I hear it over and over, “I have a nice camera but my pictures just don’t come out as good as I expect.”
What ensues is an interrogation first about equipment selection, settings, and general technique. More often than not when we finally get down to the nitty gritty, the fact is that many people not only have a difficult time identifying what’s wrong with their photos, let alone determining how to prevent it, or fix it in post-processing.
Although there are two sides to this topic (one side being nailing the shot in-camera), we are going to take a look at some common image problems that might be plaguing your photos, and ways to fix them in post-processing. This may be helpful if you want to revisit images you have in your library that may be salvageable.
I’ll be referring to Lightroom (LR) as the post-processing software, although the general adjustments can be adapted for use in other software.
#1 Washed Out
The term washed out refers to a photo which seems to have been shot through a translucent fabric. There is a uniform haze which reduces color saturation, sharpness, clarity, and contrast. There are several factors that can contribute to your pictures being washed out. It could be anything from poor quality lenses, to ghosting from shooting directly into a light source (lens flare).
The good news is that with the features and power that we have in LR, this problem can often be overcome.
Let’s look at this photo of a beautiful wave, shot early in the morning. It was shot at 200mm with a 2x teleconverter (an effective focal length of 400mm). Teleconverters increase focal length, but are notorious for eating light, and reducing contrast and sharpness.
As you can see, the original shot is not very appealing. In an attempt to bring it back from the brink of unacceptability, I have made the following adjustments:
Tone Curve panel
- Lights decreased
- Darks decreased
- Shadows increased
The trick here is to go back and forth between the different sliders that control darks and lights. For example, I will adjust the Highlights and Whites sliders, go to the Tone Curve panel and adjust the Highlights and Lights, then return to the Highlights and Whites again to fine tune how I want that end of the spectrum to look.
#2 Color or Tint
In my opinion, this is one of the strongest arguments for shooting in RAW format. Shooting in RAW allows you way more control correcting White Balance in post-processing, opposed to other file formats – and incorrect White Balance is the primary cause of off-colored images, or ones with a color tint.
If you haven’t developed an eye for identifying this problem, you might miss it. I see many really nice photos that have a slight tint, which is unintentional. The key is to look at areas of the image which are a neutral color, or white – this is where it is easiest to notice the off-color tint. Note that editing on a monitor which is not color calibrated may limit your ability to achieve correct White Balance.
The first line of defence is to give LR’s Auto White Balance tool a shot. I find it to be somewhat inaccurate, but a good starting point nonetheless. Once activating the eye dropper tool, a pop-up window will show a magnified view to allow you to select pixels as close to a neutral color as possible.
From this point, you can use the White Balance and Tint sliders to fine tune the image. If there are people in the photo, your goal should be making the skin tones look as natural, and pleasing as possible.
#3 Too Much Variation in Contrast
Being confronted with a drastic contrast range is one of the most common problems you are likely to face in your shooting. After all, this is why many photographers are equipped with a polarizing filter, and why new camera models strive for an expanded dynamic range.
Luckily, you are not stuck with the image that you download onto your computer. If you are shooting in RAW there is a lot of information about details, color, etc., which you can exploit in post-processing.
Let’s take a look at this photo I snapped from inside a bookstore. It was pretty dark inside with the midday sun shining outside the window. Sure, I could have shot bracketed photos to merge into an HDR (high dynamic range) image, used a flash to balance the dark interior with the lighter exterior, or used a polarizer to darken the window portion of the scene. But I only had my camera with one lens, just grabbing some snapshots while out and about for the afternoon, so I didn’t have the means.
So to what extent can this image be salvaged?
As you can see, the camera actually captured a lot of information, and it was just a matter of telling LR what to do with it. Here is a list of changes made to this image to give you an idea of how to do this yourself:
Tone Curve panel
- Highlights decreased
- Lights decreased
- Darks increased
- Shadows decreased
Lastly, I used the Adjustment Brush to mask off the window portion and made these adjustments:
- Exposure decreased (-)
- Contrast increased (+)
- Highlights increased (+)
- Shadows decreased (-)
- Clarity increased (+)
Of course, there are a host of other problems you can run into while out shooting, but these are a few of the most common you’re most likely to encounter. Don’t overlook the fact that you should try and get the best image possible while out in the field. Although editing software is very powerful, you will get best results when you don’t have to push the limitations of your editing software.
Hopefully this article has given you some guidance on how to salvage images that you may once have considered lost. Show us some examples of photos that you have saved in the comments below.