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Retouching black items is tricky, too. Unlike white, they can be easily isolated from whatever background they were shot on, but that’s the only advantage. Apart from that, black items are hard to color correct and all the dust is very visible on them. And there are some materials like velvet or suede, that absorb light so well that they look pitch black, and when you try to lighten them up, you get dirt, noise, dust and weird color tints. But don’t worry, I know how to deal with all these problems.

Let’s start with something not as hard as making black suede shoes look decent, let’s try something that is just black and a bit too dark. How dark is dark, by the way? I’ll tell you this: taking average monitors into account, anything from 0;0;0 to 6;6;6 in RGB values is pitch black, up to 15;15;15; is very very dark. No point in keeping your black things as dark as that. But from 20;20;20 to 30;30;30 (depending on the material) things are usually perceived as black, not dark gray. At this range, you can make out some details, but if you go darker, you won’t be able to tell what things are made of. What does it mean to us?

Just the same thing as with the white items – we do basic color correction in ACR and we don’t try to lighten the dark areas there, as it will greatly affect the whole image and the overall contrast. It's not like you will be always getting images in need of special correction. On some of them, you'll probably have to do the opposite.

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In case the light scheme is very contrasted, black items will be too dark most of the time, that is even if the exposure is fine. But don't try to do anything about in Camera Raw. Later, when you’re in Photoshop, you can just use a Shadows/Highlights based action to make the black materials reach the desired RGB values. It works exactly the opposite to the action that darkens white things that are too bright. What it does is basically apply the Shadows/Highlights to the darkest areas of the image. If something is too dark, you should use this action to make it brighter. How to determine if something is too dark or not? You should measure the respective numbers on a flat, well-lighted surface. You shouldn’t measure anything in the shadows or in the highlights such as glares on glossy objects. The Eyedropper Tool should be set to 3 by 3 average or to 5 by 5 average, not to Point Sample, or you won’t get relevant results. Most items will look too black if they fall below 20;20;20. Most items will start looking gray instead of black if they are lighter than 30, so going further than that should be avoided. The items should also look consistent from the top to the bottom. And by all means, don’t try to make all the black items look the same. That’s pretty much everything you have to know. So when you see something black that looks too dark, you just run the action, that does exactly the same thing that white darkening action does, just the opposite way. It works on the deepest shadows only and makes them lighter – how much lighter is up to you, there’s the Fade window where you pick the right amount.

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As there's really no point in showing customers black items they can't really see well, it's not reasonable to let the average numbers fall below 20 RGB on average. This is exactly the situation where we sacrifice contrast for details, and that's very reasonable, especially in detail shots.

Black suede

Suede and velvet, especially when black, are the most tricky materials to retouch. If you see something pitch black, with no details at all, you can be sure it’s either suede or velvet. This is how these materials look when they come from the photographers. If nothing is done at the retouching stage, it will look the same on the website. If you google “black suede shoes”, you’ll see what I mean. There are a lot of suede shoes out there, and most of them look like black shoe silhouettes. Whatever they are made of, you can’t tell. Before I googled myself, I didn’t expect the overall suede retouching quality on the web to be so low. Most of the shoes are not just too dark, they are dirty, too. Fortunately, my seniors would have never allowed me to produce images like that, so in my time, I had to learn quite a few tricks on how to deal with suede.

Can you even see what's the left boot made of?

Now there might be a possibility that you won't be able to see what I'm talking about. It depends on the monitor you're using. If it's a TN screen, its contrast is usually much lower than that of an IPS screen, so you what looks pitch black on IPS screens has quite a lot of details on TN screens. But the current market is not supposed to please the old-school TN screens users. Quite the opposite, nowadays, most online selling platforms make serious effort to convince users to use mobile applications. Mobile applications mean smartphones and tablets, and the screens used for this kind of devices tend to also be high contrasted. So if you see the images I've shown as pretty good and detailed, it doesn't change the fact that most owners of smartphones, tablets, new expensive laptops and monitors see them as too dark if not pitch black. What we're trying to achieve is that all the users, no matter what kind of screen they use, will be able to perceive black items properly. It sounds like an impossible task keeping the diversity of screens in mind, but we can do at least something instead of just leaving things as they are.

It’s not our job to prepare items and it’s not our job to photograph them. So we’re not the only people responsible for the look of suede, but we’re responsible for the final look. It means that if you’re not happy with the quality of preparation, you have to speak out, otherwise, you’ll have to spend a lot of time removing all the dust and dirt. Prior to the shooting, all the items should be cleaned, and suede has to be brushed so that all the tiny strands face the same direction, or it will look spotted. With proper preparation, it won’t be such a big deal, retouching black suede and velvet and all, but lack of cleaning can be troublesome. And this is why: photography stands are usually set up in a predetermined way. If most items are exposed normally with the default settings, black suede will always come out underexposed, as it requires much more light than normal materials. Photographers usually do not bother with things like that, so do not expect them to give black suede any special treatment. What we basically want from photographers is just that they don’t blow out the shadows, as it’s a major flaw. Images like that should be discarded. So if suede is clean and brushed and then photographed in such a way that no shadows are blown out, you’re fine.

Most of the time it’s neither brushed nor cleaned properly anyway. After having a look at all the random black suede shoes from many online stores, I see it’s a common problem. Probably retouchers think something like: “If no one bothered to clean these shoes, why should I bother?”, and that’s why they just leave things as they are. But this is not the way how I work and think. So let me show you how to deal with black suede so that you see for yourself, that it’s not as troublesome as it looks. And even in the worst cases, it’s quite bearable and can still be retouched in under 5 minutes.

For the practice part, I’ve got some of the nastiest black suede I could find. Remember when I said it had to be cleaned and brushed prior to the shooting? Well, forget about it. What we have here are not just lacking preparation, these things are second-hand, too. If you can work with these, you can do anything.

A typical random online store suede shoe. Too dark to see a thing

I ask myself: “Why do retouchers just leave suede as it is, why don’t they at least try to reveal some of its texture?”. The answer is actually pretty evident. When you try to reveal the texture, what gets revealed is all the dust and dirt on the material, and there’s plenty of it. Have a look yourself. It’s hard to reveal something hidden in the dark.

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See this outline of a shoe? It’s actually made of suede. If I try to use the Curves to reveal the texture, you’ll see that I either brighten the whole thing, which is not good, or the contrast drops significantly, which is also not good. And if I reveal it properly, which I can easily do with one of my actions, you’ll see how much dirt comes out with the texture. Well, this is the suede problem: it’s dark and it’s dirty, it’s spotted, it doesn’t want to reveal itself. That’s why most retouchers just leave it so dark – they don’t want to spend much time fighting with all these defects. But let’s see if it’s possible to fix it fast.

Let’s specify the methods we’ll going to use to fix all the little problems that arise after we reveal the texture. First of all, we need to lighten it until it’s at least 15;15;15 on average, otherwise, it will be just an outline of an item. You know how to do that already: just run the action and pick the right amount of fade. Then we need to reveal the texture, that is – increase the local contrast so that you can see the fine details of the material. We’ll get to this part soon. And it is expected that if there’s some dust, dirt, spots, scratches and so on, all the defects will come out, too. How can we deal with them? If we have dust, we’ll use Dust & Scratches. If we have spots, we’ll use Frequency Separation to smooth them out. If we still can’t get any texture, or it’s so dirty we have to kill it, we’ll simulate suede with Noise or Grain.

Now let me show you this sequence in Photoshop. This is a very good example of black suede shoes straight from the camera. So even when I zoom in, I can’t see anything except white spots and lots of dust. I’ll just do it very quickly now so that you can see it can be a fast process, don’t worry, I’ll tell everything in great detail just a bit later. Step number one, make it brighter. I’ll use the respective action and I’ll set it to 30%, looking at the numbers – it will make the whole surface reach 20 points, which is enough. Then I’ll use the suede extracting action, that will make a separate layer with whatever it managed to extract. It takes a while for it to work, and now I’ll check if it grabbed some parts of the boot that are not made of suede, like the heel. I’ll quickly erase all the unnecessary parts. Then I’ll zoom in and see if it brought us too much texture – if it did, I’ll decrease the opacity of the layer until it looks natural. Sometimes it looks unnatural, it really depends on the item. In this case, 70 percent opacity is enough.

After that, I’ll select the contents of the new layer and merge it to the background, while the selection is still active. This is the area I’m going to use the Dust & Scratches filter on. Merging the layers is important, as the dust is mostly left in the Background layer. I zoom to 100% scale to be able to see what it actually does. This time I use Radius 5, Threshold 14 – it might be different each time. Watch it with the seams! It’s okay if the Dust & Scratches affects them a little bit, but they still have to look normal. Now let’s deal with white spots. I’ll use the Frequency Separation instead of just stamping them – because I might as well work on other parts of the boot. The selection is still active as I run the action. Then I’ll just Ctrl-click on the low frequencies layer so that I won’t affect the background in case the brush is too big and soft. I use a normal Brush at 50% opacity and I pick the color sample from a nearby spot. It allows me to quickly paint over the white spots. I can also use the high frequency layer to deal with some small blemishes if I have to. Time to resize! In catalogue retouching, we always make images smaller, so let’s have a look at the final result. If there’s still something I don’t like – well, I can always fix it at this stage. Now let’s compare the result with the original image. Look: it’s still black, still dark, but not too dark, you can easily see what’s it made of, it’s not dirty or spotted, and the whole process of retouching took less than 3 minutes. This is how it should be.

But as I said, every case is unique. Sometimes this method won’t work. Sometimes when you reveal the texture, it still looks horrible. I still don’t like the texture, it seems as if the boot is dirty. It has absolutely no volume, it looks totally flat. So as a last resort, when there’s nothing else that can be done about the texture, just select the whole suede surface, fill it with a solid color, yes, just like that, and access the Camera Raw filter, which has a very nice Effects tab. I’ll give it a huge amount of Grain – the trick is to pick the right size, same size as the texture. Don’t worry, I’ll fade it in a moment, 35% looks enough. Now look at this boot after resizing: it looks like suede, there are no spots, no dust, no dirt. So what if it’s fake if you can’t make the original thing look nice enough.

Of course, there are cases when you can’t just fill an area with some solid color, so before adding Grain or Noise you should remove the spots and dust first, but in desperate cases just keep in mind, that suede looks quite similar to noise, which is an advantage worth using. Don’t overdo it and no one will ever notice the fake. Our goal here is to demonstrate the goods, to show people what they are made of as they are not able to touch them, they can only look at their screens. So if you add some noise to make suede look like suede, it’s only for the better.

Now let me walk you through the whole process again. This time I’ll be working on some other shoes. Step number one – make them lighter. I’ll use the Shadow/Highlights based action made exactly for this purpose. This time, 30% is enough. As I’m adjusting the Fade slider, I place my mouse pointer somewhere on a flat surface, not in the shadows, but not in bright lighted areas either. I’m keeping an eye at where my mouse pointer is and I look at the Info panel. There are two sets of numbers for each channel, but I’m only interested in the latter. This is what my result going to be when I apply Fade, the first number is the effect at 100% opacity. I want it to be around 20, but not lighter, as suede is a very dark material, there’s no point making it any lighter than that. Then I’ll use my suede extractor action. I made it many years ago, around 2012, so it’s architecture looks a bit weird now, but it works, so I just left it as it is. What does it do?

First of all, it selects a Color Range, and the range includes all the darkest areas of the image. It copies what it managed to select and applies the red channel of the same image, as this is the channel where most of the suede texture can be found. Then it gets sharpened with the Unsharp Mask filter, and the texture pops out. Then there’s a double strike of Shadows/Highlights and Selective Color set in such a way so that it increases the contrast of the texture without actually making it lighter or darker. Then the layer blending mode is changed to the Luminosity, as it’s black and white, and we want to keep the original image color. Then there’s a smart “Blend if”modification, so that all the dust that was revealed in the process just goes back to where it belongs – to hell. The result is a new layer with a new texture, and this layer has to be modified a bit, as automatic things never work perfectly.

There’s a chance, of course, that you’ll love the result as it is. It happens sometimes when the images are not dirty. In case it happens, all you have to do is just flatten the image and that’s it.

But most of the time you have to do two things. First is to erase all the parts of the shoes that are not made of suede, such as soles, seams or this leather bow tie – to remove them from the new layer. The result can also be made more transparent if the effect is too great – just reduce the opacity of the layer. Now, this layer can be turned into a selection to get the suede surface – there’s a great chance you’ll want to apply the Dust & Scratches to it. If not, why erasing anything at all? Don’t forget to merge the layers before using the Dust & Scratches filter, or it won’t work as intended.

After that, you should deal with the spots if there are any. If you still have the selection active, you can use it to do the Split Frequencies, or in simple cases, you can just use the Clone Stamp Tool. When you fix all the major flaws in the image, resize it to match the final resolution and check if the texture looks natural. Not all the images can be retouched easily like this one though. Sometimes you’ll need drastic measures.

Let’s have a look at this bag, for example. It’s extremely spotted and dirty, most of the texture is out of focus, so there’s no chance you can get away with simple retouching techniques here. What I think would be useful here is to split the process into two parts. For now, I won’t be paying any attention to this big surface here, as it’s really awful looking and nothing can be done about that. I’ll just work with the rest of the bag. So, as usual, I’ll lighten it a little bit and use the texture revealing action. The resulting layer is a bit too much, so I’ll decrease its opacity and then just flatten the image. Next step is to get rid of the spots. I’ll do the Frequency Separation and quickly paint over the spots, still ignoring the big surface. Then it’s time to get rid of the dust. There’s not too much of it, so I’ll just use this old Dust & Scratches with the History Brush trick. First, I’ll apply the Dust & Scratches on the whole image to remove all the dust but leave the suede texture intact. Then I’ll set the History Brush source at this step and go one step back in History. This way when I paint with the History Brush, I’ll be applying the Dust & Scratches effect to where I paint. It’s faster than the Healing Brush and I don’t need to make any selections. Now my work is done and I can start working on the area I’ve been ignoring so far.

The deal is that it’s too messy to try and fix with normal methods. So I’ll just grab the Polygonal Lasso and select the whole area excluding the seams. Then I’ll switch to the Quick Mask mode and use the Gaussian Blur filter to blur the edges of the selection. Good, now I’ll quit the Quick Mask mode and fill the whole area with solid color. This time it’ll work, as the area is quite even. If it’s not, I’d better use the brush and paint it manually while preserving the tone of the area. Like this – so that the right side is a bit darker than the left. I’m using 40% opacity brush for more flexibility. After the whole thing has been covered with solid color to remove all the spots and dust, I’ll use the Camera Raw filter on the selected area.

Here I’ll go to the Effects tab, which can be accessed by pressing the Fx button. Time to add some grain. To do it right, I set the amount to 100% and start playing with Size first, Roughness next. This particular suede is rough, so the grain size has to be pretty big to simulate it. I’ll keep the amount at 100% and then just Fade the result to something about 30 percent. That’s it, now we can resize the image. You can see that it looks pretty decent now. Initially, it was very dirty, it looked old, you couldn’t tell what it was made of. Now it’s clearly suede and it’s not really evident that most of it is fake. This is how it works. It requires some experience to be able to quickly determine what to do, how much opacity, how much fade to apply each time, but if you get the whole idea, black suede won’t be a problem anymore. When I see how quickly I can stop black suede items from looking shabby and dirty, I really enjoy every moment I spend achieving this result.

If you're not really in the mood for serious retouching, or if you have to retouch 500 images in one day, there's a quick and dirty method that you can use to reveal a bit of texture. Just press Ctrl-Shift-A to access the Adobe Camera Raw filter and use the Adjustment Brush with Clarity set to something between +50 and +100 on the texture in need of revealing. The dirt and dust get also revealed in the process, so immediately after you press OK and apply the filter, press Ctrl-Shift-F to access the Fade window and set the blending mode to Darken. In this mode, the results of the ACR filter will only be applied if they make the image darker. So all the light spots should disappear.

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Black velvet

Now let’s face the toughest material of them all – velvet. It’s as nasty as suede, but can be even more dirty, and there’s little chance that you’ll be able to fake it with a bit of grain. The problem with velvet is that it can be really glossy when light hits it directly, but in the shade it is always pitch black. What we did to suede won’t work with velvet. But there’s also a good side of velvet: sometimes you can just leave it black as it is, and it will look good. See this image.

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It’s a velvet dress. Most of it looks very dark – if I drag the Eyedropper Tool around, you’ll see it’s about 10 points on average. In most cases, we would have to lighten the material until it’s about 20. But not in this case! Velvet is an exclusion. Lightening it up won’t do any good – it will lose contrast and won’t gain anything. When you see the image as it is, you can immediately see that it’s made of black velvet, because of all the nice glossy glares on the sleeves and everywhere. So, in this case, we don’t have to make it any lighter, as it would just spoil everything. But you can try revealing the texture even more. This one looks better when I keep the upper layer opacity at around 50%. Do not start cleaning the dust until you resize – most of it will go away just with the resizing step. Now just a bit of Healing Brush clicking and we’re done. Not all the images are going to be so easy though.

Let’s see what we can do about this shoe. It’s also pretty decent. You can see it’s made of velvet straight away. It’s well exposed, so we don’t have to lighten or darken anything. We can try and reveal the texture with the action, but it doesn't seem to work well. Because in this particular case, we don't need to brighten the darkest areas and reveal the texture. On the contrary, there's this low contrast area on the side of the shoe, and we only need to reveal texture there without messing up the rest of the shoe. In this case, the Clarity Adjustment Brush will work perfectly. Access the Camera Raw filter and use the Adjustment Brush with the Clarity slider set to something about +80 on the texture in need of revealing. It immediately looks much better and doesn't require you to erase anything or reduce opacity because we only applied the effect to a particular spot where we wanted it.

There’s a black stripe in the toe area, not sure where it came from, but it can be easily removed with the Clone Stamp Tool. The rest I’ll do after resizing. Basically it’s a bit of healing and stamping and nothing more. Pay attention to the fact that I didn’t bother to do anything with this extremely dark area here, on the toe, as it reaches 10 points in average which is enough in case of velvet. It also brings contrast to the image, and there’s nothing but dust inside there anyway. Easy, right? But sometimes you’ll get really nasty images.

This one is a close up of a black t-shirt, and the print is all velvet. And I assure you, there’s no texture on this print at all, only dirt and dust. I only guessed it is velvet because it’s so much darker than the rest of the t-shirt. What can be done in cases like this? Pretty much nothing. Just clean the dirt as well as you can. First of all, I’ll lighten the whole image with the Shadows/Highlights action, as it’s very dark. 30% of Fade is enough. Then the only thing that’s left will be just resize the image and work with the Healing Brush and the Clone Stamp until it’s not dusty and dirty anymore. Now, why won’t I start fighting with the texture revealing, noise or grain adding, dust and scratching and so on? Because my experience tells me that I will just lose time and won’t achieve anything, it’s just not worth the effort. Even if I add noise, it won’t look any better being so dark. And I can’t make it lighter, because it’s supposed to look darker than the black cotton t-shirt. Dirt and dust – this is the problem here, and I’ll just deal with that. There’s no point spending three or more minutes on something that will not achieve any result.

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You can download the images for practice purposes from the gallery above. Each thumbnail is linked to the respective hi-res image, just click on the thumbnails you need to open them in a separate window. You can right-click and "Save link as…" to download images without having to open them first.

Next: Texture revealing in general

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