One of the best things that digital photography has given photographers is the "digital darkroom". I'll spare readers the boring, old spiel about how it was much harder "back in the day". The simple fact is, Photoshop and similar editing software packages have opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for post-processing of our images, from salvaging less-than-perfect shots to achieving wondrous special effects.
That's not always a good thing.
There are a few inherent problems with using such powerful tools. One of the most important is the tendency to become too reliant on the software. Another is the "kid in a candy store" syndrome, i.e. the temporary loss of quitting sense that comes with the sheer delight of what's laid out before us. I point these out because you'll see them as a recurring theme in the items I'm about to list. I'll revisit those themes at the end of this piece. First, let's look at the list:
1. Sharpening to correct focus: Ok, let's have a show of hands; how many readers have tried to salvage an out-of-focus image by sharpening it? Alright, hands down. We can't see them, anyway. (Yes, mine was raised.)
Please note that I didn't simply specify over-sharpening. That's a completely different problem. What we're talking about here is using sharpening of any kind to magically fix a poorly focused image. The bottom line is that it doesn't work and it can actually emphasize the problem. This is especially true in images for print. Digital sharpening can add impact to an image and is always a good idea. Using it to "fake" proper focus isn't.
Solution: This one isn't rocket science. Getting the focus right is the solution. If you're getting lots of out-of-focus images, adjust your viewfinder's diopter and make sure you understand how the AF settings for your camera and lenses work. Take a few test shots through the viewfinder, then using the LCD and compare. Switch to manual focus and see if there's a difference. Remember that glasses, particularly those with multi-vision lenses, can cause unexpected issues with focusing. Get to know how your equipment works with your eyewear.
2. Over-sharpening: There, I said it, after all. As mentioned above, this is a separate issue and sharpening can almost always add crispness to an image. Unfortunately, if it's overdone, it can also increase noise, emphasize artifacts and create unwanted effects like halos.
Solution: First and foremost, always sharpen while at 100% view, even if you have to scroll around the image. Second, get to know different sharpening methods. Sharpen, Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask, for instance, can all produce very different results. Experiment with selective sharpening by selecting a portion of the image to enhance. Finally, I always achieve the best results by making sharpening the last step in the editing process.
3. Over-saturation: One of the tendencies we develop in trying to make our photos stand out is to push the colors to the limit. There's nothing wrong with that; the most successful pros often "lie" a little bit by producing images with more color than was actually perceived. Acheiving this by increasing saturation becomes a problem when it's pushed to the point that details are lost and posterization starts to occur. Highlights blow out, halos develop and otherwise good images deteriorate quickly.
Solutuion: Start with creating the colors in-camera. Proper exposure is the first step. Remember to expose for the highlights. Bracketing exposures is always a good idea, too. One of the most natural ways to enhance the colors in a scene is with a circular polarizing filter.
In post-processing, learn to properly use the histogram and keep it open when adjusting your images. It's much better than your eye at indicating clipping of highlights and shadows. Try using the Levels setting in Photoshop before adjusting saturation. I also recommend the Sponge tool in Photoshop to adjust saturation selectively and gradually. Most of all, keep in mind that less is more.
4. Pushing the contrast: One of the fastest ways to make an image "pop" is to increase the overall contrast. Unfortunately, it's also one of the fastest ways to cause blowout. This is another problem that can be particularly pronounced when printing an image.
Solution: If possible, adjust your lighting before taking the shot. Learn how light quality affects contrast and how to make adjustments. Filters can also increase or decrease contrast in many situations.
When it's necessary to make contrast adjustments after the shot, make them subtly. Always keep an eye on the highlight and shadow areas to ensure that detail is retained. Try Photoshop's Auto Contrast, but don't use it blindly. If you're planning to print the image, allow for contrast buildup at the printer. (This is something you'll need to experiment with.)
Now, about those themes: I sincerely hope that, in reading the list above, you noticed a couple of common threads. Remember those 2 themes I said I'd revisit?
While there are many incredibly good photo editing applications available today, none of them are a substitute for knowing what makes a good image, knowing how to use your equipment, or making the effort in the field or studio. Great images start before you release the shutter and relying on editing software to make you a better photographer is a recipe for failure.
That isn't to say you shouldn't use editing software. The key to using it successfully lies in learning to make the most of the least. Photo enhancement should be a subtle process, unless your intent is to completely alter an image.
Avoiding these common mistakes is a great first step in improving the overall quality of your photos. I know they've helped with mine.
Article By: Dana Crandell