Photoshop to the Max

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Using Photoshop to the max can radically transform the most prosaic underwater image

Underwater images are well suited to create interesting and colourful graphics. They may already contain interesting patterns, colours, shapes or textures that you would never find in an image shot on land. 

They make a good starting point – all you have to do is forget conventional image editing restrictions and pull hard on some of the levers in Photoshop. Even apparently dull or bland images may turn out to hide exciting contemporary works of art if you just tweak the settings. 

Let your creativity loose and see what happens with just a few simple tweaks. The only limit is your imagination, as they say.

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A single image of a juvenile batfish, repeated in several colours, makes a striking poster.


Basic methods

The images in this article were created using just two basic tools in Adobe Photoshop (you will find similar tools in other image editing software): Brightness/Contrast and Hue/Saturation. In addition, the Shadow/Highlight tool was used to lighten the dark parts on some images, and sometimes I use Levels to more finely adjust the settings or to set a black point. The Clone Stamp is also useful to clean up the images afterwards.

Photoshop offers a multitude of other tools and filters which create even more radical effects, but I have chosen to stay with the basics to begin with. If you explore the software, I’m sure you can come up with even better results than I have in this article.

By playing with these tools you can easily create some stunning results which will impress your friends and family the next time they visit. Find a couple of images and try it yourself – it’s that simple! 



The easiest tool to use is Brightness/Contrast. After you have opened the dialogue in Photoshop (under the Image -> Adjustments menu) all you have to do is pull the contrast lever all the way to the right. You will immediately see huge changes in your image, even in the colors. 

Try different images and see what effect it has when you apply different amounts of contrast to them. You will quickly find something that looks interesting! Remember that there are no rules or limitations; the only thing that matters is what you like.

In my experience, images with repetitive patterns like coral or fish scales often give the most striking results. Just look at the parrotfish image on page 70 – it turned effortlessly into graphical art almost without my help.



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Another way to produce extraordinary changes in an image is to use the Hue/Saturation tool, which in Photoshop is easily called using the CTRL+U shortcut. The dialogue has three levers – Hue, Saturation and Lightness. 

Colour is definitely the most fun to use, and gives the most spectacular effects. Don’t be afraid to pull the lever all the way! Your entire image immediately undergoes big changes, and a new and undescribed species may show up on your screen.

A very simple way to create a little Warhol-like pop art is to use the colour lever on an image where the subject is shot on a black background – only the colour of the subject will change. I used this technique to create several images of unusually coloured juvenile batfish. Put four or six of them together, and you have a poster ready for framing.

I did the same with the portrait of the bigeye jack, which originally had blue water in the background. On this image it worked really well and it too can be used either alone or as a collage.

I find that applying maximum contrast and using Hue/Saturation to find a pleasing color often gives the most stunning results. The image becomes stylized – spot on for large format posters and prints to hang on the wall.


Levels, Shadow/Highlight and Invert

Another way to achieve some great results is to use the Levels tool. This gives you the option to control the red, green and blue colour channels separately. By pulling on the three pointers below the histogram you can apply different amounts of contrast and colour to the image, within each colour channel.

The Levels dialogue also gives you the opportunity to set a grey, black or white point: choose one of the three eye dropper tools in the lower right corner and click on your image. See how it changes? This is very useful when you want to make sure a background is completely black or white, which is important for printing.

To lighten dark images I often use the Shadow/Highlight tool found under the Image -> Adjustments menu. This is very effective when you have converted an image to grayscale and increased the contrast, because this tends to darken the shadow areas.

The Invert tool is also an easy way to change your image radically. It sometimes produces almost an x-ray effect. When you combine it with using Hue/Saturation and Contrast it is a powerful way to completely transform your images.

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This image turned almost psychedelic after a simple adjustment with the hue/saturation tool.



Contrary to what underwater photographers normally do, there are no limits to cropping when you’re creating artistic images. Choose parts of an image that contain pleasing patterns or structures, and edit them as much as you like. 

Crop, flip, rotate or tweak – Photoshop gives you the ability to do whatever you want with your images, all you have to do is take advantage of it.

One thing you should keep in mind however is having a file large enough for printing in the size you desire.    Normally a size of 1 MB per square meter is enough, so any standard DSLR or even compact camera gives you plenty to work with. An image displayed for its graphic qualities can endure more pixellation than something that depicts natural life in the ocean, so it doesn’t matter if the resolution is a little bit on the low side.

And maybe pixellation is exactly what you’re looking for – try one of the many filters included in Photoshop. You will also find a bunch of free filters online for even more effects.


What can I do with the images?

When you have created your images, it’s time to think about what to do with them. The possibilities are almost endless, but the obvious choice is to print them as posters or on canvas. offers 50x70 cm posters for less than £20, and the same size in canvas for about £50. Remember to check out a few different suppliers, as prices may vary.

A really bold option is to print one of your images as wallpaper – charge about £30 per 3.6m roll. 

These days it’s also easy and inexpensive to print your own photo book. You don’t need much text when you’re displaying spectacular images, and the software offered by the suppliers get you going in no time. How many pages you want is up to you, but keep the costs in mind if you plan a Christmas gift for the entire family. offers brilliant printing quality, and a standard landscape format of 25x20 cm starts at just £25, complete with hardcover binding.

Another idea is to invest in a digital picture frame, and let a slideshow of your spectacular underwater art cheer up and inspire both yourself and others. offers 10 inch frames from around £35 – the images are free!

Different online suppliers offer a multitude of products on which they will happily print whatever you want – T-shirts or other garments, books, calendars, coffee mugs, mouse pads and many other products are readily available.

Many of these options are less expensive than you might think, and it’s never too early to start thinking about the Christmas gifts…

No matter what you decide to do it’s perhaps time to play more with your images and dare to do something different. Maybe this will even influence what and how you shoot. One thing is certain – you have nothing to lose by being creative!


more examples...

Be A Star

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Some of your rather ordinary looking underwater images may hide spectacular art. All you have to do is pull the levers in Photoshop, and an ordinary starfish can be turned into stunning graphics.



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This image of a blood-red Periphylla jellyfish originally had a black background, and it was an easy job to create something very different using the Invert tool. I then changed the color using the Hue/Saturation dialogue.



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This close-up of a starfish became much more interesting after playing around with the contrast. This will work well on many images that show some sort of pattern.



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After lightening the image 50% with the shadows/highlights tool, I increased the contrast to nearly 100%. That was all it took to turn this already quite graphic image into something completely different. The original image is to the left – check out the difference!



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Again, an image with a black background, completely transformed using the Invert tool. The saturation was upped slightly to make the image “pop” a little more.



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A dull sea urchin can easily become a cool, door-sized wallpaper. In this image I removed the red and yellow colours in Photoshop and increased the contrast to 100%. The hue was set to an iridescent green.



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This wreck image from Gozo was more exciting with a white background. I converted the image to grayscale before increasing the contrast heavily and lightening the shadows with the shadows/ highlights tool. Finally, I made the background 100% white with the levels tool and removed some particles with the clone brush.



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This close-up image showing the eye of a dragonet was already quite graphic,  all I did was increase the contrast about 70%. This also affects the colors.



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