Image editing traps for still life photographers

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There are all sorts of wonderful things you can do with your images in post- production. Unfortunately, there are a few horrors you can inf...

There are all sorts of wonderful things you can do with your images in post- production. Unfortunately, there are a few horrors you can inflict too. From visual clichés to over-processing, We list top five image-editing traps, and mention some useful tips from still life photographers to help you avoid them.

still life photographers


Most people these days appreciate how much post production matters when it comes to creating great images. Almost every digital image needs at least some adjustment after shooting, even it’s just minor alterations to levels and sharpness. But there are limitations to what you can do in post production and its worth remembering that every great image started out as a strong photo captured ‘in camera’. If you don’t have good raw material to start with, it’s hard to improve from there. In fact, that’s where many people make their first mistake. The “I’ll fix it in Photoshop” approach is fraught with danger. There’s a tendency to add effects to compensate for the fact that the image wasn’t very interesting to begin with. And that often leads to a bad image looking even worse. It’s far better to get as close to your the mark as possible when you’re making your image, then simply ‘tweak’ that work in post-production. With so much being done in software these days, it’s almost inevitable that more mistakes will happen at this stage of the image production process. Of course, there are no rules when it comes to image editing. Photography is subjective and it really comes down to what you’re trying to achieve and what you’re comfortable with. Even so, it’s worth keeping in mind that most new photographers are prone to overdoing it and a subtle approach is often better received. A good rule of thumb is that if your edits are noticeable, you’ve probably gone too far. How much is too far? Everyone has there own limits here are ours.

Oh HDR, you’ve gone too far!

When was the last time you saw an HDR image you really liked? I’m talking about that super crunchy effect you see when seven different exposures of a scene are merged into one image where the colours are over saturated and every crack and wrinkle looks like it’s been hand drawn with a 2B pencil. Most of us were seduced by HDR when it first appeared, but it just looks dated now. And all too often HDR is used to disguise the fact that the photo was not that interesting to begin with. If your image doesn’t have much going for it in terms of lighting, composition or subject, no amount of HDR – or any other effect for that matter – will save it. Rather than spending hours in front of the computer, grab your camera and get out there and take a better shot. We’re all for subtle changes to bring back shadow and highlight details, but if the finished product ends up with that crunchy HDR look, you need to start over!

What’s with the halo?

Almost all images can do with some post production sharpening, but there’s a fine line between sharp and ‘what the hell is that?’ A light-coloured halo around the edge of an object is a sure sign you’ve gone too far you need to grab the sharpening slider and move it the other way! It’s important to know you can’t sharpen an outof focus picture. Software sharpening algorithms make the contrast between pixels more pronounced, but no amount of ‘Unsharp Mask,’ ‘Smart Sharpen,’ or ‘Sharpen Edges’ will make an out-of-focus photo look like it’s in focus.

To avoid over sharpening, zoom in to 100 or 200% so you can see what affect your changes have on the fine details in your picture. At 50% you won’t see much at all. Be aware that your image may need more or less sharpening depending on how and where it’s displayed. Prints need more sharpening than images displayed on screen. And the sharpness setting that works for one printer/paper combination may not work for another. Sharpening is one setting that rewards trial and error, particularly in print.

In a program like Adobe Lightroom, sharpening is controlled by four sliders: Amount, Radius, Detail and Masking. Here’s what they do.

Amount:

This one’s pretty obvious – it’s the amount of sharpening or edge contrast. At zero there are no changes, at 100 the software applies the maximum contrast between adjacent pixels. You determine which pixels are affected by the change using the following sliders.

Radius:

This slider determines the size of the area that is sharpened around an edge. You can choose from 0.5 to 3 pixels, but you’ll find that 1 pixel is usually enough. Choosing a Radius setting that’s too high is a common culprit for over-sharpened images.

Detail: The ‘Detail’ slider is a useful tool to control how much the sharpening process emphasises edges. At the zero setting only the largest edges in your image will be sharpened, while at the maximum setting everything is sharpened possibly including some things you may prefer were not sharpened such as image noise and fine wrinkles.

Masking:

The masking slider is a clever tool that lets you create a quick mask to determine which parts of the image are sharpened. At a setting of zero (0), everything is sharpened equally. At a setting of 100, only the most prominent edges are sharpened. In a portrait for example, you may want to sharpen the eyes and the hair, but not pores, freckles and blemishes. Zoom in and move the slider up and down until you get the effect you’re after. And, if you hold the Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac OS) key as you drag the Masking slider you can see the mask in the image window – white areas are sharpened, black areas are protected by the mask.

Too much vignette

Once upon a time, vignettes were mostly caused by light fall-off at the edges of low-quality lenses. These days, the vignettes you see in most images are deliberately added in post production. The advantage of a vignette is that it directs the eye into the image. The idea is that the eye is naturally drawn to the brightest areas of a scene, so by darkening the edges of an image you stop the eye from wandering out of the frame. That keeps the attention on the central part of the image, hopefully where the main points of interest are. Vignettes can work well, but they can also spoil an image if they are applied clumsily. The rule of thumb is, if you can see the vignette it’s probably too strong. Be subtle, tone it down!

Get to know the histogram

You start editing your image, lightening something here, darkening something there, only to realise later that a big chunk of cloud has turned into a bright white detail-free streak at the top of the image! Or a shadow, rather than showing the fine texture of the ground on which it falls (as it once did!), has turned into a featureless black hole. Welcome to the frustrating world of clipping! So, what is it and how can you avoid it?

Clipping occurs when pixels in an image reach their maximum or minimum brightness. Rather than seeing subtle shades of tone and colour, all that lovely detail is replaced by a solid block of black or white. Colours can also be clipped in any of the colour channels – red, green or blue for an RGB image – when the saturation range of a colour is exceeded. The best way to avoid clipping is to keep an eye on the histogram as you edit. The histogram is a graph that indicates the makeup of tones in an image. The horizontal axis represents the range of tones from black on the left, moving through progressively lighter shades of grey, to white on the right. The height of the graph tells you if you have a lot of a particular tone in your image (those areas where the graph is high) or not much at all (where the graph is low). If the histogram is tallest on the left you know there are more dark tones in your image than light. If it is tallest in the middle, you have more mid tones. If it is tallest on the right...well you get the idea!

Now, here’s the important bit. If the histogram looks like it’s pushed up against the left of the graph you can safely assume your shadows have clipped to black. Pushed up on the right and your highlights have blown out.

Keep in mind that not all clipping is bad. If there’s a bright light in your image or you’re photographing something that is true black – say the night sky – you may be happy for some clipping to occur. Most image-editing programs give you the option to turn on a clipping warning to alert you if an area of your image is clipped. In Lightroom the clipping warnings can be turned on and off by clicking the triangles in the top left (shadow warning) and top right (highlight warning) of the histogram. With the clipping warnings switched on, clipped pixels will be displayed as bright red to indicate blown highlights, or bright blue to indicate blocked shadows.

Stay away from clichés!

If you want people to take your work seriously, avoid clichés. Here are a few popular image-editing clichés. They are already overused, so be warned – use them at your peril! Selective

Colour: We’ve all seen this one, and most of us have done it some time. The image is converted to black-and white, except for the model’s deep blue eyes, the little girl’s bright yellow gumboots, or the musician’s golden saxophone. This has been done way too many times to be considered interesting or original.

Frames and borders: Real frames for real prints make sense. The frames you can add in programs like Photoshop Elements and Instagram don’t.

Miniature effect: I am reluctant to include this one because I still quite like it! But the miniature effect has had its day! Unless you have a very specific reason for using it, like you’re shooting a poster for Gulliver’s Travels or The Land of the Giants, steer clear.

Painting effect: It doesn’t look like a painting and it doesn’t look like a photo – it just looks cheesy.

The best retouchers are the ones that can emphasise the strengths of an image, without making it obvious that it’s been retouched at all. Good post-production starts with good photography. If you’re plan is to “fix it in post” you’re likely to be disappointed with the results. First, aim to get it right ‘in camera’, then aim to fine-tune the image with careful – and subtle! post-production edits.

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Photography Workshop: Image editing traps for still life photographers
Image editing traps for still life photographers
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