As a professional photographer, I look at pictures more than the average Joe. I scan amateur photography sites with a purpose, I click almost every Facebook album my friends post, and I subscribe to numerous photography user groups that post photographs for critique. With that in mind, trust me when I say that most of these photographs can be improved dramatically with a few simple tools and techniques. If you’re someone who likes taking pictures but don’t really know how to turn your pictures into good photographs, then let me offer a few simple but proven tips (they cost nothing but time).
Tip 1. Make yourself cull out your “bad” photographs. We all take shots that are blurred, too bright or too dark, or have trees growing out of our subject’s head. Before you do anything else, put all those mistakes into a basket (preferable your desktop trash can) and never look at them again. Really. To be safe, always look at the image on your camera’s built-in screen and retake photos that are obviously boo-boos; it’s okay to re-shoot, really. And digital film is super cheap.
Tip 2. Get an image editor. As great as digital cameras are, they don’t even come close to capturing light, color, and detail that our eyes can. Rarely does a picture I take with my own camera represent what I actually saw in the scene, so I need to spend some time bringing it back to that vision. That process is called editing (or “post-processing” to photography geeks). To perform all the techniques I describe below, all you need is Picasa from Google. It’s free, it’s efficient and simple, and besides an image editor you get tons of other photography tools like a sharing web site, organizing software, and other good stuff. Get it here: picasaweb.google.com.
Once you have an editor like Picasa, GIMP, or several other possibilities, and open up an image file, you can do some amazing things to improve its impact. In Picasa, simply click its Edit Photo button as shown on the tool bar below.
Tip 3. Our cameras provide a rectangular frame around our photos automatically. You can’t change its size or shape, it’s a design of the camera. But you don’t have to keep everything the camera captures or even the rectangular shape. Your photo editor has a cropping feature you can use to simplify and focus attention on the subject. Cropping is purely subjective, but there are some loose rules of composition and artistic intent that you should pay attention to. The first is to place your main subject off center. It is most pleasing and dynamic for the main subject to be placed about 1/3 through the final frame (i.e., off-center either on the left, right, top, or bottom of the frame). Second, eliminate everything in the original image that doesn’t ADD something artistically. Now, this can be tricky, but as you crop to place the main subject off-center, you have already made a decision about what to keep and what to leave in the photo. This second rule encourages you to see if there isn’t something you left in that is distracting. Common distracting features are expansive white skies, large black areas without features, or perhaps parts of people that are only half in and half out of the picture. It’s usually better to have them all out than half in. In the picture below, I’ve used the crop tool to remove parts of the image that are grayed out. After cropping, the only image remaining will be that within the brighter window. In Picasa, this is a non-destructive technique and you can change the cropping over and over again, so experiment. I like to crop first because it forces me to focus on the final composition as I make other improvements to the image.
Tip 4. Correct strange color casts. White balance (or WB) is a feature all digital cameras have. It tells the camera which type of light you’re shooting in. Did you know that the color of light changes as you move from sunshine to shade? Your eyes and brain automatically correct for it, so white to your eyes appears white regardless. But the camera isn’t so smart, so you need to tell it what color of light to correct for.
Most of the time you can set WB on your camera to Automatic and be okay, but some people like to be more precise and set it to “Cloudy” on cloudy days or “Sunshine” on sunny days. If you forget to adjust white balance for the particular type of light you’re shooting in, it’s likely your photos will come out tinted blue or yellow. Sometimes this effect is cool……but rarely is blue skinned people pleasing. All is not lost, however. In your photoeditor, use the WB tool to remove unwanted color casts. In Picasa, this is called the Neutral Picker. In the example below, I’ve used the Neutral Picker in Picasa to remove an unwanted blue color cast to the picture. I wanted it to be a warmer hue that was there in the original shot of the fawn. (Click on the photo to see it larger). Simply use the eyedropper to find a spot on the picture you think should be gray, and the picker will adjust color so that it is truly gray. Experiment with this, and be prepared to try several spots until it looks just right. Be aware that when the actual light you’re standing in as you take the picture is rich with warm colors (reds, oranges, or yellows) or cool colors (like blues and purples), the white balance feature on the camera or in the photo editor might remove those beautiful hues. Feel free to keep color casts you intended to be there.
5. There are other things you can do simply and quickly. You can change contrast to make the image “pop”, change color saturation, and change the size of the photo. The picture below is the final image in my Picasa web album (again…all free) after making all the modifications I wanted in this peaceful scene of the fawn across one of our ubiquitous stone walls we have here in northern Virginia.
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