One of the common statements I hear from people is, “well, of course your holiday images are great — look at that huge camera you use!” The truth is that with as much technology as is crammed into those tiny little point-and-shoots these days, it’s absolutely possible to take images with a point and shoot of close to equal quality to an SLR.
Don’t believe me? Then let’s try an experiment: take a look at the following three pairs of images, all taken in Bath, United Kingdom, during my recent vacation. In each pair, one of them was shot with my Nikon D300 digital SLR camera (a serious bad-boy, if I do say so myself), and the other was shot with my Nikon Coolpix (a very respectable point-and-shoot). See if you can guess which of each pair was shot with the SLR. Ready?
(A) The Royal Crescent, Bath
(B) Susannah, a local artist and photographer
(C) The Circle
Have you guessed?
Here, I’ll give you a minute.
So, in each pair, the first image was taken with the digital SLR, and the second with the point-and-shoot. Now you might argue that the colours are warmer in the images taken by the SLR than the compact camera, or you find that you notice more contrast in one set, but I’ll wager that in each case, the clarity of the images is on par with each other, and in fact, in the pair of the Royal Crescent, I think the point-and-shoot resulted in a better image.
Besides, issues like colours and contrast can be taken care of with Photoshop.
I can hear some of you already gasping in horror, and I admit, when I first started shooting with a digital camera, I was very anti-Photoshop. “Hmph,” I sniffed, “Photoshop is used by people who don’t know how to take photos. Besides, the digital manipulation of photography is just plain dishonest.” And then I would turn my heel and vanish in a cloud of self-righteousness, all the while secretly lamenting the fact that every photo I shot didn’t look anything like I thought it looked like when I first framed it in the viewfinder of my camera.
Then one day, I was at my local camera shop, confessing to one of the guys that I worked there that I really wished I could get the kinds of images other people got. “Like that one,” I said, pointing to the display image behind him. “Why don’t my photographs look like that?”
“That?” he smiled. “It’s a great shot, agreed, but you realize that that’s been digitally manipulated, right?”
“NO!” I responded, in horror. “Seriously? That’s not just the shot he took? How… how… disappointing!”
“Why?” he asked, genuinely confused. “There’s nothing wrong with Photoshop, Karen. It’s just processing – similar to what we used to do with chemicals, back in the olden days. I mean, do you really think Ansel Adams really shot those beautiful pictures without dodging and burning and manipulating the processing of the photograph?”
That’s when it dawned on me: digital processing doesn’t have to be about deception, and it can be all about artistry. It can be a tool to help communicate what you saw or felt at the time you took the image. But if you were amazed by the colours, or the sparkle in someone’s eyes, or the moodiness of the sky, then why not make sure that people who see your images are struck by the same things?
Eventually, over time, I’ve come up with a few unofficial rules for myself when using Photoshop (or any other photo-editing software) that helps ensure I’m using the tool as honestly as possible. Understand that I’m not suggesting that others using the tool in a different way are being dishonest — again, art is in the eye of the beholder. I’m just saying that for my own warped sense of morality, using Photoshop in this way feels the most honest to me — and in fact, once you read the following, you might feel that I’m the cheatingest cheater who ever cheated. I just offer these as a jumping-off point of discussion.
1. I don’t delete pixels. I was admiring the image a friend of mine shot when coming out of a Tube station in London a few years ago. “This is great,” I said. “Thanks!” he responded. “And the best part? There was a person standing right over here,” he motioned to a substantial portion of the image, “and I just Photoshopped him out!”
Now, obviously, this didn’t change the fact that the photograph he’d taken was still beautiful; however, for me, the fact that he’d removed an item from the image made the photograph feel a bit more contrived. So my rule is that I don’t remove objectionable objects from my images — I’d much rather check through the viewfinder before I take the shot to see if it there are people or things in the way, and fix it that way, before I squeeze the shutter.
2. I don’t blatantly change colours. Let me clarify: I do sometimes bump up the hue of a colour, or accentuate the contrast in an image — because frankly? Sometimes my camera just can’t capture how amazingly blue-green the ocean is, or how shockingly yellow the fall foliage happens to be without a little help. I won’t, however, change someone’s red sweater to blue, just because I think she’d look better in that colour. All colour-clashes remain as-is.
3. I do sharpen and increase the contrast of almost every image I shoot. Not a lot, you understand, but I think it pretty much enhances every image.
4. I sometimes manipulate the lighting so that the viewer focuses on exactly what I want them to focus on, creating a “vignette” effect.
To help illustrate my point, here’s how I processed a couple of images, step-by-step:
This is Ellie, my niece, sitting on a large rock on Maenporth beach, in her native Cornwall, England. This image was taken right out of the camera, with no processing whatsoever:
This is a perfectly acceptable image; however, the thing is, I know that in real life, when you see Ellie, you can’t help but notice her piercing blue eyes, possibly more than any other physical characteristic. For this reason, I think a bit of tweaking might help make this point.
First, as I do with every shot, I enhanced the sharpness and the contrast a bit:
The changes are subtle; however, the added sharpness shows a bit more detail in her hair, and her eyes are starting to look more striking — more like she actually looks in real life.
Finally, I’ll use a gradient tool to “burn” the colours around her face a bit more (i.e., warm up the colours around her):
The final result, while not drastically different from the original image, communicates a bit more about her spirit-filled eyes and the warmth of her personality. In my opinion, therefore, this is a far more “accurate” image of Ellie than the original.
One more, more elaborate example:
Again, the following shot of the little town of St. Ives, Cornwall, was taken straight out of the camera:
Again, not a bad photograph, but really nothing special. Still, what I remember about the moment I took this picture is that after a really beautiful day, the clouds were beginning to accumulate, and we could tell we were on the verge of seeing the last of the sun, as the rain settled in for the rest of the day. The moment actually seemed rather magical, as we watched the weather in transition. And so, in processing the image, I wanted to capture the mood of that transition.
First, as with almost every shot I take, I enhanced the sharpness and the contrast:
Already, this photograph is starting to look a bit better to me — the clouds are beginning to capture the transitional mood, and the additional sharpness has brought out the detail in the windows of all the little buildings in the town.
But watch what happens when I pull out the gradient/colour “burn” tool again:
Now the image, with the deepened hues of the sky and the ocean, really communicates the moment when the image was taken: the sky was beginning to get gloomy, the sea was mirroring the sky’s atmosphere, and the town was dearly hanging on to that last bit of sunshine. It’s exactly as I remember.
The tweaks I’ve done above are relatively minor, but for me, they make a world of difference in honing the feeling I was trying to communicate with the images. In certain cases, I modify the images even more; however, the final results still feel very honest and true. So if you’ve been reticent about trying Photoshop (or Lightbox, or Picnik — which is free! — or any other photo editing tool), perhaps what you’ve seen here will make you consider trying to add some digital magic to your photos. And once you’ve handled that, if you start to feel like you’ve finally found the artist in you, there are some really wild things you can do with textures and filters and all kinds of other treatments — go nuts!
In the meantime, if you have any questions you’d like to ask, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll do my best to answer them in future posts.