The Five Processing Steps for Making Good Photos,Great

LA Sunset January 3, 2012

Making a good landscape (or any) photograph is not “too” difficult.  You “just” need to do the following three things right:  the subject should be in focus and sharp; it should be exposed correctly; it should be composed well (usually using the rule of thirds).  That’s it.  However simple it sounds, it still takes a lot of practice to do all three well.  Now, if you want to make a great photograph, you need to do these three things well AND have a great subject.  In addition, you need to process the photograph (see my blog on processing ethics).

Even if you just casually make photos or just make photos of your family and vacations, you still should have basic photo processing software and use it.  Most cameras come with basic software, now.  Even Microsoft Picture has the basic adjustments listed below.  If you want to spend a little money and you do not want to learn Photoshop, I strongly recommend Nik’s software Viveza.  It is easy to use and an awesome tool.

When showing people two photos of the same subject, they ALWAYS pick the one that is brighter and has more contrast and color saturation.  Here are 5 easy ways to make all your photos look better using basic software.

1.  Crop It

Most of the time when I am making a landscape photograph, I am using a tripod and “live view.”  I compose the photograph exactly the way I want it.  I almost never have to crop it later.  When hand holding the camera or shooting moving subjects like people or animals, I expect to crop later.  You crop to get the composition that you really want and/or to make the subject bigger.  You also crop in order to take out distractions and junk around the edges.  Lastly, I have cropped in order to get a panoramic “look” when the composition is better or there are distractions in the foreground or background.  One caution, cropping does eliminate pixels.  I cropped this photo below to get a more balanced (rule of thirds photo) and eliminate the airplane contrail going through the upper third of the photo.

Original RAW File
Cropped to give it a "panoramic look"

2.  Increase the brightness

The next step is I almost always increase the brightness 10-30%.  I am notorious for making dark photos in the field.  I know, intellectually, I really should “expose to the right”, i.e. make the photo a tad over exposed with a histogram that is more to the right than the left.  I just can’t do it because I do not like the way it looks on my live view.  I usually under expose a third to a full stop.  Therefore, when I process I need to make the photo brighter.  I also need to make it brighter because I am going to make it more contrasty.  You can see it is already looking better and the colors are brighter and less muddy.

Increased brightness 25% in Viveza

3.  Increase the contrast

Step three is to increase the contrast.  Increasing the contrast brings out more details in the photo.  Contrast is the difference between the lighter tones and the darker tones.  It makes darks, darker and lights, lighter.  I usually increase contrast 10-50%.

Increased contrast 30%

4.  Increase the saturation

Everyone loves vivid color.  Often times your photo may not have the same colors, you saw in the field or nature does not always deliver the bright, deep color we want.  I usually increase saturation 5-10%.  This is one area where over doing it, is not only obvious, but does not look good.  A little bit goes a long way.

Increased saturation 10%

5.  Increase the structure

Lastly, I increase structure.  This is especially good for bringing out the clouds in your photo.  It also brings out details, especially in black and white photos.  It makes all the details sharper.  I have been known to increase structure 25-100%.  Look at how the details of the clouds come out and create more texture.

Increased structure by 75%

Each one of these adjustments, clearly, can be overdone.  Each one of these adjustments affects the others, so play with combinations and do not get too wedded to any one formula.  Also, the subject often times dictates the adjustments.  When I process sunrise and sunset landscape shots, my adjustments are very similar.  For people and portraits, the adjustments are very different – less of everything.  You really do not want to see your face at full contrast and structure – way too many freckles and deep wrinkles!

One last note, the other great reason to process your photos is ALL in-camera flashes are too bright, even if you have flash compensation.  I even have a clear band-aid over the flash on my Canon G12 and it is still too bright.  No problem, because I know when I process flash photos, I am going to bring the brightness down and decrease the exposure.

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      1. Anonymous

        What prompted the question is that the cropping program does sometimes ask me if i want to’constrain’ the photo? It wants to reformat the crop into 4X6, 5×7 etc.

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