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Get Your Picture Perfect—No Photoshop Required

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Photoshop offers incredible tools for correcting and adjusting exposure, tone, and color. However, very often an image is unusable not because of problems with its exposure or color, but because it's poorly composed. In this chapter, you'll learn how—by employing a few good shooting habits and paying more attention when shooting—you can get your compositions right in the camera, and avoid a trip to your image editor.
This chapter is from the book

THE OLD SAYING "what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG) comes to mind every time I click the camera's shutter in front of a scene like the one in Figure 3.1. If only it were true. When it comes to digital photography, the more likely experience is, "what you see is more or less what you get" (WYSIMOLWYG). That's oftentimes my reality.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 All too often, what you get is not what you see. Look at the camera's LCD. This is a good example of WYSIMOLWYG, or "what you see is more or less what you get."

If I want to capture what I see, or as close to that as possible, I must make some good decisions prior to shooting. I'll base these decisions on what I see, how I see it, how I want to interpret it and, ultimately, how I want others to see it.

Unlike the landscape painter who very carefully considers the scene behind his canvas and then expresses those impressions with his brush, the photographer is forced to make critical decisions in an instant. He must understand the light; he must focus selectively, frame effectively, and accurately expose the image. All of these decisions must be made in a short period of time, and there's usually only one chance to make them right. The photographer may not get a second chance, because conditions may have changed from one moment to the next.

I, like most photographers, want you to read my photographs in the way I intended. I want to influence your interpretation. I may want you to reach many of the same conclusions I did—to enjoy the scene I've photographed, to learn from it, be moved by the moment—or perhaps I have another goal in mind. I also want you to be able to interpret the image and take from it what you want. To accomplish any of these goals, the right choices must be made.

Photographing What We See

Photoshop offers incredible tools for correcting and adjusting exposure, tone, and color. And it provides the ability to create retouchings, composites, and selective edits that would be impossible using film and a darkroom. However, very often an image is unusable not because of problems with its exposure or color, but because it's poorly composed. In fact, a well-composed image that has exposure or color problems is often much more interesting and usuable than a perfectly executed shot of a boring composition.

With a Crop tool, like the one found in Photoshop, you can often correct or "re-compose" your images after-the-fact. By changing the crop of a picture, you can focus the viewer's eye, and change the balance of the elements within your frame. Of course, cropping requires a trip into your image editor, something we're trying to minimize.

By learning a few shooting habits, and paying more attention when shooting, you can get your compositions right in the camera, and avoid a trip to your image editor.

In this chapter, we'll be looking at a few things you need to keep in mind to get the best shot that you can straight out of your camera.


Every picture has its own compositional needs, so it's difficult to lay down hard-and-fast "rules" of composition, but there are some guidelines you can follow.

  • Guide the viewer's eye. A good composition is one that helps the viewer's eye find its way. Lots of things will attract the viewer's attention, from changes in contrast or color to the arrangement of foreground and background elements. When composing, your goal is to manage these elements so as to lead the viewer through your picture to your subject.
  • Build from left to right. Westerners tend to "read" a photo from left to right, just as they read text from left to right. So, if all of the interesting parts of your image are on the left-hand side, the viewer may not pay much attention to the rest of the scene.
  • Create balance. If you have a close up of a lion's head in the lower-right corner of your image, then you'll usually need to balance this strong element with something in the opposite corner. You don't have to create balance with a similar element. Open space, a strong color, a bright highlight—all of these elements can serve to balance each other.
  • Think in thirds. Imagine your image divided into a grid that is three rows high and three columns tall. If you place the elements of your image at the intersection of these grid lines, you'll usually get a fairly well composed shot.
  • Watch for juxtapositions. We've all suffered from this mistake. You shoot a beautiful portrait outdoors, and only when you get home do you realize that your subject has a telephone pole sticking out of their head. Remember: images are flat! You need to pay attention to how the 3D world you're living in will be squished into a flat image.

Check Your Edges

One of the easiest ways to improve your compositions is to pay attention to the edges of your frame. Line up your shot the way you want it, then take a moment to trace your eyes around the edge of the frame. Paying attention to your image's edges will help you spot bad juxtapositions, and will help you see your image more objectively, making it simpler to spot compositional troubles.

Choosing an exposure

Once you've framed your shot, you're ready to meter. Press your shutter button down halfway to tell your camera to meter your scene. If your composition is dependent on depth of field control—maybe you want to blur out the background to bring focus to your subject—then you'll need to modify your camera's meter reading to opt for a larger aperture.

As discussed in Chapter 2, you might need to change your camera's shooting mode to a priority or manual mode, or use a special portrait mode to achieve the depth of field effects that you want.

Adjust Your Exposure

If your scene contains things that are really dark, then you will need to use your camera's Exposure Compensation control to underexpose your image slightly, to render the dark things with their true tone. Similarly, if you're shooting things that are really white, then you'll need to overexpose.

Exposure Compensation allows you to easily dial in these over-exposures and underexposures, even if you're using another control to manage your depth of field concerns.

If you apply proper compensation to your exposure, then the light and dark tones in your image will be accurately exposed, saving you the trouble of making tonal adjustments later in Photoshop.

Use your camera's histogram and metadata

Fortunately, with a digital camera you don't have to do as much guesswork as you had to do with film. Thanks to your camera's LCD screen you can easily check your composition as soon as you shoot, while your camera's built-in histogram display and metadata screens allow you to make an informed assessment of your exposure decisions. To go even further, try a tethered system that connects a camera to a computer monitor. In addition to giving you more information about your images, these tools—used effectively—can save hours of work in Photoshop later on.

The liquid crystal display (LCD) is not a WYSIWYG device. It is a WYSIMOLWYG device, and a rather small one at that (Figure 3.2). Still, we could hardly get by without them. Thanks to LCDs, photography is now practically real time: We can preview our photographs almost instantly on the back of our digital cameras. For better or worse, LCD screens allow the photographer to begin the process of editing almost immediately after the photograph is taken (Figure 3.2). We have the ability to do timely, effective, almost real-time editing as well.

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 The LCD gives you a very small preview of what you'll see on the computer display and the final print.

However, many photographers make snap judgments based on what they see on the back of their digital camera, and often those decisions are wrong. The image is so very small on an LCD, and viewing conditions may be challenging. Coupled with the fact that most cameras boost the contrast and saturation of their LCD images to make them visible in bright light, judgments may be skewed. Sometimes a photographer moves too quickly to delete images, based on what he perceives to be a mistake and attempts to recover that data may prove difficult or impossible.

The LCD is a useful tool to check that your image is in focus. This takes time, however, and is usually not advisable after the shooting session begins. But the time you spend looking at your LCD is time spent away from making photographs. If you're looking at the back of your camera, you're not following the action in front of the camera (Figure 3.3). Performing such tasks as zooming in and out on a captured image can interrupt the rhythm of seeing and capturing images in an effective way. The playback zoom—the one on your LCD used for reviewing images—is much better used for test images, taken before the shoot even begins, so that you'll be confident that your images are focused well (Figures 3.4 and 3.5). Or use the playback zoom after your photo session has ended to confirm that you got the results you wanted.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 Once you push this button, it will be next to impossible to recover the images you've just eliminated.

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.4 Most digital cameras allow you to magnify an image with the simple click of a button.

Figure 3.5

Figure 3.5 Magnifying an image allows you to make sure your image is in focus.

LCDs can also be helpful for bracketing your exposures. By bracketing, I mean doing a small series of normal, over-, and under-exposures of your subject. For instance, if your meter indicates that you have a basic exposure setting of f/8 at 1/250 second, you might bracket this first exposure with a second one at f/8 at 1/125 second, and then a third at f/8 at 1/500 second, and then quickly compare the results on your LCD. This will give you a much better chance of getting the best exposure for a particular photographic setting.

Many cameras include an auto-bracketing feature that will sequentially bracket exposures for you at predetermined settings. These settings can also be useful in still-life photographic sessions, when you have as many chances as you need to review your bracketed images and adjust accordingly. If you are photographing people or moving objects, then you'll have to perform your bracketing test before your photographic session begins.

How do bracketing and magnification relate to Photoshop? Well, think of them as anti-Photoshop devices. The better you use zoom tools (despite all their faults, they're still better than nothing) and bracketing tests, the less time you'll spend making sweeping and technically difficult changes in Photoshop later.

Using Your Camera's Histograms

Histograms and highlight warnings are built into many of today's digital cameras, which show up on your LCD screen at the click of a button. A histogram shows the relative distribution of pixels of the various brightness levels in an image ranging from shadow areas on the left to highlight areas on the right. An image with no shadows will show a histogram with minimal data on the left; a histogram with no highlights will have a graph with minimal data on the right (Figures 3.63.8).

Figure 3.6

Figure 3.6 Histograms describe an image's range of shadows, midtones, and highlights. Looking at the histogram (yellow area), this image appears to be well exposed, with a broad tonal range.

Figure 3.7

Figure 3.7 A histogram with most of the information appearing on the right side of the yellow graph indicates an image with overexposure—one that lacks shadow detail.

Figure 3.8

Figure 3.8 A histogram with a spikew, or cliff, of information on the left side of the graph indicates underexposure. This image probably lacks sufficient highlight detail.

Histograms give you the information you need to take a better image next time around. Let's walk through a typical histogram experiment.

  1. Set your camera's f/number and shutter time for a normal exposure.
  2. Make an exposure. (Remember: It's only a test shot!)
  3. Press the camera's image playback button. Your image appears.
  4. Press the camera's multiselector, speed dial, or info button to reveal the image's histogram.
  5. Set your camera's f/number and shutter time so that it will capture a greater-than-normal exposure.
  6. Make a second exposure.
  7. Press the camera's image playback button.
  8. Press the camera's multiselector or speed dial to reveal the image's histogram for a second time.
  9. Set your camera's f/number and shutter time to capture a less-than-normal exposure.
  10. Make a third exposure.
  11. Press the camera's image playback button.
  12. Press the camera's multiselector (or speed dial) to activate the camera's histogram for a second time.
  13. Compare the different images and decide what the best exposure settings are.

Using Your Camera's Highlight Warnings

Highlight warnings pick up where histograms leave off by warning us if we're in danger of overexposing a scene's highlights. They reveal overexposure, allowing you to take care of the problem before it occurs.

The real issue is how accurate your histograms and highlight warnings are. Many photographers today rely almost exclusively on in-camera histograms and highlight warnings to ensure that their exposure values (most specifically the highlights) are in check (Figure 3.9). This is one area where Photoshop's tools are superior. They don't replace the histograms you would access in Photoshop. An in-camera histogram, for example, might not catch the exposure problems seen in Figure 3.9. Still, in a pinch, LCD-based histograms and highlight warnings are an effective means of finding out whether exposure changes must be made on future shots.

Figure 3.9

Figure 3.9 The highlighted (in this case, black area) of this image lacks sufficient detail. These areas might be very difficult to identify on an LCD, or by looking at the image's histogram on the camera.

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