast and tones. Thatís why the History Brush, in my opinion, is such a powerful tool. You can use it to create that sense of depth by separating elements in the image.  In addition, it is a more intuitive, faster, and friendlier tool than layer masks for working on selected areas of an image. Best of all, it is a progressive tool. You are always moving forward just like artist who paints, only you paint with light. It lets you make corrections or improvements in the image relying on your perception of whatís needed. If you make a mistake, it is easy to correct. Now letís turn to setting up the brush and look at examples of how it can change an image.


I. Setting up the History Brush.

Below is how I setup my palette window. Note, I place the History Palette on the far right of the palette window.



All this setup does is create a snapshot so that it can be copied to your active image layer. You must restart Photoshop after making this change to save the setup.

In Photoshopspeak: The History Brush tool  lets you paint a copy of one image state or snapshot into the current image window. This tool makes a copy, or sample, of the image and then paints with it.


II. How to use History Brush


The brush itself is the 10th icon from the top of your vertical toolbar.


a.                  Bring up the image you want to work as either a PSD or Tif file.

b.                  Hit Ctrl-J ( hit the Ctrl key then the J key) to make a copy of the background layer.

c.                   Select the History Brush and select Layer 2 (the copy) in the Layer palette.

d.                  Next in the CSí main menu bar make selections as follows:



If you make a mistake either change the mode and repaint or go to the History palette and delete the brush stroke. Also, when you finish several strokes, go to Edit/Fade History Brush in the main menu- get in habit of fading frequently.


 As you can see, itís quite easy to use this powerful technique. Just be careful on your initial selection of the opacity or you will be deleting brush strokes all the time. Also, watch for streaking especially when you are enhancing mid-tones. If the opacity is small, you can gradually build up color luminosity or reduce it with no noticeable streaking.


III.        Examples of Working with the History Brush.


Example 1.


Those of you who have visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA,may recognize this painting by Rembrandt. Image A is what was on the wall and treated in Adobe Camera Ready with vibrance = clarity =25 and saturation = 15. Image B is the result of 10 minutes working with History Brush. Quite a difference between the two images I think you would agree. This is a straight forward example of using the History Brush. One could try to approximate Image B using Curves and it would be close but no cigar.




 Example 2.


Itís somewhat hard to sense depth with small images. Nonetheless, if you look at images A & B, Image B appears to have more depth than A and elements in the image appear more separated then in image A. The only difference between images A&B is that B was treated with the History Brush. Itís darkening of trees and to the left of the tilted barn that gave more depth to B. In bigger picture separation of the tree from the barn is also more pronounced in image B as well.



 Example 3.


Color images tend to reduce a sense of depth in most images. The brain tends to focus on colors and less on the prevailing geometry. This is especially true with front lighted objects; side lighting also but shadows do help to separate objects more. In the case of B&W images, separating objects with different tones is a lot easier for brain to do. Image A was ACR treated but still was somewhat flat but after all, it is almost monochromatic in its grayish-yellow tones. Image B is the conversion of Image A using the Gradient method (see tutorial on B&WÖ Image to Print), and Image C was a treatment of Image B with the History Brush. Image C definitely has a much greater sense of depth and clarity of the elements than in Image B. Score another one for the History Brush.


Note how the detail in Image C is brought out by use of the brush compared to those of Image B.



Example 4.


Image 4B comes from Image 4A which was treated in Camera Raw and then with Curves. The original image was shot on a very foggy day; hence loss of contrast became a big problem- using the Black light slider in the Camera Raw window considerably diminished the effects of fog on contrast, hence its use brings out the detail. In a comparison of A&B, definitely B (History Brush treated) has better contrast and more detail than A. Score another one for the History Brush. Image A is pretty good but Image B is superb in my opinion. The brush brought out more details in trees, leafs, rocks, and even in the seaweed along the shore. Hopefully, at web screen resolution differences in Images A&B will still be apparent.



Even if it sounds repetitious, I cannot stress enough how the History Brush can change average image into one with snap and appeal. Its ease-of-use is apparent and it offers the photographer the ability to paint with light to get what he/she is looking for in a digital image. Best of all, that image usually translates into a fine print. Be aware, actually itís hard to get a good to excellent print without some work but thatís another topic. Nonetheless, use of the History Brush for fine tuning local color and contrast is a gift that one should not ignore. Sometimes it takes time using the History Brush, hours in fact. But, if you want the image to express how you perceive and feel about your image, itís always worth the effort.  


Have fun and be creative with this powerful technique for painting with light.




J. R. Votano


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