New Feature: Travel Photo Tune-Up, a Step-by-Step Tutorial
First of all, the disclaimer: I’m not a professional photographer. I’m just a guy who enjoys taking photos and has tinkered with photography on and off for twenty years. I manipulate my images to please my own eye and my style may or may not be to your liking. I like punchy, high-contrast photos — if you don’t, feel free to tone down the adjustments I make as you follow along. I’d like to help you create an image that you like and are proud of and only you know what that looks like.
I believe in using every tool available to improve my photos and to help them more-closely capture a scene as I remember it. My editing tool-of-choice is Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and that’s what I’ll be working in, but many of the techniques and tips I plan on sharing should work with other editing programs as well.
Please note that I’m not sponsored or being reimbursed by Adobe — Lightroom is a great piece of software that allows me to correct and improve my photos quickly and easily. That said, if Adobe wanted to sponsor me, I would gladly tattoo their logo on a prominent part of my body.
Seriously. I’ll be watching my inbox. Call me.
On to the Tune-Up: If you’re interested in submitting your photo, please check out the info at the bottom of this post. Matt from Backpacking Worldwide has bravely agreed to start the series off and sent me a great pic of an old hermit he met in Nicaragua. He’s asked me to mention that he’s new to photography and that he just bought his first SLR but I think he’s off to a very solid start and needs no disclaimers.
It’s a nice shot and there’s an interesting story behind it, but was taken in the worst lighting situation possible: midday. This happens to me all the time — when traveling, you can’t always return to a spot at sunrise or sunset and just have to make do with the available light. As Lennon said: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
I think we can do three things to improve this shot. There are two elements that seem integral to the story it wants to tell: the old man and the carvings on the wall behind him. So first, we’ll crop out some of the rock wall and greenery that isn’t contributing anything to that story and make the hermit and rock art more prominent.
Then we’ll tweak color and contrast to bring out the details and add some punch. Finally, we’ll try to lead the eye to where we want it. We’ll deal with the bright background in the top right corner — bright spots always draw the eye and this one is pulling the viewer away from our focus, the old man. Once we’ve tamed that a bit, we’ll try to pull the eye to the subject by brightening him and adding some detail.
That sounds like a lot, but in reality I spent about five minutes working on this shot. It took me longer to write that last paragraph than it did to edit this photo. Granted, I’ve been using Lightroom for awhile now but I want you to realize that editing doesn’t have to be a slow and laborious procedure.
Step 1: Cropping
I cropped out a lot of the wall on the left and as much of the bright area to the right as I could. I wanted the hermit to be as large as possible, while still keeping all of the rock art. I also noticed that his hand is touching the wooden bench in a very distinctive way and didn’t want to lose that element.
Step 2: Tweaking Color and Contrast
If you have a lot of sky in your photo, it often tweaks things so that the sky looks great but the rest of the photo becomes too dark. You can counteract this by increasing your Brightness. The Graduated Filter can fix this up in a jiffy and we’ll cover that next time.
Next we’ll boost the temperature of the shot and warm it up a bit. Shadows tend to be cool, with a lot of blue, so a quick Temp tweak helps a lot.
Scrolling down the interface, I stopped at the Tone Curve palette to add contrast. It’s hidden, but right under the graph is a drop-down box that allows you to change the Point Curve from Linear to Medium or High Contrast. I set it to Medium, after trying all three and seeing which I liked best.
I then boosted the Lights further by 35 to add even more contrast and to lighten the midtones. You may want to skip this step, but I like the luminous quality it can bring to a photo.
You can’t see it in the screenshot, but I also scrolled down to the Effects palette and set the Post-Crop Vignetting to -15 to darken the corners a hair and help pull the eye to the center of the shot.
Step 3: Leading the Eye
If you haven’t used the tool much, it may help to check the small box right under the photo that says Show Selected Mask Overlay — this will show your selection in red (as seen above) and make it easier to tell what’s happening. Turn it off after you’ve painted and you can tweak the exposure and other options as you like. I pulled the exposure down until it started to look unnatural, then eased it back up until I liked it. About a half-stop (.6) seemed to be enough. I should have painted out the tree limbs behind his left shoulder while I was at it. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as they say.
Once I had painted the new mask, I boosted the exposure by one-third of a stop (.3) and increased the Clarity, Saturation and Sharpness a tad. In fact, I think the effect is too strong but I’m leaving it this way to better illustrate the change.
These masks are easily edited or tweaked later. Simply click on the Adjustment Tool button and notice the small round dots that appear on the photo. Click one of these to select it and you can then make further changes to the mask itself or re-adjust the settings in the tool panel. Lightroom never alters your original photo, so all edits are non-destructive.
Feel free to play around and try new things — if you decide that you’ve completely messed things up, hit the big Reset button and start again. To create an image you can email, post online or take to a printer, right-click and choose Export. You’re done!
The Final Result:
I hope this has helped in some way. Please leave a comment if there’s something I could explain better or if I missed a step (I’m writing this under a tight deadline — visa run tomorrow). Also, if you’d like to see more of these please speak up — I enjoy sharing tips and tricks, but these posts are a lot of work. So, if you like it, let me know and I’ll do more :)
Want to Submit an Image for a Tune-Up?
Simple email a JPG HERE or to travelphototuneup at hotmail dot com. Please keep images under two megabytes (2MB). Keep in mind that I can’t use every photo, so please don’t be offended if yours doesn’t get published. I’ll be looking for photos that I think I can improve on and that will allow me to demonstrate different tricks and techniques. So if I don’t use your shot, maybe it was too good ;)
Thanks for reading this far. Happy Shooting.