From Drab to Fab

Did you know that every photo that you find beautiful/appealing has been “cleaned” up? Clicking the shutter and taking the shot is only half the job. The other half is in “making it look pretty”. I call it “cleaning up”,  professionals call it “post-processing”. Just because it is one more job does not mean that it is hard or even time-consuming. One morning, my friend Amanda, a die-hard fan of Harry Potter, texted me a photo she took of the Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland that was used in the Harry Potter movie series with the simple note – “make it look pretty”. I texted her back exactly 5 minutes later with the “pretty” photo. She texted back one word – “Wow!”. Take a look at the before and after photos.

See how all this happened in five easy steps (one step a minute!). Start off by pulling up one of your favorite photos that is already on your phone and follow along.  I’m very excited for you!  [auth]

The Instant Gratification Part

Prepare your phone to edit the photo by making sure you have your favorite editor installed. What did you say? You don’t have one? How about I recommend Snapseed by Google. As of this writing, I have yet to find an easier to use, more powerful photo editor that just gets the job done. The other reason is that both types of phone owners can follow along easily.

Android owners click below

iPhone owners click below

Install Snapseed and open it. Update: The new version of Snapseed looks slightly different, but I am sure you’ll be able to find the options I am talking about below.

ss_opening.png

Pick a photo by clicking “Open photo”. For this exercise, I am going to use my friend Amanda’s photo.

I’d like for you to pick one of your old photos that you love, but is “just not there yet”. Later, we will move on to editing photos on your camera memory card, computer etc. but for now, wow yourself!

As soon as we open our file, the screen should look like this:

Screenshot_2016-01-08-16-08-59.png

Now we are ready to start editing the image but before we do so, a cautionary note and a disclaimer. The cautionary note first – The steps I outline below are specific to the Snapseed app. The idea here is to familiarize you to the overall process so that you are be able to make quick 5-minute edits, and improve your images. Second, the disclaimer – the following steps are an extreme oversimplification of a very complex process. Think of these as stepping stones towards your journey into better image making. For now, memorize them:

Step 1: Identify your subject and crop the rest out

These can be things/people/pets you like to showcase in the image. These should not be more than three. Why do I say that? I do not want you to say, “My subject is, all the people at the party, the beautiful wall with pretty pictures on it, the awesome DJ and disco lights. That’s not a subject. That is a set of things you pointed your camera at! In theory you can photograph all this cohesively, but you will need to be a pro at it, so let’s leave it out for now. You need to decide what is the main story of this image. Is it the way the disco light is falling on one or two people? Is it the way the shadow is cast on the wall? Is it the interaction between people? You need to simplify the story. Pick one and crop the rest.Crop like your life depended on it! Start at the frame edges and eliminate objects/people. Crop till you cannot crop anymore. Crop out the rest of uncle Phil with only half his 70’s hairdo showing, crop the still pretty grandma Mae near the edge of the frame (photograph her separately if you want to), crop the DJ, the edge of that chair, wall in the background with photos that will distract the eye from the subject. Basically, crop anything that does not add anything of value to the central subject (remember the subject at the start of this step?).

Not to complicate issues, but as you crop, please try and keep the subject off-center. More on this part later under composition. For now, just try and keep them closer to the edge of the frame but not too close; at about a third part the edge of the frame.

In order to crop in Snapseed, click on the pencil icon. Ignore the white mountain like feature at the bottom left corner of the screen. It’’s called the histogram and using and interpreting it is beyond the scope of this exercise. All the options in Snapseed that we will use are accessed via the “pencil” icon in the bottom right hand side that looks like this:

 Screenshot_2016-01-08-16-08-59.png

Clicking on that will bring up this options menu. Once you click the pencil, your screen should look like this:

ss_options.png

Pick the second option that says “Crop” and eliminate anything that does not lend to the subject. Crop by dragging the edges inwards to the center of the image. You can also use the bottom row options that allow you to keep the cropping restricted to the original image shape (a.k.a. aspect ratio),pick another one or use free form (which is the default).

Obviously, in my case, the subject was the bridge. Now what to crop? it was quite a tough decision. Amanda had done a great job by not showing the train station, the people around her or the lake (sorry, loc!) nearby. I did however see a potential in making it less square because the mountain was not adding anything to my main subject and overall, I thought the bridge would look better in a wide frame than a square one.

Also note one other thing that happened as I cropped – I landed up “moving” the bridge further up in the top 3rd of the image and therefore, off center as I have asked you to do. Snapseed crop function helps by showing lines intersecting the 1/3rd and 2/3rd of the image. Use those to your advantage. When you are finished, click the “check” sign (bottom right corner).

cropping_start.png

cropping.png

Step 2: Auto Tune the image

Next, use Snapseed’s excellent auto tuning feature. To do this, you have to click on the pencil again, then the “Tune Image” option (first one on the left).

At this point, click on “Auto Tune”. Your screen should look like this now:

auto tune.png

Step 3: Adjust highlights and shadows

So far, what we have done has either been rule-based (cropping) or automatic (auto tune). Now, we need to start using our own judgment about whether the brightest (highlights) and darkest (shadow) areas of the image are OK. Auto tune generally does a pretty good job of this, but it never hurts to double-check it, especially when you use a flash or include the sky.

But where are the controls? To access the controls that are cleverly hidden on the image itself. Touch anywhere on the image and without lifting your finger, slide it up and down. You should see a bunch of controls go by. To pick a control, stop when you are sliding your finger up-down and pick the control you want. To change the intensity of that control, slide your finger left-right. What a clever idea! Slide it up-down to pick the control and slide it left-right to increase or decrease the effect.

Here, I have slid my finger so as to select the control for “Ambiance”. Take a quick look at what “Auto tune” has done for me. It has brightened my image by +19 points, contrast by +50 and shadows by +14. Pretty good I’d say, but not quite there yet.

ambiance option.png

Let’s slide down further and pick “Shadows” and see if we can improve what Auto tune did. To illustrate this, I zoomed into the tree in the center of the frame and looked at the shadow around that tree. I slid my finger to the left and right and did not really see a significant improvement. When I say “improvement” I mean, for example, look out for details being brought in a dark suit out as you increase the number or making the contrast better on a softly light face as you decrease the numbers.

Here is a comparison of the shadow Auto tuned (to +14) and my own test image with shadows increased to +22.

shadow1.png

shadow increase.png

 I really did not see much of a difference, so I “X”ed out of it (“X” at the bottom left corner). I did the same with Highlights and looked at a bright patch on the bridge but Auto tune had done a great job of keeping the highlight number at zero; so I “X”ed out of it too.

Step 4: Adjust the ambiance

Now comes the fun part! Fine tune based on your personal preferences. Touch and slide your finger up and down till you see Ambiance highlighted. Stop and slide to the left or right and see if you like the effect.

The ambiance control in Snapseed adds a little bit of color and increases the micro contrast in the image. It also reduces the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the image (compresses tones). I love this control because by doing very little, you can see a huge difference the image quality.

ambiance.png

In my case, I liked how the image looked when the ambiance was at +48. Take a good look at the before and after photo to see the difference. One note of caution, you can easily overdo this control and make the photo look very artificial. If you like that effect go for it, but just be aware of this pitfall.

Step 5: Apply your choice of an artsy effect (Optional)

This is what most people shy away from. Remember, every photo you take is a reflection of your interpretation. So if a photograph makes you feel nostalgic for yesteryears, add that by using a faded yellow filter. Nothing wrong in that. If you feel that the image you took downtown is gritty, use a filter to make it look even more grungy. If the skies you saw in a landscape were crimson red, don’t just leave it as the camera sees it, make it your interpretation, not the cameras!

In this case, I felt that the image needed that Harry Potter mystique to surround it, therefore I went with a filter called “Glamor Glow” (second option in the filters section). In that, I used the third option and played with the amount of glow, and settled on +88 to  come up with this.

glamour glow.png

glow.png

Another effect I added was a vignette. Again, please be careful with these effects as overdoing them will certainly call attention to them. I prefer to do them just enough that they make the image pop without calling attention to themselves. Here is the image now with a little bit of vignetting -50 applied.

vignette.png

Note how the dark corners now invite you to look deeper into the image. Also remember, that if you want to move the vignetting up or down you can simply slide the blue dot with your finger tip.

Step 6: Sharpen the Image (Optional)

I tend to not do this step, nor recommend it when editing images that will most likely be shared on small screens or shared on social media. The reason is that sharpening smaller images removes a lot more information than those that are for example, printed. For example, the image of the Eiffel Tower was sharpened slightly, but not by much before printing.

If you still feel the need, then do this as the last step before saving the image.

Lessons learned

So we have learned that you can take any old image and make it look pretty in no time at all!

Now commit this to memory- 1. Crop; 2.  Autocorrect; 3. Add desired artsy effect and 4. Sharpen only if needed.

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