Improve Any Photo In 3 Easy Steps!
There are three simple steps you can take in post-production that can pull almost any image out of the murky depths, and make it look ten times better in a matter of minutes.
This image of leaf lobes is quite dull but has the potential to have greater impact. It’s well composed but lacks good contrast, color, and clarity. Perfect for this lesson.
STEP ONE: CONTRAST
The first step to making any image better is giving it glorious contrast. There are a few ways to do this, but for the most part, the process involves the Levels or Curves Adjustment tools. I recommend GIMP, a free high-quality image manipulation program much like Photoshop, which is an excellent option as well, if you have access to it.
Open your image in GIMP, click the Colors menu drop-down and select either Curves or Levels. In this example I will be using Levels. Adjust the sliders below the histogram until the image shows the contrast you prefer. (If this is your first time using Levels, I recommend reading this article ‘A Guide to Adjusting Levels in Photoshop‘.) In this image, all the detail is located in the Green Channel, so I opted to adjust Value Channel to preserve the image’s true color.
STEP TWO: COLOR
When you apply the Levels Adjustment, the colors might become exaggerated, especially when using the Value Channel. The Hue & Saturation tool can correct that and add vibrance to the image. The method is pretty much the same in GIMP, Photoshop, or Paintshop-Pro, and the same general rules apply. Be modest with your adjustments, and watch for clipping. (Clipping occurs when a solid area of a uniform color forms and loses detail.)
Hue & Saturation Adjustment
In GIMP, open Hue & Saturation from the colors drop-down menu. If your image features a strong dominant color that you want to increase in vibrance, select it in the color wheel. From this point, only that color will be affected.
For this image, I selected green. Increasing Saturation by 10 gave it just enough radiance, but the color itself was a little off. To shift the color to a different shade, use the Hue slider. If you want to shift the color toward blue, add 12 or so points; if you want to shift it toward yellow, subtract 12 or so points. It is always important to be restrained with your adjustments because otherwise, you risk color clipping, which may not become visible until you print the photo.
The Levels-adjusted image also has acquired some inaccurate yellow accents in the center of each leaf that need to be corrected. Select yellow from the color wheel in Hue & Saturation, then use the Hue, Lightness, and Saturation sliders to correct the color.
STEP THREE: CLARITY
The final step involves adding missing clarity to your image. As a general rule, you always need to sharpen your images because every digital image loses clarity when shooting at low shutter speeds. But how and how much? Localized or across the entire image?
Sharpening tools are known by various names. Some software calls it Sharpen, while others call it Unsharp Mask. In GIMP, the single most powerful sharpening tool is called Unsharp Mask. It behaves in exactly the same way as the Sharpening tool found in programs like Photoshop.
For this image, we want to apply a light Unsharp masking effect. The Unsharp Mask defines edges very effectively, making them more pronounced. The downside is that it can also add unwanted noise.
In GIMP, open the Unsharp Mask tool from the Filters menu, under Enhance. Filters/Enhance/Unsharp Mask. Gentle adjustments will always give you better results than extreme adjustments will. The defaults for Unsharp Mask always seem to be too strong, and should be reduced. I find a Radius of 3.0, an Amount of 0.30, and a Threshold of 5 or 8 to be sufficient. Threshold utilizes a slight blurring affect to control noise. Apply this and your image should be perfectly sharp.
As you can see, this image has been significantly improved. Perhaps it’s even worth its cost in ink to make a print.
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