Wednesday, May 9, 2012

One photo, many visions

A photograph straight out of a camera, no matter how prolific the photographer, is only a part of the process of creating an exposure worthy of sharing. The other part is the developing of that photo with photo editing software. Specially if you shoot in RAW. All RAW images have to be edited. It's just like in the film days; all rolls of film had to be developed.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, there are a great many ways to edit, or process, a photograph. It all comes down to the photographer's creative vision and the editing ability to bring that vision into being. So much hinges on being adept with the editing tools that without it the realization process can become frustrating and convoluted.

In this article I will illustrate how one image can be processed in numerous ways, each technique allowing for a specific feel or emotion. This first image above is my original shot of the pier at Lighthouse Point in West Haven. As you can see it is rather drab and generic.

Most editing software allows for adjusting very specific elements of an image. Colors can be enhanced, black levels boosted, details sharpened, horizons corrected, red eyes removed and so on. The amount of bells and whistles available is only limited by the type of software you use.

In this image, the rather drab sky and water have been color corrected by enhancing the blues and de-emphasizing the greens. The resulting image is a more pleasing, natural image of blue skies and blue waters. The image on screen now matches the image in our minds of what skies and water should be. The image has also been brightened to match the feel of a sunny day.

Take the opposite route and we get this image at right. Here we have stripped away all the color information and used the color channels to manipulate the luminance settings. The result is a dramatic black and white image. A little white vignetting in the corners help pull the eye inwards.

The appeal of a black and white image is that you remove the psychological influence of colors and instead use subject and composition to drive the image. Play around with the color channels on a black and white image and you will see how the tones are affected giving you many variations on how the final image can look.

A close cousin to the black and white image is this sepia toned, or duotone, image here. The principal is similar except that a soft pinkish brown "Antique" color is left behind. As with a black and white image, you have to adjust the tones in order to fine tune the look of the image.

This style of processing gives a feeling of an old time photo and, for obvious reasons, not all photos look good with this type of processing. With a little more creative editing this image can really transport the viewer back in time. Add some grain or a vintage frame or a distressed edge and you have a whole different look.

Looking for a more dream-like quality to the scene? Try softening the edges by purposely introducing blur. In the film days a photographer would use a little vaseline on a filter to get a similar effect. The softer tonal transitions reduce the realism of the image, giving a more surreal feel. As with any effect, some images work better than others with this process. Experiment and have fun.

I added a dark vignette to the corners to draw attention to the center part of the image. This effect further enhances that feel as if we are peeking into another realm through a portal.

Speaking of surrealism... High dynamic range photography is all the rage nowadays. HDR is simply that the shadowed areas of an image that would normally go to black are preserved, effectively increasing the number of f-stops being displayed in the image. There are a variety of methods available for achieving this look, including special HDR software that 'tone maps' three or more images together to create a single HDR image.

If you shoot in RAW you can 'push' the processing to give similar results without the need of tone mapping. If you compare this image with the first image above you can see how the tones are shifted to expand the range. Specially in the shadows and mid tones.

The nice thing about  photo editing software is the ability to play with images. The  more familiar you become with the tools, the greater your vision expands on what can be done to an image. That is why I tell photographer not to delete those 'bad' images. As your editing experience grows you will find ways of salvaging an otherwise discarded image.

As you learn new editing techniques and image styling you will be able to mix and match to give your images a distinctly personal touch. So have fun with your images. Experiment with the software and push the limits on those little slides and levers. There are a ton of tutorials online to teach you various editing techniques. Read them. Watch the videos. Then apply what you have learned.

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