This post is by Laurence of Finding the Universe
Some time ago (ok, nearly a year!) I wrote a guide for Caz and Craig on improving your travel photography, which was part one of a multi-part series.
Fast forward nearly a year, and here I am, finally, with part two. Part One covered all kinds of photography basics, and you might want to give that a read before delving into this.
This part of the series is going to cover the other half of the photography equation that is nearly as important as actually taking the shot: the post processing of your creation.
In this post I’m going to discuss a number of the digital tools and techniques that I use to get the most out of the photos I take. And the best part of this guide is that the tools I am going to talk about today are totally free to download and use.
Before diving in, let me show you an example of what I mean by post processing, other than the shot at the beginning of this post.
Below is a photo of Caz and Craig standing by a dead Vlei tree in Namibia.
It’s a lovely shot of the guys, but something isn’t quite right. The camera has messed up somewhere along the way from recording the light and turning it into a saved digital image.
I suspect you will agree that the below shot may be a bit more representative of the scene in question, after a little minor digital editing:
So what went wrong with the first picture?
Essentially, the camera has evaluated what is going on with the light in the scene incorrectly.
Unlike our eyes, which are very good at working out what the world around us looks like, a camera has to make a whole bunch of assumptions as to the image it is recording based on the data it receives, and sometimes despite its best efforts, it is going to mess up.
In this case, the camera has got the white balance wrong (good article explaining white balance, which has resulted in a shot with a washed out look. This is a very common mistake for cameras to make, and is luckily one that is remarkably easy to address.
How easy you ask? Well, let me introduce you to the first, and easiest to use of the tools in today’s digital editing kit:
Picasa is a photography management tool from Google that focuses on helping you manage your digital photography collection rather than serious digital editing work.
However, for minor tweaks and adjustments to your shots, it is a nice, easy to use option.
Lets take a photo like that Dead Vlei shot from before, and load it up in Picasa, as shown in the screen shot below. Press the “I’m feeling lucky” button.
And hey presto, something magic should have just happened to your photo!
Ok. I’d love to be able to finish this post about now and say that this one button will fix all your digital photography problems.
And actually, if you do nothing else with your digital photos but load them into Picasa and try “I’m feeling lucky”, you will be further down the road with improving your photography collection than before. In some cases.
Obviously though, hitting “I’m Feeling Lucky” isn’t the be-all and end-all of post processing.
Even if it is a nice quick option. Picasa is just another bit of software doing some algorithm based processing on your image, and in some cases the automatic tool will get it right, and in others..well.. it will get it very wrong.
However, for basic photo editing, including cropping, red eye reduction, simple contrast /brightness tweaks and straightening, Picasa is an excellent option. It’s also a brilliant tool for actually managing all your images, and has nice Google+ integration. If that’s your thing.
Lets say though that you want to do a bit more with your photos, and Picasa, despite all its’ capabilities isn’t quite enough for you.
At this point you could fork out quite a large pile of cash for Adobe’s industry standard Photoshop program, or you could opt for the free, open source alternative:
The GIMP (which stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program), I will admit, does not win many prizes for user friendliness. It is, quite frankly, a bit of a pain to use.
But it is an incredibly powerful photo editing tool, and if you put some effort into learning even some of it’s most basic functions, you will be well on the way to becoming a post processing master.
Lets take a look at some basic tweaking to an image in the GIMP, this time using another photo of a dead vlei from this site.
Load this up in the GIMP.
We’re going to do a couple of tweaks to this image which are pretty standard post processing techniques – we’re going to adjust the contrast a bit, we’re going to apply what’s known as an unsharp mask, and we’re going to adjust the colour slightly.
First, the unsharp mask. In spite of the name, this is actually a tool that is used to sharpen up an image. From the filters menu, find “enhance”, then select “unsharp mask” from the options.
You will now get some options popping up with exciting looking names like radius, amount, threshold.
There is also a preview window, which is very helpful. You want to be very careful using this tool, as over sharpening an image is going to result in a nasty pile of pixels.
For this image, I chose a radius of 2.0, and an amount of 0.2, threshold, 0. Less is usually more. This results in an image like the below.
Now, this image is sharper than the original, but at the trade off that there is somewhat more noise in the sky. Depending on the usage of the image, this may be unacceptable.
For a blog post, I think the trade off is worth it, as the lines in the wood of the tree are crisper, which is the main focal point of the shot.
However, we’re not quite done with this shot yet.
Back in the GIMP find the “Colours” option on the menu, and from that, pick the Brightness / Contrast sliders.
There are more advanced options from here, such as editing these as levels / curves, but for simplicity, we’ll stick to the sliders. For this shot, I just upped the contrast by 7, resulting in the following image:
To fix that, back in the GIMP, I go back to my colours menu, and choose the “Colour Balance” option. Moving the slider a few notches away from yellow and towards blue, as well as slightly upping the contrast again, resulted in the following:
Let’s take a moment to review how all those changes came together to produce the final work, compared to the original:
Hopefully you will agree with me that the lower picture is an improvement!
Every picture will need its’ own tweaking, and obviously this is a time consuming process, but once you get used to carrying out some basic work on your photos you will absolutely reap the rewards.
There are endless tutorials on the web for tools such as the GIMP that will let you get better and better results from your work, and explain how and why they work far better than I ever could.
Trial, error and practice is your friend. Just be sure to work on copies of your photos rather than the originals!
I hope these tips help you improve your digital photography collection. Photography is a never ending learning process, and I’m delighted that Caz and Craig let me contribute some of my thoughts to their site in these two posts! I’d love to answer any questions, queries or criticisms of this post in the comments below.
I also have a number of photography tips and tricks over on my site, which you might find useful!
Check out our other Photography articles:
- Tips for Photographing People
- How to Improve Your Travel Photography – Part 1
- Why I’ll Never Be a Great Photographer [for now] + Tips
We also recommend Bethany Salvon’s “Getting Out of Auto” photography ebook to those looking to improve their photography and understand how to take advantage of their camera.
Bio: Laurence Norah has been exploring the world for many years and is currently based in New Zealand. He shares his photography tips and travel stories on Finding the Universe. You can also follow his updates via twitter and hang out on his facebook page.