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Digital Darkroom Mistakes to Avoid

Using a computer is an integral part of being a photographer in this digital era. Yet this powerful ability to take full control over how your images look is not without its risks. Here's a brief rundown of some of the biggest mistakes to avoid.

Over Saturation
Arguably the most common mistake made when digitally editing photos is to oversaturate them. All one has to do is browse through any of the online photo sharing sites to see this for yourself. You may not notice it when looking at your own images since you're too personally attached to them. But it can be hard to miss if you look though enough images by others. They almost jump out at you, screaming "look at me, look at me." In the quest to make an image more compelling, it's easy to go too far and alter it in such a way that it no longer looks believably real.

It's just too easy to fall into this trap. Boosting the saturation a little bit can make most any image look better. It's the reason why films such as Fujichrome Velvia where so popular back in the day. Photographers want that extra edge to make their images stand out. The problem is, the eye and the brain become acclimated to what they see. Once you get used to a given image with the saturation boosted a little bit, it can be all too tempting to bump it up just a bit more. It's a slippery slope with no easy way to tell when you've gone too far. You'll only notice after you've overdone it, if at all.

The most important means of preventing problems with oversaturation is to be aware of the potential for overdoing it. After making an edit, refer back to the original image to judge the effect. Don't just rely on a simple before and after comparison using the images current appearance as your standard of reference. Each successive increase in saturation may look perfectly acceptable in isolation, but when compared against the unaltered original may how far beyond reality you have ventured. The use of Vibrance instead of traditional Saturation can help since it increasingly limits the effect based on how saturated each part of the image already is. This way, you can more safely give a boost to the areas that need it without pushing those that don't over the edge. But even with Vibrance, you need to pay attention to avoid problems.

Over Sharpening
Sharpening is a tricky subject. While looking at your image on a LCD monitor, you have to sharpen it with an eye to how it will ultimately be displayed. But the demands of a large, framed print are far different than those of a jpeg destined to be posted on Facebook. There's basically no way to sharpen for both media at the same time. It's necessary to hold off on final output sharpening until after you've resized your image to its final size. Remember, resizing your image resizes everything in it, including the effects of your sharpening.

It's not uncommon for photographers trying to squeeze a bit more detail out of an image to mistake sharpening for the detail they want. But sharpening can't add detail that simply isn't there. All it can do is make whatever detail does exist more evident by exaggerating the contrast along existing detail edges. Sharpening is an optical illusion. It makes images look sharper when all it really does is make edges more contrasty so they stand out more. If overdone, those edges take on an artificial look that is hard to miss once you know what to look for. A little bit of sharpening goes a long way.

Too Much Noise Reduction
Modern digital cameras render much cleaner images than they did just a few years ago. But no matter how good or how new your camera is, there will be times when you push it to its limits and end up with noise. Noise in an image can be devilishly hard to get rid of. It can sometimes hide acceptably in parts of an image with a lot of detail, but areas such as sky that should otherwise be clean gradients can look terrible with too much noise.

Programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop have a hard time distinguishing noise from fine detail. Any attempts to remove one risks also removing part of the other, thereby imparting a slight blur to the image. It's not uncommon to be forced into a choice of accepting some loss of detail or of resigning yourself to leaving some of the noise unaddressed. As with saturation, its best to compare the image to the unaltered original to help see when you've gone too far with removing noise. The only good way to deal with noise is to avoid it in the first place, but when you do find it necessary to deal noise in an image, be careful. If you look only at the noise, you may not notice that you are also losing useful image detail.

Avoiding Digital Editing Completely
Sometimes, I meet photographers who simply don't want to deal with digital editing. They may not be comfortable using a computer in general, or they may have reasoned that digital editing at all is "cheating." Or they may have tried it, but gotten burned because of their lack of experience. Regardless, choosing to avoid digital editing means giving up on the whole "second half" of photography. Photographers in the know since Ansel Adams and even earlier have made use of the darkroom as part of the creative process in pursuit of images that look the way they saw them in their mind. Today's digital darkroom is no different.

Cameras and camera gear aren't perfect. They don't see the world the way that we do. But when you get right down to it, we don't see the world the way the way we think we do either. Our eyes transmit signals to our brains, but those signals then get modified to augment reality such that we see a somewhat idealized version of what's in front of us. We want the sunset to be more radiant than it actually is, and our impressions of the event end up reflecting that. In a sense, we do our own post processing on what we see to accentuate what we want to see, and downplay what we don't. So, if our brains are doing their own version of post processing, why shouldn't we do likewise with the images our cameras create?

Just be careful, and don't overdo it.

Date posted: October 8, 2017


Copyright © 2017 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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