Have you noticed how many individual tools are available in your favorite editing software for changing the values of pixels? The array is dazzling, and most of this editing involves “localized” procedures (dodging, burning, painting, cloning, masking, etc.) affecting specific areas.
But here’s something to consider.
Unless the image you are working on is either damaged (either completely blown-out highlights, plugged-up shadows) or just contains too much unwanted clutter, you rarely need to create specific detail with these tools. The detail is usually right there just below the surface waiting for discovery. You need only make global adjustments to the tones within the darker and lighter ends of the range to achieve pretty amazing results.
Push tones instead of pixels
Post-processing digital images is usually a process of subtraction; removing the visual obstacles that are covering the underlying detail in a photographic image. This detail will reveal itself if you merely nudge the tonal ranges instead of the pixels.
The fact is…all the detail in every subject has been duly captured and is hiding in either the shadows or the highlights, waiting to be discovered.
The digital camera’s image sensor sees and records the entire range of tones from black to white within every image it captures. What is hiding within this massive range of tones is the detail. Unfortunately, the camera sensor has no way of knowing the detail that may be under (or over) exposed within that range. It simply captures everything it sees inside the bookends of dark and light.
Camera image sensors can capture a range of tones up to 16,000 levels between solid color and no color. This doesn’t mean that all 16,000-pixel values are actually present in the picture; it just means that the darkest to the lightest tones are stretched out over the significant detail that is hiding in the middle.
The purpose of this article is not to get geeky about the science, but to assure you that there is an amazing amount of detail that you can recover from seemingly poor images.
A basic JPEG image can display more than 250 tones in each color. While that doesn’t sound like much, you should know that the human eye can only perceive a little over 100 distinct levels of each color. No kidding! Technically, 256 tones are too many.
The balancing act
Here’s a sobering truth. Your camera can capture more detail than your eye can detect and more tones than your monitor can display. As a matter of fact, it can capture up to 16,000 levels of tones and colors. That’s more than any publishing resource (computer monitor, inkjet printer, Internet, or even any printed publication) can reveal. Each of these other outlets is limited to reproducing just 8-bits (256 levels) of each color. The camera’s light-capture range is even beyond the scope of human vision. The range (light to dark) of your camera is immense compared to any reproduction process. What this means is that the editing part of the photography process needs MUCH more attention than the image capture process.
This introduces a complex but interesting phenomenon. Your post-production challenge is to emphasize the most important details recorded inside the tones captured by your camera and then distinguish them sufficiently for the printer, your monitor, or the Internet to reveal.
Your camera captures an incredible amount of detail in each scene that isn’t initially visible. However, with the right software, this detail can be uncovered just as an electron microscope can reveal detail buried deep inside things that the naked eye cannot perceive.
Image editing is all about discovering and revealing what is hiding in plain sight.
Clarity is the process of accentuating detail. The dictionary defines clarity as “the quality of being easy to see or hear; sharpness of image or sound.” When we clarify something, we clear it up. We understand it better. We view an issue from a different perspective.
Many image editing software packages have a slider called “clarity.” The function of this slider is to accentuate minor distinctions between lighter and darker areas within the image. Each of the other tone sliders (Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, Clarity, and Dehaze) all perform a clarifying process on specific tone ranges.
The real beauty of shooting with a 12/14-bit camera is the level of access you receive to the detail captured in each image. If you want to think “deep,” you can start with the editing process of your digital images. You’ll be amazed at what you will find when you learn to peel away the microlayers of distracting information in well-exposed photos.
Just as cleaning the lenses of your eyeglasses clarifies what you see, cleansing your pictures of dull lighting will put the sparkle in your photos.
Learning to expose images correctly
The information you learn from excellent teaching resources like Digital Photography School teach you how to correctly set your equipment to capture a variety of subjects and scenes. Study the articles in this amazing collection and learn to shoot pictures understanding the basic tenets of good exposure. Poorly-captured images will hinder your discovery of detail. However, correctly exposed images will reward you with, not only beautiful color but, access to an amazing amount of detail.
Learn to harness the power of light correctly for the challenge that each scene presents by balancing the camera controls of ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. The more balanced your original exposure, the less post-processing will be necessary.
Every scene presents a unique lighting situation and requires a solid understanding of your camera’s light-control processes to capture all possible detail. Any camera can capture events and document happenings, but it takes a serious student of photography to faithfully capture each scene in a way that allows all that information to be skillfully sculpted into a detailed image.