Making Digital Photos Look Real

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Probably one of the things that have kept some from people from truly adapting digital cameras is the output of the pictures that they take. Some people see a profound difference between manipulating digital pictures versus film variants. The common response usually hovers around, “they don’t look real.” In this article, we will show some steps that anyone (the beginner photographer to the advanced) can use in order to make their digital pictures “come alive.”

Required Tools for This Exercise

Photoshop, Paint Shop, or similar image editing program
Digital camera with a fresh picture

Step 1: Resizing

First, take a fresh picture, or even an older digital picture that you want to touch up. The goal with that picture is to get something that you are familiar with from a natural point of view. Make sure that you choose a picture that has a lot of colors going on with it. For example, for pictures that have trees and/or wildlife, make sure that have some of the sky and ground as this will come into play later when we do some color leveling.

Once you have your picture, upload it to your computer and load it into the image editing program of your choice. NOTE: most digital cameras come with some basic Photo Editing Software and that is good enough for this exercise.

In this exercise I will be using Photoshop 6.0 but any photo editing program can do. Once you have loaded the picture into the editor, the first thing that you will want to do is to go to the image info screen as that will give you the basic information about the picture such as size and resolution.

Looking at the picture, you can see that it is 22 inches by 16 inches. That is usually quite large, and more than one wants to usually print. For a good print size, we will change the size of this picture to roughly 4 by 6 inches.

NOTE: Make sure that you have the boxes “Constrain Proportions” and “Resample Image” checked/activated as these will do two things: make sure that the image scales correctly to a smaller size, and rescans the image so that there is no pixilation to the image in its smaller size. 72DPI is great for web, but for printing, you will want to do something in the 150 -300 DPI range.

Now that we have the image at the size that we will want for printing, we can move to the next step of enhancing the image.

Step 2: Carefully Enhancing Those Colors

The key to making sure that you get an accurate reproduction of the colors that your eyes see with a digital picture is making sure that the computer overemphasizes the colors that your eyes will usually pass over. In other words, the key is in the sharpening of the colors in the grey, white, and red color ranges. To do that here, we are first going to balance the whites and blacks that are in this picture by going to the Levels panel.

[View full size image]

[View full size image]

Within the Levels panel, you can edit the white, black, and grayscale balance of the current picture with the eyedropper tools. With the black eye dropper, one clicks on an area that is as close to absolute black as possible. You can use the Info Panel to show the levels of the CMYK colors. What I try to aim for is something in the area of 90 to 95% as choosing pure black doesn’t give me the results that I am looking for. For the white balance, you want the CMYK to be as close to 0% as possible. Here also, I choose closer to 10-12% so that at most, I take away the highlights.

Now, you might notice on this picture that there is a large area on the left side that has a highlight. You can address this two ways. By cropping the picture so that the highlighted area doesn’t show in the final picture (do this before doing any leveling or resizing) or you can use the Burn and Dodge tools to darken the area. In this picture I will do the former.

[View full size image]

After getting the picture leveled you are basically finished with any editing that you will need to do before printing. You can (with most programs) add filters and do other effects to increase the artsy feeling of the photograph. For example, maybe you decide that this should be a black and white picture that looks pencil drawn, Photoshop and Paint Shop all for you to do this.

Finally, make sure that you have some fresh photo paper (get it from a copy shop as they have some of the better prices rather than getting the paper from an office products store). Getting high quality paper is good, but for most amateur photographers, medium quality paper on a low cost color printer will look just fine. Then print and you should see the results of a very nice picture that looks as good, if not better than some film variants.

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