Thumbnail Size


Today’s Question: Perhaps this is an odd question for which there isn’t really an answer, but do you have any thoughts on how big or small I should display the thumbnails for my photos when browsing them?

Tim’s Quick Answer: There are two basic size settings I recommend for browsing thumbnails of your photos. When you are browsing in search of a photo you’re familiar with, I recommend using the smallest thumbnail size you are comfortable with. When browsing to find a photo you’re not so familiar with (or when you aren’t sure exactly what you’re looking for) I recommend using a relatively large thumbnail size.

More Detail: I think the key thing here, which is part of the reason I wanted to address this question, is to remember that most software for browsing thumbnails of your photos enables you to resize the thumbnails. In other words, instead of just accepting the default thumbnail size, adjust the size to suit the specific task you’re performing.

When you are seeking a photo you’re familiar with, you’ll likely be able to identify the image even with a very small thumbnail size. In this type of situation you may have already applied a filter to the images as well, which will further help you identify an image even with a small thumbnail. In this type of situation I prefer to use thumbnails that are as small as is reasonable. In other words, don’t make the thumbnails so small that you’re not comfortable browsing your photos. For each photographer the ideal thumbnail size for this scenario will be different.

When you’re browsing among photos you aren’t quite as familiar with, or that you otherwise can’t easily identify from a small thumbnail, then I think it makes sense to use as large a thumbnail size as you are comfortable with. This will increase the amount of scrolling you’ll need to do as you browse among the photos, but it will make it that much faster and easier to actually locate a particular image.

I also highly recommend hiding all unnecessary software interface elements (such as the panels in Lightroom or Adobe Bridge) while you are browsing among thumbnails. Doing so provides more space for the actual thumbnails, and helps minimize visual distractions that might get in your way.

Pencil Brush Shape


Today’s Question: Sometimes, especially when working on graphic elements in a photo composition, I use the Pencil tool instead of the Brush tool to add or cleanup small areas. When I increase the brush size for the Pencil tool a little bit, the brush shape becomes more of a cross instead of a square, and then it starts to turn into a jagged circle. Is there a way to force the Pencil tool to have a square brush shape when I enlarge it?

Tim’s Quick Answer: The solution here is to use a brush with a square shape rather than a round shape. That will enable you to have a square shape for the Pencil tool at any brush size.

More Detail: The Pencil tool is really just a variation on the Brush tool but with a brush that always has a hard edge to it. The behavior described in today’s question really relates to the fact that the current brush is round, but without a soft transition at the edge. This created the jagged appearance due to the lack of anti-aliasing for the circular shape created with square pixels.

You can, however, employ a square brush. Photoshop even includes a set of square brushes you can use. Start by choosing the Pencil tool, and then click on the brush popup toward the far left of the Options bar (just to the right of the popup for the tool presets). On the brush popup that appears, click on the gear icon at the top-right of the popup. Then choose Square Brushes from the popup. I recommend choosing the “Append” option in the dialog that appears, so that the additional brushes will be added to the existing set, rather than replacing them.

You can then choose one of the square brush shapes that will be available now on the brush popup on the Options bar. Then, when you resize the brush (using the left and right square bracket keys: [ and ]) the brush shape will still be perfectly square, just at a different size.

Note, by the way, that you can get the same behavior as the Pencil tool by using the Brush tool instead, and setting the Hardness value to the brush to 100%.

Organizing an Extended Trip


Today’s Question: I see that you were on an extended trip involving photography in a variety of different locations over the course of multiple weeks. How do you go about making sure that you actually review all of your photos along the way, so that you end up identifying all of your favorites from the trip without missing any important photos?

Tim’s Quick Answer: In general I simply make a point of reviewing all of my photos as part of the overall process of downloading and backing up those photos. However, in some cases I will take an extra step to identify photos that haven’t been reviewed yet, to help make sure I don’t miss any photos in my overall review workflow.

More Detail: To be sure, when I’m traveling on an extended trip, it can be a challenge to keep up with my workflow. In my mind the most important tasks are to download my photos and create an additional backup, so that I know my photos are safe. Secondarily, I try to make sure to review all of my photos as I go, to ensure I don’t miss any images in my review along the way.

That generally means that at the end of each day I download my photos, perform a backup of all of the new photos, and then review all of the new captures in order to identify my favorites. In most cases this is feasible, but on some trips I am simply too busy (or too tired) to complete this review each day.

When I’m not able to keep up with my image review during a given trip, I will add an additional step to my workflow to help make sure I actually review all of my photos. This involves adding an attribute to all images that I have actually reviewed, so I can see at a glance if there are any photos that have not yet been reviewed.

In my case I use Lightroom to manage my photos. I use star ratings as my primary attribute for identifying favorite photos, but I also use color labels for some secondary purposes, such as to mark photos I want to be sure to share with others.

For me that leaves the “pick” and “reject” flags in Lightroom as an attribute I don’t generally use. Therefore, I can use a “pick” flag to identify images I have already reviewed, so that any images without that flag still require review.

This may sound like it adds a bit of complexity, but it is actually quite simple. First, I always sort my photos by capture time when I am reviewing photos, and I actually review my photos in the order they were captured. That means when I’m done reviewing photos for the time being, even if there are more photos left to review, all photos up to and including the current photo have been reviewed.

Therefore, whenever I’m finished reviewing photos in this type of scenario, the last photo I reviewed will be selected. I can then scroll up to the very first photo in that folder, and hold the Shift key while clicking on the thumbnail for that photo. This will select all photos that have already been reviewed. In the case of Lightroom I can then make sure I’m in the Grid view (by pressing “G” on the keyboard) so I can update multiple photos at once, and then I assign a “pick” flag to all of the selected photos by pressing “P” on the keyboard.

In this way, when I’m finished reviewing photos, all photos that have been reviewed will have a “pick” flag, and my favorites will have a star rating assigned. Any images that don’t have a “pick” flag (such as newly imported photos) are the ones I know I still need to review.

Folders for Family Photos


Today’s Question: I have tried some ideas I had for naming folders for my family photo archive. I tried family names. The vast majority of my images have three main attributes. The most common attribute my images contain is people. I expect to be able to provide names for 90% of the people in the images. Another attribute is the place the photo was taken. I estimate I will know location taken for around 50% of the images. Finally, every image was taken on a specific date. In most cases, I’m only interested in the year. I estimate I can provide this date for around 50% of the images. I’m wondering if it’s worth my time to categorize images into folders at all. Why not just put all the images into one folder? If I’m very diligent about populating all pertinent metadata fields and adding keywords, won’t that be the means to locate most desired subsets of images using search?

Tim’s Quick Answer: If the total number of photos is somewhat reasonable (perhaps under around 10,000 images), I would be perfectly comfortable with using a single folder for all of these family photos, depending upon metadata values to locate specific images. If the number of photos is relatively large, I recommend using at least a basic folder structure based on the estimated year for each photo.

More Detail: This question is a great example of the fact that there are many workflow scenarios that might call for a solution that is different from what I normally recommend.

In this case the issue at hand is the folder structure for storing images. In general I recommend using at least a basic folder structure to provide a basic form of organization at the file system level. This ensures you have some degree of organization that goes beyond any specific software you might be using to manage your photos.

Today’s question, however, provides a good example of a scenario where a folder structure may be difficult to implement, and may actually get in the way of organizing specific photos. In that case it may be perfectly reasonable to use a single folder to contain all of the photos being managed for this purpose.

Before deciding to avoid the use of folders altogether, I would spend at least a little time evaluating whether some degree of folder structure might be helpful. In the context of family photos it can be particularly challenging to define an appropriate folder structure. For example, you might initially assume that a folder structure based on generations would work. However, this approach can be problematic for images that contain family members from multiple generations, which is probably quite common within any family photo library.

First and foremost, I recommend giving some thought to how you will think about photos when you are looking for specific images, as well as what approach you might want to take when simply browsing your overall photo library.

For family photos I think it is reasonable to take a completely different approach to folder structure than you might otherwise use for other categories of photographic images. That could include a single folder for all images, or a date-based structure by year (or even decade), for example.

The key is to step back and think about what options might make sense for defining an overall organizational structure that goes beyond metadata values (such as keywords) you might add for the photos. In this case I think some form of date-based folder structure probably makes the most sense, but there are certainly other options that might make sense as well.

Camera LCD Accuracy


Today’s Question: How accurate are the colors on a typical camera LCD panel?  Is there a way to readily calibrate the LCD similar to the way that a computer monitor is calibrated?

Tim’s Quick Answer: Camera LCD displays are reasonably accurate, but not perfect. Unfortunately there is not a way to truly calibrate and profile a camera’s LCD display. In general you are only able to refine the overall brightness (and in some cases contrast) of the display. In most cases you will have few (if any) options for adjusting the color accuracy of the display.

More Detail: As a general rule, I recommend that you not depend on the actual image preview on your camera’s LCD display as an accurate indication of the overall tone or color in your photos. For overall exposure I recommend employing the histogram display. For color, your best option is to capture in RAW (rather than JPEG) so you are better able to refine the color in your photos without risking any degradation of image quality.

Obviously it would be helpful if you could use the LCD display on your camera to accurately evaluate all aspects of the images you capture. Unfortunately that really isn’t the case.

When it comes to color fidelity, I have actually found that in most cases the camera’s LCD display provides a reasonably accurate (and in some cases highly accurate) view of the colors in your photos. Fortunately, if you are capturing in RAW this isn’t a serious concern. For video captures or photos captured in the JPEG format, inaccurate color can be more of a challenge. But again, in most cases the color is reasonably accurate on the LCD display, to the extent that you would know if there was a serious problem with the color of your captures.

Tonal values are a more significant concern in most cases. To begin with, the ambient lighting conditions can have a more dramatic impact on your perception of tonal values in a preview image as compared to color values. Also, the brightness (and possibly contrast) adjustments for the LCD display can have a tremendous impact on your perception of overall tonal values in the images you view on the LCD display.

As a result, I highly recommend that you employ the histogram display on your camera to evaluate overall exposure. When it comes to color, it is generally best to treat the LCD display as a general preview that will be reasonably (but not completely) accurate in terms of the fidelity of colors.

And hopefully one of these days we’ll have the ability to calibrate camera LCD displays much as we can calibrate and profile our the monitor displays on our computers.

Simple Copy for Backup?


Today’s Question: Rather than export as catalog [in Lightroom, as suggested in a recent edition of the Ask Tim Grey eNewsletter], why not just copy the folder with the catalog and the images to an external hard drive? This seems simpler to me and is what I do.

Tim’s Quick Answer: There are advantages (and disadvantages) to both approaches, but in general I recommend the Export as Catalog command as a solution that is less likely to result in an incomplete backup.

More Detail: Today’s question is a follow-up to a question that appeared in a recent edition of the Ask Tim Grey eNewsletter, where I recommended using the Export as Catalog command as a method of creating a full copy of your Lightroom catalog as well as all photos and videos being managed within your Lightroom catalog.

Simply copying the catalog and your image files to a backup location can be simpler and faster. But in my opinion it also introduces a greater risk of user error. There is a chance that not all photos will be copied, for example, if the user neglected to select all folders for copying. I have also had issues where attempting to copy a large number of folders results in errors at the operating system level.

For users who are completely comfortable managing files and folders at the operating system level, I certainly understand that it may be faster and easier to manually copy your catalog and photos. In general, however, I recommend against this approach.

As always seems to be the case, there is more than one possible answer to a given question when it comes to employing technology in your workflow. In general, I tend to recommend what I consider to be the more cautious approach that is less prone to error, even if that approach isn’t necessarily the fastest overall approach.

I would point out, however, that simply copying files from one location to another isn’t always the most reliable approach to creating a backup copy of important files. That is especially true for backing up important files, which is one of the reasons (for example) that I recommend GoodSync ( as backup synchronization software, rather than a manual approach to backing up.

Masked Text


Today’s Question: Is there a way within Photoshop to have text that blends into the image, as though the bottom of the text is somewhat buried in the photo? I assume this calls for a layer mask, but how can you combine that with text?

Tim’s Quick Answer: This effect can actually be created very easily by first adding a layer mask to a text layer and then adding a white-to-black gradient to that layer mask.

More Detail: A layer mask in Photoshop can be used to hide and reveal specific portions of a layer. That generally involves the use of either multiple image layers that are being combined into a composite, or adjustment layers that are being used to apply a targeted adjustment to specific areas of an image. However, layer masks can also be used in conjunction with a text layer.

If the intent is to blend the bottom of a line of text into an image to create the appearance that the text is actually blended into the scene, a simple gradient layer mask can be used with the text layer.

The first step, of course, is to add the desired text layer. With the text layer selected on the Layers panel, you can then click the “Add Layer Mask” button (the circle-inside-a-rectangle icon) at the bottom of the layers panel. This will add a layer mask to the text layer, so that you can hide portions of the text based on that layer mask.

In the case of blending the bottom of the text into the underlying image, you can use a white-to-black gradient for the layer mask. Choose the Gradient tool from the toolbox, or by pressing the letter “G” on the keyboard. Then press “D” on the keyboard to set the current foreground and background colors to white and black, respectively. On the Options bar, make sure the gradient popup toward the left end of the Options bar is set to the first preset, which is the “Foreground to Background” preset. To the right of that popup you will find a set of five style buttons. Click on the first of those five buttons to create a linear gradient.

At this point you can drag within the image to define your gradient. You’ll want to click initially at the point where you want the text to start blending, and then drag and release the mouse at the point where you want the text to be completely hidden. Holding the Shift key will enable you to ensure that the gradient is created in a perfectly vertical line.

If the result isn’t quite right, you can re-draw the gradient to replace the layer mask and adjust how the text blends into the underlying image. Once you’re happy with the layer mask, you can also return to the text to modify any attributes of that text.

Building Distortion in Panoramas


Today’s Question: When doing a panorama of a building, how should I compensate for distortion of the building lines?

Tim’s Quick Answer: There are several approaches here, depending on the specific situation you’re facing. Using a lens with a relatively long focal length and therefore moving a greater distance from the scene can help minimize distortion. Moving parallel to the line of buildings rather than panning from a single position can provide an excellent solution. And a tilt/shift lens may offer an ideal result in certain circumstances.

More Detail: The key with creating a panoramic image of a line of buildings is to minimize the overall distortion in the original captures. If you capture a sequence that translates into severe perspective distortion for the overall composite panorama, it can be very difficult (if not impossible) to resolve that distortion in post-processing. At a minimum, distortion in the initial panorama will require significant cropping.

By using a longer lens focal length and therefore moving a greater distance from the scene in order to capture the frames for the composite panorama, you will also reduce the overall distortion. This approach helps to minimize the reduction in the size of objects out toward the outer reaches of your panorama. That is because this approach reduces the degree of variation in the actual distances between you and the buildings in the scene you are photographing.

Of course, moving a relatively large distance away from a line of buildings isn’t always possible due to the presence of other buildings or obstructions. In that case, changing your position for each capture can help minimize distortion compared to capturing all of the frames from a single position and rotating the camera for each capture.

When taking this approach you will want to use a higher amount of overlap between frames. I recommend overlapping by about 50% rather than the more typical 20% overlap for composite panoramas. It is also important to move in a path that is parallel to the line of buildings you are photographing, so that each capture is created from the same distance away from the “front” of the line of buildings you’re photographing.

This approach of moving the camera position along a path that is parallel to the scene you are photographing can also be helpful when capturing composite panoramas of macro subjects, by the way.

For scenes that are not especially wide, and that you might otherwise be able to capture with no more than about three frames, a tilt/shift lens may provide a perfect solution. After getting the camera setup at the center point of the scene you are photographing, you can then use the shift function of the lens to slide left and right, capturing separate frames for the composite panorama at the far left, center, and far right positions.

Each of these approaches can help you create initial captures for a composite panorama that have minimal distortion to overcome in post-processing. I generally find that the approach of moving the camera for each capture is the most consistently useful option, but the right answer depends on the specific circumstances under which you’re photographing.

Crop to Pixel Dimensions


Today’s Question: I need to crop an image to specific measurements (pixels) on each side [in Lightroom]. I can see the image dimensions in the Library module but the crop tool is in the Develop module. So as I adjust the crop I have no idea what the image side measurements are. Other than switching back and forth between Develop and Library on a trial-and-error basis is there a more efficient solution?

Tim’s Quick Answer: In this case I recommend cropping to the desired aspect ratio for the final pixel dimensions, and then exporting the image sized to the specific pixel dimensions you need for the final result.

More Detail: When you crop an image within Lightroom, you aren’t actually making changes directly to the source image. Instead, you are simply applying adjustment settings within Lightroom, with the preview image updated accordingly. It isn’t until you export an image that the adjustments are truly applied to pixel values. In other words, it is the exported image you want to focus on here.

Therefore, you can think of this as a two-step process. First you can use the Crop tool in Lightroom’s Develop module to apply a crop based on the desired pixel dimensions. Note that if you prefer you can create a Virtual Copy first, so that you are applying the crop to a second version of your master photo.

After selecting the Crop tool, you can click the popup to the right of the Aspect label, and choose “Enter Custom” from the popup menu. In the Enter Custom Aspect Ratio you can then enter the pixel dimensions you want to use for the final image in the two fields provided. Enter the width as the value in the left field and the height in the right field. Click OK to apply the aspect ratio change. You can then fine-tune the overall crop for the image based on the aspect ratio you’ve established.

Next, return to the Library module and click the Export button at the bottom of the left panel. Within the Export dialog you can specify the specific settings you want to use for the image file that will be created as part of this process. In the Image Sizing section be sure the “Resize to Fit” checkbox is turned on. Then select “Width & Height” from the popup to the right of the checkbox, and enter the desired pixel dimensions in the “W” (width) and “H” (height) fields. Make sure the popup to the right of those fields is set to “pixels”.

After confirming all of the other settings you can click the Export button. The file that is created as part of this process will have been cropped and resized to the specific pixel dimensions you needed, based on the settings for the Crop tool and within the Export dialog.

Image Border


Today’s Question: I’ve tried to add a colored border around a photo in Photoshop by using the Canvas Size command. But this adds the color around the Background image layer. Is there a way to get this space added as a separate layer?

Tim’s Quick Answer: The key here is to make sure that the Background image layer is converted to a normal image layer. This will enable you to enlarge the canvas without actually adding pixels to the Background layer. You can then add any color you’d like as a border by adding a layer below the original Background image layer.

More Detail: A Background image layer in Photoshop is really just a “normal” layer with special attributes (which I suppose causes it to not be a normal layer at all). In part this means that the Background layer is locked, so that it can’t be moved and you can’t place other layers below it. By converting the Background image layer to a normal layer you’ll have greater flexibility, including the ability to add canvas area without adding pixels to the Background image layer.

To convert the Background image layer to a normal layer, you can simply double-click the thumbnail for the Background image layer on the Layers panel. In the New Layer dialog you can then enter a new name for this layer (the default will be “Layer 0”) and click OK to apply the change.

At this point if you use the Canvas Size command (found on the Image menu) to change the overall size of your image document canvas without actually resizing the existing pixel layers. Any canvas space you add will be empty space without any actual pixels in that area. Photoshop presents those “empty” areas using a checkerboard pattern, so you can tell which areas have pixels and which don’t.

You can then add a layer below the original Background image layer. For one thing, an existing layer can be dragged into position on the Layers panel. You can also add a new pixel layer below the original Background image layer if you prefer. Simply click on the thumbnail for the original Background image layer to make it active.

Then hold the Ctrl key on Windows or the Command key on Macintosh while clicking on the “Create a New Layer” button (the blank sheet of paper icon) at the bottom of the Layers panel. This will create a new layer below the original Background image layer, and you can fill that layer with any color you’d like to produce the intended border effect separate from the original Background image layer.