Saturday, June 21, 2008

Your Photos -- From Washed Out To Punchy

photography"I take a picture and it looks all washed out. It's just not as dynamic and interesting as the pictures I see others take. What am I doing wrong?"

Ever find yourself saying this? If you are just getting started in photography, chances are the answer is "yes". In this article I'll cover the basics of avoiding and fixing those washed out pictures and giving them some visual punch. Please remember that this is just an introduction and that there is a lot more one could say.

Throughout I will link to articles from the fantastic Luminous Landscape. If you were to read and understand 90% of the articles on that site, practicing as you go, I believe you'd be a good photographer. Of course being a great photographer requires something more than can easily be distilled in words. (Not to mention years of practice.)

Getting The Light Right

The first principle of photography is light. Often a blah picture is blah because the light was wrong in the first place.

The best thing you can do to improve the light (especially as a landscape photographer) is to wait for nature to improve it for you. This takes patience, but photographers are patient people. Early morning (up to an hour after dawn) and late evening (from an hour before sunset) are the "golden hours". Light at these times is less refracted; contrast differences are reduced and the dynamic range between light and dark is limited to a span more compatible with what a camera can handle. As a bonus, colours can be much nicer.

Some photographers, and many film directors, shoot only at these times of day. Just ask Wim Wenders how he did Paris, Texas. (I am totally guessing this from the look of the film. But I'd put money on it.)

Or shoot during a storm, away from direct light, etc. Beginners often think that bright light means better photos, since their old point'n'shoots needed lots of light to prevent noise and camera blur. But in fact the opposite is generally true. Noon is the worst time to shoot with its harsh shadows, direct glare and enormous exposure range. It surely helps to understand exposure.

Use the camera's histogram to see what it's capturing. Best is a full-width even distribution from dark to light with no overshooting at either end. But often on a bright day one will have spikes. Perhaps moving to a different position will help. Use a lens hood to prevent flare and spurious light. And keep it on when you are inside, when there isn't much light, in fact just keep the hood on all the time.

Some images will simply not have an equal "ideal" histogram distribution. This doesn't automatically make them poorly exposed -- far from it. Experience will be your guide here. Read the article I just linked to for some examples.

A circular polarising filter attached to the lens can let you "dial in" different amounts of polarisation. This cuts refraction from water, leaves, and so on. These highlights can "blow" the top end of your histogram. Polarisers also get rid of glare, cut through atmospheric haze, and reveal what is hidden by reflections under the surface of water or behind the window of a car.

Like other filters these come in different mount sizes, measured in millimeters, to fit the front screw of your lens. They can certainly be rather expensive for high quality coated models. Determine which lenses you commonly use in those situations where a polariser will be useful. Then you can buy just the ones you need. Some lines of lenses maintain a consistent thread size so you can get just one polariser for multiple lenses. But wider lenses will necessarily have larger front glass and need a larger and more expensive filter. To save money you can get the largest size filter and "step up" rings to couple smaller threads to the larger polariser.

Lenses which do not rotate their barrel while focusing are suitable for polarisers. If the barrel rotates then you have to adjust the filter after each focus, which is not terribly practical. This is something to investigate before buying a lens.

Fix It In Development

Even if you have what looks like a washed-out image on your computer, you can make it look much better in an image editor like Photoshop. Note that you don't have to use Photoshop itself... not all of us can afford it. Photoshop Elements is a slimmed-down version with all the tools you need at about one-tenth the cost. There are also many free or inexpensive bitmap editors (am I dating myself by using that term?) that do essentially the same thing -- like GIMP.

But one way or another you are going to have to spend many, many hours learning your way around an image editor. Maybe months; maybe years. It is my opinion that getting to know an image editor is 50% of what it means to be a photographer in the digital age. Just like developing film was 50% of what it means to be a photographer in the analogue age. (These ages overlap of course... film is not dead!)

Learn how to use Adjustment Layers, so that you can apply effects and filters while leaving the underlying layer unaffected. It's easy to toggle Adjustment Layers on and off, change their opacity to alter how much they affect the underlying layer and go back later to tweak them. After accumulating a number of adjustment layers, or when you need to do some retouching, you can sum the existing layers to a new working copy. Instant Photoshop is a good intro to this way of working.

To manage extensive changes consider versioning your files. This method works as follows: make a bunch of adjustments and save as "filename.1.psd", flatten and save as "filename.2.psd", keep working on this with more changes, repeat. This prevents the file size from getting out of hand, as it would if all the layers were in one file. This really helps with performance, especially if your computer doesn't have much RAM. It also limits what you are viewing at one time, which can help you focus on the essential. But it still preserves every change so you can go back to your original if need be. On the downside you will need to manage your files a bit more carefully. (In practice only the most complex image manipulations should require this technique.)

There are three Adjustment Layers I use on almost all my images.

The most important is Curves. Specifically an S-curve can give your picture "pop" by increasing contrast. Later you can get fancy by masking off certain areas so you can apply curves just where you need them.

The second important Adjustment Layer is Levels. This lets you tweak the histogram directly, either by adjusting the black and white points or changing where the midpoint is. And since you can do this for the Red, Green and Blue separately you can also adjust the colour balance here, getting rid of unwanted colour casts and so on. As you gain experience you can learn about the eyedroppers and how you can use them to choose your black and white points.

Thirdly, you will want to look at Hue/Saturation, which is another way of adjusting the colour balance. Sometimes I increase saturation slightly to get the colours to jump out, but I am wary of doing too much here. Pentax lenses already render eye-popping colour. Adding any more would look cartoonish. (An effect you see an awful lot in popular shots on Flickr etc.)

Outside of Adjustment Layers you will want to tweak the image sharpness, since what comes out of the camera is often a bit soft. The topic of sharpening images is huge, but the best advice I can give is to not overdo it; sharpen only for the target medium (web versus small print versus poster and so on). This also depends on the file format you are shooting in (JPG versus RAW) and if you have used any in-camera sharpening. I recommend not doing so, since it's easy to add sharpening but impossible to take it away.

And Then There's Composition

Just as important for a image with real impact is how the picture is composed. That will have to be the subject of another article, but in case I never get around to writing it, you can be sure the wise people at Luminous Landscape have already.

For now simply consider how changing the crop would affect your image. You needn't preserve the same aspect ratio either. Try a square picture, change a landscape orientation to portrait, and so on. Of course it helps if the picture was shot with the correct cropping in mind, but subtle tweaks are often very helpful. You can remove distracting elements or put the centre of attention at a more dynamic part of the frame.

In my follow-up article I present a step-by-step example using an image I just shot on holiday.

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3 comments:

Ponder said...

Excellent post! Some really great info in here.

Image editor SBL said...

Nice post!

robin said...

I just updated this post slightly with some further elaboration and typographical corrections. Thanks for your comments! It helps to know my work is helping someone.

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