Improve Your Images (Part 1)

14th Aug 2013

Welcome to the first in a series of Blog Posts on how you can improve your images.


 

On the left is an image I waited over 12 months to make.

I knew the location of the black barn and I imagined the finished image of the barn surrounded by the bright yellow oilseed rape and lit by sunshine with white clouds overhead.

I checked the forecast throughout April and May for the right weather conditions and on 8th May they occured, so drive down to the location and 'bang' (or 'snap') I had my image.

 

All I needed to do was to process it in line with the final image I had in my mind of the scene.

 

We all want to take better photographs, photographs that are sharper, better composed and have more 'impact' but how do we achieve these goals?

 

The first thing to understand is that we don't need to go out and buy the very latest, all singing, all dancing camera, most DSLR's will take exceptional images. It is the glass we put in front of our sensors that have the greatest impact on the quality of our images, expensive lenses 'generally' provide better resolution, less chromatic aberation and less distortion to the images we take so, where possible use the best lens you can afford but the purpose of this post is to help you take better images with the equipment you current use.

So where do we start?

1) Previsualize your image!

You do this by planning what image you want to take in advance of your photographic trip or, as you become more experienced you can previsualize your images while you are actually out with your camera. I have a long list of images I want to produce at a number of locations, I have previsualised the composition, the lighting etc and all I am waiting for is the time of year when the lighting or weather conditions are right and I can revisit the location to make my image. Like I did with the image of the black barn in the field of oilseed rape (above). With the unpredicatbility of the British weather many of my previsualised images have been on the drawing board for years because when I return the conditions just aren't right for the image I want. It is not a problem as I work with what I have on the day, afterall there is always next year!

My Clevedon Pier images are just such an example, I waited 3 years for the right conditions to occur at just the right time of year but I am very happy that my patience paid off.

To start with - view your scene (I am going to primarily discuss landscape photography but the principles can be adapted to all forms of photography), what is it about the scene that you want to capture - is it the light, shapes, textures or maybe a particular feature of the landscape or an object in it? Quite often when we are out with our camera we are overwhelmed by the landscape and want to include everything to try and convey the majesty of the scene, sadly that approach rarely results in a successful image. Why?

By using a wide angle lens, one wide enough to capture the whole scene any features in the landscape can be reduced to small specks in our final image and they don't come anywhere close to being as prominant as we remember them. Any lens wider than about 35mm (on a full frame camera) tends to make objects seem smaller and further away than out eyes see them while conversley lenses longer than 35mm tend to make objects seem larger in our photograph. So my first piece of advice will be to restrict your compositions to just part of the landscape you see before you and 'zoom' in on that area.

 

In this example the church spire rising out from the mists is an obviously focal point. The amazing sky adds some striking colour to the scene and the streaks of cloud seem to mirror stripes in the green field, so I wanted to keep these elements in my final image. The decision I had to make was how to include all these elements in my image while conveying the feeling of a cold, misty, country dawn?

I chose to use a 200mm lens, zoom in on the church and take 2 horizontal images knowing I could stictch them together in Photoshop to produce the final panoramic image. The zoom of the 200mm lens enhances the recession of the trees and mist behind the church (makes them appear closer than they really were), it also allowed me to crop the stiched image to size and I was still left with a file that would print at 40cm x 20cm and at 300dpi - easily enough for a high quality A3+ print

If I had cropped a single exposure to these dimensions then the print size would drop to around 8" x 4" at 300 dpi.

Now that you have isolated part of the landscape 'pre-visualize' HOW you want your finished image to look!

All digital images need processing using a computer and image editing software, so now is the time to think 'creatively' - is your finished image going to be bright with colour providing the imapct or is it going to be soft and pastal or maybe you see the scene as a b&w image? The choice is yours and the choices you make now can effect how successful the finished image will be - i.e. b&w images can rely a lot on contrast for their impact on the viewer and that impact can start out as a scene with lots of bright areas and lots of shadow areas but it can also result from images that have a lot of contrasting colours that will render as various shades of grey when converted to b&w. Experience will tell you what kinds of contrast work well for you and your tastes but be aware of this fact and experiement when you are out with your camera.

 

Here is an image I made a couple of years ago (right) again during autumn when the mists were forming in the low lying countryside. Once again I used a 200mm lens to compress the scene and thus enhancing the mists (are you seeing a theme here for photographing misty landscapes?). This time I took just one exposure and it doesn't look that great but I knew that with a bit of processing the subtle shades in the scene could be enhanced to produce something far better.

This image is the image I took with my camera, it has had no processing carried out on it all, it was just the starting point the first step towards producing a final image.

Now the image below has been processed - some minor work in Lightoom and then some 'curves' adjustment layers in Photoshop and I cropped it too, the difference is quite staggering.

I do stress that I only spent a few minutes in Photoshop adjusting the curves layers until I was happy with them, I am not someone who spends hours and hours turing a sows ear into a silk purse!

It is experience that allows you to see the potential in a scene and then a bit of processing skill to make your vision into reality. The great Renaissance artist Michaelangelo is reported to have called his sculptures 'prisoners', referring to the fact that he believed that they were just encased in marble and all he did was to chip away at the superflous stone surrounding them thus releasing the 'prisoners'. Its the same with photography, try to see your 'capture' image as the starting point in the creation, an image that contains all the necessary components for a masterpiece and you release the masterpiece through your image processing.

As your image editing skills improve then you will start to see a scene and be thinking through how you will process it before you have even pressed the shutter.

So to sum up - previsualise your image before your photographic trip!

Consider your composition, what time of year you want to take your image in and what type of lighting do you want on your image. Do this for many locations close to your home and make a list - time, date, location - then all you have to do is wait!


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