Jazzing Up Your Image – The Process

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Once again, as you read this, I will likely have been stuffed into a long metal tube with a huge mob of other flesh and bone humans and am presently leaving a trail of noxious fumes across the frigid night sky between Honolulu and Phoenix. At Phoenix, I’ll hustle from one winged meat wagon to another and arrive, hungry, tired and lonely in Indianapolis. I pray the ground will not be white. I’ll be greeted by an old friend who will house and feed me for my time in Indy. My life today depends pretty much on the love of friends. That’s a good thing. It keeps me going, sometimes even when I’d rather not go.

Faithful reader DogsDon’tPurr commented that she would like to see some step-by-step illustrations of how a digital image is processed in order to produce a more pleasing image, according to the likes of the photographer. I had to think that over for all of five minutes. I’m pretty much running out of material here in Honolulu, so I grabbed a couple of illustrative images from my camera and recorded intermediate steps in my processing so that I can show the steps which I take to prepare my images for presentation. If you feel yourself getting drowsy, switch to another channel.

I don’t suggest that my method of working with images is any better than anyone else’s. Each image maker needs to tailor a sequence which feels right. I used Photoshop for these images, but similar results can be achieved with any image manipulation program, providing it has tools sufficient for the task.

I chose the first image to make a point. The shot as it comes from the camera does not need to be perfect. That’s why we have software to fix them. Practically nothing gets from my camera directly to these pages. I fiddle with every image until I’m happy with it. I took this yesterday evening at sunset from the apartment of a friend:

As it is, it’s a throw-away. There are so many problems with it that I’d bore you to list them. In fact, it’s so bad that I knew from experience that I would never end up with an image which looked “natural”, so I had it in mind from the beginning to go for the “vintage postcard” look. With an image like this, that’s what you’ll end up with anyway, so it’s best to just go with the flow.

First I lightened it up a bit and straightened the buildings.

Next, I had to decide what portion of the image I really wanted in the finished product. I used a cropping tool to remove the obtrusive building to the right and a little of the building on the left along with some of the bottom of the shot:

Now that I look at it on the page, I wish I’d removed the small building on the right also. I could easily make it vanish, but I’ll leave that for another time. What’s left is what I want to show. That’s cropping.

Then I lightened up the lower part of the image because all detail was buried in the shadows. Photoshop has a special tool for lightening up dark parts and darkening light parts in the same operation. I use it often for such images:

Now I can see some detail in the dark part at the bottom, but the colour is dismal.

So, I go to work on it with a tool that allows me to modify the hue of selected colours. I’m dealing mostly with green, so I need to take magenta out and add lots of cyan and yellow:

In the same operation I also took some cyan out of the red, which richend and warmed the sky a bit. The greens are now much brighter, but there is already an artificial look to the image, because I’m trying to create something from nothing. Now we’re crossing over into interpretation. I’m making it up as I go.

Next, I lightened the entire image. Then I used a special selection tool in Photoshop to select only the sky and I increased the saturation and contrast. This livened up the sky considerably:

I also lightened up the buildings and increased the contrast to give them some depth.  In this step I had to fix each little balcony on the building on the left. Some of them had furniture on them. I removed it all. You may have to click to enlarge to see what I’m talking about. You may note that I brightened up the lights in the buildings.

After looking at the image for a while I decided I may as well go the final step in jazzing it up. I did not like the strong blue cast in the clouds on the horizon, so I desaturated them to make them grey, leaving just the tops bluish. I also selected the top third of the image and made a graduated edge on the selection (I “faded” it on the bottom edge). I darkened this area to make the sky more dramatic. It’s an old movie trick:

There we have it. A “Vintage Postcard” shot from Honolulu. And, this proves the point:

Aloha.

For the next demo, I decided to use an example of an image which is not so shabby right out of the camera. You could print this water lily shot and put it in your photo album with reasonable pride. It’s a “lucky” shot:

Ah, some, however, are never satisfied. I can see the possibilities, but it needs some work. This is a sister image to one I put on these pages a while ago. The bee is just facing the other way.

First, I brightened up the entire image and cropped it so that it conforms more to my sense of composition which is biased strongly towards the Rule of Thirds (if you don’t know, you can use my search box):

On my Canon G11 I tend to shoot images slightly underexposed as it seems to give me better saturation of the colours. Maybe I’m dreaming. It’s just a feeling. I haven’t done any side-by-side comparisons to prove it. While I’m rambling photographically, I’ll mention that I’m going crazy trying to edit images on this five year old Toshiba notebook. The screen is horrible. The slightest change of angle changes the contrast drastically and the room lighting makes a dramatic difference. I know the quality of my images has suffered since I left my huge, high quality graphics monitor in Madang. It’s an ancient Sony CRT terminal, but I love it.

The difference in the next image is subtle. If you look at the centre of the blossom, it will appear less colourful than the image before. It may appear to be a step backward:

What I was doing was changing the balance of colours in the center to bring up some subtle shading which was barely discernable in the original. I’ll fix the drabness in the next step, but if I did that first, I’d be unable to get back the shading in the centre which makes the details there more visible.

Here I’ve restored the vibrancy of the colours and sharpened the detail. The greens were still pretty dull and there was little to work with there. I jazzed them up as much as I could without making them look too fake:

I also selectively brought out the bee by brightening only the mid-brightness areas, leaving the shadows dark. For “naturalness”, I’d call this image finished.

Yet, the image still lacked zing. After scratching my head for a while, I decided to abandon all caution and dip into the Artistic Filters in Photoshop. For this shot I chose Poster Edges and applied it with some restraint:

It’s easy to go too far with Poster Edges. All I wanted was just a bit more outlining of the petals and a little more definition of the detail in the centre of the blossom.

There. It’s done.

I’ve known a great number of people who had a good eye for an image and produced great pictures, but were unhappy with their images for a variety of reasons. All of these vague dissatisfactions can be evaporated by a little patience learning to use a few tools in an image editing program. One doesn’t have to spend anything to get in the game. There are lots of free choices. Though not as slick, GIMP is a good editing program that will do just about everything that Photoshop will do, at least the things that a sane person would want.

I’ve taught many people to edit their images in just a few sessions of an hour or two. Once one is “over the hump” of the learning curve, self instruction is easy, considering the huge number of free tutorials available on the web.

The initial learning process can be a little frustrating, as I do not allow one to write down keystroke-by-keystroke instructions. I have found that rapid progress and retention come from understanding the process rather than memorizing the steps. I’ve also found that a glass of nice Merlot makes the whole learning experience much more enjoyable for both student and teacher.

Imagine that.

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8 Responses to “Jazzing Up Your Image – The Process”

  1. DogsDontPurr Says:

    Wow! That was really quite interesting to see those transformations. I could see myself fiddling on an image for hours, not knowing when to stop. I have that problem when I paint: when to stop? I always have to remind myself that “less is more” before the painting becomes muddy. If only there was an “undo/edit” button for painting on canvas!

    Your images always look so effortlessly beautiful, so it is fascinating to see behind the scenes at all the work that really goes on. Thanks for posting this!

  2. MadDog Says:

    DogsDontPurr, I’m glad that you enjoyed the post which you inspired. It does take a lot of time in the beginning, when you’re learning to put your own technique together, but after a while you can zip right through it. I spend no more than ten or fifteen minutes on the average shot. Some far less. Once in a while I might take the better part of an hour, but that is usually when an image requires a lot of editing at the pixel level, which is quite rare. Photoshop CS5 has a marvelous “healing in context” tool which saves a lot of time cleaning up little imperfections.

    I imagine that some people must think I have a fantastic camera and am a superb photographer. It’s nice to show that the trick is mostly in the editing.

  3. kristy Says:

    This is like time travel! Your post reads April 22, yet it is April 21 here. To top it all off, Hawaii is 3 hours behind us!!! The quantum physics of it all is mind boggling!!
    Fun to see how the photos go through a process!!

  4. ZydecoDoug Says:

    Welcome back to the Lower Forty-Eight, MadDog. It might take some getting used to reading the new posts from your old stomping grounds. You know, A Daily Journal of a Permanent Resident of Paradise, reporting from enchanted Indianapolis. Those sunrise, sunset pictures along the White River or the Central Canal will certainly provide a different perspective.

    Somehow, though, I’m sure you’ll find a way to make the best of your visit to a place so far away from the nearest coral reef, where palm trees flourish only in shopping malls and greenhouse gardens.

    At least you won’t see snow…unless you happen to travel north a couple hundred miles into Michigan.

  5. ZydecoDoug Says:

    Then again, snow will be least of your concerns. Watch out for tornadoes! Can’t imagine you see many of them in PNG. Perhaps an occasional waterspout. But those monsters live and breathe destruction in the Midwest, especially as of late.

  6. MadDog Says:

    Well, Kristy, that’s all because when I left Oz I didn’t change both my time and zone on my computer and the zone in the WordPress settings. No wonder it’s confusing.

  7. MadDog Says:

    ZydecoDoug, it’s always a shock to come back to Indiana for a multitude of reasons. It’s especially hard this time, because half of my brain is missing, along with half of my courage. Just getting a cell phone this afternoon and figuring out how to make it actually work was an exercise in frustration. I have to go to Wisconson and then Canada in about three weeks. I hope I can put off any snow experiences until then.

  8. MadDog Says:

    Right, ZydecoDoug. We do have waterspouts on occasion and I suppose that one occasionally wanders onto land. However, I have never seen one. I remember tornadoes from when I lived here a long time ago. Eunie and I once went to a Grateful Dead concert on an evening when tornadoes were ripping through central Indiana. It was a scary night. Not many were there. Those who did come were given free tickets to a Peter Frampton concert the following evening. Sometimes boldness pays off.