Easy Video Editing in Photoshop. Yes, Photoshop.

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My daughter, Nicole (I call her Nicky), is in grad school in a different state. During one of our phone calls, I was complaining to her about the poor quality of video I shot while sightseeing in New Orleans. Admittedly, I don’t use a decent video camera -- just the video mode of my beat-up 3.2 megapixel Canon PowerShot -- but the results are usually good enough for my personal Web site. I told Nicky, “The one I took of the Brennan’s waitress making Bananas Foster is way too dark; you can’t see what she’s doing. And the one I took of the white alligator at the aquarium is all blue.”

Nicky’s the digital video expert in the family, so I thought she might volunteer to fix the movies for me. No offers were forthcoming, though.

I let fly a hint like a stealth missile: “If these were just regular photographs, I could fix them in Photoshop in a second -- run a little adjustment layer or something. Is there a simple command in one your video programs, like After Effects or Final Cut, that could fix the alligator’s color cast?”

Still no response. I was about to ratchet the conversation up a notch (“Remember when I gave you life? And the months when I sustained you with milk from my body? Coming back to you now? Okay, now about these videos that need fixing...”) when Nicky headed me off at the pass.

“You could fix those in Photoshop,” she said. “The Standard version can't do it, but Photoshop Extended CS3 and CS4 let you run any adjustment layer or filter you want on video.”

Now it was my turn to be silent. I had Photoshop Extended, since that's the version that comes with Creative Suite Premium, but I thought the Extended features were limited to counting paramecium in slides and reading X-Rays.

That kid knows how to get me: Tell me about an Adobe software feature I needed but didn’t know existed, and I’m champing at the bit to get off the phone and fire up the software. “Thanks, hon!” I said. “See you at Christmas. Bye!”

Figure 1. Not sure if you have the Extended version of Photoshop? Look at the splash screen as it starts up, or choose About Photoshop if it’s already running.It Begins with a Video Layer
I’ll spare you my initial failed attempts to work with video in Photoshop (such as choosing “frames to layers” -- don’t do that unless you like working with 500 layers) and instead describe the few simple steps involved. Just keep in mind you’ll need either Photoshop CS3 Extended or Photoshop CS4 Extended to follow along.

The first step is to bring the video in on its own layer, called a Video Layer. In Photoshop, choose File > Open and double-click on the video you want to work on. It automatically appears in the Layers palette as a Video Layer, complete with a thumbnail of the first frame and a cute little filmstrip icon.

Figure 2. Here’s the “before” version of my dark Brennan’s movie after opening it in Photoshop as a video layer. On top is the first frame of the video in a new Photoshop document, and below that is what its Video Layer looks like in the Layers panel.

To import a video into an existing Photoshop file, choose Layer > Video Layers > New Video Layer From File, and then choose your video in the Open/Save dialog box.

In either case, when you’re in the Open/Save dialog box hunting for the video, make sure “All Readable Documents” is selected at the bottom of the dialog, or the videos may be grayed out. Photoshop can open most common digital video formats, including MOV (QuickTime), AVI, MPEG-1 and MPEG -4, and even FLV if Flash Professional is installed.

It’s important to note that Photoshop is not actually importing your video. It imports a high-res preview of the file. Because that preview is smaller in file size than the video, experimenting with effects is fast. It’s only at the end of the process, when you render the video out to QuickTime video format (from the File > Export menu) that Adobe applies your changes to the video. And even then, they’re applied to a copy of the video, leaving your original intact.

Play the Video in Photoshop
It wouldn’t be much fun to work with video if you could only look at the first frame. You can play the video with the controls in the Animation palette (Window > Animation), which opens up in Timeline format, like a full-blown video editing program.

Figure 3. When you’re working with a Video Layer, the Animation palette transforms itself into a Timeline palette by default. Drag the blue button at the top (the Time Indicator) to move to any point in the video, or just click the Play button lower left (or press the Space bar) to play the video right in the Photoshop document window. This is the Animation palette from Photoshop CS3 Extended. Click on the image to see a larger version.

When you play the video in Photoshop CS3 Extended, you can’t hear audio. (Don’t worry, it will be there when you export the modified video back out to QuickTime.) In Photoshop CS4 Extended, Adobe added the ability to hear the audio while the video is playing.

Figure 4. In Photoshop CS4 Extended, click the speaker icon to the right of the navigation buttons (in the bottom left corner of the Animation palette) to hear the audio track while the video plays. Click on the image to see a larger version.Work with Video Like a Still Image
This is when your experience modifying still images in Photoshop comes in. Just about anything you can do to a normal Photoshop layer, you can do to a Video Layer. And Photoshop applies what you do to every frame in the video.

This includes all the options from the Image > Adjustment submenu (Color Balance, Channel Mixer, Shadow/Highlight, etc.). Most items from the Select menu are also available. You can add Adjustment Layers for non-destructive color/level correction. You can even add a Layer Mask to the Video Layer, or mask the video with a vector path or custom shape! Seriously, the mind boggles.

My needs were more simple: I only wanted to lighten a too-dark video. For a too-dark photo, I’d add a Curves adjustment layer. So that’s what I did, right above the Video Layer.

Figure 5. You can use almost all of your Photoshop skills and tools to improve videos, such as Adjustment layers.

But then, I hit a speedbump. As I fiddled with the curves in the dialog box, I saw only a preview of how my adjustment would affect the first frame, which wasn’t that important to me. What I really wanted was to make the waitress’s face and smile more visible during a funny bit in the middle.

No problem. I cancelled out of the Curves Adjustment Layer dialog box, dragged the playhead to a frame where she looked up from the pan, and opened the adjustment layer again to make sure the curves were good on that particular frame. I knew that this curves adjustment would apply to all the frames in the video, but moving to an important frame before making the adjustment helped me focus on what I wanted to achieve.

Figure 6. Here’s the frame I wanted to optimize the most before the Curves adjustment (top) and afterward (bottom). The “fixed” version is still dark, because I shot it on the terrace at night, but at least now you can see what the waitress looks like.

Since this video wasn’t for a client, just to share with my family and friends, I was satisfied and exported it to video by choosing File > Export > Render Video.

Figure 7. The Render Video dialog box is monstrous, but I simplified by leaving everything other than name and destination folder at the default. For more control over the final video, click on the Settings button. Also, note that you can render just part of the video (Range: Currently Selected Frames) if you want to test your settings. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Want to see the final result? Here’s the before and after of my Brennan’s video, about a minute long (click to play). I didn’t include the final JPEG snapshot of the dessert poured out of the sauté pan and onto a huge bowl of vanilla ice cream. That’s in my food porn folder, which you aren’t allowed to see.

Pushing it Further: Spots, the Wonder Alligator
Remember that white alligator video I mentioned at the beginning? It had a strong blue cast, as a lot of underwater photography does. The color cast was doubly obvious because the alligator (whose name is Spots) lacks the usual pigmentation and is an eerie white.

Spots usually stays so still that aquarium visitors think he’s made of wax, but something about me piqued his interest. I shot some cool video of him swimming right up to the glass to check me out.

Here are the before and after videos (click to play):

This Layers panel shows what I did to get rid of the blue cast:

Take another look at that Layers palette. Notice the Smart Filters layer? Yep, you can convert a Video Layer into a Smart Layer, and then apply non-destructive Smart Filters to it. Amazing.

For fun, I applied the Crystallize filter to the video (I hid the filter before rendering the color-corrected “normal” video above), then exported just a brief portion of it back out to video. Click to play:

I can’t remember when I had so much fun in Photoshop. And it's great to know that I can leverage my image-editing skills on this new class of media without buying another program. It's small potatoes compared to professional video editors, but for right now, what Photoshop Extended lets me do with videos is just what I need.

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