While my advice is specific to ACDSee, I suspect that there isn't an enormous difference between the adjustment brushes in other software, so if you use different software, some of this info might be useful to you. Assume I am working in the “Develop” tab for the purposes of this post. Some of this advice might be useful in the bit mapped “Edit” tab brushes as well; but assume I'm talking about the Develop tab.
What Are the Develop Brushes?
Remember, these brushes are really just masking brushes, they are not cumulative in nature, and they don't change anything while drawing the mask. Once an area is masked at 100% (i.e. not feathered), it is masked, and it won't matter if you go over it again by accident, though feathered areas will become less feathered.
In ACDSee Pro 7, there are Develop Brushes in the “Tune” and “Detail” sub tabs fond in the Develop Tools column of the Develop Module tab. See photos:
Above: This illustrates the Develop Brush found in the “Tune” Sub-Tab of the Develop tools. Note that it allows the user to control all aspects of exposure for the area selected by the masking brush. Also note that the user can control the brush size and the feathering size.
Above: This illustrates the Develop Brush found in the “Detail” Sub-Tab of the Develop tools. Note that it offers a simplified sharpening tool to control overall sharpness for the area selected by the masking brush. Also note that the user can control the brush size and the feathering size.
Pay particular attention to the row of seven check boxes just under the brush controls. This allows the user to create as many as 7 different masks for a given photo, allowing that user to logically split up the photo into as many as 7 different exposure or sharpening areas for selective exposure or sharpening.
The flow of work is to draw the mask and THEN make the adjustments. You don't have to worry about doing both at the same time or of the cumulative effects of double stroking an area. Though I would suggest making the changes for a single mask before moving on to a different mask.
Pressing the Left mouse button applies the mask, Pressing the Right Mouse button removes the mask.
Specific Hints on Using the Brushes
Adjust overall development (for exposure, base level sharpness, etc.) for the thing that's most important to the photo overall. Get the stuff 'right' for the thing people will notice first. Imperfections elsewhere will be less noticeable that way.
Crop before using adjustment brushes unless you TRULY have no idea where you want to go with cropping. I can't see doing adjustments to stuff you intend to throw away. Adj brushes are easier to use than many other methods to get where you want to go, but it isn't mindlessly easy either, why make extra work for yourself?
Don't be afraid to zoom in and out of the photo as you use the masking brushes. Since you are drawing a mask, and not making adjustments on the fly. You don't have to do it all in a single brush stroke. A brush of a given size might not fit in a narrow area when the photo is displayed to fit the screen, but will fit perfectly when displayed at some larger magnification (say, for an example, at 200%).
Also, don't be afraid to change the size of the bush as you need to. The brush size can be changed with the mouse wheel, use it as appropriate. This suggestion and the one above can make your photo life MUCH easier.
Let the feathering be your friend. Initially, I found it difficult to avoid getting a "halo" around things when using a brush to adjust exposure of the sky. I've found using as big a brush as I could in a given situation and letting the solid part of the brush butt up against the object next to the sky works well for me (MOST of the time, not always). What I mean is, let the feathering extend out into the object next to the sky. Usually, the slightly darker thing next to the sky hides the the 'halo effect'.
If it doesn't, I then pull back a bit, and I try to let the darkest part of the feathering section of the brush stroke butt up against the thing and let the lighter part of the feathering cross over into the darker object. This is really where changing brush size and zoom ratio can really make a difference.
On rare occasions, I do the exact opposite, I try to mask the object next to the sky, and let the feathering extend out into the sky. But this is a very rare occurrence for me. (This requires practice, few get it right the very first time they try!)
You can apply 7 separate brushes to a single photo. So try to identify those areas that need similar levels of adjustment and separate them by different brushes. I select a different masking color for each brush as a visual aid in remembering which brush I am on.
Sometimes a section of a photo doesn't need adjusting, but you need to include it in a mask and take the adjustment 'hit' for it because it is a continuation of an area that DOES require adjustment and you need the seamless transition more than you need perfect exposure (or sharpness), life is full of compromise, this is one of them.
Modifying MasksYou can add to an existing mask if you've realized that you missed a spot that needs the modification already applied with that mask. Now this appears to be more complex than when you are creating a mask for the first time.
If you've already created a mask and made subsequent changes to the masked area, when you add an area of the photo to that existing mask, the changes already applied will take effect immediately. One can remove an area, or portion of an area by pressing the right mouse button and dragging the cursor over the masking area.
My advice is to consider creating a new mask for the area that needs to be added to a given mask. That way, if the new area isn't quite 'right' with the adjustment applied with the first mask, you have the option of adjusting it without affecting the original masking area. Of course, making sure there is no overlap of the two masking areas (or a gap) is critical, since the overlap area would get the adjustment of both separate masks and a gap would get none.
This is where using a different masking color comes in handy. By leaving the first mask displayed (say, with a default masking color of red) when adding the 'add-on' mask (with a default masking color of blue), it is easy to see if there is a gap or overlap in the masking coverage.
Critical Masking Situations
However, some adjustments are more critical than others. A mask controlling sharpness adjustments might be less critical than one controlling exposure, for instance. So you will have to use your best judgement regarding adding to a mask or using a new mask.
For complicated masking situations when using a raw file, you might want to consider doing some of your masking on the raw file, and then saving the changes to a bitmapped file format such as tif or jpg file. This will allow you to then continue with the masking on the bitmapped file (and since ACDSee considers the new file a different photo, it will reset your total number of masks available to 7)
The ACDSee Pro Development brush technology is clearly still in its infancy and I look forward to the day it reaches maturity. However this feature is already a great help getting a photo from the undeveloped state to 'done' status. It takes practice and patience to learn these brushes, but the reward is completely worth the effort. Don't give up!