There was a time when a camera was simply a shutter speed and diaphragm aperture controller that allowed a specific amount of light to reach a film where a photo was going to be captured. Before digital photography, what camera you owned was not a big issue (except for some specific uses); all the details lied on the lenses and the films you used and, unless you were involved at some level in the processing of your film, the control you had over the final product stopped after the shutter was shut again.
With digital photography, the body of the camera became almost as important as the lenses, not only due to the so heavily promoted pixel count but, more importantly, due to the quality of the sensor which determines factors such as sharpness, color depth or dynamic range.
Unfortunately, high quality comes at a price, and not many photographers can spend thousands of dollars buying a state-of-the-art full frame camera and the sometimes even more expensive lenses and are thus left with what their budget allowed them to get, which can be from simple point-and-shoot cameras to entry level DSLRs.
Even though they sometimes achieve great photos, the limitations of point-and-shoot cameras can sometimes be just too important so I think it is worth it to save a few more bucks and go for at least an entry level DSLR.
Now, a great thing about digital photography is that the involvement that you, as a photographer, can have in the post-processing of your images is virtually unlimited. And this is exactly what I want to share in this post: once you open your files in your computer, don’t get disappointed by what you see; you will most probably be able to get a lot out of that single file.
Image blending vs. a single shot
Processing your images can get as complex a process as you want it to be and, lately, blending of several shots to produce a great final result has become more and more popular. However, I want to focus here on the processing of a single file. Let’s start with the following image of the Tower Bridge in London at night.
Even though the photo has interesting elements from the composition point of view, it does not reflect the beauty of the place. Since the scene has a wide dynamic range, with the street lights on the right and the Thames quite dark due to the time when the photo was captured, a lot of details are missing.
Now, the image above is a .jpg file, meaning that no further improvements were made from a RAW file. While you should get used to always shooting in RAW format, I want to illustrate here how much you can actually get from a .jpg file.
The image below shows the same file (without any image blending involved) after some adjustments in Photoshop.
Personal tastes apart, the improvement is remarkable and now the photo is a good representation of what you would see if you were standing there.
Photoshop is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to image processing. However, and this is something that took me a long while to learn, sometimes the greatest results can be achieved with rather basic adjustments. I usually find that the limitation lies in the fact that, when processing a file, we tend to avoid pushing the adjustments too far and this is actually leaving us short from getting the image we want.
With this I mean that you don’t need HDR or overcomplicated processing techniques to get the results you want (at least not all the time!). For instance, for the image of the Tower Bridge I only did four adjustments: sharpening, small adjustments in the color balance,vignetting and brightness/contrast adjustment.
To capture the shot, a Canon 500D (Rebel T1i) with the kit lens (EF-S 18-55mm) was used. I find that both the camera and the lens, even while being a good entry level kit, tend to produce rather unsharp images. This is why, when shooting with this combination, the first step in the processing is usually applying some sharpening. The image below shows the effect of sharpening plus a small adjustment in the brightness.
I won’t go into details about the sharpening here, but this is quite a delicate process. In general, sharpening involved highlighting the fast color and brightness changes (high frequency) of an image so, when applied in a rather careless manner, it tends to produce a lot of noise, especially in flat areas such as the sky or the river. This is why sharpening should always be applied selectively by using sophisticated processes such as frequency separation, or by simply making use of layer masks.
In terms of color, the image looks a bit too blue to me. This is why I decided to make it a bit warmer in order to better catch the colors of the artificial illumination on the bridge itself. This can be easily made in Photoshop using a Hue/Saturation or a Color Filter layer. The result is shown below.
The next step consists in applying a vignette in order to highlight the main subject (the bridge) in order to guide the viewer’s eye towards it. This is a trick that, when used carefully, works well in almost every type of image, but especially for landscapes and cityscapes. As with other adjustments, there are different way to do this in Photoshop like using external plug-ins or applying a Gradient mask and adjusting the values to get the desired result. The image below shows the result of applying a vignette.
Now, this image is already an image I would be happy with. It has a relatively good dynamic range (achieved thanks to the brightness adjustment and the vignetting) and the colors are well balanced. However, there is a trick I learned throughout the years and that is, whenever I think I’m done with the processing of a specific photo, I take a final step adding a Brightness/Contrast layer and pushing both values up.
It is quite hard to predict how an image will look after increasing the contrast and this does not always work, but I have been consistently pleased when I go back to old images that I processed a while ago and simply do this. Many times I end up deleting my old images from wherever I posted them and replacing them by the new one with the increased contrast. And usually, since an increase in the contrast tends to make the image look darker, an increase in the brightness is necessary as well.
The image below is the final result of the processing. It is the same image I already showed at the beginning of the post after the original image.
Notice how the increase in the contrast enhances the effect of previously applied layers such as the vignette and it also makes the colors look more vivid without changing their saturation. This is something that works especially well with black and white images.Unless you are used to doing this, I encourage you to go to any image you like in your own collection and apply this simple step.
Apply a Brightness/Contrast mask, move the contrast slider up to about 50 and then increase the brightness until you are happy with the result. As I said, it does not always work, but most probably you will be surprised with what this single step can make to your images.
So in general, don’t lose motivation if you cannot get the camera you want. Sometimes, having an entry level camera can actually be good for your learning process, since you will learn a lot of tricks to get the most out of what you have and once you are able to upgrade your camera, you will already be a much better photographer and that will help you to take advantage of the great features that come along.