One of the great boons of digital photography is that the image-making process continues after you have taken your shot.
The ability to fix your photos later in Adobe Photoshop (Available for Mac or Windows from the Adorama Photo & Graphics Software Store) shouldn't mean that you can afford to be careless with the photos you take, thinking you can fix your mistakes later. It does mean that you can make up for problems you could not solve with your camera and, more important, that you can shape and tweak your image until it becomes the aesthetic product you want to create.
In this article we suggest some key after-capture steps that address the unique issues that come with close-ups, in the order that they should be taken. Keep in mind that you should always save a copy of your original image before you make any adjustments and you should make a copy of your improved image after all corrections have been made except for digital sharpening. Sharpening should be the last after-capture step you take.
Crop your image
Cropping is invaluable, especially for close-ups, since you can't always get as close to your subject as you'd like. Just define the area of the image that interests you most and enlarge it so it fills the frame. Even if you can get in close while shooting, you may prefer to step back a bit to gain depth of field and sharpness. Later you can produce a tighter but sharper image by cropping on your computer. Finally, cropping lets you fine-tune your composition. In close-up work, you often can't get the best composition during the shoot. You may have no choice but to include some distracting background elements. Afterward, you can play with your framing and refine your composition on your computer. A little creative cropping can erase or minimize unwanted background features and help direct the viewer to the area of the image that is most important or interesting.
Close-ups, more than other kinds of photographs, pick up and reflect the colors of their surroundings. For example, the green of a forest may influence the tonalities of a flower or insect. If you find that your color is not quite right, use the color balance control or the white balance tool in your software to recreate the color you saw. Both work with sliders so you see the color changes and can play with them until you are satisfied. You also can experiment with your background color to create a tone that sets off your subject more favorably. And if you really want to go all out, you can fool around with surreal colors that go well beyond anything natural but may be fun to look at. Read Lift the Fog off your Photos, a Photoshop tutorial, for a related technique.
It's often difficult to get the best exposure in close-ups because you are working at close range and can't always compensate for lighting deficiencies by adding light. Luckily, you can rescue otherwise fine images which need an exposure fix. For example, if your subject is darker or less vibrant than you would like, you can simulate fill light by using your fill slider. Or you can tone down an overly-bright image using the exposure or recovery slider. See Diane Miller's article Virtual Fill Flash for more on this technique.
Close-ups tend to be monochromatic since they often zero in on a one-toned subject. That can make your image appear flat and lifeless because it lacks contrast and shadow areas that add a dimension of depth. To add contrast, use the contrast slider or black slider for the effect you want. Playing with contrast is also a good way to define the background behind your subject. If your subject is too close in color and contrast to the background, it will not stand out in good relief. Experiment with your black slider to achieve a contrast level that will set your subject off from the background. The clarity slider can also be used to increase contrast by adding a slight "pop" to your image.
Sometimes you may have too much contrast -- as when you are shooting in harsh daylight or in dappled light, making some parts of your image too bright while others are too dark. In such high contrast situations, your clarity slider can help to soften harsh highlights that draw the viewer's eye. Or, using the recovery slider mode, you can temper whites that are too hot. You also can brighten the shadow areas using such features as shadow highlight or tone curve control. Alternatively, you can remove black from the dark shadows using the black slider.
Sharpen your image
Even if you do everything possible to get a sharp, in-focus image when you shoot (see our previous article), you will still generally need to sharpen your images as part of the after-capture process. That’s because digital images are structured with pixels that have been altered during exposure so they appear to blur.
Digital images are improved or corrected by applying a sharpening "filter" that comes in your after-capture software program. When we sharpen an image digitally we are increasing the contrast between neighboring pixels along edges that already have some nominal contrast.
There are three sharpening controls that I work with in ACR. To see how these controls change your image, enlarge it by zooming in to 100%.
1) “Amount” controls how much sharpening takes place. Start with the slider at 150% and reduce it until you get the desired sharpness. Most of the time I am satisfied with 150%.
2) “Radius” controls how many pixels near edges are altered by the sharpening process or how wide a local area is affected by the sharpening process. Start at 1.0, then go up and down from .5 to 1.5 to get the effect you want. I usually end up at 1.5.
3) “Detail” helps control what is called the halo effect. If you see a glow at the edges, use this tool. It’s there to fine-tune the sharpening process.
I do not use “masking” or “noise reduction.”
As you become more familiar and comfortable using these after-capture techniques, they will become a natural part of your photographic repertoire, helping you achieve the aesthetic results you want within one or two minutes. Good luck!
Allen Rokach and Anne Millman have written many books and articles on photography. Rokach teaches at Workshops@Adorama and many other venues. Visit his website at www.allenrokach.com.