Shooting and Editing Photos Part 1: Your Camera is Hungry
Taking pictures is the easy part.
Editing photos? Not so easy. But it can make the difference between a good shot and a great one. Through trial and error, it took me years to figure out how to achieve the look I want in post processing. Let me simplify that process for you here with my multi part series on Shooting and Editing Photos.
Feed Your Camera.
A good cook always works with the best and freshest ingredients. Photography is no different – if you’re going to cook up a masterpiece in photoshop, you need something to work with. The first place most of us view our own images is on our cameras’ LCD screens immediately after taking the picture. Unfortunately this is a horrible way to view a photograph because it tells you nothing about the information captured.
Your camera is an an information-starved, data-hungry machine that craves light. So feed it! Instead of trying to capture a “good looking” photo on your LCD screen, try instead to capture as much data as possible. Your digital camera is a computer and computers need information.
Introducing the Histogram.
I shot for years without knowing what a histogram was. After all, if the picture looks good on the LCD screen, then it’s going to look good on your computer and in print, right?
The only way to really know how much data you’ve captured is through using the histogram. On my Canon cameras I press the “INFO” button twice to see the histogram, but check your instruction manual for if you’re not sure. The histogram tells you exactly how much data you’ve captured, and it tells you everything you need to know about the quality of that data. The most usable data is always captured on the right side, specifically the right 1/3: this is where bright things – “highlights” – are recorded.
The histogram above shows we have a well exposed photograph, with the data evenly spread. No part of the histogram is “clipping” (touching the edges), and I’ve recorded everything I need to with this one picture. Here’s what it looks like unedited, straight from the camera:
If you’re curious, the smooth effect was intentionally done by using a 10 stop neutral density filter. You can read more about that here.
Clipping is bad, mmmmkaayy
So if that’s a good exposure, how do you know you have a bad exposure? The answer is clipping. When your data is touching one side of the histogram, that means it’s “clipping” and no further information is there. Sometimes clipping is okay, like when you have the sun in your photo. The sun is bright and you’ll never be able to recover those highlights. Sometimes clipping is bad, like in the picture below:
See all that data concentrated on the far right hand side? That information is lost once it hits the right edge. In this picture, the ground has been exposed fairly well, but the sky is completely lost. The shot is overexposed and likely would not turn out well if you were to try to work with it in photoshop.
Exposing to the right, especially when you shoot Canon.
So we know that clipping is bad. But if most of the data is recorded in the brighter areas (right side of the histogram), doesn’t it make sense to force as much of your data as possible to the right so long as we’re not clipping? In other words, slightly overexposing the scene allows you more latitude to edit the photo later.
Canon cameras devote the vast majority of the sensor’s data gathering capability to the highlights (right hand side of the histogram). Nikon cameras spread that capability a bit more evenly across the histogram. That’s why Nikon owners are better equipped to brighten shaded areas of their photos in post processing. This is called “shadow recovery”. Canon owners, on the other hand, are better equipped to darken highlight areas of their photos. That’s called “highlight recovery”.
On my Canon cameras, I almost always overexpose by 1/3rd of a stop to 2/3rds of a stop to the right. If you’re not sure how to do this, check your manual. This is a moderately advanced technique that works well most of the time, but it has the potential to really screw up your pictures. If you decide to expose to right, realize that you will likely lose a couple photos to clipping. Familiarity with your camera will make up for it, and for me the trade off is worth it.
When it doesn’t all “fit” – Introducing HDR.
There are two reasons for bad exposures: the data was clipped because you didn’t expose for the scene correctly, or the scene had too much dynamic range and you weren’t able to record it all despite your best efforts.
Dynamic range refers to how many dark things and how many bright things we can fit into one picture. Even the nicest, most expensive cameras on the market are limited by dynamic range. You can see this problem in the photo above – we have parts of the histogram that are clipped on the left and on the right. That’s not good, and it happens a lot when you’re shooting high contrast scenes like this. Other examples include shooting into the sun, or shooting on a bright overcast day. The brightest and darkest areas won’t be recorded by your camera, and you’ll see them clipped when you view the histogram. Here’s what this shot looks like:
The photo’s not bad, but it’s not what I remember seeing when I took that picture. Standing on that bridge that night, I could look into those bright areas and see details in the walkway. I could also look at the tower and see details in the walls. In the picture, all I see in those areas are blown out highlights. This is a limitation that all cameras have. But hey, limits were made to be broken right?
Here we have the results of “High Dynamic Range” processing plus a bit of additional editing in photoshop. Compare the two shots: It’s subtle, but on the edited one you can see all the details in the tower and most of the details on the walk way. I could have kept all the details in the walkway too, and in fact I tried it that way initially, but it didn’t look realistic. One of the biggest challenges with HDR photography is keeping things looking realistic.
If you liked this article, take a look at the others in this series:
Shooting and Editing Photos Part 2: Capturing High Dynamic Range (HDR) Images
Part 3: Editing Styles and Preparing Your Files
Part 4: Finding Realism with HDR Editing
Part 5: A Comprehensive Photoshop Guide