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Quick Tip: Photoshop Variations

NB: Variations is not available in the CS5 64bit Mac version.


Variations is the Rodney Dangerfield of Photoshop; it just doesn’t get any respect! I tend to think it’s because there are so many tools that do the same things in Photoshop, and so many that are maybe in more accessible places, that it just gets overlooked. But one thing that Variations is great at is “light” color correction; that is when your photo has a very light color cast and you’d like to keep a bit of the old look, where Curves might make the correction too stark and “new”. It’s a really easy fix, all you need is your eyeballs!

There’s not a huge color cast present, just a bit of yellowing; more like a haze of age which has dulled the brightness one would expect in a new photo. I’d like to lessen the yellowish cast without bringing that bright, shiny “new-ness” into it. Variations are perfect for this. Unlike Curves, which does bring that bright clarity back, all Variations does is introduce a new color into the picture, a new color that can cancel out the color cast. As a matter of course, I usually check all photos that need color correction in Variations, just in case they hold the key to my stunning restoration!

Unfortunately, Variations is not an adjustment layer; that is it doesn’t use a mask on its own layer to make adjustments. Instead, it makes the changes to the layer itself. To prevent the destruction of your original layer, duplicate it before beginning. Once that is done, go to the Image menu, then Adjustments, and then Variations. You’ll see the Variations panel, which will look something like this:

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Now, you simply have to look at all the variations of your image, each with a different hue adjustment, and decide which adjustment looks more the way you’d like it to.  In this case, the blue adjustment seems to be the best choice.  There are other adjustments you can make in Variations, such as choosing between Shadows, Midtones, Highlights and Saturation and a slider which goes from Fine to Course and decides the amount of color to be applied. You can always adjust these settings to see what they do for your image, but the default settings are an excellent place to start. In this case we’ll leave all the settings as they are. If you like the look of your image, you can hit OK to select at any time.

If you’d like to see what other adjustments will do to the look of your image, continue to choose more and look at the two images at the top left of the panel to see how the new adjustments look next to the original. You can always go back to the beginning by holding down the Alt key on PC and the Opt key on a Mac. The Cancel button at the top right of the panel will then become a Reset button. Choosing that will take the image back to its original state. I’ve decided to go with the single blue adjustment, and hit OK.

Of course, a Curves adjustment is a very effective color correction method.

To illustrate the difference in a basic Curves adjustment in which the Black eyedropper is applied to the darkest area of the image, and the white dropper to the lightest, here’s a side by side comparison. I took the opacity of the Curves adjustment down to 60% to make it more natural adjustment.

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Both are more than acceptable color corrections, Variations just retains just a bit of age, makes for a little softer look. It may be, or may not be, the final look you want for your image, but it’s always worth a try!

About Janine Smith (114 Articles)
Janine Smith is the owner of Landailyn Research and Restoration, a Fort Worth, Texas based company whose services include family history research and photo restoration. Janine honed her skills in restoring badly damaged photos as a volunteer with Operation Photo Rescue, a non-profit organization whose mission is to repair photographs damaged by unforeseen circumstances such as house fires and natural disasters. <br> Janine’s work is well-known in the world of genealogical and historical societies, museums, libraries, university archives, and non-profit organizations; appearing on the board of directors for several organizations and institutions. She is a sought-after lecturer on photo restoration and preservation to libraries, genealogical and historical societies. <br> In addition to being a Lynda.com author, Janine is the author of many articles on research and restoration appearing in newspapers and magazines, both on and offline. Janine's history and photo restoration columns appear regularly on TipSquirrel.com and in the popular Shades Of The Departed Digital Magazine. <br> Janine is the winner of the 2010 “Photoshop User Award” in the photo-restoration category.

3 Comments on Quick Tip: Photoshop Variations

  1. Variations is gone from CS-5, 64 bit…..but exists in CS-5 32 bit. It also won’t be present on Lion on the Mac. ANOTHER good thing Variations did was help give a “hand-colored” look to sepia toned photos.
    The coloring was subtle if you just clicked once and looked like those old transparent photo oils.

    I sure hope Photoshop doesn’t decide to get rid of it forever. (Remember Image Ready?)

  2. This “was” my favorite color adjustment tool!
    I hope someone can create a Filter to work as well.

  3. Hi Norman! Yes, it’s sad for Mac users not to have Variations in their color correction options, but luckily Windows folks still have it! I don’t use it an awful lot, but it’s nice to have the option there when I want it!

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