Despite our best efforts to get everything right before we click the button, photos can generally benefit from a little tweaking after the fact. While we aim to always get everything perfect from exposure to composition, things don't always go the way we planned. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to improve your shot after you've captured it.
The topics we've covered over the past month include basic lighting, depth of field and composition. Each of these elements can be further addressed, to varying degrees, after you've taken your shot. These adjustments are referred to as post-processing and they're just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you can do to improve your image. You don't have to own Photoshop in order to make the most common adjustments to your photographs.
Post-processing is usually considered to be more of an advanced topic but it needn't be complicated. You also don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on software to do the basics. There are several simple adjustments you can learn to make to improve your images. Working on your images might just turn into a passion, at which point you may want to invest in some professional or semi-professional software.
This article aims to outline the basics of how you might consider making adjustments to your images. Those of you who routinely process your images already know all about this. My hope is that those who are new to the concept will learn something new and maybe get just a bit curious about the whole process.
If you are curious and photo editing and post-processing interest you, I highly recommend trying out several of the free image editing options available. There are a multitude of free image editors out there that you can either use online through a web interface, or download and install on your own computer. Two free downloadable image editors that you can install and keep include Gimp and Picasa. Two free online editors, to which you must upload your photos, include Pixlr and Picnik. You can find many more via Google, along with reviews and recommendations. I use Photoshop which is made by Adobe.
One of the most common adjustments I will make to a photograph in post-processing, including the picture of the strudel above, is to increase brightness and contrast. Increasing brightness and contrast can help an otherwise flat photo visually pop. Experiment with brightness and contrast settings. A little bit goes a long way. If you take these adjustments too far, you will start to note color distortion and an overall cooked look. At its worse, too much contrast will rob your image of fine detail.
Another common adjustment that relates to lighting is color correction. Many photographs will benefit from an adjustment to color balance, especially if you are shooting in anything other than natural light. Your camera may have color correction or white balance settings built in, most do. You will usually find it under white balance. This is where you tell your camera that you are shooting using incandescent or fluorescent lighting, for example, and it will attempt to compensate. Most image editors also provide color adjustment.
Adjusting color is not always about compensating for fluorescent or tungsten light. One of the more common adjustments I will make to an image is to warm it up by increasing yellow and red levels to compensate for colder late afternoon or dull overcast lighting. You can also adjust color balance to emphasize a color or tint in your image.
In the following example the original picture of a key lime pie was almost a lost cause. It was taken late in the afternoon of a very grey dark and stormy day. Though far from perfect, the second image shows how the image was salvaged by increasing the contrast and brightness and by emphasizing the green and yellow channels:
Simulating Depth of Field:
If you have access to an image editor with filters and advanced options that include blur tools, you can simulate an isolated depth of field. This effect is best achieved using layers and is something you can experiment with in the more advanced editors. The resulting image will not equal one which has a true isolated depth of field but with practice you will be able to emphasize your subject and de-emphasize the less important bits. I consider this to be more of a special effect, nonetheless it is a good example of how much you can alter and manipulate an image with a specific aim.
Sharpening is another common adjustment done in post. No, you can't make a blurry image sharp. What you can do is improve a slightly soft looking photo. Sharpening is also a feature often available in-camera. Take a look at your camera manual to fully investigate what your particular model is capable of. If you don't want to fuss with your shots after the fact you should definitely experiment with changing in camera sharpening, contrast and white balance levels.
In the following example there is nothing terribly wrong in the original photo. It's a little ordinary. Everything is in focus. An alternate way to present the image is by using layers and the lens blur filter in Photoshop to isolate focus and direct the viewer's eye more directly to the subject. There is also some noise correction (those hot spots you see in the original) and some selective sharpening.
The most significant adjustment you can make to improve your composition after you have taken your shot is cropping. Cropping allows you to remove extraneous parts of your image, direct the viewer's focus and change your visual statement overall. You can even completely change the aspect ratio you have chosen - ask yourself whether your image suits a wide horizontal format versus a vertical or square presentation. You can eliminate a superfluous foreground or background, or erase a distracting object. With practice you'll learn to frame your shot just right. Since cropping is always possible, there's no need to fret if your framing is off, or if you didn't notice that broom off to the side. Perhaps you couldn't get close enough to adequately frame your subject. Cropping is your solution.
Post processing isn't for everyone. For those of you who want to keep things as simple as possible, explore your in-camera settings and exploit those options fully. Sharpening, contrast and white balance adjustments will take you quite far. For those of you who are curious about image editing and would like to know more, explore the features of the programs you may already own (many of which now come packaged with cameras) or check out one of the many free options available.
The creative possibilities with regard to what you can achieve are virtually endless, only limited by the bounds of your imagination.