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Almost all the retouchers I know hate white things, and for a reason. They are not easy to isolate, it’s hard to get decent contrast with them, they are always full of parasitic tints, and when you finish you never know if it will look good on other monitors. Fortunately, white is not the most popular color in the world, especially in cold countries, as it gets dirty quickly and is not at all practical. But still, we have to deal with white items from time to time.

When I say “white”, I actually mean a part of the tonal range. It seems that a range of tones from 240 to 255 is usually perceived as white. If it’s darker than that, it will look dark gray instead of white. White items also look darker when they are isolated on a totally white background. Pay attention, that when we say “white” in the context of isolating images, we always mean the absolute white, the color that is 255;255;255 in RGB. But when we talk about items, isolated or not, they can be a bit gray and still be white at the same time. I’m sorry, there are not enough words to name all the separate colors in the RGB model, so sometimes we use the same words for different colors. Almost every color is a range of colors, don’t be surprised about that. But now we’re not talking about isolation, so white is not just the absolute white, it can also be a bit gray. But not less than 240, or in some cases, 230, or it won’t be perceived as white by most people. Now let’s talk about numbers and how and where to measure them. In the real world, white is also not just one color. Off-white, ivory, eggshell, snow – these are the names of colors that are like white, but not exactly white. What I want to say is that you don’t have to retouch all the white things so they look alike, as this approach is very wrong.

We need to concentrate on three main goals when retouching white things. Number one is the overall contrast, which is very important so that the items don’t look flat. Number two is that the items stay white, don’t become grayish or very saturated. Number three is that they are not bright enough so that people with average monitors will be able to tell the items from the background. And that’s it. We work on the overall contrast, and after that, if the item looks gray, we lighten it up, and if it looks too bright, we darken it a bit.

It’s not easy to work with contrast on white things though. When you add contrast, they become too dark and look dirty, at the same time, as saturation increases, you get weird color tints. When you desaturate, things look dull and bleak, and when you try to brighten them up, you lose all the contrast. So what can we do?

When you raise contrast, do so in the Luminosity blending mode to avoid excess saturation. It’s only natural that saturation increases together with contrast, but we don’t need this at all. I know that many retouchers prefer to desaturate white items completely. I don’t like this approach, as items have many various colors and tints, you can’t just randomly desaturate things without any particular reason. Some white items have a bluish tint, some look a bit yellow, and it’s completely normal. We don’t want these tints to become very evident, we don’t want to increase saturation, but that doesn’t mean we have to desaturate. I just don’t like the look of desaturated things, but if you have to or you just want to do it – well, you can, it’s not a crime anyway. Sometimes, when things go wrong during a photo shoot, and there are parasitic tints everywhere, and there are white balance problems, if it’s like this, desaturating white things will only do you good. But in normal conditions – I don’t think so.

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Let’s work on a test image so that you can see for yourself all the things I’ve just described. This is a white top. I haven’t done any color correction at all, so this is the way it was shot. I just did the mannequin job and now it’s time to make it look white. It happens quite a lot with white garments, when you see them in ACR, they look decent, but later, when you isolate them on a white background, they look too dark and gray compared with the absolute whiteness surrounding them.

Now I’ll show you the wrong way of dealing with white things. It’s not my invention but I’ve seen a lot of retouchers do it, so it must be some intuitive way. The first thing they do is they try to make it brighter by, for example, accessing the Curves and making a curve bend upward, like this. It made the top much brighter and it doesn’t look gray anymore, but overall contrast is lost and it looks very flat. Next thing they do is raise the contrast, usually by pressing Shift-Ctrl-Alt-L, which is the Auto Contrast command. On white things, the effect is usually disastrous. Then they fade it, of course, to let’s say 20%. Whoops – the top looks dark again! Time to raise the curve again. Hey, where’s contrast gone? Let’s get it back again. Every adjustment likes this brings more unwanted tints into the image, and the result is still far from great. We can go on like this forever, it just won’t work. This method is not good at all if you want your white garments to look decent.

What we want here is to make the top lighter without losing its initial contrast, which is pretty decent for something that is white. There are many ways how to do that properly, I’ll just show a couple of them. The first method is using the Auto Contrast in the Luminosity blending mode together with the Selective Color. I'll just press Shift-Ctrl-Alt-L and I immediately press Ctrl-Shift-F to access the Fade window. Here I'll change the blending mode from Normal to Luminosity – that is to deal with any unwanted tints, and then I'll lower the opacity to something about 10. The whole thing looks darker now, and I’m going to change that by accessing the Selective Color feature. It’s sitting in the Image menu, Adjustments submenu, it doesn’t have a shortcut by default and it’s not easy to find. So I strongly advise you assign a shortcut to it, because it lets you use another powerful feature which is called “Use the last settings”. I usually assign it to something like Ctrl-., but it’s up to you which key you want to use. In any way, you’ll get the Selective Color dialog box. It’s not the most popular tool in catalogue retouching, but it’s extremely useful for at least one thing: making white things whiter without losing contrast too much. So, how can we do it?

Go to the “Whites” in the Colors drop-out menu, and move the “Black” slider to the far left. Make sure the Method you use is Relative, as Absolute is less subtle and not so predictable. Now press OK. If the effect is too much, you can always Fade it, but this time it’s okay. And what’s more important, if I have more white garments to retouch, I don’t have to go through the Selective Color dialog box again. Why? Because instead of pressing Ctrl-. and choosing Whites from the drop-out menu, and then moving the slider, I can just press Ctrl-Alt-. and apply the Selective Color with the last settings used. After pressing OK, I can Fade the changes to have the desired effect.

But let’s get back to the white top. I’ll go back in history and show the whole sequence once again. Auto Contrast first, then fade it to some small opacity in the Luminosity mode. Press OK, then use the Selective Color with the last settings, press OK and then Fade to reach the desired effect. Easy and fast.

Pay attention to the tone of the top. It’s not very evident, but if you measure, you’ll see that it’s darker at the bottom of the image. It’s not much, but we’d better fix it. Clicking a couple of times with a huge Dodge Tool, set at 50%, Midtones, is enough. Now it looks pretty much white, it has shape and our job here is done.

Now I’ll show you another way how to do it, this time even faster. Use the Auto Contrast command and Fade it in the Screen blending mode. You gain contrast and brightness at the same time. The only downside of this method is that you might get some unwanted tints in the process. You can get rid of them by desaturating the whole image – Ctrl-Shift-U does exactly that, but please, do Fade it, as desaturated images are not cool at all.

As I said, before saving the image as ready, check the numbers to make sure the tone is correct. So what if it’s too dark? In this case you can use one of the Auto Contrast methods I’ve already described.

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These two methods, Auto Contrast in Luminosity + Selective Color and Auto Contrast in Screen + Desaturate give almost identical results. So it’s up to you which you like the most. Now let’s answer a very important question: “How do I know when to stop? How much contrast is enough? How white is white supposed to be?”. Please, don’t expect a single solution or some particular numbers, or a predetermined algorithm you can apply to all your images. There’s no such thing! There’s only this: generally, on average monitors, white garments look white if they are colored with certain values in RGB.

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 the Point Sample, or you won’t get relevant results. Most items will look too bright if they are brighter than 250, so make sure your values do not exceed that. Most items will start looking gray instead of white if they are darker than 240, so going darker than that should be avoided. The items should look consistent from the top to the bottom, avoid tonal gradients. By all means, don’t try to make all the white items look the same. Silk is generally brighter than cotton, every garment is unique in color, there’s no need for strict standards here. The more time you spend retouching white items, the better you get the whole idea of how you should treat them. I hope you find the information I’ve just shared useful.

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But what if it’s too bright? What if it was overexposed right from the start? In this case, you have to darken it, and there are some methods more preferable than the others. For a demonstration, I’ll take the original image of the same top. I’ll access the Camera Raw filter by pressing Ctrl-Shift-A and increase the exposure until the top becomes too bright. Now it’s a problem. The contrast is very low, the top melts into the background and this is bad. But in this case, when we have an isolated image, it’s not a big deal. Just do the same thing: first, let’s apply the Auto Contrast in Luminosity mode, as it makes the whole item darker and more contrasted – that’s exactly what we need. Just increase the contrast more this time, make it 25 or something like that. And then we can just use the Selective Color command, fade until you get the desired effect and that’s it. In this case, 75 opacity is enough. Now if I compare this image with the images I’ve made before, you’ll see that there’s practically no difference between them. And that’s good.

But we don't always work with isolated objects and you won’t always have the freedom to tweak the whole image contrast to make white garments look natural. Let’s have a look at the same top shot on a model. We’re not supposed to remove the background here, and we can’t really change much about the whole image. But the top looks too bright, especially at the chest area, it’s hard to see what kind of material it’s made of. Would be nice if we could darken it a little bit. The contrast is not an issue in this case, as it’s only crucial when we deal with isolated items. But how can we darken it without having to make a selection? Forget about the Auto Contrast and stuff like that, it won’t do any good. You might say: “Why not just use Selective Color again? We removed black from white to lighten things up, let’s do the opposite and add some black to white instead”. Sounds like a good idea, but look, it doesn’t work so well in reality. When I move the “Black” slider to the right, it affects the whole image, especially the skin of the model. And this is not good.

Let’s see what else is there in Photoshop to help us fix it. The deal is that the top, being white, is supposed to sit in the rightmost end of the tonal range, that’s where the highlights are. So why not use Shadows/Highlights feature, it’s there exactly for these matters. Okay, let’s try it out. The Shadows/Highlight dialog box hides in the Image menu, Adjustments submenu, same as with Selective Color. I usually assign it to something, as this submenu is huge, it’s hard to find anything there. If you try moving some sliders in the Highlights window, you’ll see that the changes still affect the whole image, which is not good. So I have some bad news for you: you have to make a selection to be able to fix just the top, nothing else. But the good news is actually great news: we’ll do this automatically.

I won’t go into details on how to write an action this time, I’ll just shortly explain how it works: we turn the image into a mask by taking the blue channel, which is usually the darkest, and darkening it significantly. Then we apply Shadows/Highlights through this mask, and it affects the brightest areas, which is the top, and the rest goes untouched. Then you can choose the right amount of fade, which is usually about 15, and that’s it. But be aware that the action might still affect the background a bit if it’s very light. You should also remember that a great deal of Shadow/Highlights applied to an image inevitably leads to posterization, which is a very unpleasant effect. Even if you switch to the 16-bit mode before applying the Shadows/Highlights and then switch back to 8-bit, posterization will still occur. So don’t apply too much of it. Anyway, this is the way to quickly reveal the texture of overexposed white items, just run the action and pick the right amount of fade.

It is, of course, possible to just use the Shadows/Highlights without any actions or any selections, by just accessing the dialogue window and dragging the sliders around. Just be aware that the default settings are not very appropriate for what we do. You might want to change them. This image is an isolated mannequin, and it seems a bit too bright for its own good. So how can I make it darker with the Shadows/Highlights complicated interface? When you access the dialogue window, it offers you to apply 35% of Shadows straight away, and it also thinks that the Color slider should be set to +20, and there should be 0.01% of both black and white clip applied. What does that mean? It means that if you press Enter, your image's shadows will be severely brightened, it will also become more saturated, and your isolation will be ruined as well. My image's background was totally white in the beginning, and now it's not. The background numbers changed from 255;255;255 to 254;254;254. This is absolutely not cool – making something like this without warning. The white clip settings are not even visible unless you click on the Show More Options checkbox.

Doesn't sound like good default settings to me. So if you're ever going to use this algorithm, it is absolutely necessary that you set new default settings to it. Set everything to 0, including the black and white clip. White clip is the thing that turns your background grey if it was white, so it's very important to change the default settings. When you've set everything except for the Tone and Radius sliders to 0, click on the Save Defaults button. Now you can hide all the extra options and use the Highlights slider to make white things a bit darker, and the Shadows slider to make black items brighter. And we'll talk about black items in a short while.

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Despite all the efforts, some people still won't be satisfied with white items when they see them on their monitors. It's not possible to satisfy everyone, we're just trying to satisfy the majority. While some people will not be able to tell white items from the white background, others, on the contrary, will complain they are too dark. It's inevitable, so don't get all disappointed when people tell you your images are no good. If the numbers are okay, you've done all you possibly could. White items around 245 RGB are usually perceived well by most customers.

You can download the image for practice purposes from the gallery above. Just click on the thumbnail to open it in a separate window. You can right-click and "Save link as…" to download the image without having to open it first.

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