Friday, March 23, 2012

Getting the most out of your photos

How many photos come out of a camera or phone perfectly exposed with just the right colours?

I'd say it's an incredibly small number of them.  Why?

When most cameras and phones default to producing JPEG files and the developers don't have a good software engine for creating files true to the original scene, it makes things much more difficult.

There are also problems with cheap sensors, bad settings, bad ambient conditions, and then, there are the people using the camera that provide some input into the situation.  (In the computer world, we had an acronym: PEBCAC, Problem Exists Between Computer And Chair.  I suppose that could work for cameras, as well.

If you're using a mobile phone or a low-priced point-and-shoot camera, you don't have a choice about the files you create, except that you can choose a better compression ratio.  2.7:1 is much better than 8:1, so if you have a choice between a few good photos or many bad photos, what do you choose?  (Hint: you can't fix the bad photos easily, if at all.)

The superzoom (5x, 10x, 26x, 28x, OMGx) or performance point-and-shoot cameras almost always come with an option to create raw files.  These are basically files which each camera uses internally when capturing a photo.  Unfortunately, they're individual to that camera, so if you don't have software to support them, you can't do anything with them.  Thankfully, the cameras that can produce the files come with software available to process them.

You can also buy software to process them and it usually works more quickly and does a better job, not to mention that you can often makes changes to a group of them without trying to make the changes individually.  I use Phase One Capture One, but you could be using Adobe Lightroom, Apple Aperture, Silkypix or a number of others.  There are even free alternatives on Linux.

Why raw files?

Do you ever look back and wish "If I'd only changed this setting, that photo would have been okay."?  It's almost that easy, though settings like shutter speed and aperture can't be modified.  You can change the exposure, deepen the blacks, and whiten the whites without degrading the photos as you would when you're using JPEG files.  Most raw developer software keeps track of the changes separately from the file, so you can start over, if need be.

If your camera comes from a company other than Olympus, I would suggest that you attempt to switch to raw files for your photos' sake.  Why not Olympus?  They have the best JPEG engine, bar none.  While I always use raw files, 90 % of the time, I could use JPEG files and get by with them.  Before I found good raw development software, I did use JPEG files.  Most companies don't produce good in-camera JPEG files.  It's a shame but it's the truth.  They're probably using the extra firmware space to deal with all the low light situations that Olympus handle poorly.  (I love Olympus.  I do, I really do.)

The learning curve

No matter the type of file you use, you're bound to have problems with lower contrast photos and colours that just don't pop.

The histogram is your friend.  Learn it.  Live it.  Love it.

I should probably add a screen shot here but for now, what I can tell you is that you'll see a long graph from dark to light.  If you're using Photoshop, you'll have 3 markers that can be moved, along with the numbers 0, 1.0, and 255, if I remember correctly.  When a photo is not so contrasty, you can move the outer markers inward.  Be gentle with them, as you can create a disaster quickly.  It's also best, if you have adjustment layers available, that you use layers until you're happy with the result.

Use saturation to put the rosy glow back in the cheeks.

Okay, this could go quickly into making a clown.  A little too much saturation of one colour or the other, and suddenly, you have nightmares about being at the circus.  Many times, just tweaking the overall saturation will make your colours pop without overdoing it.  However, I've seen a few times when you'll have too much green in the skin tone and a selective tone de-saturation will help.  Photoshop will allow this and has several individual sliders, along with the overall slider.  Alternately, you can use Color Balance, but it doesn't work as often for me.  With a few of the raw developers, they'll give you a circle of colour and you move the marker around the circle to get the balance right.

These are simple tweaks that don't take much time, though you do need the software to make them.  I believe even Photoshop Elements will give you the freedom in advanced mode to handle these things quickly.  If you use the guided mode, you can probably see all the possibilities in one place and just keep clicking on your desired effect to get there.

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