Purists will tell you--they certainly tell me--that photography is all about pressing the camera's shutter release. Every week, for instance, I get e-mail from readers who claim that any photos that have been edited should not be considered for the Hot Pic of the Week contest.
But not only is editing an integral part of digital photography, it has also been an inseparable part of film photography for 150 years. Just getting pictures processed by the corner photo lab involves many subjective adjustments to the exposure (even if you're not the one who's doing it). So here's my challenge: Learn this handful of editing techniques, so you can turn your so-so snapshots into great photos.
Correct Your Exposure
Bad exposure--whether it's underexposure or overexposure--is the most noticeable photo problem you'll run into. The good news is that many of your pictures can be easily improved by using your photo editor's Levels or Histogram control. Open a photo in Adobe Photoshop Elements, for example, and choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Levels.
You'll see a graph called a histogram that shows how all the bright and dark pixels are distributed in your photo. If a lot of pixels are crowded against the right side of the graph, it's probably somewhat overexposed. A lot of pixels at the left extremity of the graph mean underexposure. To brighten the entire photo, drag the White Point on the right side of the graph to the left. Likewise, to darken the photo, drag the Black Point on the left side to the right. If you only want to adjust the midtones in the photo, drag the middle arrow to the left or right.
For more information on this, read "Use the Histogram to Avoid Exposure Issues" and "Perfect Photos Every Time."
Fix the Color Balance
Do your photos look too blue? Too red? Sounds like your white balance needs adjustment. Here's why: Your camera has to measure the light each time it takes a photo and set the balance so all the colors in the scene look accurate. But cameras tend to get the white balance incorrectly about half the time.
One way to ensure good color balance is to set the white balance manually before taking a photo. Using your camera's white balance control, you can dial in a setting like daylight, sunset, or indoors (check the camera manual for details). Or you can tweak the colors afterwards on your PC using your photo editing program. If you use Photoshop Elements, for example, you can click the Quick Fix tab and drag the Temperature slider until the colors look right. For a hands-on look at how to do that, read "Perfect the Colors in Your Photos."
Straighten Out Buildings
If you work on the exposure and colors, you'll have dramatically better photos. But then you might start to notice smaller problems--like crooked buildings, for instance.
Take a photo of a tall building, and you might notice that it looks a bit like it's leaning, or even warped. You can thank a phenomenon called perspective distortion.
If you have Photoshop Elements, you can reduce the intensity of this distortion by choosing Filter, Correct Camera Distortion, and then adjusting the Vertical Perspective. This reduces the apparent perspective distortion, though you'll need to crop the photo to eliminate the tapered bottom.
A better solution is to try a plug-in designed especially for perspective correction, like Andromeda Software's LensDoc 3.0 ($119), which works in any program that supports Photoshop-style plug-ins, like Photoshop Elements and Corel Paint Shop Pro.
If you have Paint Shop Pro, use the built-in perspective correction tool, which works amazingly well, and doesn't cost anything extra. See "Fix Perspective in Architectural Photos" for a tutorial on using that tool.
Eliminate Digital Noise
Photography is all about compromise. When you need to take pictures in dim lighting, for example, increasing the camera's ISO setting can help you take better pictures. But that higher ISO also increases digital noise, so you get more random pixels of color scattered around the photo.
There are two ways to minimize digital noise in your photos. First, you can prevent them by keeping the camera's ISO setting as low as possible, where noise is minimal. Second, if you do shoot photos at a higher ISO, you can use software to eliminate a lot of the noise. For example, Noise Ninja is an excellent program, available on its own or as a plug-in for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements ($34). Or try Noiseware Community Edition, which is free.
For more details, read "Eliminate Noise From Your Photos."
Hot Pic of the Week
Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.
Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.
This week's Hot Pic: "Swan at the Baltic," by Przemek Krysinski, Kansas City, Missouri
Przemek writes: "I took this photo in the Baltic resort town, Swinoujscie. A storm was approaching from the sea, and couple of swans were leisurely walking around on the beach, waiting for occasional pieces of bread from tourists. The difference between the setting sun and the darkness of the approaching storm provided a contrasting image. I used a Sony Cyber Shot DSC-T9."
This Week's Runner-Up: "Cliff House Beach Dawn," by Cynthia Farr-Weinfeld, Portland, Maine
Cynthia writes: "I took this photo with my Pentax K10D on a long exposure just as the sun was rising. I combined it with another, slightly shorter exposure to not only get a silky water effect, but a misty effect by the rocks as well."