Photography - Editing

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For those times when the shot didn't turn out right, or you want to do something with it that was impossible at the time, one of the things you can do with your photos is to clean them up with some Photo Editing software. Before you do any editing, I have one important piece of advice for you:

Never work directly on your original image. Always make a copy of the original, put the copy into another directory, and work on the copy. This will allow you to return to the original source material at a later date. If you alter your only image, and you make a mistake, you are screwed.

Original is too Dark

Here is the too-dark picture from the Basics page. (Notice that I still have the original.) Even though I made a mistake when taking the picture, it is still salvageable.

Lunchbreak Original
Lunchbreak Altered
After altering levels

I use a program called Photoshop Elements, from Adobe, for all my editing needs. It is a less expensive version of Photoshop, which is a professional program. Since I don't have a need for all of the extra features found in the professional software, Elements works fine for me.

I decided to adjust the brightness of the picture by creating a new adjustment layer and altering the levels on that layer. The only drawback to that plan is the two window panes on the far right. These are already well-lit. If I try to lighten the entire picture by the same amount, these two window panes will be so bright that the details in them will be lost in a briliant blob. (A professional would say the windows would be blown out.) To prevent this, I used the "lasso" selection tool (most programs have a similar function, even if it is called something different) to draw a boundary around the two window panes. Then I inverted the selection by picking Invert Selection from the Edit menu. This leaves me with everything selected except the windows. When I create my adjustment layer, it only applies to the select area. This is called a selection mask in Photoshop Elements. Other photo editing software likely has similar capabilities. Then I adjusted the brightness levels until it appeared to match the brightness of the windows without the colors being too far off from what I saw when I took the picture. This is an example of a too-dark picture that is easily turned into a great picture with some minor alterations.

Restoring an Old Photo

Here is an example of an old photo that I restored. This is a picture of my Step-Father's Uncle "Slid". (I'll bet there's a great story behind where that nickname came from, but my Step-Father doesn't know what it is.) The picture has faded over time, there are cracks across the face of the original photo, the person taking the picture was standing too far away from the young man in the picture, and the camera was being held at an odd angle. I scanned the original picture into my computer with a flatbed scanner. This is a convenient way to put a conventional film-based picture into the computer. Once it is in the computer, a photograph can be manipulated the same as any image taken by a digital camera.

Uncle Slid Original
Uncle "Slid" Original
Uncle Slid Restored
After rotating, cropping and repairing

The first thing I did was to rotate the picture clockwise by 10 degrees. This made the person in the image stand up straight, but left the picture with a cock-eyed edge. I solved this problem by cropping the image in a rectangular pattern. This not only made sure that the remaining picture looked square again, but also got rid of a lot of the tall grass that seems to dominate the picture. I could have cropped it more, but I didn't want to cut off the chimney or the gentleman's feet. Besides, the portion of the building in the background is mostly clear and unfaded.

By rotating and croping, this picture becomes much more interesting, but there was still more to do. The cracks, stains and dirt needed to come out next. By using the "clone" tool, I was able to do some restoration, but had difficulty completely eliminating the crack that runs across the middle. You can still see where it was if you look hard enough, but it is much less noticable. The restoration and improvement is complete, for now, but I could go back to the original image and try it again when I have more experience with the editing techniques available to me. I have learned a lot in the two years that I have been shooting digital, but there is always room for improvement.

The Sky is Missing!

There are times when the picture you took doesn't look as good as you hoped it would turn out. These are perfect for some digital "sweetening". Below is a picture I took of a building in town. It looks OK, but there is something odd about it. The sky is so blown out it looks completely white. I swear, there was blue there when I snapped the shutter. Honest. But because I was facing into the sun, the automatic exposure on the camera brightened the entire image until the front of the building (in the shadows) was properly exposed. This faded the sky to a featureless haze.

Building with no sky
Building with no sky
Substitute sky
Substitute sky
Building with new sky added
Building with new sky added

I used the "magic wand" tool to select the sky. (Yes, that is really what it is called.) If anything else in the image that is not sky was also selected, I removed it from the selection with the "remove" mode of the selection tool. I then used the "erase" tool to erase everything that was inside the selection area. This left me with just the buildings. I created a new layer, and pasted a copy of the sky I wanted to use. (I take pictures of well-formed clouds and sky that I like, and keep them in a separate "stock shots" folder for just such an occasion. Tree lines and grass, too.) I altered the layer order so that the "buildings" layer is on top of the "sky" layer. Voila! A much nicer-looking shot than the original.

One thing is common with all these examples. If everything was done properly, unless I explain the changes to you like this, the finished image should not look "doctored". It should just look like good photography.

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June 24, 2005