2005-11-23 1235 Photography: == Turning Lead to Gold == There's no such thing as a bad photograph provided it's in focus. . . .

Turning Lead to Gold

There’s no such thing as a bad photograph provided it’s in focus. Sometimes even blurred shots can turn from lead to gold, though in those cases you’re using the blur as a feature of the shot, rather than a weakness. That’s not always possible.

It helps if the shot is well composed of course, though given the high-megapixel count of modern digital cameras, a shot can be cropped down to a fraction of the original. For online view, the the final image can be as low a resolution as 800×600 – that’s less than half a megapixel resolution, or about 1/8th of a frame of a 6 megapixel image! For print work though, the less cropping you need to do, the better.

Here’s an image taken by SuperFantastic that he requested help on over at the Flickr Technique forums.


Composition-wise it’s ok, and the contrast is fine too. Technically there’s nothing wrong with the shot at all – it’s just uninspiring.

Actually, there’s quite a lot wrong.

Firstly, there’s no clear focal point. Your eye works by reflex, trying to find the most important part of anything we see; it’s an action evolved from our tribal days of scanning the savannah for predators. We respond to things that stand out, be it the fleeting movement of a cheetah among the still grass, or the sharpest part of a photograph. Here though, there’s nothing that’s clearly striking, so the eye gets confused. Result: our brain doesn’t like what it sees.

There is a simple fix that can be applied to this image, and many others like it. Flip the shot horizontally. Our western eyes scan left to right, so anything on the right side of an image naturally takes precedence over anything on the left. Flipping this shot emphasises the foliage, so the eye is happy.

Next off, the tones are pretty flat. Cover the post and shadow on the side with your hand, and everything else is just uneven mush. The blue sky, green leaves and brown earth all merge into one mass of muddy tone. The pillar provides the light and dark sections of the image, but they’re all bunched together on that side. The solution to this is to take the colour away. Making an image black and white is an excellent technique for simplifying a shot. It emphasises the structure of the shot. In this picture, the shadow and plants have a strong enough form not to need any colour, so it goes.

For this shot, just hitting Detaturate isn’t enough. It rarely is. We need to lose that muddy set of tones completely otherwise we’ll just end up with murky grey insterad of muddy blue/green/brown. To do that, I used the Channel Mixer to create a pseudo-infrared look that will darken the sky to almost black, and set the foliage across the whole tonal range. In Channel Mixer, I set red to 200%, green to 0% and blue to -100%, and checked Monochrome.

We’re almost there.

The next thing is to add a little sharpness to the image; it’s pretty sharp already, but we want it to really stand out from the screen. I applied Unsharp Mask set to 5.0/1/0 (the defaults) as they worked well enough for this photo. Usually, they need changing though, as this can leave image looking “too sharp”.

The final thing to do with any image is to frame it. All shots benefit from having something there which defines their boundaries and locks the whole thing in place. A frame can sometimes be the one thing that makes or breaks an image, and it’s often forgotten. Here I applied a very simple frame by selecting all, choosing Black as the foregound colour then going to Edit->Stroke and setting it to 10px. I then switched the Foregound colour to White, went to Edit->Stroke again and set it to 5px. This created a very thin, simple frame. That was all this shot needed.

Here’s the end result:

A suggested edit

Of course, for every photography/photoshop addict, there is a different way to improve a shot. This is just one way out of many; the bottom line is don’t discard those “almost good” images too quickly or you might just be throwing away gold.

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