Give Your Photos A Boost

Sometimes a good photograph just needs a little shot of art sauce to turn it into a great one
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The term "art sauce" is usually a pejorative that instructors use to excoriate their students on using gimmicks to make their work appear more snappy. Think of smothering a bland hamburger with ketchup to turn it into a hamburger that just tastes like ketchup. In this article, however, we're thinking of art sauce like Tabasco®. You don't smother anything in Tabasco®; you use a little dash here and there to bring out and enhance the flavors that are hidden within.

Moderation is the key. A fundamentally weak photograph won't magically become art just because you run it through an Instagram filter. The image may have more initial pop, but it won't stand up to further scrutiny. That's why filters like Instagram can be fun to use, but contrary to some opinions, they really don't turn junk into art. They turn junk into more eye-catching junk. If a photograph is fundamentally strong, running it through an Instagram filter may help to make it a touch stronger, but too much can kill it.

With this in mind, here are some ideas that can help give your good photos a boost.

Photos with a lot of intricate detail like fine branches and leaves don't look like much on the camera's LCD, but when enlarged in a big print, the structure is revealed. Try printing big to let that structure emerge.

Make It Big
Another favorite criticism from art school instructors is, "If you can't make it good, make it big." The dig is that a large image naturally will impress even if the actual photo is weak. But some photos don't read small; they need the scale that only comes from a large print. Think of Robert Glenn Ketchum's work. Seen small, many of his photographs from the Arctic, the Tongass and the Hudson River simply don't read well. When you see a large print of one of those images, however, it's transformed into a richly layered, highly detailed work of art. The fundamental structure was there all the time, but it took the larger print to help that structure to emerge.

When you look at your own images, think about this. We all tend to make snap judgments in the field because we do a lot of "chimping" on the LCD screen. Looking at the photo and the histogram as you shoot certainly is valuable, but don't be too eager to trash any photos until you've had a chance to look at them on a proper computer screen. This advice runs counter to many pros who suggest being a brutal editor, even in the field, to cut down on your editing time. To be sure, there's something to be said for returning home with a more manageable number of images to edit, but in many cases, if you saw something in the scene as you were shooting, don't be too hasty to pass final judgment based solely on the DSLR's LCD screen.

Similarly, when you do get home, take advantage of your photo-editing software's ability to show the image full-screen with a keystroke. Take a moment. Are hidden details emerging? Do you start to see colors and patterns that had been visible in the field, but disappear in the thumbnails? If so, you have a winner that just needs to be displayed in a big print.

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While it's not bad in color, this image from Arches National Park in Utah becomes much more dramatic in black-and-white. The tonality and texture of the rocks are revealed in the
black-and-white conversion. Also, notice the slight burn in the upper-left corner to bring down that bit of sky, giving the image a sense of boundary.

Convert To Black-And-White
It's so easy to make a rich, beautifully toned black-and-white conversion today that just about anyone can do it. Because of that, many photographers are dismissive of monochrome as being a gimmick. Certainly, it can be a gimmick, but on the other hand, in many photographs, color is a distraction from the form and substance of what's in the frame.

Software like Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 and onOne Perfect B&W, as well as the conversions built into Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture, among others, are powerful and easy to use. That also makes them easy to misuse. When you're making black-and-white conversions, pay particular attention to your shadows and highlights. Often, a "one-click" conversion either will blow out something at the high end or dump a subtle shadow to textureless black. Whole books can be written on the tools for fine-tuning images. Here, we only have the space to alert you to the availability of such tools.

Of course, just as color can be a distraction holding back a photograph that would be strong as a black-and-white, the opposite can be true. If you make your conversion to monochrome and you find yourself looking at a weak, muddy mass of gray, maybe color was the only thing the shot had going for it. In that case, the image file may be a candidate for the trash bin.

There's no greater controversy among nature photographers these days than the use of HDR. We've seen email signatures with a note about it, "HDR, Never Used It, Never Will!" and the like. Many people are opposed to HDR simply because they have only seen it overused. HDR can be like that sickly sweet ketchup smothering a hamburger. But when used subtly, HDR software can expand the visible tones in your image just enough to bring a touch of detail to the highlights and shadows to render a magnificent photo that would be impossible to capture in a single exposure because of the technological limitations of the sensor itself.

This Grand Canyon scene is muted, weak and washed out in the original, normal exposure (left). The colors in the highlights and shadows have been lost. At the time, a series of bracketed exposures were made, and by using an HDR software plug-in like HDRsoft Photomatix or Nik HDR Efex Pro 2, the exposures were combined to produce the photo right. The key to HDR is to use it in moderation to give a photo a little help. This shot easily could have been taken too far to produce a garish look.

Subtlety is the key to HDR. It's more like Dave's Insanity Sauce than Tabasco®. Be very, very careful and use just a small amount. If you add too much, the shot becomes more of a comic book image than a well-conceived photo. When employed well, most viewers should be unaware that any effect has been added to the photograph.

Situations where HDR is the perfect tool include times when you find yourself wishing for a split neutral-density filter. When you're fighting the contrast in a scene because your camera can capture seven Zones or stops of detail, but the scene in front of you has 10 Zones or stops of detail, HDR is the ideal tool. To be used to its full potential, you should have multiple exposures of the scene. The single-image, tone-mapping options don't do nearly as good of a job as multiple exposures. Use a sturdy tripod.

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The world doesn't always fit neatly into the aspect ratio of a DSLR image sensor. There are purists who "never crop...ever," which is fine in the same way that writing a poem in a particular type of verse is fine. It's good to give yourself a challenge and stick with it. But that's all a no-crop policy should be—a self-imposed compositional challenge. If you're up for exploring different aspect ratios to find a shape that fits the subject, think about panoramas.

A panorama should have a good compositional reason for being presented in that unique format. Made by George Lepp, this is one of the best examples of a scene that's positively made for the panorama. There are elements of interest across the frame while the featureless sky at the top and the featureless water at the bottom have been eliminated.

The panorama format is a prime example where the subject and composition need to align properly with the unique aspect ratio. A very wide panorama where half of the frame has nothing of visual interest probably would be better in a more normal frame. If you want to study some outstanding panorama compositions, look at George Lepp's work. Lepp is a true innovator with panorama compositions, especially with wildlife.

To make your best panoramas, plan ahead and shoot a number of frames that can be stitched into a single image. In the vein of adding a dash of art sauce to a photograph you've already taken to make it special, you also can simply crop an existing image to the panorama format. If you're doing the latter, you'll be discarding a significant amount of the image and you'll ultimately be limited in how large you can print the finished panorama.

If you're in the field and you can see that a panorama will give you the best composition, you have a couple of options. First, you can do your best to shoot a number of handheld images moving across the scene. Be sure to overlap each image and lock the exposure and the focus so that all of the shots are consistent. The handheld method isn't ideal, but if you're careful and you keep pretty steady, you can stitch together a great panorama. The other option is to lock down the camera on a sturdy tripod with a three-way head or a video head (or, better yet, a dedicated panorama head that swings the camera around the lens' nodal point) and shoot your frames. As before, be sure to overlap the images and lock the exposure and focus.

Sony's unique Sweep Panorama technology lets you create a panorama by physically moving the camera while it shoots a number of exposures and automatically stitches them into a panorama. It works surprisingly well. If you have a camera that has this capability, give it a try.


    Another way to shoot a panorama is to use the “shift” function on a tilt-shift lens, taking overlapping shots from the left-shift, neutral, and right-shift positions.

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