Photography Tips by Pablo Raw – Digital Photo enhancement and manipulation

I never was a film photographer; my only experience with film was with disposable cameras. As you know, the art of film processing is becoming more and more rare, as digital photography becomes more and more popular.

I was taking photos of an event a while ago, and a person who apparently is a photographer mentioned that, today with digital cameras, “anyone can be a photographer”. I guess that has some truth to it, because basically any person can press the shutter of even the most advanced DSLR set to “auto” and take a photo. What makes a difference is the knowledge necessary for taking command of the camera and the processing of the photos. Photos as produced by the camera, (either raw or jpeg files) are not completely processed or could be further processed to achieve the artistic vision of the photographer, in the same way that film needs to be processed in the dark room.

Usually when you buy a digital camera, you’ll get a CD that contains some kind of photo enhancement software, because, as mentioned before, photos will need or could be enhanced. Only rarely do I take a photo that doesn’t need any enhancement, and that may be related to my lack of experience with film. Why do I say that? I have found that photographers that transitioned from film to digital are more interested in getting the photo right as it comes out of the camera, rather than relying on software to do many of the adjustments.

Continues after the jump.

When some people see professional photos, and compare them to theirs, they see a huge difference. They may not be aware that, in addition to the skills and experience of the photographer, there is a certain amount of processing that really makes the photo stand out. That used to be done with chemicals in a dark room, and today we do it on a computer screen.

With the use of enhancement software, you are able to increase saturation, contrast, brightness, and crop your photo to the desired proportions. The problem with the basic type of software that comes with your camera is that the enhancements are applied to the whole picture. It’s possible that by correcting some areas, you may be damaging the ones that are already right.

Enter Photoshop and all its relatives (Elements, Lightroom, etc.). These programs use layers, masks and advanced selection tools that allow the user to edit the specific parts of the photo that need it. These programs even go beyond the enhancement of the photos, and allow the user to do image manipulation, altering images so that they no longer represent reality.

My personal choice of software is called The Gimp. The Gimp can do a lot of the same things that Photoshop does, but it can be downloaded for free from the internet. As you can see, I have hundreds of rea$on$ for using The Gimp.

If your computer has the right hardware and software, I recommend downloading and trying The Gimp or other similar programs. When you learn about the use of layers and masks, the possibilities are endless! It really is worth learning and there are lots of tutorials on the internet. Amazing effects like the addition of textures, vignettes, sharpness, blur and others will help you improve your photos in an incredible way.

Take for example desaturation, which is what is normally used to create black and white photos from color. With basic software, you have no power over what happens to your photo; the black and white version looks a little bit flat like when you make a copy on the copy machine. With The Gimp, you can use the Channel Mixer to create black and white photos with lots of tones and contrast.

Or perhaps you take a photo of a beautiful landscape only to find that you can either get a nice sky and totally dark trees, or nice looking trees with a washed out sky. With software like The Gimp, you can edit the sky or the trees separately, getting the best of each. In a case like this, I usually try a technique called HDR (High Dynamic Range). In a future column we’ll talk about HDR and how this amazing technique can help you get great photos by blending three or more photos with different exposures.

Are there other Gimp users in PoPville? How do you guys process your photos?

Hasta luego!

28 Comment

  • bejeezus, give me strength.

  • Nice column Pablo.
    I used DPP (Digital Photo Professional), the free RAW conversion and image processing software that comes with Canon DSLRs and the G series. In addition, I use Photoshop Elements 9, which retails around $80, for stitching together panoramas, doing HDR, and other effects(though I do try to get the exposure etc as close as possible in-camera, having formerly shot film back in the 1990s). Always shoot in RAW!

  • The subway one is cool (though not too different from the orig), but the others? Yee-ikes.

    • I actually think the untouched metro pic is better. the modified version has lost all tone in between black and white, rendering it dark and muddy… but honestly, they’re both boring. I think relying on post production of photographs is a sign that the photography is weak. that is, unless you are going for some weird photoshop mashup like the fairy… which isn’t my cup of tea.

      every digital photograph that I’ve seen printed as “art” has left me disappointed at the disappearance of film in art photography. I understand that it’s much more practical for business, design, web, and probably photo journalism, but even in the Museum of Natural History, Nat’l Geo, and other reputable galleries I still think digital photography sucks.

      • Fair point. Reconsidering, I think I liked it simply because it is the least dreadful of the four.

        I actually think the untouched one of the stream/mist is the best from a technical standpoint.. not sure why a toxic green needed to be added.

    • also, it’s just lame to rely on effects to make a boring photograph hold someone’s interest. case in point, the one of great falls.

  • Nice post Pablo. I’ve only used Windows Live Gallery’s editing features, which are quite limited. I’ve downloaded GIMP but haven’t taken the time to really explore and learn it.

  • Bring out The Gimp.

  • I’ve been using Gimp for a while, but mainly because I typically do work on a machine running Linux, and Gimp was often the best tool available when needing to do minor photo editing.

  • But at what point is a photograph no longer a photograph, but rather a picture? I’m not denying that photoshop et al. can greatly enhance a photo through cropping or color enhancement(the subway example above is a good one); you are making the photograph the best that that photograph can be. To me photographs reflect reality, so when you start messing drastically with colors (such as the sky example above) or adding things in (the fairy example above), it’s not really a photograph any more.

    • I understand your point, but I think the distinction, if there can be one, has to be more nuanced than to find the line between reality versus not. photographs have never fully reflected “reality,” just the viewpoint of the photographer. Digital cameras and software have just allowed us to push that envelop of the photographer’s reality further.

      • Yes, but angels wings are not anyone’s reality (in the above example). Neither is green water. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with this, but it’s not a photograph anymore.

        • “Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with this, but it’s not a photograph anymore.” I guess this is the point I was trying to make (not very well though, sorry) – that you’re defining a photograph as reality when that has never really been true. Photographers have always messed around with their images in post-processing to evoke what they want to evoke, even if you they didn’t hit you over the head with it and you can’t tell anything has been manipulated.

  • Is it wrong to dislike the first pic of the little boy because the shadow clearly does not match the shape of his body? I mean, at least try to make it look real! It’s like a friend of mine who always posts pictures of herself on facebook photoshopped to look skinnier…

    Agree with BrennaLM that this sort of enhancment takes away from the actual photography. (which can be beautiful on its own)

  • Those photos all look like barf. If you wanted those colors on the Great Falls shot you should have gone all the way and used HDR.

    People whining about digital processing making photography not an art never know what they are talking about. I have spent hundreds of hours processing photos, but I’d say less than 5% of my finished work has anything done to it that you couldn’t do in a traditional film, filters, and dark room process. Yes, you can use photoshop to put your friend’s head on a chicken’s body, but those of us who shoot for real are almost always using it to do the same adjustments that photographers have always done, just without all the toxic chemicals. It is true that you don’t use filters out in the field as much as you used to, and nobody is wandering around with 3 different bodies on them because they may want to change film types, but it’s the same kind of convenience the digital world has brought to everything. I don’t have to carry a whole bunch of filters with me in the field any more than I have to make sure I have the exact address of the party I’m going to written down before I leave the house when I have the invitation in my email on my phone.

    Gimp is fine once you have the .raw plugins, but lightroom is worth the $250 if you shoot several hundred images a week and need to be able to manage them. Picasa is good for that too but having that and your editing functionality in one place makes lightroom worth the cash for the pro or serious hobbyist.

    • I completely agree with your second paragraph. your first however… maybe back up your criticism with a link to your own images so we can judge what is barf or not.

      • Not a chance.

        Also, I think the subway photos are actually pretty good, the before shot works as an atmosphere scene and the after shot is more of a portrait.

        • I think that was the point, no? To show how processing a photo can change its mood or focus? That’s where the art is – to be able to use the available tools to get across the exact message you want.

          • If fake butterfly wings are the exact message you want, art has left the building.

            Also, if you’re going to do that much other work on a photo, for chrissakes clean up her knee. Almost everybody’s knees look bad in pictures, it’s one of the main things you have to fix in body photos.

          • I was referring to the focus of the subway photo, not the wings.

            Even so, the point of this column is not “hey look how awesome my art is,” rather it is “here are some clear examples of how manipulation of a photo can create something new.” It’s a reaction to anyone who maintains the unsophisticated view that point+click=professional photographer.

  • This is a very interesting column, Pablo, and I’m glad that you are able to share your thoughts and techniques.

    I agree with Pablo in that pretty much every digital image you create will need some post-processing (especially if you shoot RAW), which is the equivalent of choosing your film & paper, dodging, burning, etc. in the traditional darkroom.

    However, I’m more of the mind that less is more when it comes to post-processing. If a photo looks too processed, as I believe almost all of these are, then it can be extremely distracting to me.

    In the Great Falls photo, I probably would have just adjusted the exposure, brightness, contrast and saturation a bit, and left the sky and the rest of it alone. I could be wrong, but it looks like you applied some HDR technique in that image. Some people enjoy HDR but I think it far too artificial and detracts from the image. I definitely wouldn’t do anything like the first and last image; those are less photographs and more digital creations. Maybe that has it’s place, but it’s not my particular cup of tea.

    The bottom line, which I think you alluded to, is that no amount of digital manipulation (or darkroom manipulation) will make a good photograph out of a mediocre one. Getting it right in camera with exposure, composition, and framing are far more important to the end result.

    I’m not meaning to attack your work or be overly critical, these of course are just my opinions.

  • I’ve never seen a Pablo Raw photo I didn’t like. Keep up the good work and don’t let the haters bring you down!

    • +1 🙂 I don’t think Pablo was advocating that everyone run home and put angel wings on all of their pictures. chill out people.

  • pablo .raw

    Thanks to all for participating, criticism will always be welcome. 10 points to Larchie for the comment, that’s exactly my point of view.
    I don’t know where to start about photography showing reality. There’s a film I recommend called “Dutch Light”, where they try to find out how to capture reality with photos or pain, and how the images are influenced even by the brand of the film that you put in your camera!. Also, what do you guys think about long exposure and double exposure as it was used on film cameras?

    Mike Hicks and 12:36 Anonymus, you are both right! the Great Falls photo is actually an HDR and I should have mentioned that somewhere.

    Finally, I rely more or less on processing depending on what I want the specific photo (taken under specific circumstances) to look like; the final result can be good for some, bad for others… and there is nothing I can do about that!
    Thanks again,

  • Honestly, the only worthwhile adjustment I see in these samples is the correction of barrel distortion in the subway shot, that is removing a flaw inherent in the glass. I’m with the other commenters here in lamenting what the digital darkroom has wrought. Then again I’m a bit of a luddite on this matter (but a complete techo-geek when it comes to the actual gear). I’m seldom blown away by Photoshop work and it doesn’t serve me personally at all. I’m not a pro, I take pictures for myself, family and friends, and don’t have time to spend massaging pixels. If I screw up the white balance or exposure, guess what? I took a crappy picture. It makes the keepers all that more precious to me. Composition is 9/10 of the battle.

  • SouthwestDC

    I get the impression Pablo doesn’t do a lot of photo enchancement because he’s so on-point technically… unfortunately it shows in these examples. I do like what he’s done with the metro shot and it’s a great example of how a few simple adjustments can make a well-composed image a lot stronger.

    I’m a big Lightroom fan, but for years I used Google’s free Picasa software and it served me well. It does cropping and straightening (two very useful tools in my opninion) as well as exposure, contrast, saturation, highlights, shadows, lights, and darks adjustments. Typically that’s all you need. And of course, you should always shoot in RAW if you have the space and your camera has that capability.

    • pablo .raw

      Because of the theme of the column I had to show examples where the enhancement or the manipulation is really obvious! Most of my photos don’t need this much work.
      Thanks for your comment!

  • PoP, in answer to your question, yes! There are other GIMP users in PoPville. I’ve been a GIMP evangelist for years now, and it’s fantastic. Being primarily an open-source user (for many reason$) I’ve learned photo processing entirely on The GIMP, but it’s rare to hear about other serious photogs actually using it.

    For more casual users though, if you want to get a lot of pictures processed in a timely manner (capturing a party or other event) Google’s Picasa offers really simple and intuitive photo editing (and it’s free, linux compatible, and makes sharing easy).

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