Photoshop can provide magical transformations to images, making them unrecognizable from the original, but sometimes what you really want is simply to make an image look the same as the original — only better. Perhaps the colors are a little too warm, or the shadows a bit inky. Whatever's wrong with the image, the last thing you want is to change it so much that it looks like it's been processed more than a freeze-dried floral arrangement. You'd be happy to have everyone admire your image without a clue that you'd made major corrections in Photoshop.

Photoshop's Variations feature is a variation (so to speak) on the professional photographer's ring around (a set of color prints, each made with slightly different color balance) or test strip (a single print of an image made so that each section is shown using a different color balance). Both tools let you view several renditions of an image and choose the best one visually by comparing them. You might want to use Variations when you're unsure about exactly how the color is biased, and would like to compare several versions of an image to see exactly what the color cast is.

Although not as sophisticated as some color correction techniques, the Variations feature has the advantage of being quick and simple, and it doesn't require a lot of training to use.

Following are the components of the Variations dialog box:

  • In the upper-left corner is a pair of images — the original image and the image as it will appear when the corrections are applied.
  • Below these thumbnails is a set of six variations on the original image, each with a fixed amount of correction applied using (clockwise from upper-left) green, yellow, red, magenta, blue, and cyan. In the center of this ring is the current version of the image.
  • At the right edge of the dialog box is a stack of three thumbnails showing a lighter version of the image (at top), the current version (in the middle), and a darker rendition (at bottom).
  • In the upper-right corner of the dialog box is a control area that includes radio buttons that let you choose shadows, midtones, or highlights for your correction, as well as saturation. Beneath the buttons is a slider that controls whether your correction will be subtle (Fine) or dramatic (Coarse).
  • Four buttons also let you save the corrections you've made for use with the same or another photo, load settings you've already stored, apply the current corrections (by clicking OK), or forget about the whole thing (by clicking Cancel).