Tag Archives: Adobe Photoshop

The Power of Cropping

A 2.35:1 image panned and scanned to 1.33:1. N...

A 2.35:1 image panned and scanned to 1.33:1. Nearly half of the original image has been cropped. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was in school we were still developing film and making prints with an enlarger. Those were wonderful days and I learned a lot about the art of photography that has been beneficial in the digital age. Not so much that I would suggest others go back and learn film before venturing into digital photography, but there are times when those around me have a hard time grasping concepts that were made apparent in the days of dark rooms and strong smelling chemicals.

One of the things I find a lot of new photographers struggle with is cropping. They seem to think there is something sacred about the format their images were created in and are resistant to making any changes. In one of my first photography classes, the teacher picked up a couple of cropping ‘L’s’, two L shaped pieces of cardboard that you could place on top of a print and move around to show various crops. He would go through image after image showing how each could have been improved with a bit of cropping.

The astonishing thing was not simply that they improved but how dramatically they improved. Often someone would put up a print that looked plain and unexciting and the teacher would show how with a quick crop the image would suddenly jump to life. Soon we all had our own cropping ‘L’s’ and we were using them on all of our images before we turned them in. However, there was still an important lesson to be learned.

After using the ‘L’s’ for a while, I noticed that when I was taking pictures I would mentally use them in the viewfinder of my camera to see how I would crop the image when I got it back to the lab. It occurred to me that rather then waiting until then it was possible to crop right in the camera, to move around until most of the superfluous stuff had been eliminated. After all, this is one of the keys to great photography, to rid the image of everything that isn’t absolutely essential. Yet I never would have learned this lesson if I hadn’t first had the practice with hands-on cropping.

These days, cropping is quite easily done with your image manipulation software, so I suggest using this tool a lot until you really master the art of removing the unnecessary. There is real power in cropping, but it is a skill that takes some practice. Try cropping in various ways until you find one that really works. Do worry that a crop won’t fit the average frame, you aren’t really trying to make average images, are you? Instead, look for the drama and power that can be created with a bit of cropping.

One of the challenges will happen when you find that there are two very different ways to crop an image, both equally compelling in spite of being very different. What remains will be a question of the feeling or message each image provokes. You will have reached a high level of your artistic development when you can answer these questions intelligently.

So, whatever you do, ignore the fact that your sensor makes perfect 4:3 or 16:9 images. That isn’t nearly as important as creating beautiful, compelling images that evoke emotions from your viewers. How much better to create a wide panorama out of a landscape shot if that is what the image calls for. It’s a simple tool, but you will be amazed at the results if you learn to use it effectively.

Interest in Camera RAW on the rise

I have been noticing a lot more talk about camera RAW in the forums of late. More and more people are asking about what it is and how they can use it. Camera RAW has experienced a steady growth over the last few years, culminating with the introduction of Adobe Camera RAW 6.6 in the newest versions of Photoshop and Lightroom.

Camera Rig (just getting started...haha)

Image by fensterbme via Flickr

What amazes me most is the fact that so many people, brand new to photography and barely able to work the buttons and dials on their camera properly, are asking questions about RAW processing. I don’t fault anyone for wanting to make better images, but I have heard enough people complain about how their jpg images look better than their RAW images that I wonder at the wisdom of attempting such a technique laden process at such an early stage in the photographic journey.

I have done a good deal of mountain biking and I often hear people talk about courses that are very “technical.” Like the neophyte camera bugs I ventured boldly into the technical areas ignoring the advice of those more experienced. However, I quickly learned that in mountain biking “technical” is a euphemism for “insane.” My son, who is a much better biker than I am, describes his favorite trail like this; “It runs through an old phosphate mine with a six inch path, no room to manuever on the right and a sheer dropoff on the the left. At the bottom of the drop is a lake filled with alligators, including the big one the locals call ‘Big Momma.'” Needless to say, going ‘technical’ in mountain biking can have severe and immediate physical consequences. People venture into that territory with great care.

Not so with Camera RAW. People venture into these technical waters with impunity only to be disappointed with the results. Camera RAW is not the holy grail of photography. I am inclined to agree with Marcel Proust on this subject; “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” You can travel to the far corners of the globe if you like and find breathtaking landscapes on which to use your new tools and techniques and when you get home you are likely to find a 12 year old making better images in his own back yard.

Make no mistake, I love Camera RAW and use it all the time. I have even written a tutorial on the subject for those who want to give it a try. But I am also well aware of the fact that I am going to have to see with “new eyes” if I am ever going to say something of importance with my photography.

What amazes me most is the fact that many of these people have precious little experience in photography and have no business jumping into the rather technical waters of RAW processing. And herein lies a truth that a lot of people miss: real photography is not all that technical because real photography is about “seeing photographically.” It is entirely possible to be a great photographer without ever learning the first thing about camera RAW. As a matter of fact, and don’t expect to every hear this from Adobe, venturing into RAW  to soon can even hinder your growth as a photographer.

Want to get better? Leave the expensive tools alone and spend a lot of time doing something you love: taking pictures. They say that Jimi Hendrix put on his guitar before he put on his pants. A similar approach would serve you well if you want to master your craft like he did. There is no substitute and that includes ACR.

Photography software: where do I get started?

One of the first things photographers look for after purchasing a new digital camera is a good software to manage their images. These programs can do a lot more than make your images look better, though they do that very well. They will also help you organize the images so you can find them later, email them to friends and family and even have them printed. Most of the programs can be divided into two categories; free and not free, but all of them are, sooner or later, compared to the granddaddy of them all: Photoshop.

Adobe Photoshop (PS) is a remarkable tool that is the standard of the industry for artists, designers and photographers the world over. It has a dizzying array of features and adjustments that allow you to create breathtaking images and use them in a variety of settings. However, this great power comes with a steep learning curve and an even steeper price tag. While other programs on the market work hard to offer the most useful tools in PS, they all are variations of the original with adjustments made to features and price.

Adobe’s own theme-in-variation is Photoshop Elements (PSE). It contains many of the same features as its big brother but at a fraction of the price. This is a great choice if you think you may one day choose to upgrade to PS as the tools work the same in both programs. As a matter of fact, newer version of PSE are essentially old version of PS with a few less tools.

Paint Shop Pro claims to have most of the features of Photoshop at a fraction of the price. It certainly has more features than PSE at a similar price but does lack many of PS’s more esoteric flexibility (3D imaging, for instance.) Some feel it is a bit easier to use and is set up to appeal more to traditional artists. However, it handles many tasks differently and is therefore not good training for future PS users.

In the world of free imaging software, GIMP is king. Originally designed for Linus systems, it will now run on any popular system with much of PS flexibility. I find it cumbersome and complicated, but that’s because I went the PSE/PS route. Those who started with GIMP feel it is a fabulous program with no monetary investment.

Picasa is free software from Google and will allow you space to keep your images (much like flickr) and some rudimentary tools for adjusting your images. It’s a great place for beginners to get started to learn some of the capabilities of similar programs though it lacks many of the features of more complex programs.

A new addition to photo imaging software is web-based programs. All of these programs are initially free though most will charge you once your memory requirements exceed a certain threshold. Photoshop has their own version called “Photoshop Express” though it has very limited features, more closely resembling Picasa. Better choices include Picnik, Splashup and Phoenix. Picnik is nice because it is integrated with flickr; Splashup and Phoenix have many of PS’s more useful tools, like layers and compositing.

There has never been a better time to get started in photography. With so many free options it is easy and inexpensive to get started and learn exactly which features mean the most to you. Then you will have a much better idea whether or not the paid features in the bigger programs are worth the extra money.

Getting started in RAW processing

With all the people I hear talking about RAW processing and the many that have come away from their first attempts at RAW rather disillusioned, I thought it only natural to produce a tutorial with a bit of advice for beginners. This will be elementary advice for those relatively new to RAW and should help you produce images that are significantly better than what you get by shooting jpg. However, this is only a beginning, we aren’t even going to get past the first tab, but my hope is that if you can build a little confidence with these tools that you will seek out the advice you need to take this even further. I am going to be talking about Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) that some prepackaged with Photoshop CS, Photoshop Elements and Lightroom. If you use GIMP you may want to download the free processor from UFRAW that will allow you to work on RAW files and then export them directly to GIMP. UFRAW does not work exactly like ACR but you may learn some things from this tutorial that will be helpful. Please forgive me if I skip past some important things you might see in a book, like a description of the interface and the tools found there, I am trying to be brief so I’ll be getting right to the good stuff.

One brief note before we proceed; Adobe has tried to set up the RAW processor in a logical manner. For that reason, the tools you see on the right are arranged roughly in the order you should use them, starting with white balance and ending with saturation. You don’t have to do them in this order, but it is a logical method.

White Balance
One of the very first things you will want to do in RAW is adjust the white balance. This is done with two different tools. The first is the plain eyedropper. You will notice the eyedropper is filled with gray liquid. This is because they do not want you to click it on something pure white, but on something neutral. I usually choose something just off the whitest part of the image, or a shaded white, like the bottom of a cloud or a shadow on a white shirt. Clicking on one of these areas will make an instant change and if you look to the left you will notice that the first two sliders have moved from zero to a new value.

These two sliders control the white balance. One for the warm/cool aspect of the white balance and the other for the green/magenta. When you clicked on the part of the image with the eyedropper, both of these values were adjusted so that the light would be chromatically neutral. However, there is nothing that says you have to stay with this setting. You may find that warming or cooling the image a bit makes an improvement and that is certainly your prerogative. I will tell you that I usually make big adjustments with the warm/cool and very tiny ones with the green/magenta.


Above the sliders at the top/left you will see the images histogram. This is a graphical representation of the tonal values in the image. Each value is measured on a scale of 0 to 255 with 0 being pure black and 255 being pure white. Each channel (red, blue, green) is represented separately and overlapped. What we want to do with the exposure slider is move this graph so that the bottom of the curve just touches the right hand side. If most of your graph is to the left, you may have to push the slider a good deal to the right. If the graph is clipped on the right, try pushing the slider to the left; you may be surprised at the results. Often there is a great deal of image that can be rescued to the right; rarely is that so on the left. Don’t worry about where the left side of the graph ends up. We want to extend it all the way to the left but we will be using a different slider for that.

The next slider is marked “Recovery.” Its purpose is to try to help salvage blown out highlights. If your graph is roughly where you want it and yet you still have some blown out highlights, you may find that pushing this slider to the right will rescue some of that highlight detail. I have had limited success with this slider, but there are times when it will absolutely save and image.

Fill Light
Fill is a wonder. Often when you adjust your graph parts of the image end up being darker than you wanted. The Fill slider will gently brighten these darker tones much as a fill light would but with a great deal more flexibility. Wonderful tool.

I told you earlier that we would be adjusting the bottom of the graph with a different slider and this is the tool. We will be setting the black point by pushing this to the right. I also told you that we usually want to do these things in the order Adobe has given them to us, but this is an exception. Why would we want to adjust Recovery and Fill before setting the bottom of the graph? We wouldn’t; so just this once, skip their recommendation and fix this before continuing on.

RAW Processed Image

Why do you need a brightness slider when you can brighten the image with the exposure slider? Because they work a bit differently. The brightness slider allows you to compress things at the light side of the image with pushing them into the blown out territory, at least not as much as using the exposure slider. If your graph looks good but your image looks a bit dingy try adjusting this.

I recommend you leave this slider alone. It will adjust the overall image contrast and there may be times when that is called for, but most of the time our next slider does a much better job.

The Clarity slider works by increasing mid tone contrast.You will find you can push it nearly all the way to the left and just keeps looking better all the way. Wonderful tool. When used in conjunction with the next two sliders it can really add some punch to your images.

Vibrance and Saturation
Vibrance and Saturation essentially do the same thing with one significant difference; Vibrance has built-in protection for skin tones; make that Caucasian skin tones. This allows you to boost the saturation in an image without making the skin tones look unnatural. Why only white skin tones? Is Adobe racist? No, you’ll find you can boost darker skin tones a lot more without getting that funny orange color so it isn’t really necessary, but for lighter skin tones it can be very helpful.

Personally, I love bright colors and I play with these tools a lot. I feel like I’m shooting Kodachrome again and I’m getting those bright saturated colors I’ve always loved. However, I have also taken Ansel Adams advice to “push it until it looks good, then back off a bit.” (He was talking about his polarizing filter, but the principle is the same.)

By this time you may be exhausted from reading but you should also have a darned good looking image. There is more that can be done in RAW, but these are where the biggest changes are made and where, as I promised, you should be able to make an image that looks a whole lot better than the jpg your camera produces.

RAW Finished Image
(Not my favorite image but it does a great job of illustrating the rather dramatic results possible with RAW processing.)

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