I know, I know. We’re supposed to take good photos and not have to rely on Photoshop or another photo processing software package to make them good. In my next life I’ll be able to do that. In this one, however, my photos sometimes need help. I’ve been working with a couple of friends who are photographers to improve my photos--both as I take them and as I process them. I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned.
When my photos don’t turn out full of light, I can sometimes rescue them. One way is to adjust the levels. Have a look at this photo:
This photo didn’t start life like this. It needed a little rescue. It started life like this:
Ew. Underexposed. Dark. Too busy. Strange perspective on the plate. Not straight. This one looked like it might need major plastic surgery! But no. In two steps it looked much better. I simply adjusted the levels and cropped it. VOILA.
I can hear you now: ok, Kate, but how do you adjust the levels? The levels of WHAT? It’s really not very hard--if I can do it you can do it. Every photo manipulation package should allow you to adjust the levels. I’ll show you how to do it, but you have to promise to keep it a secret, ok? Just between us...
Here’s how. First, find the levels dialog box. In Photoshop Elements, it’s here:
When you click on Levels, you get this dialog box:
So now look at that graph on the left. It shows the distribution of colors from black (on the left) to white (on the right). The higher the line, the more of that color is there. Don’t worry too much about that--what’s important to know is that a good graph goes all the way across the range. This one doesn’t do that--it stops about two-thirds of the way. The whole right (white) side is zero. There are no real whites in my photo. If we look at the left-hand side (the black side) of this graph, we see that the line goes all the way to the top. There’s a lot of black in this photo. That’s because my countertop is black.
Ok, we knew that--we can SEE it. But we just need to know how to fix it. This graph is one very good way to do that. See the little pointer at the bottom right hand corner of the graph? I’ve circled it for you here.
You want to click on that and move it to the left until you get to the point where there is some black on the graph. I’ve marked that point with a red line here.
When you’re finished, the graph looks like this:
If you click on “OK”, then you'll see that some magic has happened to the photo:
If you click on 'Levels' again, here’s what the graph looks like now:
See how the graph now extends all the way across? That means that you’ve got values all the way across the range. That’s GOOD. See those white lines in the graph? They're there because you’ve stretched limited data across the value range. You don't want them to be too big, because if you stretch the graph too far, you’ll see bands of color like on the old televisions. That’s not good. Unless they’re really wide you won't see any effect of them--this amount of ‘stretch’ is ok at this resolution. Howver, I might have some problems if I tried to blow this photo up really big.
So now our photo looks better. However, it’s still not done. It needs a good crop. In order to focus on the fish cakes, I cropped it like this:
If this is the photo I’ve chosen to submit to any of the food photo sites, though, I crop it differently. I make sure it’s square, because if I don’t crop it, they will. And I want to make sure that it’s MY crop that gets seen.
Here’s another photo, before and after a levels adjustment:
Let’s look at one more. This photo wasn’t too bad to start with. It just needed a little bit of help. Look what happened when I adjusted the levels:
In a perfect world, all of my photos would be perfectly exposed. One day that will be the case. They’re getting better. Still, levels adjustment is a tool that I use often. It can add a brightness to photos and make them shine.
Now for the homework (Whaaat?) Find one of your photos that's a little dark and gray. Try this with it. Let me know how it turns out, ok?
I’d love to know what tips you have for improving photos.
EDIT: You don't need to have photoshop to do this. Any photo software should let you adjust levels. If yours doesn't, download GIMP for free: http://www.gimp.org/ GIMP looks a lot like Photoshop, and has most of the same functions. You'll find tutorials and complete documentation as well. I have a MAC and it works on that too.