Smartphone Photography Demystified, Part 3

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Part 3: Hand

Unless you’re a preternaturally gifted camera whisperer, your captures won’t be perfect. Most pictures need nurturing to become their better selves. Even the best shots can be enhanced by judicious editing.

But Photoshop is intimidating, isn’t it? Dozens of tools. A stack of polytabbed options panels. Extensive cascading menus. Mobile editor apps are similarly crowded with icons and controls. And some of them are festooned with microtransactions and in-app purchases to boot. Where does one start?

(jump to Recommended Software)

Good news, comrades! We don’t need most of those tools. They are for producing highly stylized versions or modifying the contents of the image (fakes!). Our goal is to clarify the subject and intention of the photo. Not to change the image, but to enhance it.

A handful of tools is all we need to fix 95% of snapshot problems that can be fixed. Seven adjustments, to be exact. The final part of this guide explains each in turn.

Can’t Touch This

Some things can’t be corrected. Bad data can’t be made good.

Blurred pictures can’t be focused retroactively. The information of a focused image just ain’t in ’em. If it’s just slightly blurred, try your editor’s Sharpen adjustment, but temper your expectations. You could also try saving a copy of the image at a smaller size (lower resolution), which might make it a bit clearer.

Bad exposures can’t be made whole. When the shot is far too dark (or too bright), a lot of color information from the scene was not captured. In overexposures, many various bright hues are misrecorded as white. Underexposures miscapture the darker shades as black, discarding their subtle differences.

Alas, we can’t move the camera after the shot. Skewed angles can’t be made straight. Disorienting or unclear perspectives are very difficult to alter. It’s possible, but it sure ain’t easy. Let’s try to avoid this problem while shooting so we don’t have to deal with it in post. Anyhow it’s beyond my ken.

You can think of it like food. Spoiled food can’t be made fresh again, no matter what you do to it. Best to throw it away. With fresh ingredients, you can create a variety of delicious dishes. As you evaluate each picture, be honest with yourself. Is this nice fresh data? If it’s not, delete the shot.

Yeah, That’s the Stuff

Good data is pliable material. Well-captured image info has wonderful potential. We aren’t stuck with the machine’s interpretation. We can make a better version by adjusting various qualities of the image. Just seven tools will get you where you want to go nearly every time. Here they are.


Straighten

A slight tilt can change the photo’s effect to a surprising degree (get it?). It’s distracting when people, buildings, or the horizon seem to lean. This will fix it. I apply this function first, because it clips away long acute triangles at the edges of the picture, slightly changing the framing.

Straighten tool
Using the Rotate tool in Snapseed

If your editor doesn’t have a Straighten function, it is probably included in its Rotate or Transform tools. (Snapseed auto-straightens when you tap the Rotate tool, then you can fine-tune the result. Photoshop Express has an Auto option as well. They’re pretty good!)

Crop

The photographer’s best friend. Of these post-production tools, this one has the greatest effect on the finished photo. Use it to cut away the image’s edges and present the subject more clearly. Cropping is great for shifting emphasis, refining framing, and changing proportions to suit the shot.

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This cropped version of Part 1’s masthead emphasizes how the lighthouse breaks the horizon, pointing to the seagulls.

Brightness

Adjust brightness when you can tell the colors apart, but they all seem dim (or too light). Even when the colors seem okay, it’s a good idea to bump the brightness and take a look.

Contrast

Use this function to push dark and light colors a little farther apart. This makes objects’ and people’s edges or features easier to see. If the shot has very high contrast, decreasing it will pull the colors proportionately into a more similar range. This can reveal hidden details in the brightest and darkest areas.

Color Temperature

Correct an undesirable color cast with this. This is like changing the white balance on your camera after the fact. Use it to make photos with tinted lighting look more natural.

It’s especially effective on pictures of people or food lit by fluorescents. If it was cloudy when you visited that monument, your photos aren’t just dimmer but more bluish than they would be on a sunny day. Adjusting color temperature can compensate, albeit imperfectly.

¿Que?

You might see a numerical scale that denotes color temperature when adjusting it in the editor or setting white balance in the camera. The scale is degrees Kelvin because of something cool from theoretical physics: black-body radiators. Allow me to simplify outrageously. An idealized light source produces different colors of visible light predictably determined by its temperature. Which means each temperature corresponds directly to a specific, invariable color of light.

That’s what makes it useful for us: Color temperature is an objective way to designate the bias of various light sources. The scale runs from about 1600 K at the red-orange end of the spectrum, through neutral white around 6500 K, up to 20,000 K or so at the blue-cyan end of the spectrum.

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Saturation

This controls the richness of the color palette. When the image seems neither too dark nor too bright, but the colors seem “washed out,” not as vivid and lively as you remember, raise the saturation. It makes the reds redder, the blues bluer, and so on.

Set color saturation to zero to create a black-and-white version of any shot.

Practically every color photo can benefit from kicking the saturation up a notch, especially if it will be viewed primarily on computer and phone screens. Don’t overdo it: too much saturation causes the most vivid colors in the original to appear uncanny or artificial.

Vibrance

This is a refined version of the previous function. Saturation’s effect is indiscriminate, but vibrance leaves already-rich colors as they are and increases saturation proportionately in the rest, allowing them to “catch up” to the vividness of the frontrunners. For instance, use this do justice to your kids’ colorful outfits without painting their faces in garish tones.

Try vibrance first for pictures of people. Saturation is the go-to for objects and landscapes. But feel free to switch functions for a second opinion.


Auto-Adjustments

Most photo editors have a catchall function called Clarify, Magic Wand, or Auto-Enhance. Essentially they apply several of the above functions at once. The software tries to improve the image by some combination of adjustments to brightness, contrast, color temperature, and saturation. It’s quick but gives you very little control.

Filters

It’s the same story with filters, sometimes called looks or styles. Filters are instructions for applying a series of adjustments in order, like recipes. You could do it all yourself with the regular tools, given enough time to figure out how.

Filters are useful for effects you want to apply quickly to multiple images. Some apps let the user create custom filters, also known as macros.

Keep the Originals

Photo-editing can be dodgy. What looks good on a small phone screen might not look great on a computer monitor or a TV. Sometimes one’s first edit is a little overzealous. Maybe you changed your mind about how to interpret the shot.

I strongly recommend that you keep the originals, and save edited versions as new images. This way no information is lost. You can always go back to the original shot.

This uses more space, but that shouldn’t be a problem. If storage space is tight on your phone, copy photos to your computer regularly, or use a cloud service to back up and offload pictures.

Typically, or A Photo-Editing Walkthrough

Good shots need just a handful of tweaks before you send them out into the world. Once you get the hang of it, you can zip through it in a minute or less. Let’s step through my usual workflow.

Check out the original image. Make sure it’s easy to recognize the main subject. Look at the colors and the overall tone. Decide what strengths to emphasize and which problems to eliminate.

vital_spark_halfsize_original

The original capture is not bad, but it could use some help. It feels foreground-heavy, and there’s a distracting buoy or something at bottom right. The colors are rather muted.

Crop. Crop the image to enhance its proportions or cut out distracting detail at the edges. Correct unintentional camera tilt with the Rotate or Straighten tool, if necessary.

Nudge Brightness & Contrast. These settings go together hand-in-hand. Most shots will look sharper and clearer with slightly greater brightness and contrast. If the original is quite bright, go easy on brightness, or even dim the image somewhat. If important details are lost in highlights or shadows, lower the contrast to coax them out.

Eliminate Color Bias. If needed, adjust color temperature to get rid of yellow or blue tints that are killing the mood.

Bump the Saturation. Give all the colors juuuust a drop more juice, so they look properly vivid on a bright screen. If more saturation looks weird, especially in pictures of people, increase vibrance instead.

Boat pic, finished edit
Vibrance +30

And it’s done!

One More for Luck

Happening upon this tragicomic scene, I quickly snapped a few shots, straight auto. It was a cloudy day, and the robots’ interpretation ain’t great. Let’s see what we can do.1

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Appendix B: JPEG, TIFF, HEIF—WTF?, or A Word About Image File Formats

There are many ways to encode digital images, each with strengths and weaknesses. Let us not concern ourselves with the nuts and bolts. What matters to us is image quality, file size, and compatibility. How do common photo file formats compare?

JPEG or JPG (Joint Photographic Experts Group). This format is ubiquitous. It’s easily the most compatible: any software that handles images can understand it. JPEGs strike a good balance between image quality and file size. If you don’t want to fiddle with different types of files, set your camera and editor apps to use JPEG at high quality (at least 80%), and never think about it again.

TIFF (Tagged Image File Format). This is photographers’ format of choice when printing shots on paper. Image quality is very high, but the files are large. TIFFs are badly suited for sharing on social networks or displaying on web pages. Serious image-editing software like Photoshop handles them well, but more general-purpose programs don’t like them.

HEIF or HEIC (High-Efficiency Image Format/Container). Essentially, this is a better version of JPEG, using more sophisticated compression algorithms. HEIF images take about half as much storage space as JPEGs of the same image quality; Or HEIFs show much higher image quality compared to JPEG files of the same size.

HEIF and Apple

The iOS Camera app uses HEIF by default, but compatibility is still an issue, which is why iOS automatically converts to JPEG when you share, export, or upload a HEIF image. Some people think this format is proprietary to Apple, but it’s not. They’re just the first company to use it extensively.

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RAW Nerdery

RAW formats store all information in a shot, a complete record of the photosensor data with virtually no processing, hence the name. Each RAW shot is a massive trove of image info, requiring far more storage than the file types above. Because RAW files are data dumps directly from the sensor, they come in as many different types as sensors. RAW is not one format but many camera-specific formats. And camera manufacturers are reticent to publish specs. As you might imagine, that makes compatibility a nightmare.

DNG (Digital Negative) is a standardized, free-to-use format created by Adobe. Like RAW files, they contain unprocessed sensor data and use up lots of space. Unlike the various RAW formats, DNGs are universally compatible with third-party software. Plus the user’s reversible adjustments are saved in the same file with the original capture.

Unless you plan to transfer shots to a computer and develop them in Lightroom, Aperture, or similar software, you don’t need to worry about RAW or DNG.

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Appendix C: Further Reading and More Resources

Photography Tutorials

Camera Tech

Image File Formats