Tag Archives: Graphics

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.


An old song with a new twist

According to some art historians this is the finest painting ever. It was painted by Diego Valezquez in Spain in 1656. Why would they make such I claim? I’ll try to answer that in the following paragraphs, but first, I want to ask another question.

What would happen if you were to try to duplicate an old painting master work with your camera? What would it look like? Would you try to duplicate the original effect as closely as possible? Or would you try to give the old song a new twist? This is exactly the question asked by the Remake Project. The project, sponsored by Adobe, offered £10,000 to the winner. The assignment was to remake an old masterpiece using a camera and, ostensibly, Photoshop. The results are interesting for several reasons.

First, there is a great deal to be learned from the Old Masters. These images have stood the test of time for a number of reasons so examining, even mimicking them, could provide some important insights. As a matter of fact, painters do this all the time, copying each others work to develop new skills and perspectives. I applaud the effort and am intrigued by the results.

However, it also seems apparent from the results that the students who took these images were concentrating on duplicating the what they saw without closely examining why the image was so important. (See for yourself here.) Let’s take a look at one of the images to illustrate the point.

The painting “Las Meninas“(above) is a portrait of the Royal Family of Spain where Valezquez served as a court painter. In it you see the child, Infanta Margarita, displaying her new dress, her ladies-in-waiting (meninas), the family dog (in a dignified pose), a couple of court midgets, and the chamberlain in the doorway. King Philip IV loved this painting and had it hung in his personal quarters where he could see it every day. Clearly the artist has done his job well of depicting  a private moment in the life of the royal family. And while this may have been King Philip IV’s favorite painting, it’s not what makes it such I standout piece.

If you look a bit closer you will see that Valezquez has also painted himself into this image. As a matter of fact, it would be appropriate to call this a self portrait. Notice that to the far left, standing taller than anyone else in the room is the artist himself. Has he painted himself as being a bit above the king and queen reflected in the mirror beside him? It appears he has. What’s more, look at the easel and canvas he is painting on. Is it not the biggest thing in the room? Does it not appear that Valezquez is saying that he sees himself and his work as being more important than what is going on around him? I seems he has.

What’s more, you will notice that the painter wears the red cross of royalty on his chest.This has huge significance. In Valezquez time painting was a trade like blacksmith or baker. Valezquez got his job in the palace because he had a university degree, and he was really good with a brush.  His dream was to one day rise above the level of skilled laborer to be equal with the royals but the prospects weren’t good. Eventually King Philip decided Valezquez should get the promotion and the royal cross that went with it, but that was three years after this painting was completed. When he got the promotion, Valezquez asked to have the painting back so he could paint the cross on his chest.

If you understand all these things you begin to appreciate that there is a lot more going on in this image than most people see. There’s more, but we will get to that in a minute. Right now I want to talk about a photograph that tries to duplicate the feel of this image.

This is how Natalie Pereira’s saw this image.

In many ways she has faithfully reproduced the essentials of the painting. We see the courtiers, the dog, even the royal midget. And sure enough, there is the artist standing somewhat above them all. But I can’t help but wonder, if Ms. Pereira had understood the story behind the painting, the artists view of his own importance and subsequent promotion, would she have photographed this a different way?





One thing we do know is that Salvador Dali understood the true meaning of this painting. Of course, Dali was a fellow Spainard as well as painter, though his purposes were very different. Like many other artists, he paid homage to the great Valesquez in his own unique way. He titled his painting “Valezquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory.” Dali demonstrates that as a fellow painter, he knows exactly what Valezquez has done. He has painted a portrait that seems to feature a little girl of royal lineage, but has really painted a tribute to himself. The great irony is that he slipped it past his employers and eventually got what he desired most.

Now let’s not disparage Ms. Pereira. She was a student at the time and she did a superlative job with her image. The question here is whether or not a better understanding of why a painting has been so successful for hundreds of years might give us more clues that we can put to good use in our own work? I think you already know my answer to that question.



Valezquez’ painting holds one more surprise for us; one you may have already noticed. Everyone in the painting appears to be  somewhat surprised. They have stopped what they are doing in order to look in the direction of the viewer. Ostensibly, the king and queen, reflected in the mirror, have just entered the room and everyone has stopped to  acknowledge them. This quality of everyone looking in our direction gives the painting a bit of a cheeky quality. All of the people, from the chamberlain in the doorway to the painter at work and the child on display, all seem to be looking directly at you and me. From across the ages Valezquez has turned the tables on us. He and the courtiers of King Philip’s reign are looking at us, wondering who it is that is looking at them. All these years we have been staring at them and now Valezquez has turned the table. The characters are looking at us. Do they have a question for us? Do we have an answer? This is truly one of those images that has the power to be a little different every time you look at. If you want to be a great artist, whether with a brush or a camera, this is one of the things you need to aspire to.


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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