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How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

22 Feb

What is it that makes one picture appear dull and another more striking? What is it that makes some tones appear detailed and others smooth and transient? The answer to both of these questions involves the issues of color hue, color purity, and tone distribution.

Prague A - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

This street scene in Prague is the original underexposed camera image.

Prague B - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

The same image after tonal and color adjustments have been applied.

The science of color and tone

All color detail is determined by these three elements. In the Photoshop/Lightroom world, you’ll recognize these terms as HSL or Hue, Saturation, and Luminance. The world of photography is both an art and a science. The science part is filled with graphs, measurements, and strange words that most people don’t encounter every day.

These terms come from the scientific vocabulary of engineers, chemists, and mathematicians in the photographic trade. When digital cameras were introduced to the general public years ago, suddenly everybody could push around the colors and tonal range in their own pictures. While Adobe Photoshop provided a serious workshop, it showed up with a boatload of technical color science terms.

Unfortunately, if you don’t fully understand the terms, you may not be taking full advantage of the controls they provide. In this article, I’ll do my best to bring these terms down to Earth and make them understandable. We’ll get past the technical jargon and get into the practical application of these terms.

Hue, Saturation, and Lightness

Hue, Saturation, Lightness (luminance) are the irreducible minimum building blocks involved in good color editing and reproduction. While there are many more issues to be addressed in the processing of an image, these three are the make-or-break elements that must be understood and adjusted if you want your color images to catch a viewer’s eye.

Incidentally, when editing your images, these elements should be addressed in that very order; value (hue), intensity (saturation), and tonality (luminance). While hue and saturation concern color, luminance refers to the tonal structure of an image; pretty much an issue of dark versus light.

The Saturation slider affects the intensity of the color in an image. This is a powerful tool; exercise restraint.

Genoa A - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

The Saturation effect on a Genoa Italy cathedral – normal saturation levels.

How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

Genoa B - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

None.

HSL Dialog Sat Low - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

Genoa C - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

Oversaturated.

HSL Dialog Sat High - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

A Primer on Image Detail

Contrast usually refers to the overall light-to-dark extremes of an image but the real power of post-production editing is in pushing the tonal values around inside the overall range.

But if you really want to make the detail in your image stand out, you must adjust the internal contrast of the image. The biggest difference-maker adjustment should be the middle tones of your images; tones in-between the lightest and the darkest in your image.

TrafalgarSq A - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

Trafalgar Sq O Levels - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

The middle slider in Photoshop’s Levels dialog is referred to as the gamma slider. Gamma is another one of those legacy scientific terms that you can think of as a “mid-tone” adjustment. Moving this elementary slider from left to right actually shifts the entire middle range of tones from lighter to darker.

TrafalgarSq B - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

This picture of the King Charles statue in London’s Trafalgar Square is backlit and was dark, but a simple middle tone adjustment opened up the shadows and revealed hidden detail.

TrafalgarSq A Levels - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

Photoshop’s Levels tool is the most basic of tonal controls. There are actually several much more effective tonal shaping tools available in Photoshop and even more comprehensive controls in Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom. We won’t get into a thorough discussion of these tone adjustment tools and workflow recommendations in this article (perhaps at a later time).

Leaves A - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

Leaves B - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

This picture of winter leaves was fairly well exposed but required both tonal and color adjustments to reveal the rich colors in the original scene.

Camera Raw dialog - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

Editing for Tonality

There’s a reason why tone adjustment should be your number one issue in image preparation; even more critical than color accuracy.

Your eyesight has tonal perception and interpretation capabilities that far exceed the dynamic range of any digital camera. Make no mistake, capturing seven stops of light range is an amazing feat. But capturing this wide range of tones doesn’t automatically translate into detail, image definition, or good tonal distinction.

Properly reassigning those internal tones to more closely match what your eyes see is where the real editing magic happens. Hang with me here because this will get a bit involved, but I think it will definitely be worth your time.

LinearCapture Eye Camera - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

This chart shows the difference between the way your eye registers light and how your camera records it.

Camera View – Human View

Your camera’s image sensor records light quite differently than your eye perceives it. The camera actually records a lot of data from the lighter portion of the scene and very little data from the darker portion. The image sensors capture light in a linear fashion. Unfortunately, humans view the lighting in scenes in a logarithmic fashion.

You might say that original camera files usually benefit from a “fashion” adjustment, generally lightening the middle tones. Camera images that don’t get their tonal values adjusted almost always lose detail in the darker areas of the image. Virtually all camera images benefit from internal adjustments.

Chrominance and Luminance Explained

Chrominance deals with the color component of an image while luminance deals with the contrast or tonality component of an image.

Chroma refers to the color in an image while luma describes the non-color or tonal part. Achromatic is a fancy scientific word that is pretty simple to understand. Remember your high school English… the prefix “a” means “without,” so a-chromatic literally means without color.

In the HSL model of color, hue, and saturation fall in the chrominance column while tonality and contrast are on the luminance column (the structural or tonal backbone of an image).

Basic Luminosity Adjustments

Where does the term “luminance” come from? Light is measured in lumens. A lumen is the smallest measurable unit of light visible to the human eye. Luminosity then is the measure of lumens reflecting from (or transmitted through) a light source and perceived by your eye. The more lumens, the brighter the light. Light measurements are also made in increments called candelas. A candela is roughly the value of light produced by a single household candle.

Photo by Akshay Paatil on Unsplash

Just as “horsepower” is a carryover index of a measurement of power (relating to the pulling strength of multiple horses) candelas is an index of the cumulative light emitted from multiple candles. These legacy terms are sometimes confusing, and it would be nice if photographic color science terminology were simplified for those just entering the process, but until then, you’ll have to get acclimated.

I’ll take it slow, as you can easily drown in the scientific terminology minutia. I’ll keep the terminology on a basic digital imaging level so that you can make practical use of what you learn.

Basic Color Science

Ryb-colorwheel

As stated before, all color is composed of three elements; value, intensity, and luminosity. Value (or hue) refers to the “color” of color, or what differentiates red from orange or purple. Intensity (or saturation) refers to the purity color, distinguishing pastels to pungent colors (the more white light is combined with pure color, the more the color strength is diluted). Luminosity is the measure of the brightness and relates to the image’s lightness or darkness.

Hue (value) differentiates one color from another. Saturation (intensity) determines the purity of color. Luminosity (brightness) determines tonality.

The detail in digital imaging terminology is the degree to which colors and tones distinguish themselves from each other. While hue, saturation, and luminance all play a significant role in detailing an image, the heavy lifting of detail is done by luminance or the shaping of the internal tones in an image. Detail is a product of contrast, and contrast is almost completely controlled by the luminance element. This is why post-production professionals perform all their sharpening adjustments in the luminance channel exclusively.

Shadows Highlights dialog - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

Photoshop’s Highlight/Shadow dialog box

Camera Raw dialog - How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality

Adobe Camera Raw main dialog.

Shaping Light

Contrast, like audio equalization, cannot be effectively accomplished by using a linear (bass-treble) type control such is the luminance slider in the HSL panel which simply lightens or darkens an image. The effective shaping of an image requires the individual adjustment of five specific tonal regions of an image; highlight, quarter-tone, mid-tone, three-quarter tone and shadow. I use a variety of controls to shape my tonal contrast.

Ansel Adams once stated, “Half the image is created in the camera, the other half is created in the darkroom.” Though you may never use a darkroom to produce a photographic image, the essence of his statement is still true. Capturing pixels with your camera is only your first step in producing a good picture, what you do with the image that comes out of your camera will determine your skills as a photographer.

Digital photography provides almost limitless avenues for personal expression. Shaping the color and tonality in your images is the backbone of great photography. Determine to learn something new about this fabulous art form every day. Push pixels around and stay focused.

The post How to Understand the Science of Photography and Technical Terms for Mastering Image Tonality by Herb Paynter appeared first on Digital Photography School.


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Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

02 Jan

One of the main strengths of Luminar by Macphun, soon to be Skylum, is how it makes a suite of professional-style editing tools available to even the most casual of photographers. It does it all with a user interface that is clean, simple, and easy to understand. In contrast to some other editing programs on the market, Luminar’s full suite of powerful tools is available through a simple approach based on applying Filters and Presets, along with more advanced options such as layers and masking.

Instead of hiding these under myriad menus and obscure tiny buttons, Luminar presents you with easy-to-understand options when choosing your edits and includes real-time previews of what your edits will look like. And much of this starts with the simple act of selecting a Preset.

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

Presets versus Filters

Before getting too deep into how to use and share one-click Presets, it’s important to understand some basic terminology related to Luminar’s use of Presets and Filters.

When you load an image into Luminar’s editing interface you are presented with two main options to edit your images: Add Filter or Apply Preset.

Filters

Filters are individual editing tools that let you perform basic adjustments such as color temperature, exposure, and white/black levels. Luminar also contains more advanced filters like color balance, texture overlay, HSL, and the Accent AI filter that uses artificial intelligence to adjust a range of parameters all with a single slider. Filters can be applied across an entire image, brushed in selectively, and used in combination with layers in a manner similar to Adobe Photoshop’s editing workflow.

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

Click Add Filters, then select a filter such as Saturation / Vibrance, and you will be shown a description of the Filter as well as a preview of how it would look applied to a sample image.

Presets

Due to the sheer number of filters available the options can seem overwhelming even to seasoned editors. This is where Presets come in handy, and where the brilliant simplicity of Luminar really starts to shine.

A Preset is a collection of filters specifically chosen by the developers of Luminar to produce a certain type of effect on the whole image when combined. At the bottom of the Luminar interface, you will see a row of Presets with names like Soft & Airy, Sky Enhancer, and Vivid which are good starting points when editing a variety of image types. Click the Categories button to see the filters organized as specific collections that can be useful depending on the specific types of images you are editing.

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

Presets are organized into specific categories, and you can also access your favorites and any custom Presets with the click of a button.

If all this talk of Presets has you feeling overwhelmed before you even start, just take a breath and know that it’s a lot simpler than it might seem especially when you actually open Luminar and start to use it. You don’t even have to use Presets at all but I have found them to be a great starting point when editing my images. It’s a nice compromise between me performing all manner of meticulous edits by hand and having Luminar do all the work for me.

Presets occupy a comfortable middle ground that allows you to have one-click access to a set of edits that will enhance your images in a heartbeat. At the same time, they still allow you to retain as much control over the individual editing parameters as you would like.

Preset walkthrough

To show how Presets work I’m going to walk you through an example step by step beginning with this image of some autumn leaves. This is the RAW file straight out of my camera with no edits applied.

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

Original boring unedited image. Cue sad trombone sound effect…wop wop woooop.

When you load an image into Luminar you will see it take up most of the screen except for a portion at the bottom and the right. The former is where you can select a Preset and the latter is used for applying and editing Filters.

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

Add Filters on the right, Presets are at the bottom.

Forget about Filters for now and just focus on the Preset options at the bottom of the screen. Each one has a name that describes the type of effect it will have on your photo. Best of all, each Preset has a mini preview of what it will actually do if you apply it to your image.

Preset previews rock!

This is one of my favorite features of Luminar, and it’s almost worth the price of the program all by itself because you can quickly scan through the many options available and choose one to instantly transform your photo with the click of a button.

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

The Preset panel gives you real-time previews of what each one will look like when applied to your image.

As an added bonus you can even adjust the degree to which Luminar applies a Preset by clicking on one and then dragging the slider to the left. That way if you like the effect that a Preset has on your image but find it to be a bit overdone, just lower the value a bit with the slider. You also have the option of clicking the star icon in the corner of any Preset which saves it to a list of favorites.

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

Use the slider to adjust the degree to which a Preset is applied.

The following image is an example of what one click on the “Warm Sunset” Preset did to transform the original picture of some dull green and yellow leaves.

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

The finished version, all done with a couple of clicks thanks to the Presets in Luminar.

Not too shabby, right? As a comparison, I loaded the same RAW file into Lightroom and was able to get similar results but it took a lot more time and required changing values on a dozen different sliders.

Such is the beauty of Luminar’s approach. The developers have done much of the heavy lifting so that you don’t have to, while still giving you full access to all the editing options within each of the Presets. So if you really want to do a dive deep and adjust your images on a granular level, you can.

Note: You can also add a texture overlay and save that in a custom preset as well.

Editing the Presets

If all the screenshots and arrows in this article have your head spinning, here’s a refresher of the basic Luminar workflow:

  • Step 1: Import an image into Luminar
  • Step 2: Click on a Preset
  • Step 3: You’re done. There is no Step Three.

However, if you would like to dive into some of the finer details of using Presets, Luminar lets you see exactly what each one does and also tweak the parameters to your liking. You can save your edits as new Presets, and even create your own Presets from scratch.

For example, the Warm Sunset Preset that I applied to the image of the leaves is really just a collection of Filters with specific adjustment values already applied. The following screenshot shows the specific filters that Warm Sunset uses, as well as the numerical values that have been dialed in by the Luminar developers.

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

The Warm Sunset Preset consists of three Filters, each with pre-determined values dialed in that you can change at any time if you like.

When you click on a Preset you will see all of its Filters show up on the right side of your screen, and you are free to change any of the values you want or even add new Filters to the mix. It’s an endlessly customizable editing solution that can go a long way towards giving you the professional results you have always wanted without the hassle and steep learning curve inherent in some other photo editing programs.

Creating and Sharing Presets

Even though there are dozens of Presets already built-in to Luminar, you can create your own by choosing any combination of filters, editing them to the values you want, and choosing “Save Filter Preset…” from the Filters menu.

I often find myself adding a little clarity along with some post-crop vignetting to my images (and for nature shots a bit of vividness too) so I pulled those Filters, dialed in the values for each one, and then saved it as a Preset called “Clarignette” (my attempt at making a new word).

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

A custom Preset I created called Clarignette, which uses the Clarity, Brilliance/Warmth, and Vignette Filters.

Custom Presets can be accessed by clicking the Categories button just above the row of Presets and choosing “User Presets.” Any Presets that you create or customize can also be shared with other users which makes this a great way to use custom Presets on multiple computers or in any type of collaborative editing environment. Choose “File > Show Presets Folder…” to see the folder on your computer where your custom Presets reside. Each one is saved as an “.lmp” file that you can copy to the Custom Preset folder on another computer or send to a friend.

Stacking Presets with Layers

One final ace up Luminar’s sleeve is its ability to let you combine filters using layers, in precisely the same way Photoshop and other image editing programs handle a layer-based non-destructive workflow.

Instead of applying a Preset directly to the image you are working with, you can click the “+ Overlay Preset” button in the lower-right corner of the Luminar workspace which adds a layer onto which your Preset edits are applied. This is exactly the same as an Adjustment Layer in Photoshop. Your Preset edits can now be applied, controlled, and adjusted independently of the image itself. Masking tools can then be used on each layer to control which parts of the image are affected by the Preset.

Note: You can also apply a mask to any of the Filters applied directly to your image as well.

Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar

I started with an image of some leaves, and created an Overlay with the Vivid Preset. Then I added a second Overlay with the B&W Preset and applied that with a radial mask so it is only affecting the outer edges of the image leaving all the color in the center.

This layer-based Preset implementation is another illustration of how Luminar takes a powerful-but-simple approach to editing. It’s not that Luminar is quantifiably better or worse than other editing programs because such an evaluation depends greatly on the individual needs, workflow, and style of the photographer. However, for users who are relatively new to photo editing and want a program that offers a simple, clean, intuitive approach with a feature-set deep enough to grow with them over time, it’s hard to beat Luminar.

Anyone who has used Instagram or other social media apps to apply image edits with the click of a Filter or Preset button will feel right at home with Luminar. As those individuals demand greater control and flexibility as they improve their skills, Luminar is right there beside them ready to meet the challenge. I really do like Luminar’s approach to editing with Presets and Filters and I think it’s a nice way to bridge the gap between amateur and professional photo editing. It’s simple enough for casual users but has a deep feature-set to cater to more demanding photographers too.

Disclaimer: Macphun, soon to be Skylum, is a dPS advertising partner.

The post Mastering and Sharing One-Click Presets in Luminar by Simon Ringsmuth appeared first on Digital Photography School.


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5 Tips for Mastering Shadows in Your Photography

14 Nov

Walking into a dimly lit room can be a photographer’s worse nightmare. Dark walls, low lighting, and weird shadows are enough to give even the calmest photographer a case of anxiety. Does this sound familiar? It did to me when I was first starting out and claimed to be a natural light photographer.

Because let’s face it, I did not know how to use my flash and more importantly did not know how to read light. Yes, I said that right. As a photographer, you not only see light but also need to learn the art of reading light – the type of light, the quality of light and also how the light will affect your final image.

The more I started to photograph people and places, the more I realized that but finding light among the shadows wasn’t really that scary or daunting.

How to Embrace Shadows in Your Photography

Master the shadows

Imagine for a moment the confidence you would feel if you can walk into any indoor lighting situation and think to yourself, “Yes, I got this”. And I don’t mean using your off-camera flash or strobes to light up the whole scene like the fourth of July fireworks display. I mean using only available light to create some magical photos.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still love images taken in natural light as they feel really light, airy, and inviting to me. But shooting in a low-key style, embracing shadows to create some dramatic portraits is just as fun and exciting.

For the past few years, I have felt a little limited in my photography in terms of only photographing in bright, open, natural light conditions. Living in Chicago, our summers are quite short and fall is usually a mix of rain, thunderstorms and more rain. I learned very quickly that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and figure out how to photograph indoors and do it confidently and creatively.

A less I quickly learned is that shadows play such an important role in shaping light, setting the mood, rendering depth, and creating drama. In the absence of floor-to-ceiling multi-windowed, light-filled rooms to photograph in, embracing shadows may be the perfect solution for unleashing your creativity.

#1 Gear choices

Dark and Moody Lifestyle Portraits - How to Embrace Shadows in Your Photography

If you have a choice between prime and zoom lenses, choose the former. Primes are generally considered fast lenses with an aperture of f/1.8 or larger and allow what light there is to reach the camera’s sensor. My Canon 50mm f/1.2 is on my camera 80% of the time I am photographing indoors.

Make sure to also meter appropriately. I use spot metering most of the time and have my center spot set to the brightest area on my subject’s face/skin. This, in itself, will help to get a dramatically lit image. It will expose the highlights properly and allow the rest of the scene to have shadows for a range of tones.

Ensure you expose properly as well. If the capture is underexposed, attempting to correct it in post-processing only adds noise. In general, I tend to overexposure my photos by at least 1/3 stop no matter where I am photographing. I have found that this allows me to minimize noise and retain as much detail as possible in the shadows.

My White Balance is set to Auto. You can choose to set White Balance via the custom Kelvin function so that it can cut down processing time later. I find that being in Auto works really well in most cases and I am okay with minor adjustments in post-processing if required. Learn to embrace a bit of noise by increasing the ISO especially if the room is really dark.

Dark and Moody Lifestye Portraits in Shadows - How to Embrace Shadows in Your Photography

#2 Single light source

A single light source such as a small window or open door can work wonders for your image. When you are working with dark spaces and limited light, you’ll be surprised how little light you actually need.

If you have north-facing windows, they tend to bring in a softer and more directional light as opposed to east or west facing. Those tend to bring strong light depending on where the sun is in the sky at the time you are photographing.

Dark and Moody Wedding Portraits in Shadows - 5 Tips for Mastering Shadows in Your Photography

Backlight magic.

Dark and Moody Wedding Portraits in Shadows - 5 Tips for Mastering Shadows in Your Photography

The bride is facing the window and her profile is evenly lit. But the dark drapes behind her render the background almost black – I quite love the drama of light and dark happening in this photo – achieved by just placing the subject in a specific spot.

#3 Direction and quality of light

Both the direction and the quality of light play significant roles in the mood of an image. So understanding the variety, nature, and use of each will help you make informed decisions about how to achieve your end goal.

Hard, focused light tends to amp up the overall drama of the image, emphasizing texture and detail, and producing contrasty shadows with sharp, defined edges. Soft, diffused light gives shadows soft, feathered edges that recede gently (dither away), making it flattering and versatile for human subjects for the way it minimizes texture and detail (i.e., flaws).

The angle and direction of the light you choose depend on your shooting style and your intent for the image or session. Typically, I do not position the subject facing the light source because it gives a flat, one-dimensional look to the subject’s features. I prefer lighting my subjects from the side for the depth and dimension the shadows give the subject’s features and the rest of the frame.

Backlighting the subject has its uses, particularly if your intent is to somewhat abstract the subject to get an airy, dreamlike feel.

Dark and Moody Wedding Portraits in Shadows - 5 Tips for Mastering Shadows in Your Photography

On the left, the bride is facing the window straight on, so the light on her face is even and soft. On the right, the bride is facing the window but at a 45-degree angle. So her portrait is a mix of more dramatic light as well as darker shadows.

#4 Mathematics in photography

The mathematical law of the Inverse Square describes how the illumination from a light source diminishes over distances.

Imagine the beam of a spotlight as it widens and grows dimmer in the distance. Now center a subject in the beam close to spotlight itself and the light will be harsh. But if you move the subject in a straight line to stand about 6 feet from the light, how much less light is hitting the subject them? With the distance doubled, the light hitting the subject is diminished by three quarters.

In a real-world context, let’s say you’ve got a background to work with and maybe a surface to bounce light into the scene. Plus all kinds of diffusers and filters to modify the light source, and a choice of where to place the subject in relation to the background and the light source as well as placing yourself and the camera.

Generally, you can add drama to the image by positioning your subject close to the light source and away from the background. The light will illuminate the subject and everything behind her will dwindle into shadow. That’s a quick and easy way to create a dark background in-camera. Conversely, placing the subject further from the light source and closer to the background will create a more evenly lit scene with a more gradual shift between light and shadow (the background will be lighter as well).

Dark and Moody Wedding Portraits in Shadows - 5 Tips for Mastering Shadows in Your Photography

On the left, the bride is farther away from the light source and hence she is more in the shadows as compared to the image on the right where she is facing the window light and is closer to the light source. So more of her face is being illuminated with the light coming from the window.

#5 Modify or mold your light source

If you find yourself with an over-abundance of natural/available light, using modifiers is an easy way to control the amount and intensity of the lighting on your subject.

Sheer curtains and blinds can be used to reduce or diffuse light, making it softer and subtler. You can decrease the size of the light source to increase shadows and increase drama with the use of blackout curtains or by partially shutting doors. Remember, the more light you let in, the less intense the shadows.

I hope these examples motivate you to look differently at shadows. There are no photography monsters hiding in them! They are, in fact, quite useful in adding some drama and interest in your photographs.

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6 Tips for Mastering Your Lenses

13 Nov

Most photographers have a favorite lens (you can read about mine here), maybe even two or three. But do you know how to get the best out of that lens? I’ve used lots of lenses over the years. As a result, I know that it takes time to get to know a lens, and longer still to master it. These tips will help you work your way through that process.

Mastering camera lenses

1. Use the lens exclusively for a month

In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell put forward the now-famous idea that true mastery of a skill takes 10,000 hours of practice. The idea of putting in your 10,000 hours applies to photography as a whole rather than using a single lens. But there’s no doubt that by using the same lens, and no other, for an extended period of time it will help you get to know that lens really well.

You can put this idea into practice in a small way by taking just one camera and one lens out on a shoot. For example, if you have a portrait shoot then take along a short telephoto prime lens. If you’re shooting landscapes, take a wide-angle lens.

Mastering camera lenses

I often take just a single lens on a portrait shoot. The only lens I had on me for this one was an 85mm short telephoto.

You can take it further and extend the exercise for a week, a month, or even longer. It’s up to you.

This exercise is easiest with a prime lens. If you do it with a zoom I suggest that you pick one focal length and stick to that. The idea is to get familiar with how a specific focal length behaves. You can’t do that if you are zooming from one to the other.

2. Test your lenses at all apertures

Part of mastering your lenses is getting to know how they each perform at various apertures. There are two things to consider here – technical performance and aesthetic quality.

No lens gives consistent image quality across its aperture range. All lenses are softer at their widest and narrowest aperture settings than the middle ones.

If you tend to use small apertures when you take photos (perhaps you are a landscape photographer) then you need to be aware of an effect called diffraction that creates a softening effect as you stop down. Yes, you get more depth of field at f/22, but photos taken at f/11 or f/16 may be sharper overall.

Test your lenses to see where the visible effects of diffraction kick in. That way you know the smallest aperture you are happy using, in relation to sharpness for each lens in your kit.

At the other end of the scale, a lens is always softer at its widest aperture. If your favorite lens is a prime then you probably open the aperture to create bokeh. As you stop down the depth of field increases, there is less bokeh, and the image gets sharper.

The key is to find the balance between bokeh and image quality. For example, I find that when I make portraits with a short telephoto lens I get the best results at f/2.8. More of the model’s face is in focus and the bokeh still has a beautiful quality. You can see the difference in the two portraits below.

Mastering camera lenses

3. Zoom lenses – test at different focal lengths

The situation becomes a little more complicated with zoom lenses. This is because you have an extra variable – focal length. Not only does sharpness vary according to the aperture, but focal length has an effect too. Very few zoom lenses give equal optical quality across their entire focal length range.

When it comes to zoom lenses I prefer to think of them as several prime lenses in one. For example, when I owned a 17-40mm zoom I tended to set it to 24 or 35mm for most of my shoots (these focal lengths were conveniently marked on the barrel). At other times I would use 17mm if I wanted a real ultra wide-angle effect or 40mm. So, to me, it was four lenses in one – a 17mm, 24mm, 35mm and 40mm lens.

These photos show the difference between the 17mm and 40mm focal lengths on this lens.

Mastering camera lenses

Mastering camera lenses

This approach simplifies the task of getting to know your zoom lens because you are getting to know it at three or four focal lengths rather than across the entire range.

4. Zoom with your feet

Regardless of whether your favorite lens is a prime or a zoom it is helpful to zoom with your feet rather than use the zoom ring (of course, if you have a prime lens you have no choice in the matter!) Zooming with your feet is an expression used to describe the process of moving physically closer to or farther away from your subject to change its size in the frame, rather than using the zoom ring on a zoom lens.

For zoom lens owners, this comes back to the earlier idea of a zoom lens being three or four prime lenses in one. For example, if you have an 18-55mm kit lens then your lens behaves very differently at different focal lengths. At 18mm it’s a wide-angle lens ideal for subjects like landscapes. At 55mm it’s a short telephoto lens that you can use for portraits.

In terms of perspective, both focal lengths are very different. You will only learn about perspective and the way it changes as you move closer to or further from your subject if you stick to using your zoom lens at a single focal length. If you use the zoom ring to change subject size, you won’t learn about perspective.

For example, with an 18-55mm lens set to 18mm, you need to get fairly close to the subject to obtain the dramatic perspective associated with wide-angle lenses.

Mastering camera lenses

If you are further away from the subject the perspective is much less dramatic.

Mastering camera lenses

5. Try different subjects

We tend to think of lenses as associated with specific subjects. For example, wide-angle lenses are ideal for landscapes, and short telephoto lenses are brilliant for portraiture.

But what if you mix it up a little? What happens if you use a short telephoto for landscape photography or a wide-angle for portraiture? The idea is to take yourself out of your comfort zone and find creative ways to use your favorite lenses. Ways that perhaps hadn’t occurred to you before.

If you use a wide-angle lens for portraiture you will soon find that if you get too close to your model then it’s going to create some very unflattering effects. But what if you step back and include more of your environment? Suddenly you’re taking a very different approach than you would with a short telephoto lens. Experiments like these can add new skills and new ways of working to your repertoire.

I made this portrait with my 17-40mm zoom set to 17mm.

Mastering camera lenses

6. Push your composition to the limit

The final tip is to push your composition to the limit. It’s all about taking various techniques to the extreme and seeing what you can do with them.

If you have a wide-angle lens, what happens if you get as close to your subject (whatever it is) as you can? What happens if you use the widest aperture setting instead of a smaller one?

If you have a telephoto lens how can you maximize the compressed perspective that those lenses give you? What subjects can you shoot to make the most of the layered effect you can get with a longer lens?

This is a process of experimentation. Not all of your experiments will work. But when they do, just as with the previous tip, you’ll be adding new skills to your repertoire.

Here is a landscape photo that was taken with a telephoto lens.

Mastering camera lenses

Next steps

Hopefully, these tips have given you some ideas for working with and getting to know your favorite lenses. Instead of fantasizing about the next lens you are going to buy (dreams are nice, but new lenses are expensive!) how about learning to make the most out of the ones you already own?

You may find that true creativity lays as much in pushing the lenses you already own to their limits as it does with buying new gear.


You can learn more about lenses, and how to get the most out of them, in my ebook Mastering Lenses. It also contains a buying guide to help you make wise choices when you buy your next lens!

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Tips for Mastering Concert Photography

31 May

Everyone’s been there – front and center, in a dark, sweaty club crammed between hundreds of rabid fans listening to your favorite band.

So, you pull out your iPhone because this is a moment you totally need to remember forever.

But let’s be honest – what kind of memory is a blurry guitar player or the back of another concert goer’s head? Not a very good one (and we all know it).

So we chatted with Madison-based concert photographer Justin Kibbel to learn his simple tips for capturing that dynamic rock-n-roll moment with your DSLR with a few tips for phoneographers too.

From gear to ninja stealth, he’s got a LOT of great advice.

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Dude Be Nice – Mastering the Art of Constructive Criticism

12 May

Several years ago, one of the local high schools near me put on an anti-bullying campaign called “Dude, Be Nice!” During the time that the campaign was going on, I’d often see students, parents, and teachers wearing navy blue t-shirts with the slogan in huge white lettering across the front. I loved seeing those shirts around town because they served as a reminder to me that I almost always have a choice as to whether my words tear someone down or build them up.

Since then, the phrase “Dude, Be Nice!” has become a kind of life motto for me (I even managed to get my hands on one of those t-shirts), and I think it is an especially relevant foundation for learning how to offer quality feedback in photography. Being nice is always the most important part in offering constructive criticism that is meaningful and will be heard.

Here are a few other tips that will help you master the art of constructive criticism:

Be Conscious of the Setting

Dude Be Nice - Mastering the Art of Constructive Criticism

Have you ever seen a photographer share an image on social media, saying how much they love this particular image, only to have some random person comment with criticism? Sometimes the comments may be constructive criticism, other times they’re just plain criticism like, ‘This photo sucks, and you’re a terrible photographer.” We don’t need to get into the dynamics of what might cause someone to leave the latter sort of comment because that’s just not worth any of our time.

One thing that we should spend a bit of time thinking about is whether the person you’re responding to is actually asking for constructive criticism. There are a lot of great Facebook groups for new photographers to give and receive constructive criticism. That’s an appropriate place to offer thoughtful feedback about another person’s image. However, a photographer’s personal Facebook page may not be an appropriate place for that sort of feedback. You obviously have the freedom to say whatever you’d like, but I’d argue that offering criticism (even if it is constructive) when it hasn’t been asked for is very rarely helpful.

Use a Compliment Sandwich

Dude Be Nice - Mastering the Art of Constructive Criticism

Most of us have heard about the concept of a compliment sandwich before. This idea isn’t new or groundbreaking, but I want to reiterate just how effective it can be in terms of providing constructive criticism that is actually heard by the recipient. For example, if we take my own image above, here’s an example of how to offer the same piece of criticism in several different ways:

Straight Criticism: Your composition sucks. The baby should be either in the center or following the rule of thirds.

Constructive Criticism: The photo would be stronger if you composed it differently. I would have put the baby in the center of the frame so that there was the same amount of greenery on either side.

Compliment Sandwich:  The vibrant colors of the flowers are a really unique and fun contrast to the usual neutrals you see in newborn photos, I like it a lot! One thing that could make the image stronger would be to adjust your composition so that the baby is in the center of the frame. Or, you could adjust the other direction so that the baby is more off-center, following the rule of thirds, which would make your composition look more intentional instead of accidental. Overall though, good job on exposure, focus, and coloring!

As you can see, the essential criticism is the same in all three examples. However, when you use a compliment sandwich, that same criticism is framed in a way that serves to build the recipient up which will make it more likely that they are able to hear and internalize your feedback.

Ask a Question

Dude Be Nice - Mastering the Art of Constructive Criticism

Another really good method of offering constructive criticism is to phrase your criticism in a question. For example, you might ask something like, “Why did you choose to apply a matte treatment to this image?” Or, “Why did you decide to focus on the left petal of that flower rather than the center of the flower?”

Framing something that may be a criticism in the form of a question helps to diffuse the psychological impulse that when we receive criticism, we’re being attacked. In addition, it requires the photographer to think about whether the element that you’re asking about was a conscious decision or an accident. This will help determine whether the criticism is coming from a stylistic difference (more on that in a minute!), or whether it was not an intentional decision, and an element that they may not have thought about before.

Be Aware of Stylistic Differences

Dude Be Nice - Mastering the Art of Constructive Criticism

The novel, “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007. It also breaks almost every conventional grammar rule known to man. Does the fact that it doesn’t follow the traditional rules mean that it’s less valuable? Nope. On the other hand, does the fact that it won a Pulitzer mean that it’s going to be everyone’s cup of tea? Again, nope.

Whether you’re talking literature, art, music, or photography, there are lots of different styles or genres that will appeal to different people. The fact that I don’t personally prefer HDR photography doesn’t mean that there’s no value to HDR images.

When giving constructive criticism, it’s important to consider whether or not your criticism is rooted in stylistic differences. For the most part, I’ve found that constructive criticism based primarily on stylistic differences is not a productive use of anyone’s time.

Offer a Suggestion or Solution

I’m a firm believer that learning how to offer constructive criticism is beneficial to both those giving and receiving the feedback. It forces the giver to think about an image in greater detail, and to really identify things that you like and dislike about an image (and why). When constructive criticism is done well, it allows the recipient the opportunity to hear from others about their photography, affirming the things they do well and identifying areas that may need improvement.

Dude Be Nice - Mastering the Art of Constructive Criticism

One of the ways that you can make your feedback even more beneficial to the person on the receiving end is to offer advice as to how to either correct or prevent the problem that you’re providing the feedback on, in the future. Whether you’re suggesting a remote shutter release in order to prevent camera shake in astrophotography or cropping an image in post-production to improve composition, giving someone else the tools to better their craft is one of the qualities that separates constructive criticism from quality constructive criticism that is likely to make an impact.

It also makes YOU a better photographer, as it forces you to think in advance about how you’d handle different challenges and circumstances in advance, and create a game plan for how you’d handle them.

Conclusion

If you’re offering someone else constructive criticism, don’t forget that it is really hard to put yourself out there! Be kind, and encourage one another. Make sure that constructive criticism is actually wanted before you offer it. Utilize a compliment sandwich when possible. Frame your criticism in the form of a question, and be aware that some criticisms boil down to stylistic differences. Most importantly, if you want to offer quality constructive criticism, offer a suggestion or solution that will help to correct or prevent the issue you’re seeing.

Then, chime in below–what was the most helpful piece of constructive criticism you’ve ever received? Why was it helpful? What was the least helpful? Why?

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8 Tips for Mastering Your Portrait Photography

05 May

Becoming a master of portrait photography takes lots of patience and practice. It’s likely there are a few mistakes you are making with your portraits that hold them back from excellence. In this article, I will walk through eight tips to instantly boost your portrait photography game and take it to the next level.

#1 Adapt to the available light

Light is one of the most important elements to keep in mind when taking portraits – specifically how the light looks on your subject’s face. Proper lighting, or lack thereof, can make or break your image. Direct the person you are photographing to turn their head towards the main light source, whether it’s a street lamp or the sun. If you’re having them look towards the sun, tell them to look in a direction that won’t cause them to squint or be unpleasant for them. You don’t want people going blind on your shoot, right?

Portrait photography

While the golden hour is a fabulous time to photograph portraits, you won’t always have the luxury of perfect lighting thanks to the whims of Mother Nature. In these situations, you need to adapt to the available light to maximize your portrait opportunities.

Keep in mind, there is no such thing as bad light. It can all be used to your advantage if you know what you’re doing. Here are some basic tips for different natural lighting scenarios:

  • Harsh sunlight – have your subject stand in the shade to provide even lighting across their face.
  • Golden hour – have your subject face the sun to give a nice glow on their face or put the sun behind them to get some halo lighting.
  • Cloudy day – you will pretty much be good to shoot anywhere since the clouds will naturally diffuse the sun and provide flattering, even light on your subject’s face.
  • Night time/low light – look for a street light or other light source that can provide good lighting on your subject’s face.
Portrait photography Portrait photography

#2 Give directions to your subject

Let’s face it, most people are not confident or even comfortable being in front of the camera. Providing gentle directions to the person you are photographing can help them relax. Keep your directions simple and positive. If you don’t know any poses, focus on one thing to improve each shoot. Perhaps you ask your subject to lift their chin to provide a more flattering view of their face. A little positive direction goes a long way.

#3 Find a clean background that contrasts with the subject

Backgrounds are extremely important in creating pleasing portraits. The key role of the background is to provide context to the environment the person is occupying and make them stand out. Finding a clean background that provides contrast with your subject is crucial.

Some things to be mindful of:

  • Branches, poles or other objects may look like they are growing out of your subject’s head, depending on where they are in the image. Try to frame the shot so that your subject’s head is distanced from distracting elements.
  • Try to find colors or tones that either complement or contrast your subject’s skin tones and clothing.

Portrait photography

#4 Focus on the dominant eye

This is particularly important if you’re shooting with shallow depth of field. Be sure to focus on the dominant eye of your subject, the one that is closest to the lens. If the dominant eye is out of focus, your photo will end up looking slightly off. This can ruin an otherwise good portrait.

#5 Keep your lines straight

Crooked horizon lines can give your portraits a weird look, so make sure to keep those lines straight. The same goes for environmental elements like doors and the edges of buildings. If these types of lines aren’t straight, it can give your portraits a tilted look that isn’t flattering. Of course, you can straighten important lines in post-production, but this will involve cropping, which may ruin the composition. Focus on getting it right in camera.

Portrait photography

#6 Be careful where you crop extremities

Hey, I get it. Sometimes you don’t want to frame up a full body shot of your subject. Maybe you want to pull in closer for an upper body profile or headshot. In these cases you will be cropping a portion of your subject’s body out of the frame, so be very careful where you crop their extremities.

Some tips about cropping:

  • Don’t crop body parts at the joint: Cropping your subject at the elbows, knees, or wrists can make them look like they have lost a limb. Try cropping halfway between joints instead. For instance, if you are cropping out part of the arm crop halfway up the wrist or bicep rather than at the elbow.
  • If your subject’s hands/feet are in the frame make sure they are all the way in: Don’t accidentally lop off fingers or toes at the edge of the frame. This can ruin your portrait.
Portrait photography

Look at the hand here, it appears somewhat cut-off or missing.

Portrait photography

This is better, it includes her while arms and hands.

#7 Pay attention to the edges of the frame

If you’re shooting portraits on the street, get that trash can out of the corner of your frame! Or at the very least, make sure it’s out of focus and blends into the background.

When you’re photographing a person, it’s easy to have all your focus on them to the point where you lose track of the outside of the image. But having distracting elements on the edges of the frame can ruin your portrait. Make the proper adjustments in framing before you press that shutter and keep those edges tidy.

#8 Incorporate something interesting

If you really want to take your portrait photography game to the next level, it’s important to think outside the box and get creative. A lot of portraits can be boring and look the same; properly exposed pictures of people just standing there.

To spice up your portraits, try incorporating some interesting props or environmental elements. Now, you don’t need to grab onto Instagram trends, like wrapping your subject in LED lights, but including props can help your portraits stand out from the crowd. Get creative and start mastering your portrait photography game.

Portrait photography Portrait photography

Conclusion

Follow these eight tips and see how your portrait photography improves. Please share any comments or questions you have in the section below, as well as your images.

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Mastering the Exposure Triangle for Newbies

03 Dec

When I first got my digital camera, words like Aperture and ISO were foreign to me, and it took me a couple of weeks of reading and studying a lot before the lightbulb turned on in my head. You might be feeling a little confused, and you may even feel like you will never get your camera out of Auto mode, because it’s just too hard to understand.

exposure-triangle.jpg

So, if you are unfamiliar with your camera, or just starting out, you might appreciate a little explanation of the basics. Sometimes reading about these things in slightly different words helps something new to click each time.

Introducing the Exposure Triangle: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO

These three things work together to expose your picture perfectly, and after experimenting for a while, you may even find that you can use your knowledge of these three things to manipulate your picture for different effects.

APERTURE

The aperture or f-stop is how wide open your lens is. Imagine a hole: if it’s open just a teeny bit, there won’t be very much light coming through. If it’s a big hole, lots of light will come through. The tricky thing with aperture is that often confusing numbering system.

  • SMALL numbers (like f/1.8) = wide open aperture (large opening).
  • BIG numbers (like f/22) = small aperture (teeny opening).

That confused the heck out of me at first, but now it’s second nature. It will become second nature to you too, after some practice!

Another thing that can be affected by aperture is depth of field, or how much of your picture is in sharp focus. A wide open aperture (small number) will make less in focus, and a closed down aperture (big number) will make more in focus. Let’s look at some photos that demonstrate depth of field:

aperture-1

With the aperture set to f/3.5 on the left, you have a blurrier background (my favorite). Also notice that the shutter speed (1/640th) is fairly HIGH, we’ll get to this later.

aperture-2

A little bit smaller aperture (bigger number), makes the background come into focus a bit more, and the shutter speed is slowed down.

aperture-3

See what I mean? If you want to play around with Aperture, try putting your camera in Aperture Priority mode (A on Nikon, Av on Canon – if you have a different camera, check your manual).

Now, remember that all three parts work together? You probably started seeing how if you noticed the shutter speed changing with each of those different aperture values in the pictures above.

SHUTTER SPEED

The shutter speed is how fast the shutter opens and closes. If the shutter is open longer, more light is let into the camera. If it opens and closes really fast, less light is let in.

If you have a wide open aperture, your shutter speed will need to be faster, because you’re already letting a lot of light in the lens opening. If your aperture is small, your shutter will need to move slower, so there is more time for light to get to the sensor.

If you want to freeze the action, or hand-hold your camera, then a faster shutter speed is needed. If you want to create blur, then you need a slower shutter speed. For example:

Shutter-Speed

The vehicle in the photo on the left was driving past my house quite fast, but since I had the shutter speed set to 1/2000th of a second, it froze the action. It looks like the vehicle could be sitting still in the middle of the road.

The truck on the right is a blur going past, but everything else is still. 1/10th of a second was slow enough to blur the truck as it sped past. Notice the f-stop. Since the shutter was open for so long, the opening in the lens needed to be smaller to balance the exposure.

Try putting your camera in Shutter Priority mode (S on Nikon, Tv (time value) on Canon) to experiment with different shutter speeds. As you play with these different priority modes, notice what the camera chooses for the rest of your settings. The more you pay attention to these things, the more knowledge you’ll have to be able to set everything yourself in the future.

Okay, so now you’re probably asking, how does ISO fit into all of this?

ISO

The ISO is your camera’s mood. It can be all uptight and picky, or it can be easy-going and laid back. If you have the ISO set to a low number (100) your camera will want light, and plenty of it, because it’s going to take a smooth, crisp picture, and this requires perfect conditions. If you have your ISO set to a high number (3200) it can handle low light, because it’s not going to work as hard – a noisy (grainy) picture is good enough for Mr. High ISO.

So, how does this apply to your photography? Let’s say you wanted to take a picture in the evening, and you don’t want to use a flash. Just bump the ISO up, and it will allow you to have a faster shutter speed, or a smaller aperture (bigger number) and still accept the light conditions to expose correctly. Or, if you’re taking pictures at a sporting event, and you want to make sure you catch that action, but the light isn’t great, bump the ISO up. Or you may even want that moody grainy effect (it can be really cool)!

If you ever get frustrated because there’s just not enough light, and your pictures are blurry because the shutter speed isn’t fast enough, and you’re about to scream – just remember to bump the ISO. You could also leave this on Auto, but I usually don’t. My camera always seems to choose a higher ISO than I feel it needs. However, don’t forget to put it back down after you’re done. You don’t want to take a whole bunch of photos in the middle of the day at a 3200 ISO because you forgot to change it after your evening indoor party photos the night before.

Here’s a little demonstration:

ISO3200clock

ISO 3200

The photo above was taken in a very dimly lit room. Notice the digital noise?Notice the crispness of the photo below?

ISO100clock

ISO 100

 

Conclusion

Well, that’s the exposure triangle in a nutshell. I hope this helped, especially if these three exposure factors have been confusing to you in the past. Please ask any questions in the comments, and I’ll answer them the best I can.

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5 Simple Tips for Mastering Outdoor Photography

08 Aug

While it is relatively easy to go outside and just “point and shoot,” there are better ways to take pictures in the great outdoors. Snapping photos in the outdoors rather than indoors brings a whole new list of considerations to deal with. From the weight of your pack to the eventual downpour, there are certain preparations you can take before Continue Reading

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12 Tips for Mastering the Clone Stamp Tool in Photoshop

29 Apr
Clone Stamp Tool - Opera Garnier shot

You will not often find the stairs of Opera Garnier in Paris free of people, so you will need to put the Clone Stamp tool to work to remove the people if you want a clean picture. This applies at many other tourist destinations as well.

There are a lot of good post-processing tools available for making minor edits to your photos. Within Photoshop, there are the Healing Brush and the Spot Healing Brush tools. Lightroom now has its own healing brush. Those are great for minor edits to your photos like removing spots or power lines. When it comes time for serious, intensive surgery on your photos, however, there is no substitute for the Clone Stamp tool. You will only find this in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, there is no Lightroom substitute.

Getting started with the Clone Stamp tool is simple. You just have to tell Photoshop two things: (1) where you want to replace the pixels (target area), and (2) from where Photoshop should take the pixels to use as replacements (s0urce area). To use the Clone Stamp tool, just follow these steps:

  1. Select the Clone Stamp tool from the tool bar on the left side of your screen (you can also use the keyboard shortcut S). Once selected, set the brush size and hardness.
  2. Put your cursor in the area where you want to change the pixels.
  3. Select the source area: Press the Alt key (your cursor will now become a target) and move your cursor to the location where you want to take pixels from (source area). Click your mouse in that location.
  4. Paint in the target area: Release the Alt key and move your mouse back to the original location. Hold down the mouse button and paint in the pixels from the location you chose.

That is a simple process, but if you have used the Clone Stamp tool you realize that there is a lot more involved if you want to master it. This article will provide you with some tips to move you along the road towards conquering this important tool in Photoshop.

#1 – Work on a New Layer

First, always create a new layer before making changes with the Clone Stamp tool. Any changes you make should be made on the new layer. You can flatten the image when you’re done.

Why should you do this? There are many reasons. First of all, it is non-destructive – meaning you are not changing the underlying pixels of your image. In addition, when you use a layer, you can delete it if you don’t like where the changes are going. You can also create a mask if there are portions of the changes that you decide later you do not want. Finally, you can target adjustments to just the cloned areas if they are on a new layer (as will be shown below).

Creating a new layer is easy; simply press Ctrl+J (Cmd+J on Mac) to create a duplicate. You can also press Shift+Ctrl+N (Shift+Cmd+N on Mac) to create a new blank layer, but if you do so, make sure that you have “All Layers” selected as your source in the Clone Stamp Tool settings.

Clone Stamp Tool - Work on a New Layer

I prefer working on a new layer (as opposed to a duplicate layer) but either way will work.

#2 – Zoom in (way in)

When working with the Clone Stamp tool, zoom in on the area you are working on. In fact, zoom way in (to 100% even). That will help isolate the area you are working on, and importantly, it will also allow you to work at a much greater level of detail than you otherwise would. Make your changes look as good as you can at this higher level of detail, then when you zoom back out, the changes will be indistinguishable (which is what you want).

A shortcut for zooming quickly is to hold the Alt key with your left hand while using the scroll wheel on your mouse to zoom in and out (or use Cntrl/Cmd and the + or – key on the keyboard). That will allow you to move in and out quickly.

#3 – Set Your Brush Size Quickly

You will change your brush size often when working with the Clone Stamp tool. You should do this often to make sure that your brush size is tailored to the change you are making. Changing the size through the Brushes panel is cumbersome. Instead, use the keyboard shortcuts for changing brush size:

  • Left bracket [ makes brush smaller
  • Right bracket ] makes brush larger

Using these keys will allow you to rapidly tailor your brush to the specific circumstance.

#4 – Set the Proper Brush Hardness

The Clone Stamp brush’s edges can be set to whatever hardness you desire. Hardness determines the level to which the cloning will blend in with the surrounding pixels. If you set the hardness level more toward 100%, the edges will be hard and definite. If you set the hardness more toward 0%, the edge will blend in with the surroundings.

Clone Stamp Tool - Setting Hardness of Brush

In general, keep the hardness level at 0%. That will help you seamlessly blend in the effect. There will be times, however, where you are working near a defined edge, in which case you should increase the hardness. Even then around 50% will usually do. Setting the hardness any higher creates harsh transitions that are dead giveaways to your use of the Clone Stamp tool.

#5 – Clone Without Adjustments

Do your cloning before making other adjustments to contrast, color and other changes often made via adjustment layers in Photoshop. If you use the Clone Stamp tool after creating those layers, you are baking the changes permanently into your picture when you clone.

Clone Stamp Tool - Adjustments

However, in some cases you will have already made changes on an adjustment layer, and you need to decide whether your cloning should include those adjustments. Photoshop lets you decide whether to include those changes in your cloning. After you have selected the Clone Stamp tool, the top row of your screen will include a circle with a line through it (see graphic above). Photoshop defaults to applying the changes of any adjustment layers, but if you click on this icon, Photoshop will ignore any adjustment layers when cloning.

#6 – Grab the Low Hanging Fruit

Most of the time your pictures will have some easy items to clone out, as well as some harder things. Clone out the easy ones first. In addition to giving you confidence in the tool, this will also help you when the time comes to make the hard changes.

How will that help you? Remember that you need clear space from which to draw pixels when using the Clone Stamp tool. By making the easy changes first, you are doing just that so you can draw replacement pixels and will make your job easier when it comes time for the harder, more in-depth changes.

#7 – Watch for Patterns

Sometimes you want to include patterns in your cloning. In that case, when selecting pixels from which to draw, try to find patterns in your picture that match the area you are replacing. For example, if the background is a building, look for a similar building. Then make them match (which will be the subject of the next tip).

Clone Stamp Tool - removing distractions without creating a pattern

Here is a different example to show the Clone Stamp tool in another context. The right side of this image was filled with distractions, but the Clone Stamp tool eliminates them. Be careful that you do not create patterns by using pixels immediately adjacent, or it will give away your use of the Clone Stamp tool

But many times you will not want there to be any discernible patterns in your cloning. Usually a pattern is a dead giveaway to your having cloned something out. In that case, the way to ensure that there will be no patterns is to keep resetting your source point. Sample from one area and clone one part, then sample from another area – repeat frequently. Keep doing that to blend everything together without repeating a pattern.

#8 – Follow the Lines

A key to successful use of the Clone Stamp tool is making all the lines in your picture match. Even slight deviations look fake and destroy the effect you are trying to achieve. For example, in a landscape setting make the edges of tree branches match up. In an urban context, follow lines in buildings such as roof lines, doorways, and patterns on the ground.

When you are using the Clone Stamp tool, start with the lines and then let the rest of the pixels fall where they may. After that, if you need to go back over other areas, you can do so.

Here I've zoomed in on a portion of another shot of the Opera Garnier. Use the patterns on the floor and door to recreate the space where you clone over the people.

Here I’ve zoomed in on a portion of another shot of the Opera Garnier. Use the patterns on the floor and door to recreate the space where you clone over the people.

#9 – Avoid Selecting from Adjacent Areas

As previously mentioned, a dead giveaway of Clone Stamp tool usage is repetition. The Clone Stamp tool is all about repetition – you just need to do it in such a way that the viewer doesn’t notice it. If you draw pixels from an immediately adjacent area, you are risking the viewer noticing the repetition. Take the pixels from somewhere else in the picture instead.

Inadvertently creating a pattern is an easy trap to fall into because the immediately adjacent areas usually are the closest in color and tone to the area you want to replace. As you move further away, tones and colors change so that the pixels get harder to match. Working hard to find a way to use pixels from somewhere else in your picture will pay dividends because the viewer won’t see the repetition.

#10 – Muddle Through (accept the messiness)

By now you have fixed all the easy areas in your picture and you’re ready to tackle a bigger problem. It might be a crowd of people or a car that entered your frame, but it is a large area of your picture. This is the scary part of using the Clone Stamp tool.

The key is to just dive in. Don’t try to figure it all out beforehand (you never will). You can do this in a couple of different ways:

  1. Go big first: Set your brush a little larger than you might otherwise use and just replace the entire area in one fell swoop (and then clean up with a smaller brush), or
  2. Go small and steady: Stick with the smaller brush and paint in gradually, but the key is to keep going. Remember that you can go over it again. Whatever you are doing, while it is probably not perfect, will undoubtedly look better than what you started with.

The key thing is just to do it. There is a tendency to freeze up and plot the entire change before doing anything, which causes you to stare at the computer screen for long periods of time.

Remember, you can always undo what you’ve done (Ctrl/Cmd+Z). In addition, because you followed tip #1 above and are working on a new layer, you can always mask this area off or delete it if it isn’t heading in the direction you want.

#11 – Use the Mirror Function

You can affect a lot of settings involving the Clone Stamp tool in the Clone Source panel (to see it, go to Window and then click on Clone Source). For instance, you can change the shape of the brush or the angle of the replacement pixels.

One of the most useful features in the Cone Source panel is the flip-horizontal option in the middle of the panel. If you click on it, the pixels will be replaced in the opposite horizontal direction as the source. This can be extremely useful in many instances since often you will be dealing with a symmetrical subject where you can now draw from the other side.

Clone Stamp Tool - Flip Horizontal setting

A typical example where you might want to use the flip horizontal option is where something covers one side of a doorway or window that you want to remove. By clicking on flip-horizontal, you can use the other side of the doorway or window as your source. Take another look at the Opera Garnier examples above and you will see how the flip horizontal tool would be used quite frequently whenever your picture contains any symmetry (I used this feature in those pictures quite a bit).

#12 – Change the Cloned Areas with Adjustment Layers

Sometimes your cloned areas just won’t look exactly like the surrounding areas. Perhaps it is too bright or too dark, or perhaps the colors are just off a little bit. You can fix it without affecting the surrounding pixels.

Clone Stamp Tool - tying adjustment layers

One of the great benefits of working on layers is that you can create adjustment layers that affect only the areas you just cloned. Simply create a new adjustment layer (levels, curves, or hue/saturation), which will appear above your cloning layer. Then hold down the Alt key and click at the bottom of the adjustment layer (you will see your cursor change). Doing so will apply the changes of the adjustment layer only to the layer below it.

Conclusion

Remember that using the Clone Stamp tool can be a messy process. Don’t worry if you find yourself having to redo changes or make things up as you go. There is no magical “clean” process. One of the fun parts about the cloning process is the problem-solving that goes into it. Take your time and just keep moving. You can always redo your changes or, if you are working in layers, get rid of them without losing the rest of your work.

The Clone Stamp tool will save more pictures than almost any other tool in your post-processing. If you master it, you can remove almost anything in your pictures that you do not want.

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