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Every new digital photographer struggles with how to process images. I know from my own experience how difficult it can be. When I started scanning my color transparencies and working with Photoshop 11 years ago, there were almost no books available about digital imaging, let alone online tutorials or workshops like there are today. I had to teach myself. Then, along came digital photography with its steep learning curve, but fortunately, I already had a solid understanding of how to work with color.
Here, I'll share my techniques that show how simple it can be to process digital images. There are many different digital workflow philosophies and personal tastes about how an image should look. In this article, the point is not to discuss every possible method, but to make digital photography less intimidating. I hope this will serve as a starting point for many years of your creative growth.
1 Lens anomalies like barrel distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting can have a profound effect on your images. These are typically encountered when using wide-angle lenses. Barrel distortion can make ocean horizons unnaturally curve, and chromatic aberration yields fringes of color along dark and bright edges. Most image-editing programs have built-in lens profiles that you can select for a specific lens' correction, as well as adjustment tools that you can set yourself. If you play around with these adjustments, you'll begin to notice a pattern of what settings to use for a specific lens.
Adjusting Contrast With The Black And White Points
2 The first thing that most new photographers will notice is that their photos appear rather flat and lifeless. A digital image file is only data, and it needs to be developed to reach its potential. The best place to get started is to set a black and a white point on the histogram. To begin, locate the Levels adjustment in your processing software. You'll see a graph containing data that goes from left to right, representing black at 0 and white at 255. This is the histogram. Most properly exposed images will have a histogram containing data that falls somewhere in the middle of the graph. The arrows located beneath the histogram are what you'll adjust. By simply sliding the black point to the right and the white point to the left, you'll add more contrast.
Almost immediately you should see a livelier image. Don't be afraid of having some dark shadows or blown-out highlights. You can turn on the shadow and highlight alert in your editing program to help you judge the intensity of your adjustments. There are no hard rules about how much is too much or not enough. Take a look at the work of photographers who inspire you, and you'll begin to get a feel for how you want your images to look.
3 Using Curves adjustments often can be intimidating, but there's no need to be afraid of playing with the overall or individual color curves, especially if you've already set good black and white points. If you click on the lower-left edge of the overall luminosity curve, you'll see that you can drag the curve to expand or contract the shadows. The same thing applies to the highlights if you drag somewhere in the upper right. One of the most common Curves adjustments is a contrast curve where you slightly drag down the darks and slightly pull up the highlights. Try pulling 64 down to 60 and 191 up to 195. This results in a modest S-shaped curve that slightly increases the overall contrast.
4 Most photographers will want to increase the color saturation of their images. This is another area of considerable debate, but a generally accepted rule of thumb is to increase an image's color saturation by about 5% to 10%. This will add some vibrant punch to your photography. Anymore than this amount most likely will make your colors too unbelievable, unless that's your desired goal. If you have a particularly important color that needs to be accentuated, you always can increase that color's saturation individually.
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5 Even if you never plan to sell your images, you always should add some basic metadata to your files. Include your contact information, but also a description of the image. Most photographers now share their images online, so this will allow people who look at the metadata (like potential publishers) to know how to contact you and what exactly they're looking at. Include in your description the location and subject. A common practice would be a description like "USA, Florida, Crystal River State Park, a curious baby West Indian manatee swimming at Three Sisters Spring." You should include a few keywords in case you decide to submit to an agency. The keywords are also used as tags on social networks. And always be sure to include your full name in the metadata.
Adjusting The Red, Green And Blue Histograms
6 You also can set the red, green and blue black and white points on their individual histograms. Blacks usually look best when rendered as a neutral black rather than biased toward one particular tone. It gives the viewer's eye a place to start and then move through the rest of the image. Set the red, green and blue black points at the left edge of each color's histogram, just as you would have for the overall histogram. This important step usually will remove some of the overall color bias of your image.
You don't always need to set the individual red, green and blue white points. The white point depends on what color temperature the light was when you took the picture.
You also can adjust each color's midpoint on the histogram in order to add or remove color as you prefer. This is the hardest skill for new digital photographers to master. A calibrated monitor is required, but even then it takes a lot of experience to be able to see that your image is 1% too green or blue.
Removing Dust Spots
7 If you shoot any images with your lens stopped down to ƒ/16 or ƒ/22, you'll inevitably notice dust spots on your camera sensor. These spots aren't the end of the world, but they can be time-consuming to remove. If you find yourself spending a lot of time cloning out dust spots, consider purchasing a Wacom pen tablet. I find that the tablet and pen make it much more efficient for me to spot my images.
8 In order to keep the color palette of your photos consistent, set your camera's white balance rather than rely on the auto white balance setting. For almost all nature photography, you'll find the best results by choosing either the daylight or overcast setting. This corresponds to a color temperature of between 5000K and 5800K. Of course, you always can adjust the white balance later in your processing software, but photographing an image as close to your preferred final white balance will yield optimum results.
Exporting A Master File
9 The final step after you've adjusted an image to your satisfaction is to export it and save it as your master file. Most photographers and publishers work with 16-bit TIFF files that use the Adobe 1998 RGB color space. Your personal commitment to processing an image will be dictated by your desired results and the amount of time you're willing to dedicate to a single image. There are no rights or wrongs in image processing, but you'll figure out what works for you and your ambitions.
See more of Jon Cornforth's photography at www.cornforthimages.com, and read his entries on the OP Blog page.