I’ve been asked this question a few times, lately, both by people wanting to improve their photography and from friends just curious as to how much they could do with their pictures if they purchased photoshop. The answer is: Very little. And a whole lot. When it comes to enhancements, I do a lot to my pictures. I smooth skin, enhance colors, brighten or darken as needed, etc. But when it comes to “fixing” my pictures, my goal is to do nothing at all. This wasn’t the case when I first started on my photography journey. My memory card was filled with overexposed and underwhelming pictures. I can’t tell you the hours I spent in photoshop trying to salvage the horrible pictures I was taking for my friends and family. Thank God they had the patience and belief in me to see potential and encouraged me the way they did! These days, I’m doing much more to enhance my photographs rather than fix them. If I were going to give any tips to new photographers who are hoping to use photoshop to create amazing pictures, it would be this: Do everything you possibly can to get it perfect in-camera. Then use photoshop to take it to the next level. Here are some tips for new photographers, or anyone just wanting to get great pictures of their friends and family:
1.) Keep practicing! The more pictures you take, the better you’re going to get. Get familiar with taking pictures in manual mode and controlling your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Take pictures of everything, just to get a feel for operating your camera. I don’t keep half the pictures I take, I don’t even download them to the computer. I take them for the fun of learning how to take them better.
2.) Learn about lighting. Read everything you can on good lighting techniques. Learn how to get good catchlights in the eyes, learn the difference between Rembrandt lighting, broad lighting, butterfly lighting, etc. Pay attention to the way light is hitting your subjects face – do you have harsh shadowing or spots where the sun is too bright on their skin? If so, move to a different spot or turn your subject in another direction. A good general rule is to place your subject in the shade and then look around you to find where the light is the brightest, and then point your subjects face in that direction. This will light the eyes and make them look alive. Pay attention to how color is affecting your subjects face, also (skin is reflective, so it’s going to pick up on the colors around it.) It’s amazing how a photograph will change when the same subject is standing in a field of yellow flowers vs. a field of blue flowers – even if nothing else changes. Some people look great surrounded by blue, some are better served being surrounded by yellow. The more you practice, the more you’ll start to see it. This is one of the reasons I love baby photography – it gives me a great opportunity to practice lighting techniques because I have a subject that isn’t going anywhere quickly! But if I’m photographing a toddler or an active older child, I don’t worry too much about how the light is hitting their face, I just put them in the shade, with their face toward the brightest part of the area around me (to get catchlights in the eyes), and try to keep them facing that general direction. :)
3.) Nail your exposure. Shoot in manual mode, pay attention to your histogram and look at your LCD screen after every shot. You’re not necessarily trying to keep your meter in the center, your looking to make sure the skin is nice and bright, and that the highlights of clothing or backgrounds aren’t blown or underexposed. Or, your checking to make sure you’ve gotten the effect you’re looking for (if you’re trying to achieve a silhouette, your meter and histogram are going to register an underexposure. That’s why it’s important to pay more attention to your LCD screen and make sure it LOOKS the way you want it to look.) This is SO important. Pictures that are underexposed will give the skin a mottled look, and pictures that are overexposed will lose detail. If you want your subjects to have smooth, creamy skin it starts with good exposure. Sure, you can use the clone tool or run a skin smoothing action in photoshop (and I often do), but the closer you nail it in-camera, the better results you’re going to have when you take it into photoshop.
4.) Set a custom white balance. You can use a piece of paper to do this, you don’t have to have a fancy calibration target. Read your manual and learn how to set a custom white balance and then set it any time you change location, even if it’s just walking from one room to another. I’ll admit, I’m not always great about doing this (I get in a hurry and don’t want to take the time to do it) so I shoot in RAW and often fix white balance in photoshop. Either way, pay attention to your white balance and you’ll save yourself from overly pink or yellow skin tones.
5.) Pay attention to your composition and your backgrounds. It’s amazing how much a good background will enhance a photo. Read everything you can on composition and try to chose backgrounds that enhance your photographs. Watch for trees, lampshades, fence posts, etc. coming out of the head, chopped off limbs, and lackluster backgrounds (brick walls, for instance. I won’t go into just how guilty I’ve been of choosing crummy backgrounds in the past! It’s something I really watch for these days!) Is your background going to be blown if you expose for the subjects skin? If so, find a different location or shoot from a different angle. Is your background brighter than your subject? If so, you might want to look elsewhere. Generally speaking, you want your background to be darker than your subject to make your subject “pop.” Is the background interesting? Does it enhance your picture? If not, find a place that does!
6.) Shoot in RAW. If you’re familiar and comfortable in photoshop, shoot in RAW. If you’re shooting in JPEG, your camera is automatically making adjustments for you – not a bad thing if you’re just taking snapshots of your kids. But if you really want to take your photographs to the next level, shoot in RAW. It took me a long time to become comfortable with shooting in RAW but there is so much more you can do when it comes to photo enhancements with a RAW file than you can with a JPEG – it’s well worth it!
So how much of what I do is photoshop? A lot. And very little…
On the left, straight out of the camera with no enhancements. On the right, the final image after photoshop enhancements….
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