Photography tips – filters and editing

Polarised image example

Today in my ongoing series on photography tips, which have thus far covered depth of field and composition, I will be looking at two topics - filters and digital manipulation of your images.

Both of these, used as with everything, in moderation, can be of tremendous use to a photographer.

Hopefully you will find something in here that helps you to improve your photography, or gives you some ideas that may be helpful for your shots.

Filters

A filter is piece of glass that fits over the end of your camera lens, and can perform a number of interesting functions. One of the most useful things it can do, and the reason I would always recommend folks buy a filter as a matter of principle when buying a lens, is protect the lens glass from scratches.

You can buy clear filters which serve pretty much just this purpose – absorbing the scratches that will happen when you use your camera regularly. Filters are much cheaper to replace than the lens, and for this reason alone, I cannot recommend getting one enough.

Of course, there is more to filtering than protection. You can buy filters that come in all sorts of different colours, for example, if you were wanting to achieve interesting photography effects. Use of a red filter for black and white photography can really bring out some fascinating tones.

Today, though, I’m going to highlight the use of one of my favourite filters for landscape photography, which is the polarising filter. This is a filter that affects the light coming into the camera, exactly like a pair of polarising sunglasses would.

You can change the effect by rotating the filter through ninety degrees, which changes the amount and type of light that comes in. Reflections, clouds, sky colour, all can be manipulated by rotating the polarising filter.

For this reason, when using a polarising filter, you are going to probably want a lens that focuses internally rather than externally, as otherwise when the camera focuses it will move the filter and change how your photo looks.

Enough of the talk on the subject, here are some images to show you what a polarising filter is capable of:

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Above two images taken seconds apart showing the clouds over the sea during sunset, Byron Bay, Australia.

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Above, two shots of Mount Ngauruhoe in the Tongariro National Park, New Zealand, also taken seconds apart.

As can be seen from the shots above, the polarised image (at the bottom in both versions) really brings out the colours in the sky. It also has a serious effect on the reflections in the water in the image.

Of course, there is a trade off to using a polarising filter. The second image required a wider open aperture and slower shutter speed in both cases. This is because less light is coming into the lens as a result of the polarisation. This needs to be kept in mind when shooting.

If you want more of an idea of the photography gear we use, from filters to lenses, check out our detailed photography gear post.

Post processing / digital editing

Once you’ve taken your shots, I would highly recommend getting to grips with some photo editing software that lets you adjust how your photos look. And before you cry – that’s cheating! here are some things to bear in mind.

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Clouds over Byron Bay (the same shot as above) after a light unsharp mask and tweaking of the image’s contrast / brightness.  

From the second you press the button and capture the light onto your cameras digital sensor, it is being manipulated. The chances are you are storing your images in some compression format, most likely JPEG. To convert and compress your image, your camera has to make a number of decisions, including evaluating the white balance, managing the images sharpness, contrast and so on.

It is likely that your camera has a number of preset options, like a landscape mode or a portrait mode – changing these options changes the way the camera evaluates and saves the image.

If, on the other hand, you are saving your image in RAW format – i.e. just saving the sensor data as it comes in, and not compressing it at all – then you make the choice on a per image basis when you import them onto your computer for editing. This gives you greater control over your shots, but is a much more time consuming process.
Dom1 HDR
The Berlin Dom at night. This is a high dynamic range, or HDR, shot, which involves taking three images at different exposures and merging them together using a software tool. This allows for greater contrast, and helps avoid areas of under or over exposure.

So, whichever way you go, some form of digital manipulation will have taken place on your photo before you get to take a look at it. And whilst modern cameras are good, they are not totally infallible, and unless you are a professional using seriously high class equipment including light meters and white balance cards, chances are your camera won’t be getting it right all of the time. So a little bit of post shot editing can help fix up your photos.

It is worth bearing in mind of course that no matter how great you are at digital manipulation, you won’t be able to make a badly composed shot look good. The source material needs to be decently captured in the first place. But if you have a composition that you are happy with, and it looks like it needs just a little bit of tweaking, then breaking out some photo editing software could be the answer.

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IMG_0853-1Shot of my shadow on the beach, original on the top, post processed on the bottom.

There are, of course, a plethora of tools available on the PC to help you sort out your photos. From the free and easy to use photo management software Picasa, from Google (Microsoft have an equivalent, Windows Live Photo Gallery), through to the free and hard to use GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), through to the incredibly expensive and also difficult to learn industry standard Adobe Photoshop, there is something to suit every taste and budget.

I would advise for beginners that getting to grips with the tools available in something like Picasa is a great place to start. It has one-click solutions for sorting out lighting and contrast that can really bring out the best in photos. It also has excellent cropping tools for when you want to get rid of unnecessary scenery, as well as things like automatic red eye removal for those flash moments that just didn’t work out right.

There are much more powerful photo editing tools that can take years to master fully, but will allow you much finer grained control over your images once you get used to them.

There is almost no limit to what you can do with these tools, depending on your artistic skill and ability to pick up new tools and concepts. There are plenty of tutorials on the web which can help you get better with these tools.

[1] Australia 2009, WA - S - Cape Le Grand, 3 images, IMG_9761 - IMG_9763 - 3939x1220 - SCAL-Smartblend3

 Of course it’s not just about adjusting lighting or fancy HDR tricks. Sometimes you just can’t get enough of what you want to shoot in frame. In that case, software can help you too – just take a number of photos of the scene you want to capture, and stitch them together on your computer later. The above shot, for example, of a sunset over Cape Le Grand in Western Australia, was composed of three images, which were then seamlessly blended together.

Hopefully this article has given you some ideas on how to improve your photography. Happy photography, and as always, if you have any thoughts on anything in the article, feel free to comment below!

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