The MIT study offers a unique opportunity to study the distribution of images. Most of the images that I and other authors collect for our own purposes test or prove a certain point. The MIT dataset, on the other hand, simply gathers together images that might be worked on professionally, whether dull or interesting, without respect to topic or category. For my own testing I chose 150 of these images at random. That’s enough to draw valid conclusions as to how often we see certain things.

Granted that these 150 images likely represent something like the distribution one would find in a professional retoucher’s real life, I can’t say that I was too shocked by the distribution of subjects, which I listed here, nor was I particularly surprised by the finding in the same post that PPW gets superior results close to, but not quite half the time. The MMM action was valuable in well over half of all images. On the other hand, it made a decisive difference only in around half of that half. This led me to ask myself why it was so effective in these images and less so in others. I learned a lot from the answers and in the next round of documentation I hope add this information.

Let’s start with a quiz based on these selections.

*How often do you think an image divides neatly into two parts, one more important than the other? I will call these “foreground and background” because that’s what they usually are, but any other obvious division into two parts is acceptable. Furthermore, for the sake of argument let us say that whichever half of the image is clearly more important shall be referred to as the foreground, even if it is in fact the background.

*In images like these, professionals often enhance the foreground in a way that costs detail in the background. This is considered sound practice, guiding the viewer’s eyes to the more important area. But how often is this undesirable? In other words, how often is the background interesting enough in itself that we should be reluctant to damage it?

The answers, and why they are important, will come at the bottom of the post.

You don’t have to work all that many years in professional retouching before you start to think you’ve seen everything. And, indeed, as far as image challenges goes, it’s hard to imagine now that I could face something completely surprising. Certainly, no single image in the MIT study presented a problem that I hadn’t seen before many times.

There were several cases where the retouching team did unexpectedly badly and a few where I simply screwed up. These cases prove only that we are human beings and have nothing to do with the merits of PPW.

A couple of results surprised me, where I was expecting an easy win for PPW and got something less agreeable, learning something from the experience. I’ll show those in a subsequent post. This time, I’ll talk briefly about the how often certain problems come up. This is an underappreciated topic. When we discover a method that works exceptionally well, it’s easy to overestimate its importance. Who knows how often images come along that would benefit from it?

The obvious example is the Bigger Hammer action. This is our most powerful means of enhancing highlight detail. At its best, it is staggeringly effective. At conferences I work with an image of Niagara Falls and draw gasps from the audience when they realize how it achieves what seems impossible.

That is the sort of this that lulls me into believing something is more important than is actually the case. Of these 150 images in only two cases do I believe that the Bigger Hammer made a serious difference. One of them, the fountains of the Bellagio, is shown in this post. The other was a night scene where the action got noticeably better detail in areas under street lighting. So I’m glad that the action was useful but it hardly is the kind of thing to create gasps of astonishment. I’m happy to have the Bigger Hammer available just in case a waterfall or tsunami image comes long but this study made me realize it is not one of the most important actions in the panel.

Meanwhile, two milder actions, the false profile/multiply set and the Velvet Hammer, proved their merit on many more occasions.

Back to the quiz. For around thirty years I’ve been telling people that they make too many selections. The argument has gotten very complex, with a lot to say on both sides. The origin of my statement, however, was sound. Back in the prehistoric days when computers were very slow and Photoshop not very capable, retouchers still had to work on images that involve a foreground object that the client is greatgy interested in, and a background of lesser importance. My teachings back then were: apply curves that accentuate the foreground. If this costs detail in the background so be it; this is how humans would visualize the scene anyway.

The counterargument: now that computing time is no longer a factor, why damage anything? Why not deselect the background, so that the foreground improves but the background doesn’t change for the worse? I have always replied that the change for the worse is actually an improvement that makes the image more natural and guides the eye to the proper place, and that the client generally prefers moves that accentuate the foreground.

The question was revived in recent years. The MMM action works as described above: a certain area is designated as representing the important part of the image, which is then enhanced at the expense of other things. Gerald Bakker, a student of PPW, came up with a counter-action he called MMM Finetuned. This action, which we incorporated into PPW panel v5, allows enhancement of multiple areas. It has many applications but the most important, in my opinion, is when the image does not match my description above because there is an objection to losing detail in the background. This defies the theoretical principle that concentrating on one area logically implies less concentration on another. Instead, it suggests that there is something so interesting in the background that the viewer should be given the option of appreciating it. This is the principle behind “High Dynamic Range” imaging: instead of improving the foreground at the expense of the background, improve both at the expense of neither.

The quiz, then: of 150 random images, how many neatly divide into two pieces of which one appears more significant than the other? And of these (call them foreground-background shots, even though it could be the background that’s more important) how often is the less significant piece nevertheless interesting enough to justify trying to hold or even augment its detail?

My guess at the outset was that two-thirds of the images—100, that is—would be classified as foreground-background, and of these perhaps 10 or 15 would have an interesting background. This was slightly too conservative: the final count was 102 and 21. So, Gerald’s action has more utility than I would have predicted.


The Picture Postcard Workflow is more than a decade old, but it never really caught fire until the time of Photoshop CS5, when an imaginative Adobe product called Configurator allowed us to store actions in the form of a panel for easier use. Even in those prehistoric times, PPW was highly automated, so assembling its tools into such a panel seemed a natural move. In September 2011, we shared one with friends and classes.

The word spread and adoption was rapid, particularly in Italy. After one revised release to correct some bugs, in March 2012 we saw version 2.0 and the enormous impact of the participation of the panel’s architect today, Giuliana Abbiati. Now many of the actions were scripted and could take user-defined preferences. Important options were added to the Bigger Hammer action, and several others were refined.

The gains in productivity from this panel were a big factor in the decision to publish Modern Photoshop Color Workflow, which came out in 2013––shortly after panel version 3.0, which added many new features, including revamped sharpening, scripting of all remaining actions, new Color Boost and MMM capabilities, and logical grouping of layers with informative names.

Giuliana built on these capabilities with a 3.3 release later that year. Plans for the future speeded up when Adobe announced new architecture requirements for panels for its CC versions. So, when version 4 came out in October 2014 with the new Lesser Hammer and Velvet Hammer actions, among many other improvements, there was one version for Photoshop CC2014 and another for the CS apps.

Almost every subsequent version of Photoshop CC broke the panel in one way or another, and what with various bug fixes we had many minor updates. Version 4.0.5, released January 2015, is the current version for Photoshop CS6. Version 4.1.1, released November 2016, is the current version for Photoshop CC201x.

Or at least they were the current versions until today. It is a pleasure to announce that version 5.0 is now available for download on our free resources page. We’ve been using a beta version for some time. It worked well in an Applied Color Theory class in Atlanta two weeks ago. We’ll be putting it through its paces again in a San Diego class in August.

The PPW Tools panel, version 5. Blue type indicates that the script has user-definable options. A panel manual and hundreds of pages of PDF documentation of each script is accessible onboard.

The PPW Tools panel, version 5. Blue type in the button indicates that the script has user-definable options.

The panel contains hundreds of pages of documentation, full of sample images that show the strengths of each script.

The panel contains hundreds of pages of documentation, full of sample images that show the strengths of each script.

Version 5 has many lesser tweaks and two major additions. First, a Variants functionality permits easy, automated storage of the current version of a file, very useful for those experienced with blending images or those disappointed with the inefficiencies of Smart Objects. With one click, the user decides whether to save the Variant in layered or flattened form, and whether to assign an informative name to it. Each can be reopened as a separate file at any time, or with a single click, all or selected ones can be opened into a single stacked file. The Variants automatically go into a separate folder within the file’s own folder, for ease in deleting all of them when no longer needed.

Second, users may now store their own actions for access within the panel itself. An important gain: actions run from Photoshop’s own Actions panel are equivalent to running each included command separately. Applying a complex action, even by mistake, can therefore flush the entire image history. However, the same actions, when stored in and run from the PPW panel, are seen as a single history state: a Command-Z will undo the whole thing. We supply a starter kit of six custom actions, including useful variants of both the Color Boost and the MMM scripts.

Several of the scripts in the panel have enhancements. The MMM, CB, and MMM + CB each now feature a layer that restricts changes in greens and another that restricts them in blues. The user can increase the restriction, decrease it, or eliminate it altogether.

The Sharpen 2018 script implements new defaults. Unless you choose otherwise, it limits or prevents sharpening of blue objects, useful for those whose work commonly involves skies. Soften Shadows does what it says. The two come as layers, so it’s easy to limit their effects to certain areas.

Sharpen 2018 also assigns halo width based on file size. As with all the extensive sharpen options, this can be overridden either permanently or on a case-by-case basis.

All documentation has been updated as needed, as has the panel manual. The panel carries these PDFs, which amount to hundreds of pages, onboard where they are accessible through the Documentation subpanel. The panel also has an onboard color reference, which gives suggested LAB values for a variety of common objects.

Keeping the panel up-to-date and adding these improvements has been a huge effort for Giuliana, who deserves the thanks of every user. We hope that we will continue to progress, and that you will get lots of use out of this version in the years to come.


The arsenal of weapons that we can deploy against recalcitrant images is powerful and impressive. When used prudently, that is. Assuming that because you have them you are guaranteed to create stunning imagery tempts you to try too hard to make it so. When this happens, as we’re about to see, the weapons, including PPW, are worse than useless. This post will talk about how to identify the images on which PPW is no better than alternate methods.

I have been posting PPW comparisons with a series of 150 images from the MIT 5k dataset. The opponents are five hired student retouchers, plus a sixth “par” version in which each of the five is worth 20%.

Because the images were taken at random, some will surely favor PPW over conventional methods. I wrote about those categories in the previous post, trying to suggest how you could identify images where you would expect good results. For example, pictures of deserts and canyons showed a great superiority for PPW.

The list of images where PPW has only a limited advantage or none at all starts with those whose main issue is incorrect color, such as an unpleasant cast. Other methods have tools just as powerful as PPW’s to correct these, although skill is required to use them properly. My own corrections on such images have a high win rate against the paid retouchers, but that’s experience, not system. If even one out of the five retouchers gets color as good as mine it suggests a limited superiority at best for PPW. More frequently, the par version, the average of the five corrections, turns out to be of good quality. Out of 150 comparisons between PPW and par, 17 were rated ties. Normally this was because the PPW version clearly had better contrast/detailing but the par version clearly had better color. We saw an example of this in an image of a young girl in this post.

4180-default: This image, although it might well be found in an advertisement, offers little chance for creative improvement. There is no reason to suppose that PPW would do better with it than any other method.

4180-default: This image, although it might well be found in an advertisement, offers little chance for creative improvement. There is no reason to suppose that PPW would do better with it than any other method.

The obvious category for which there is no advantage is the simple kind of picture with no technical issue and little room for creativity. Here’s one original, as received by the retouching team.

You’d never find so boring an image in a color correction class, but they do pop up from time to time in advertising work. Consequently its presence in the set, which is supposed to showcase typical images that a professional might encounter, is appropriate. I see no poimt in showing any of the corrected versions. I am losing little sleep over the fact that my entry did not win.

PPW has a big advantage when colors are subtle, as they are in images of canyons. It also does well when colors need to be intensified but not across the board. If neither factor applies we get to the hardest category to diagnose: when the scene contains many brightly colored objects and there is no reason to pay more attention to one than another. The four default images that follow invite the retouchers to create several strong colors. I invite you to predict which one(s) PPW will do better on. Getting the answer right is important, because I’m about to show, trying to force an advantage can backfire. I’ll show my versions next to the best of the rest, and explain how I would have answered the question before and after working on each.

2083-default and 2834-default: Both shots feature intense colors. Do you expect PPW to have an advantage in one, neither, or both?

2083-default and 2834-default: Both shots feature intense colors. Do you expect PPW to have an advantage in one, neither, or both?

4182-default and 4199-default: Two more scenes featuring bright colors. How will PPW do?

4182-default and 4199-default: Two more scenes featuring bright colors. How will PPW do?

We should agree at the outset that any reasonable workflow can produce bright colors on demand. If that’s all that’s needed there should be no advantage to PPW, unless one of the following things occur:
*The strongly colored objects are of similar hues that compete with one another.
*The strongly colored objects need to display more detail.
*The entire picture is so colorful that it is helpful to force more neutrality somewhere.
*Certain other colors need to be toned down to avoid competing with the strong colors.
*Certain colors need to be protected from getting more intense.

I wasn’t too clear on these rules when I started these exercises. but I did know enough to predict what would happen on the surfboard shot we’re about to look at.

4199-C: The best correction by any of the retouchers..

4199-C: The best correction by any of the retouchers.

4199-PPW: It's hard to say that this is any better than what the retoucher did.

4199-PPW: It’s hard to say that this is any better than what the retoucher did.

I do not show the average, the “par” result. because a couple of retouchers dragged it down with poor efforts. So my version wins over par, but not over the version of retoucher C. No apparent advantage to PPW.

This came as no shock to me. The surf equipment features lots of bright colors, but they are already well differentiated. The MMM action is therefore not particularly helpful. It’s moved some yellows toward orange, which is not a big deal one way or the other. The colors are basically blobs, not needing much detail, which wipes out another PPW advantage. And although the bright colors are striking, they are well distributed throughout. Most of the image’s real estate is dull and not particularly important, just the thing that makes bright colors pop.

The lack of these factors is why PPW is better on the following image of stuffed animals. This time, the challenger is the par version, which, as it often does, beat all five of the individual retouchers.

2083-par and 2083-PPW: The retouching team's averaged version, left, brought out the bright colors that are surely needed. But the objects lack the shape found in the PPW version at right.

2083-par and 2083-PPW: The retouching team’s averaged version, left, brought out the bright colors that are surely needed. But the objects lack the shape found in the PPW version at right.

Even though the original image was underexposed and muddy, the retouching team had no difficulty establishing the desired strong colors. But these objects are larger. They need more shape, unlike the surfboards. And the reds, yellows, and oranges compete with one another, a problem that did not exist in the previous image. Plus, a much higher area of this image is devoted to brilliant colors than in the other. When everything is colorful, then nothing is colorful.

PPW’s shape-creating tools, channel blending plus the H-K and MMM actions, attack these problems directly and create a more attractive result.

This extra shape is usually available in bright-color scenes. In the surfboard shot it was of no value. In the stuffed animals it was critical. A third category is where the extra shape makes a big difference but the question is whether it’s desirable, and if so, how much. The following image can be interpreted in several ways, so I offer two alternatives to PPW.

4182-par: This image can be interpreted in various ways. Unsurprisingly, the averaged version is correct, but conservative.

4182-par: This image can be interpreted in various ways. Unsurprisingly, the averaged version is correct, but conservative.

4182-B: This retoucher favored a warmer look.

4182-B: This retoucher favored a warmer look.

4182-PPW: The high-contrast look would be hard to duplicate without PPW. The question remains whether it is desirable.

4182-PPW: The high-contrast look would be hard to duplicate without PPW. The question remains whether it is desirable.

If these were submitted to a jury I expect that all three entrants would get votes. Mine, incidentally, goes to retoucher B. My idea was to make the background very dark, hoping that this would make it seem that a spotlight was shining on the girl. It did that, and it would have been hard to duplicate this version outside of PPW.

Some might like this overdramatic treatment. Unlike the other two, which are bland enough, I can see someone actively disliking mine. It’s another reminder that when we get a good idea it is easy to fall in love with it and take it too far. Still, I expect that those who favor one of the other two versions would concede that each would be helped if it moved slightly in the direction of mine. Without PPW, that option was not open.

The final example reiterates what I said at the outset about the dangers of trying to force something to happen.

2834-par: Creating brightly colored clothing is not a problem.

2834-par: Creating brightly colored clothing is not a problem.

2834-PPW: A misguided attempt to tone down all but the brightest colors, a move that worked well in the stuffed animals image.

2834-PPW: A misguided attempt to tone down all but the brightest colors, a move that worked well in the stuffed animals image.

My wretched performance on this exercise came because I decided it was analogous to the stuffed animals image, which was in danger of being overwhelmed by bright, featureless colors. The solution there was to darken and desaturate areas that were colorful yet not the most colorful things. The move added shape and made the strongly colored objects stand out more by comparison.

Trying the same approach in this clothing image was a poor idea. Although the bright colors dominate in terms of jumping to the eye, a large percentage of this image is not colorful at all. There was no point in toning those areas down. All that doing so accomplished was to make it tough for me to get to the attractive bright colors of the par version, colors that needed no help in being distinguished from one another.

We close on this painful note, hoping that it reminds us that when there is no reason to believe that the fancy way has an advantage, stick with the straightforward way.


How Often is PPW Superior? (The MIT 5k dataset 6)

by Dan Margulis February 12, 2018

Almost any method of correcting images works some of the time. For those interested in PPW, or in taking a four-day class on how it works, the question has to be how much of the time. The MIT study we’ve been looking at offers a unique opportunity to answer that question. It shows the real-world […]

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2018 Applied Color Theory Class Dates Announced

by Dan Margulis January 18, 2018

For those wishing to take color skills to the ultimate level, here are the two dates for Applied Color Theory classes in 2018. • ATLANTA, Wednesday, May 16, through Saturday, May 19. • SAN DIEGO, Wednesday, August 22, through Saturday, August 25. These classes—four long days, limited to eight persons—have changed the lives of many […]

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White Point, Dark Point, Auto Tone: The Simplest Move of All (The MIT 5k Dataset 5)

by Dan Margulis December 10, 2017

“And yet,” I wrote in my first book 25 years ago, “most color correction could be handled by monkeys…a numerical, curve-based approach calling for little artistic judgment…all the advanced techniques are inevitably based on these surpassingly simple ones. The by-the-numbers rules can be stated in a single sentence: Use the full range of available tones […]

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The MIT 5k Dataset 4: More on Averaging

by Dan Margulis November 28, 2017

The previous entry described giving each of five independently corrected versions 20% weight to create a new, “par” version. This can be called a “stupid” blend, in that no notice is taken of the merits of any of the five. Nevertheless, it appears that this average is better than all five of its parents in […]

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The MIT 5k Dataset 3: Effective Averaging Close-Up

by Dan Margulis November 18, 2017

Those interested in quality have always been willing to spend time to get what they considered the best possible results. For some years now I have been suggesting that this is not the best approach in our field. Instead, I have been preaching that it is a better use of time to do the initial […]

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The MIT 5k Dataset 2: The Ground Rules

by Dan Margulis November 13, 2017

The following details the procedures used in evaluating the images in this study. It is posted separately so that I do not have to repeat it every time I discuss results in the future. I went through the set of 5,000 original images and deleted those I thought were of limited interest. I used the […]

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The MIT 5k Dataset 1: Introduction

by Dan Margulis November 11, 2017

This is the introduction to a series of posts I will make based on my work with files that are part of a remarkable archive. Researchers at MIT and Adobe have recently made available the data from a massive project they have undertaken to study what people look for when they correct color. The researchers’ […]

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