In this tutorial, I will show you how to change a plain and flat image into one with a bit more "pop". I will be using Adobe Photoshop CS6 Beta, but you can use an older version of Photoshop or even Elements. Make sure you have a RAW copy of your photo.
Our starting photo is this:
A bit flat with no real highlights and a lot of shadows. I could have fixed this using HDR, but let me show you how you can get amazing results just using Camera Raw and Photoshop.
Step 1, open the image in Photoshop. If you open a RAW file, Camera Raw should open up. (click to enlarge)
Step 2, in Camera Raw, drag the Highlights slider all the way to the left, and the Shadows slider all the way to the right. My source image was a bit dark so I've increased the Whites a bit as well. Also add a fair bit of clarity and Vibrance to make up for the extremes set on the Highlights and shadows. Please note in older versions of Camera Raw these are the Fill light and Blacks sliders instead of Highlights and Shadows.
By maximizing these settings you will rescue a fair bit of lost information in the image.
Alter Exposure to get a more even spread in your histogram top right.
Step 3, before you exit Camera Raw, apply sharpening and noise reduction as required.
Step 4, click Open Copy to open the image in Photoshop once you have the image set to your liking. So at this stage your image will open in Photoshop and you will already notice that the image looks less flat compared to the original. Colors will also be more saturated and vibrant. My main subject of the image, the statue, still needed some more attention to make it stand out from the rest of the image.
So, add a Brightness/Contrast layer to your photo:
Step 5, adjust the brightness to correctly expose, or slightly overexpose the subject of the photo. Do not worry about the rest of the photo at this stage.
Step 6, click the mask on the Brightness/Contrast layer, go menu Edit|Fill... or hit Shift+F5, and fill the mask with black.
Step 7, with the layer mask still selected, click the brush tool and set a very soft brush setting (hardness).
Also set the Opacity to a small percentage, which will allow you to gradually filter through the mask the overexposure set by the Brightness/Contrast layer.
Step 8, using the [ and ] keys to increase and decrease your brush size, slowly paint in white on the black layer mask. In my photo I tried to create the impression that the statue was flash lit from below. Look at how the lighter areas in my layer mask shows where I've let the Brightness/Contrast settings come through.
Finish up with a frame and signature, flatten the image and save as ZIP compressed TIFF.
My final result: