• Girard Design

Finding Image Gold in the Dross

Updated: Apr 6, 2019

Ever take a picture of a great scene that ended up looking lackluster on your monitor? Don't discard it before trying at least a few of the approaches I describe in this series—it may contain hidden gold.

1 | Series Introduction

Jackson Falls, Jackson, NH (thanks to D. Hottleman)

If you've ever wondered why there can be such a great disparity between what we see and what the camera captures, this series will help you understand the reasons and use that knowledge to possibly salvage a seemingly lifeless image.




A good camera can do a lot of good things for you automatically, but if you want to advance as a photographic artist, you need to know at some level what that automation is doing and why. But more important, you need to know what it can't do for you and that is where this series primarily comes into play.


Even if you've already mastered the technical details of your camera, this series can still help you in two main ways:

  1. Improve your chances of capturing the best possible image in the first place by improving your techniques

  2. Help you recover what is lost in the processing pipeline that begins with your initial vision and ends with the final image.


2 | Audience


The primary audience is serious photographers, with an emphasis on DSLR cameras. Although some of the information is advanced, even novices or users of other types of cameras will still find a wealth of useful material.


3 | Taking Creative Control


When you position your camera and frame the picture, you need to take into account a wide variety of factors depending on your skill, experience, and interest level. But how do you get from the first impression to the final result you're seeking when so many technical challenges potentially stand in your way?


We start by looking a list of these challenges (or, as I like to call them, opportunities for creative control) that you may need to consider before you capture the scene.


In the next part of this series, we'll start focusing on the ones that have the most impact on your post processing work.


And finally, we'll look at the specific techniques you can use in post processing to leverage your good decisions and to try to compensate for any of the poor ones.


If you're unfamiliar with any of the following subject areas, there are many good tutorials on the Web and my Phototechniques blog will be covering some of them in detail. Mastering these preprocessing aspects will definitely help you achieve your goals during post processing.


“Opportunities”, in no particular order:


  • Lighting sources (positions, types, intensity, quality, reflections, diffusion, white balance, temperature, shadows, shading)

  • Subject-specific lighting (rim, fill, side, key, ambient, background, texturing)

  • Overall composition and sub-compositions (leading lines; points of interest; dynamic symmetry; “rule” of thirds, fifths, ninths; diagonals; dynamic versus static; depth and layering; background; point of view; obstructions and undesirable intrusions)

  • Margin requirements for cropping to different aspect ratios in post

  • Lens selection and characteristics (macro/zoom level and scene compression; flaring; clarity; speed; focus and aperture range; diffraction threshold; chromatic aberration; purple fringing; bokeh; distortion; image stitching parallax)

  • Image orientation (portrait versus landscape)

  • Black to white brightness range on the histogram; exposure levels of the important components

  • Contrast; scene and lighting dynamics; shutter speed; flash sync mode

  • Special effects and requirements (blurring versus tracking moving objects; image and focus stacking; low lighting or high contrast environments; formal versus journalistic; single and multiframe HDR; noise control; eye catchlights; light painting; astrophotography)

  • Focus (tracking type; subject type and focus points; depth of field)


(Excuse me while I jump on my soapbox here: I cringe when a couple says they have “a friend with a camera” who can do their wedding...if only it were that simple! Weddings are the most difficult events I've ever photographed; I had to take everything above into account while running around frantically and dealing with so many things that were out of my control, which is one of several reasons why I choose to not do them.)


Unless you're shooting tethered (which is rarely the case for me) your ability to validate the results of your camera settings when you're out and about is limited: The low resolution preview on the back of the camera belies the depth of information contained in the RAW file—it's really a limited JPEG version of the image and worse yet, the screen can't possibly represent the dynamic range or color gamut and contrast ratio of what you saw directly with your eyes, and the camera may artificially alter the exposure when displaying the image. Complicating things further, the histogram only tells you about a subset of the actual information contained in the RAW file because it's based on the same limited JPEG image.


That leaves relying on your experience to assure yourself that you can use your workstation to coax the image into the vision that enthralled you in the first place. I hope this series will help augment your experience with my own, leading to better images.


If you're not familiar with the ways our eyes perceive color and light, please read the following article before continuing this series: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/rods-and-cones