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Help: My pictures look flat, out of focus/blurry/not crisp enough, dull, overexposed
My Canon Rebel XSi field guide recently mutated into a bit of a support forum for Rebel XSi users and future XSi owners. I love it when my readers are guiding my writing with questions, answers and even corrections or additions to my articles.
One question that seems to plague a few of you is how to give your pictures some pop (one o!). Why do my pictures often look so colorful while your pictures sometimes look a bit flat or out of focus/blurry/not sharp enough/not crisp enough. Do you have a broken camera or are you missing some other magical button.
After Cheryl posted her questions and awakened my curiosity, we exchanged some emails to discuss her problem of seemingly overexposed pictures that apparently lacked sharpness in color and detail (by her account).
With her old Canon PowerShot she was able to capture great pictures.
I also asked Cheryl if she might have set her camera to Adobe RGB. In the Color Management article I explained how the wrong color space setting may produce flat looking images.
If your printed pictures look different than they do on your screen, the processing service is usually not to blame. They rely on expensive calibrated equipment. Laptops have often cheap, low quality LCD. Get a better monitor and calibrate it!
Features and Colorspace
Digital SLR cameras offer advanced features and the camera menus and user manuals swamp the casual photographer with information. I was not surprised to learn that Cheryl had no idea what Adobe RGB meant.
Adobe RGB only works in the creative zone modes. It is on the second page of the configuration menu on your camera (red camera icon).
When I processed one of her images through ProPhoto RGB (my color space of choice), it suddenly exploded with color. I do not believe that Cheryl had set her camera to the wrong setting, since other pictures still look oversaturated after I changed the color space.
Both pictures contain the same information. I generated the second image from the first one, proofing that it already had all the necessary information.
During the relatively simple processing (assign ProPhoto RGB to the image and convert it to sRGB) the contrast in the color information got enhanced. I can achieve similar (but less pronounced) results by simply enhancing the colors in Photoshop. I usually use LAB color mode to separate the color from the brightness information if I want to affect only color (see link). I believe this is all that is required for Cheryl’s images.
But isn’t that cheating?
Whenever a photographer uses software to enhance the perception of images, people usually are outraged. There seems to be a predominant opinion among people who have no knowledge of the subject, that one can create fantastic images with Photoshop alone and that that is cheating. I recommend reading my article on the Ethics of Photoshop Image Manipulation for an in depth coverage of the subject. In short, you cannot turn ugly photographs into stunningly beautiful masterpieces (garbage in, garbage out). Mastering Photoshop is an art in itself and should be seen as such.
The camera IS to blame!
Point and Shoot cameras are usually adjusted for maximum user pleasure with minimum effort. The results are pleasing to most people, simply because the manufacturer adjusted the presets accordingly.
Digital SLR users are often much more selective. We want our color output to be more muted so that we can capture the entire color range without clipping off colors. We rather adjust the color in our software to our own style and liking. Most Consumer SLRs have presets, which let us adjust the color saturation in our JPG images. By default these settings are rather muted for the above reasons.
I usually prefer to capture RAW files and perform my very own RAW processing. This way I do not have to rely on a camera processor making automated decisions for me. Instead I can adjust my output depending on the scene and the lighting conditions. Even the best camera chips do not know your intentions and/or what is in the scene. I can even choose to enhance the dynamic range (HDR processing of RAW).
Digital SLRs are very demanding and require you to rethink how you work with images, but the results speak for themselves. Hopefully some of my Tutorials can help pave the way for you.
Why then do my macros look better ?
I already got Cheryl convinced to learn more about RAW processing. She sent me a follow up question about her macro images that appear much more saturated and seem to pop right out of the camera.
The image on the left is unprocessed.
I do not know if Cheryl used a different lens. Lenses have a strong influence on color rendition. If she used a different lens, I would like to encourage her to try a comparative shot of the same scene with two lenses to find out about the differences.
Dynamic Range Problems
As far as the camera goes, the macro shot has a more limited dynamic range than the forest picture. The camera has to preserve detail in the shadows and highlights of the forest shot and cannot render the shadows and the highlights well enough, since they lie near or beyond the capabilities of the camera.
As a remedy I would like her to try exposing for the shadows or the highlights alone. If you expose for shadows, the shadows should be rendered much clearer. The highlights will be blown out, but that may be perfectly acceptable in many shots.
Forest scenes present a drastic challenge for cameras. Try shooting on overcast days to avoid bright spots on the ground and exclude the sky from your photographs to prevent blown out highlights. Your pictures should turn out much better.
Another less obvious reason may be that Cheryl is using the scene modes of her camera. Maybe the macro mode simply is adjusted to produce more saturated colors. Maybe you could try it out and post the results here?
What did I forget?
I probably forgot to mention a few things. If you happen to have some more ideas, feel free to post them below.