You do not have to be satisfied with your digital photos when you see them straight out of the camera (SOOC as the Flickr community would put it) or when the prints come back from Costco (or wherever).
Without investing in expensive software, without taking a two-year course in digital photo editing and processing, you can easily make great improvements to the photos you take. With a bit of practice you can create some really nice effects which will greatly enhance your photos.
What can you do after you have taken the photo?
Basic corrections and enhancements
These are just a few of the ways you can improve your photos after you have taken them.
Crop. This is a very basic and very useful change you can make. Simply cut out those parts of the photo that you don’t want.
Rotate/Straighten. You took a great shot at the beach. Everything is perfect except the sea seems to be tilting over at about 20° to one side. Very annoying. But very common. It’s easy enough to straighten this out by rotating the image and cropping it in…all fixed and no one will think you were drunk when you took the photo.
Exposure. You can lighten or darken your photo to compensate for a poor exposure. This does have some limitations and if you try anything too extreme you’re going to lose quality. So don’t get sloppy about your exposure at time of shooting. Be particularly careful not to overexpose too much. If the highlights are blown out, nothing you can do will bring them back. But if the face of the main subject is too dark, you can lighten it. If the landscape or the sky looks washed out, you can darken it. It is easy to make overall changes in the lightness or darkness of your photo.
Color balance. You took the photo indoors under tungsten light and it’s all yellowy orange. Or you shot with flash and don’t like the way the person’s skin looks – a bit blue and cold. Now what? It’s a very simple matter to take out that overall color cast so that you have a photo which is neutral (that means the whites are white, the grays are gray and the blacks are black and all other colors look like they should). You can also use this creatively. Perhaps the colors look just like they did in the original scene but you want to “warm them up” so it looks more like late evening or early morning. You can do this too. Cheating? Not at all.
Contrast. If your photo looks too flat and lacking in sparkle, it may be a problem with contrast. This is easy to adjust. Or maybe it is too contrasty and you want it to look less harsh. You can go both ways.
Color saturation. Colors can be too washed out and lacking in intensity. They can also be too “hot” where it starts to look unnatural. Either way, you can adjust the saturation and vibrance in your photo on even the most elementary of photo editing software.
Red eye. This can be awful. But is also quite easy to correct.
Retouching. Do you know that you would have had to pay about $75 an hour to have someone take a mole off someone’s face or remove some spots in a negative or slide? It used to be done by skilled artists by painting dyes and colors onto negatives or slides. Now even very simple and basic software programs let you do this for nothing in the comfort of your own living room. This is great for taking out spots and blemishes and perhaps an empty beer can sitting right in the foreground of your photo, etc. etc.
Sharpness. While you will not be able to make something appear in focus when you took it out of focus in the camera, you can make a photo look sharper overall with some adjustment of the sharpness. It can look crisper and snappier. This needs to be used in moderation and you should experiment. Sometimes when you go to print, if you have oversharpened, the print looks terrible. Used in moderation this is a very useful tool. You can also go the other way and reduce sharpness or increase blur for a softer look.
Vignetting. With some lenses you can get some vignetting. This shows up as darker corners on your photo. It is not difficult to correct.
Color to B & W or toning or many other effects. You took the photo in full color but now you look at it you think it might make look great in black and white and you might like to add a sepia tone to give it that vintage look. Many basic photo editing software programs come with a whole slew of built-in effects which require no more than a mouse click to apply. And if you don’t like that effect, you can try another.
So how do you start? Well, you probably have software on your computer already which will let you do much of this. If you have a recent Mac, you have iPhoto built in. It can do almost all of the above plus some more things that we haven’t covered. It comes with video tutorials which will very quickly enable you to get up to speed.
On Windows you have many choices and the chances are you have the software on your PC already which will allow you to make these changes to your photos. Just fire up the program, open one of your photos, and start experimenting.
My advice? If you are on a Mac it’s simple. Use iPhoto until you are ready to move on to Aperture if you are going that route. Or get Lightroom and start cataloguing your photos and fixing them as you go. You can make all the above corrections with Lightroom and Aperture. Lightroom can be used on a PC or a Mac.
Then, as you find there are things you want to do that these programs don’t quite have the capability for, I would suggest Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. The big daddy of all the photo editing programs is Adobe Photoshop. There is no end to what you can do with a photo using Photoshop.
BUT – important BUT – remember that the more care you put into your original photo to get it correctly exposed, well lit, properly composed, in focus and sharp, the better your final result is going to be, even (or especially) after editing.
David © Phillips is a professional writer and photographer living in Seattle, WA. You can find out more about him and his work at www.dcpcom.com. All photographs in this article are copyright David C Phillips 2010.