For many photographers, pushing the shutter release button ends the process of taking a picture. They hear that satisfying, “click,” check the image on the camera’s LCD display, smile approvingly and move on to the next photo op. Later, the image gets uploaded to Facebook, Flickr, Google+ or another social network so friends and family can share in the moment. The photo, however, was done when the shutter closed. Pushing the button and hearing the click completed the image-making process.
I’d like to encourage you to adopt a new approach, one where the process of creating a photo is just getting started when you push that button. After the shutter clicks, there are simple tools you can use to transform a good photograph into something special.
What makes a photograph special? Well, it begins with good composition. Everything visible within the frame should help tell the story of the photograph. Since stories typically have beginnings and endings, a good photograph will often lead the eye from one area to another. Exposure is another critical element of good photography. Lighting creates the mood of the scene you’re trying to capture. Proper exposure conveys that mood through the photo to the viewer. Investing a few minutes of your time to work with a raw exposure in image editing software to enhance these important qualities can rescue marginal photos and transform good photos into great ones.
A web search will reveal a host of good options for free and reasonably-priced image editing software. GIMP, Picasa and Windows Live Photo Gallery are some of the free apps you’ll encounter. Adobe offers a diverse suite of excellent image management and editing software. I happen to use Photoshop Elements, which is a stripped down version of their well-regarded Photoshop product. Apple, Microsoft and others also offer excellent image editing apps. I’m not going to advocate for one over another. I will suggest you choose an app able to perform, at a minimum, the following functions: brightness/contrast adjustment, hue/saturation adjustment, crop and unsharp mask.
Brightness/contrast adjustment is the first tool I use to help an image pop! One of the benefits of shooting landscapes early in the morning or late in the day is the way light from a low-hanging sun sculpts a scene. Shadows create contrast. They separate the foreground from the background and define an image. Well, if you’re on vacation and take a lunch break at a scenic overlook, the sun will be high overhead and the landscape before you will be almost devoid of shadows. A raw image of this scene won’t have the pleasing level of contrast and detail you desire. Opening the exposure in your app of choice, decreasing the brightness and increasing the contrast will enhance what little contrast there is in the image.
After making modest adjustments to brightness and contrast, the next tool I reach for is hue/saturation adjustment. Very rarely will I make any change to the hue of an image. Most digital cameras do a pretty good job of rendering colors accurately. If whites look white, skin tones look natural and the sky looks blue, the hue is good and can be left as is. Saturation is another matter. Think of saturation as the depth or intensity of color in an image. I also think of saturation as the it factor.
When standing on the rim of Grand Canyon or at the edge of another spectacular vista, there is something about being present in that place which makes colors feel more intense. It’s difficult to convey that feeling with a photo that renders colors merely as they are. By enhancing the saturation, you help the photo convey the way the scene felt to you, the way you experienced that moment. To those of you thinking, “There he goes again, getting all abstract and mushy,” I can respect that. Rich colors may not be your thing and that’s OK. Photography is a big tent hobby with plenty of room for disparate views on what works. Pushing the color saturation works for me and, if you give it a try, I think you’ll find it makes your photos more powerful, more memorable.
Crop, is the next tool up in my image editing kit. You should know, I invest considerable time studying and adjusting composition prior to taking the raw exposure. As a result, I don’t often use the crop tool during processing. However, this isn’t because composition isn’t important to me. It’s because I try to get composition right, before pushing the shutter release. I’m not always successful in this regard and, when I do get a photo with extraneous space or odd framing, I have no reluctance to make a correction. That’s when the crop tool gets used.
Crop is useful for removing distractions that prevent the viewer from seeing the subject of your photo and understanding the story you’re trying to tell. If you see a brilliant waterfall and think, “Ooh, there’s a great photo,” do all that you can to fill the frame with the waterfall. If the subject is a family member, let that person fill the frame. If the story you’re telling with the image is about the relationship between a person and the vista they’re amidst, crop the image so that the person and the landmark they’re admiring define the frame.
To put the finishing touches on my photo processing, I reach for the unsharp mask. A light touch with unsharp mask will enhance fine detail in your photo in subtle but impactful ways. Again, the net result of a modest unsharp mask is an image that seems to pop just a bit. It’s similar to that moment when the focus is just right in pair of binoculars. You turn and turn the focus knob until, pop, the image is crisp and clear. That’s what unsharp mask delivers when applied with subtlety and discretion.
Using image editing software and these simple tools, you can elevate your photography to a new level. And in so doing, the images you create will do a better job of conveying the dynamic nature of a scene which inspired you to reach for your camera.
So, get out and shoot!
Bill Ferris | August 2013