Digital Photography Help Desk

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Emergency fixes for bad photos

Despite your best efforts, some photos just turn out bad. But what if the bad photo in question is that one shot in a million—your grandmother blowing out candles on her 100th birthday, or that first kiss at a wedding? You may not be able to turn a bad photo into a well-shot photo; however, with a little creative problem solving, you might just be able to turn it into something worth keeping.

Overexposed foregrounds

The Problem: It looks as if a supernova occurred when you took your picture, turning everything in the foreground blindingly white—and eliminating valuable image detail. Overexposure problems often happen because you pointed the camera at a particularly dark part of your scene when you metered, or because you stood too close to your subject when the flash fired.

The Solution: Because overexposed photos lack the necessary image detail, you’ll have a hard time darkening these areas or restoring the correct colors (see “White Out”). Instead, try converting the image to gray scale. By eliminating all of the color, you’ll make it less obvious that some areas are completely white.

Step 1 If you’re using iPhoto 5 ($79 as part of the iLife ’05 suite), switch to Edit mode and click on the B&W button. In Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements ($599 and $80, respectively), the easiest way to convert to black-and-white is to select Image: Mode: Grayscale.

White Out In this overexposed image (left), the flesh tones in the child’s face are completely blown out. You can mask the problem by converting it to a black-and-white image (right).

Step 2 Once you’ve converted to gray scale, you’ll probably notice that your image lacks contrast. To quickly correct this in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, open the Layers palette (if it isn’t already on screen) and make sure the Background layer is selected. Then go to Layer: Duplicate Layer. At the top of the Layers palette is a pop-up menu set to Normal. This menu controls how overlapping layers blend together. Set this menu to Multiply. Doing so tells Photoshop to blend the pixels of the two layers together, severely darkening your image.

Step 3 To lighten up the effect, make sure the duplicate layer is still selected, and then move the Opacity slider in the Layers palette to the left until you reach a level of brightness and contrast that you like.

Blinding backlighting

The Problem: That silhouette in your photo looks an awful lot like your daughter—but the image is so dark, it’s impossible to be sure.

The Solution: Correcting a backlit photo is a particular challenge because the problem affects only a portion of the image. If you simply brighten the photo, you’ll not only bring out foreground details but also blow out correctly exposed background details.

If you have Photoshop CS or CS2, or Photoshop Elements 3, a good first step is to use the Shadows/Highlights tool. In Photoshop, go to Image: Adjustments: Shadows/Highlights. In Elements, go to Enhance: Adjust Lighting: Shadows/Highlights. Move the Lighten Shadows slider to the right as needed (see “Shadowy Figures”).

Shadowy Figures The bright light from the background turned the subjects of this photo into silhouettes (left). But with the help of the Shadows/Highlights command in Photoshop Elements 3, I was able to quickly brighten the dark areas without affecting the lighter areas.

If this doesn’t do the trick, or if you’re using an older version of one of these programs, then you’ll have to try a more manual approach: creating a layer mask.

Step 1 With the Background layer selected in the Layers palette, go to Layer: New Adjustment Layer: Levels; then click on OK. In the resulting Levels dialog box, drag the midpoint arrow (the gray one in the center) to the left to brighten your subject. When you do this, your background will become washed out, but don’t worry about that.

Step 2 Once you’ve set your Levels adjustment layer, select the Brush tool and set the foreground color to black. In the Layers palette, make sure the adjustment layer is selected and then click on the Layer Mask thumbnail (it’s the white box next to the Levels symbol in the layer).

Step 3 Paint over any parts of your image you don’t want to apply the Levels adjustment to. As you paint, you’ll be erasing the effect of the adjustment and exposing the original image. If you go too far and accidentally erase a part of the Layers adjustment that you want to keep, simply switch your brush to white and paint back over the area.

Bad color

The Problem: Why does your white cat always look yellow in photographs? The problem is your camera’s white balance. The color of an object can appear very different under different types of light. While your eye can adjust for these light changes automatically, your camera sometimes can’t (see “Getting Your Balance”).

The Solution: To correct a color cast in iPhoto 5, use the Adjust panel’s Temperature and Tint sliders. If there’s an area in your photo that should be gray, iPhoto may even be able to do the work for you. Simply Command-click on the area and iPhoto will attempt to neutralize the colors. If you don’t like the results, press Command-Z to undo them and then try another spot.

Getting Your Balance The camera used the wrong white balance when taking this shot (left). Photoshop Elements’ Remove Color Cast tool helped restore the scene.

Photoshop Elements will also attempt to correct color casts for you. Go to Enhance: Adjust Color: Remove Color Cast, and use the eyedropper to click on any part of the image that should be white, black, or a neutral gray.

If that doesn’t work, both Photoshop and Photoshop Elements also offer a Variations tool that can help guide you through the process of adjusting color. In Elements, go to Enhance: Adjust Color: Color Variations. In Photoshop, go to Image: Adjustments: Variations. Here, you can see your current image, as well as several different versions of your image, each with slight color changes. By clicking on the images you think best represent the true color of the scene, you can systematically adjust the image’s color channels.

Seriously bad color

The Problem: Some color casts just can’t be fixed. For example, shooting in low light can produce images that look almost monochromatic, usually with extreme reddish-orange color casts. You could always get rid of the color and go with a black-and-white photo. But what if you want color?

The Solution: Consider replacing the color by hand. Hand-tinting images is a technique that goes back to the early days of photography. And thanks to the layering capabilities of Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, it’s easy to do.

Step 1 Convert the image to gray scale (Image: Mode: Grayscale). This will remove all the color information from the file. However, since you actually want to add your own color information, you’ll then need to convert the image back to RGB (Image: Mode: RGB Color). The image will still look like a gray-scale image, but it will now support color.

Step 2 Create a new layer to hold your tinting (Layer: New: Layer). With the new layer selected in the Layers palette, change the Blending Mode pop-up menu (at the top of the Layers palette) from Normal to Multiply.

Step 3 Now you’re ready to start painting. Grab any painting tool you prefer (including the Brush, Airbrush, or Gradient tool), pick some colors, and begin painting on your new layer. The lower gray-scale layer will provide all the detail and shading in your image. You’re really just painting large areas of flat color (see “Creative Colors”).

Creative Colors This photo, taken outside at night, has the strong orange cast common in low-light photography. By applying colors to a new layer in Photoshop and then blending the layers, I was able to use the photo without worrying about the colors.

I recommend painting with very light colors, as more-saturated colors tend to look too dark. By keeping your color in a separate layer, you can easily go back and change it by repainting with different colors. You can even erase the color altogether with the Eraser tool.

Fuzzy focus

The Problem: Soft or out-of-focus images are usually a sign that your camera focused on the wrong thing, or used a shutter speed that was too slow.

The Solution: iPhoto, Photoshop, and Photoshop Elements all provide sharpening filters that can go a long way toward improving an image. Unfortunately, they create only the illusion of focus—mainly by increasing the contrast along edges. Nothing can truly bring an out-of-focus image back into sharp detail. However, if you have a shot that you really want to use, and one of those programs’ built-in sharpening tools don’t solve the problem, there are some other alternatives.

Make It Smaller If your image is just a little soft, try printing it out at a smaller size—for example, at wallet size (2.5 by 3.5 inches). Since all of the details will be smaller, a slight blur might be unnoticeable. The Image Size command found in both Photoshop (Image: Image Size) and Photoshop Elements (Image: Resize: Image Size) makes shrinking your pictures easy. In the Image Size dialog box, be sure that the Resample Image option is selected, along with the Constrain Proportions option. Set the Resample Image pop-up menu to Bicubic. Set the Resolution field to something appropriate for your printer, usually 240 pixels per inch, and then simply enter your desired output size in the Width or Height field. After resizing, go to File: Save As and give the file a new name. This will prevent you from accidentally wrecking your full-size image.

Focus the Sharpening If you’re working with a portrait, consider applying the sharpening filters to just the eyes—the most important part of the image. This also lets you be a little more aggressive with the sharpening without worrying about damaging more- delicate areas, such as the skin. To selectively apply sharpening filters in Photoshop or Elements, select the Lasso tool and then carefully circle the area you want to sharpen—in this case, the eyes. Go to Select: Feather to create a smooth blend between your selected and unselected areas. Then go to Filter: Sharpen: Unsharp Mask. Your settings will affect only the image area within the selection.

Go Wild If none of these solutions work, then it’s time to throw focus to the wind and go for something more stylized.

Photoshop and Photoshop Elements include a wide variety of filters that will make your images look heavily stylized. For example, the Conté Crayon filter (Filter: Sketch: Conté Crayon) will turn your image black-and-white and make it look as if it had been printed on canvas, burlap, or sandstone.

You’ll need to do a little experimenting as you work with Photoshop’s artistic filters. A texture that looks well defined on screen may look strange in print. If you’re working with an image from a high-resolution camera, you might get better results by first reducing the image’s size. Painterly effects sometimes print better with a lower-resolution image.

Saving the day

When a bad photo captures a moment worth keeping, these techniques should help bring it back to life. A good photo evokes the memory of a scene or person—regardless of whether every detail is perfectly in focus. In fact, you may find that your “bad” pictures turn out to be some of your most treasured.

Photo surgery

One of the most powerful tools in your correction arsenal is the simple Crop tool. Cropping is often the easiest way to deal with image flaws such as blown-out highlights and annoying lens flares. More importantly, you can use the crop tool to create a more interesting composition. You may have to throw away some perfectly good pixels, but the photo may be better for it.

[ Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography, third edition (Charles River Media, 2004). ]

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