Tone down. Step up | a quick look at targeting brushes in Aperture 3.

Artists go through phases. It stems from always wanting more, pushing ourselves to learn, all with the absolute goal to better express our viewpoint, streamline some sort of vision. And yes, I did use the “A” word. When you suffer day in and day out with an eternal hunger to express something (anything), when you do so without thought to the consequences and when you spend half the time crippled with either delusions of grandeur or a bottomless pit of despair at the sight of your work… You’re an artist. Congrats and welcome to the roller coaster.

Doesn’t mean we’re any good at it btw. It’s just who we are, for better or for worse.

What was I saying again? Ah yes: phases. I’m going through a toned down phase. Muted colours, muted contrast, low key lighting… And I thought I’d share something about Aperture brushes along the way.

Down and down we go

The first and most natural reflex when sitting down to process images is to pump things up, especially with raw files which need it desperately: punch the exposure, S-curve for contrast and saturation etc. It’s a very normal and expected starting point. But sometimes going the other way can produce equally powerful results. 

The great thing with raw is the added headroom it provides in post-production. When you lower the exposure slider on a raw file you’re actually accessing additional data captured by your camera’s sensor, replicating something you would’ve achieved in-camera had you chosen different settings when you shot the frame. This headroom is equally available for white balance, black point and highlights but will of course depend on how you exposed the shot in the first place - if the data isn’t there, it just isn’t there. But in normal circumstances there’s quite a bit of information to work with.

Now, this can either be used to boost or to lower values after the fact. Let’s head into the dark territories shall we?

Here’s little old me, posing like a prima donna:

This is raw, out of camera with a very slight adjustment to exposure and WB. A common way to go would be an S-Curve, slight vignetting and desat to give a slight edgy look. We get this:

Done, right? Could be. Nothing fantastically wrong with it. But let’s try something else. Same adjustments but scrap the curve and bring the Exposure way down to –1.52:

This is our new baseline. I’m going to apply some toning and adjust the overall exposure a bit with a few Curves:

Right. Now for the pop.

Brushes: targeted mode.

As we all know, in Aperture 3 most brick adjustments can be brushed in or out, essentially allowing the creation of mask overlays. With multiple brick instances you get multiple masks. Good stuff.

But you can also target those brush strokes to a specific tonal range. In the brush HUD click on the cog icon at top right: under Brush Range you’ll find All, Shadows, Midtones and Highlights. If you choose anything besides All, you’ll be brushing whichever adjustment you’ve selected on that specific tonal range.

In this case, I’m going to use this feature on a new curve to add the dimension I’m looking for. Basically, bring the exposure back up on certain parts of the picture. I know that what I’m trying to boost falls into the midtones (face, hair, the lighter folds in the hoodie). What I usually do when I’m preparing to use a brush is first create the effect I’m after and apply it to the entire image. I then imagine the parts I’m going to be brushing in and alter the effect accordingly. When I’m satisfied (this is a ballpark anyway) I select Brush Curves in (or whichever brick is being applied) and paint in the regions I’m looking to alter. Here we go:

Here’s the result:

But… what’s the whole deal with targeting the midtones you say? Here’s the same curve applied at the same opacity but with All selected as the Brush Range:

Pretty different. Targeting the right tonal range is a quick way to apply masks in a much more effective way and will often limit the number of adjustments needed to achieve a similar result.

One tip though: be sure to use the Feathering brush on the edges after brushing in a targeted mode. Since the pixels affected are based on Aperture’s interpretation of the image, you can easily get weird jaggies or artifacts if you’re not careful.

Finish off with a tiny bit of targeted definition on the hands, camera and glasses:

So there you go. My word of the day: tone down. Ok, two words. You know what I mean… A few examples of this subdued phase posted below.

P.S I would MUCH prefer being able to brush Exposure back in instead of using curves to boost back what’s missing. A whole other ball game. Aperture 4 maybe?

I was really tired and added definition to make it look even worse. Honest.