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Creating better Graphics for TV in Photoshop CS5

Check out our Photoshop: Preparing Still Images for Final Cut Pro course!

This article will go a long way to banishing the disappointment involved with preparing graphics in Photoshop for TV/Monitor output, and on that you have my personal guarantee. In fact, if you don't see an improvement then you can track me down and I'll take you out to dinner to make up for it. 


Step 1 - Find out what you're making

One thing to always do first is create a Photoshop document that matches the codec standards of the edit you're working for. This might be something you know if not, ask someone who does. 


Step 2 - Use the right Photoshop preset

Never start with the Graphic you intend to use on TV, instead always open a new image that is set up for the correct codec standard.   

New TV Doc


From the New Document Preset options choose Film/TV, then select the correct Preset from the drop-down menu. For this article I am working with DVCProHD 1080p50. Doing this ensures that your image is the correct size, resolution (all TV images are 72 dpi) and also the right Pixel Aspect Ratio for the edit your Graphic will be added to. 


Step 3 - Select the correct Color Space

None of the Photoshop Film/TV presets automatically select a Color Management option, however you'd be better to do so. 

Color Space


For a Standard Definition Edit (DV NTSC/DV PAL etc) use SMPTE-C. For High Definition Edits use HDTV (Rec 709). 


Step 4 - Use the Safe Guides

Once the Document Presets are done click OK and the document will open to look like this. 

new Doc opened


The background options are up to you. I prefer to work with a transparent background as it gives the editor more options around compositing your graphics into the edit. 

Notice the Cyan colored guides around the edge of the screen. The outer line marks 80% of the total image and represents the Action Safe area of your Graphic. Put simply you should keep any key design areas within this area as they may be cropped on some TVs. 

safe zones


The inner line represents the Title Safe at about 60% of the total image. This area should contain all readable text for the same reason. These guides are very important and I'd recommend keeping them visible. If you want to turn them off at any stage however, choose View > Show > Guides and uncheck them.

guides on/off


Step 5 - Start adding graphics

Here I have opened an image intended for use as a Background in my Graphic. 

background pic & Square Pixels


What's really important to note is that this image uses square pixels, like any Photoshop image. That's great for PC monitors. TVs however, display rectangular-shaped pixels so as soon as you insert a Photoshop image into the edit, the TV will naturally stretch the image, causing the first major problem for us. To make things even more complex, different video codecs display different ratios of rectangular pixels! 

background pic into Graphic


Dragging the image into our new TV-ready Photoshop document however does a very clever thing: because I used a DVCPro HD preset, Photoshop CS5 already compensated for the pixel shape mismatch! Good Photoshop. 

turn off pixel aspect ratio


To see exactly how clever Photoshop CS5 is, go to View > Pixel Aspect Ratio Conversion and switch it off. The original square pixel image is revealed in all its terrifying glory. Photoshop adjusts all images now added to this document and transforms its pixel shape as appropriate to compensate for the TV screen pixel shape. Brilliant! 

no aspect ratio


Step 6 - Now get the Levels Correct

Keep adding more layers to the TV-friendly document until your design is nearly ready, then we're going to have to do a terrible thing!

TV signals have a restricted luminance range. Instead of Photoshop's usual range of 0 for Black and 255 for White, TV signals use 16 for Black and 235 for White. To best limit your image's range to 16-235, add a Levels Adjustment Layer.

Levels Adjustment Layer


Open the Panel named Adjustments and click on Levels.

16-235 output


Make sure the Levels Adjustment Layer is above all other layers in the layers panel so that it affects them all. Then, set the output sliders up to 16 for Black and  235 for White. 

split screen luma


It will make the image much less vibrant, however it will help keep your image looking the same on both platforms. 


Step 7 - Monitoring over saturated color

As with Luma, Color on TV has a narrower range and should also be restricted to a maximum 235. 

NTSC Filter


You may find that adding a filter named NTSC Colors (Filters > NTSC Color) to each image will produce this fine, however I think it best to go in and make sure. 

To help with this, switch on the Info Panel (Window > Information). This will show you levels of RGB color.

info Panel


Move your cursor around any brightly colored areas of your image, keeping an eye out for anything over 235. 


Step 8 - Removing Over Saturated Colors

Adding a second Adjustment Layer, this time using Hue and Saturation enables the reduction of any overly saturated colors.

Hue and Sat layer


Use the master layer to reduce over all saturation layers, keep using the info Panel to measure the more saturated areas until they measure 235 or less. 


Step 9 - Give Red and Blue a kick

Red and Blue can prove a little trickier for TV signals to handle and might benefit from being reduced further than 235, to as much as 180.  

Red/Blue Limiter


Using the same Hue and Saturation Adjustment Layer, change the Channel selector to Blue and reduce the saturation of intense Blue areas further. Do the same with Reds. 

Low Range Image


As you can see, reducing colors and luminance so dramatically results in a considerable reduction in quality, in Photoshop at least. Bear in mind however that the image is being created for TV where it will look much better. 


Step 10 - Add Text

While images on the Computer Screen can display even the finest lines and strokes crisp and sharp, TVs struggle with thin non-horizontal lines, making them appear stepped. Nowhere is this more apparent than with text, particularly Serif fonts. 

serif font thin


To get the best results from text, stick to the following:

  • Use text no smaller than 24pt
  • Bold Text usually reads better on a TV
  • Sans-Serif fonts are less likely to cause scanning problems 
  • Remember to keep text within the Title Safe guides

San Serif Font 24pt


Step 11 - Exporting a Video-Ready File

You may well be tempted to flatten all your layers and export a JPEG, but to ensure a better result, and give an editor more options to use with your Graphic, try and stick to using .psd instead. 

FCP 7 PSD sequence


A layered .psd will be accepted by After Effects, Premiere, FCP7  and Motion 5 to name just some. The benefit being that each layer will open in the editor as a separate video track or Layer. This would enable the editor to add movement to the graphics, for example. 

layered effect


One thing to bear in mind is what can happen to Photoshop Layer Styles once they get into an edit package: they can get left behind. To prevent this, Flatten all layer styles first. 

In the image above I have added an Outer Glow layer Style to the layers that require flattening. 


Step 12 - Flatten Layer Styles

Create a new layer below the Styled Layer, select the stylized layer and choose Merge Down or press Command-E.

Merge Down


Your Image is now ready for importing into an Editing software, and you can rest assured that the final result you will see on the TV screen will be a much closer match to the one you created on your computer. It may seem like a strange concept to have to make an image look worse in order for it to look better but when it's for TV, thats just what you have to do. 


Check out our Photoshop: Preparing Still Images for Final Cut Pro course!

David Smith

David Smith | Articles by this author

David Smith is Scotland's most qualified Apple and Adobe certified trainer. Having completed his education at Edinburgh College of Art's BAFTA winning Film School, David moved straight into TV production, first as a Vision Mixer then quickly becoming, at the age of just 24, a director of live TV studio productions. In 2001 he moved into Higher Education where he became a lecturer in TV Production, specializing in post-production and live studio production. During this time, and working with the support of the BBC, Channel 4 and independent production companies, David was instrumental in the design, development and implementation of industry-approved vocational courses across Scotland's Colleges. In 2006, after working closely with Apple Computers to create a unique multimedia studio for education at the Music and Media Centre in Perth, David became Scotland's first Apple-Certified Trainer for Pro Apps. This led on to David forming the first Apple Authorized Training Centre for Education, north of Manchester. In 2008 David made the move to full time training and joined the ranks at Academy Class, Ltd. where he continues to train industry professionals as a certified trainer across the Adobe Creative Suite and Apple Pro Apps range.

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