How To Improve Your Travel Photography – Simple Post-editing of your Pictures

This is the third part of a three part series on How to Improve your Travel Photography.

Sometimes, after we have taken maybe hundreds or thousands of pictures through our travels, we sit down and start selecting our best shots.  But, even when we capture and compose some of our best pictures, still some of them don’t look as good on the computer as they did on camera.  So, when editing, we need to keep that photographer mentality to make sure our pictures deliver the best of our experience.

In these cases, there are a few tools we can use to visually enhance or “photoshop” all the pictures we feel are not delivering the true story and experience.

Photoshop is the industry standard program, it is quite expensive, and for many too complex.  But there are other easy to use and accessible tools that come pre-installed in many Windows and Mac platforms, and sites like Picnik, a free and paid service that makes tweaking your pictures an easy process.

Here are some simple “photoshoping” tips and techniques that will help you enhance you pictures and make them more vibrant.

Note: Steps shown are based on Photoshop CS3.  Click images to enlarge.

Levels Adjustment1. Enhance the Levels

Levels (Image > Adjustments > Levels) is a good place to start image enhancements. Levels is a tool that gives you a great amount of creative control over the contrast, brightness, and color of your image. In theory, a good picture should have a histogram (the black mountain range) that covers from the darkest shadow to the brightest highlight.

As you can see in the above image, the histogram lacks a great deal of shadows (the flat part on the left side) and highlights (the flat part on the right).  In order to enhance the shadows and highlights, the small arrows below the histogram should be moved until they touch the “mountain range” or until the point the image has an optimum visual effect.

Color Balance and Saturation2. Balance Some Colors and Saturate Others

Overcast and foggy days tend to flatten the environment colors; giving us an image that is lacking those vibrant characteristics we are experiencing in real life.

With Color Saturation (Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation) you can increase how vibrant those colors will be expressed in a picture to generate more impact.  Care should be taken when adding color saturation to an image since we want the image to still look real, with real colors.

Equally, you can balance the colors on cool light of a sunny day.  These types of days can produce images with a slight blue cast.  This can be fixed with the Color Balance tool (Image > Adjustments > Color Balance) to give the image a warmer quality of light with deeper shades of red and yellow.  With this tool, it is a matter of personal taste as to how much color should be added/taken.

Brightness and Contrast3. Play with Brightness and Contrasts

Playing with the brightness and contrast is one of the easiest ways to improve dull photos.  In addition, the brightness and contrast tools are one of the most basic tools in any photo-editing program.

Adding contrast (Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast) to an image accentuates the darker areas from the highlights.  It brings out the shadows and various details along many edges.

As with other tools, care should be taken.  Adding too much contrast will give a caricaturesque look to your picture.

Brightness can be seen as a way to give more exposure to the image.  With Brightness you can turn underexposed images into well lit captures.  Too much brightness will slowly wash out the details in the image.

Cropping4. Crop the Unnecessary

It is a good composition practice to add a buffer zone to your images.  This means to add a slight border or zoom out a little bit from your aimed composition in order to provide space for error.  Many quick shots tend to cut or shoot things right at the edges, making the image feel tight and without breathing space.

Then, while editing, the cropping tool (Tool Palette > Crop) allows you to keep exactly what you want in the composition and get rid of the rest.

Burning and Curve5. Burn to Draw Some Attention to the Character

This technique has been in use since the Renaissance (of course, in oil canvas).  Artist used a simple technique called Chiaroscuro to draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject in their paintings.  This is achieved by making the edges of the scene look darker while leaving the subject in the brighter area.

This technique is a bit more complicated than the previously mentioned here.  You can either use the Burn tool (Tool Palette > Burn Tool) but it could take forever to look nice.  But there’s an easy way.

Select around your subject with the Selection Tool you feel most comfortable with (Tool Palette > Marquee, or Lasso), and invert the selection (Select > Inverse) so what you are selecting is actually outside of your subject.  That’s the area that will be darkened.  Make sure the selection has a big “feather” (ie. 300px) so there’s a good transition between the darkened context and the brighter subject.

Then, by playing with the Curve Tool (Image > Adjustment > Curves) and pulling it down from the center of the grid, you will darken the selected area – achieving the desired effect.

Black and White6. Go Black and White

This is one of the most common and easiest to accomplish photo tricks.  By simply “Desaturating” (Image > Adjustments > Desaturate), you turn a color image into a Black and White image.  The same can be done with a Sepia effect.

Selective Coloring7. Color Selectively

Sometimes we can use Selective Coloring to enhance certain aspects and colors in an image, by turning the rest into black and white. This can be easily done both with Photoshop and Picnik (easiest). On Picnik, you can turn an image into black and white, then use the “original” brush in the “effect painting” box to color the selected areas with the brush. Here’s a step by step to Selective Coloring on Picnik.

These previous techniques can be combined to enhance your images to its best quality possible.  Chances are that most of the images you see in travel blogs (including this one) and magazines use these techniques, and more, to deliver stunning pictures.

While many would think that altering an image removes from the authenticity of the captured moment, I believe there’s nothing wrong in improving and editing your travel pictures as long as they are enhanced aesthetically, not faked beyond reality.

First Part: Getting Into the Photographer Mentality.
Second Part: Composing and Capturing the Moment.

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  1. says

    I downloaded the free 30-day trial of Photoshop and it just bamboozled me. I ended up using all the ‘automatic fix’ buttons and decided, as a result, decided that it wasn’t worth forking out the cash for the full product.
    I’m not the most technical of people and at the moment, simple Picasa editing is doing the trick for me. I’m intending on venturing into the world Picnik when I get chance, although I can envisage difficulties with this, too! :)

    • says

      Hey Julia. Sure, I don’t think a full Photoshop program is necessary to do simple edits and enhancements of pictures. Sites like Picnik and many free programs do exactly all of the above techniques, and more, in a few easy steps.

  2. says

    These are tips. Ever since I started shooting in RAW image I have been using lightroom more then photoshop now. However I use these great tips still everyday at work. Love photoshop +Lightroom :) and thank you for showing us some of your tips.

  3. says

    Great info Norbert, I learn so much from your photography posts. I really liked the side by side photos to demonstrate what you were talking about and to see the difference.

    • says

      Thanks Laurel! Yes, I though it would be great to actually show side by side how this simple techniques affect the look and quality of pictures. Plus, it makes it easier to understand. :)

  4. says

    Shhh! You’re giving away all the secrets 😉

    I actually just bought the new version of Aperture from the Mac App store because it was on a huge sale. So far it seems pretty easy to use.

    Nicely written and helpful article!

  5. says

    This is great, Norbert. I actually bought Photoshop quite a while ago. However, I was actually afraid to get started with it! Your tips are so easy to understand. You just may have given me the encouragement I needed to open up that software package.

    • says

      Thanks Cathy! Now you have a way to tackle the basics on Photoshop. These few techniques can go a long way on our travel pictures when we mix and match them.

  6. says

    Great tips- we first need a better camera (ours in a few years old) but these will definitely help the quality in the meantime. Thanks!

    • says

      I need to try Aperture. The curve tool is a great way to enhance your subject’s focus, plus it adds some visual quality to the background that makes it look more interesting.

  7. says

    There are some fantastic tips. We have been using Gimp for a couple years now (it’s free), and you can at least improve pictures some, not to the quality as photoshop, but for amateur photographers who don’t have a lot of money, it’s a good option for sure. There’s tons of tutorials out there, too, that make it easy to pick up the basics.

    I actually just started taking a photography class, and I love it. I figured if I’m serious about this whole writing thing, then I really need to have some top notch pictures on my site, and I just need to know more. It’s a basic one, but I think I’m going to keep going to more advanced classes after this one is over.

    A tip for getting photoshop for way cheaper, and I’m not sure where all this is available, but here in St. Louis, if you sign up for classes at the local community college, and it can be any class, even a CE (continuing education) class, you can get the student discount on photoshop at the bookstore, which makes it only $195, which is about a quarter of the retail price. Like I said, not sure if this happens in every city/state, but it’s definitely worth looking into.

    • says

      Adam, thanks for mentioning that photoshop/classes tip. A friend of mine did that “trick” too (well, he actually was taking CE, so it was appropriate), but he got Photoshop really cheap under the student license.

      I agree, part of having a good blog is having good pictures. I’m also making my way to keep improving my pictures and equipment.

  8. Andrea says

    Some great beginner tricks here, Norbert. I’m amazed at how many new and easier tools are on the market now than when I first started my training in Photoshop. I got very used to having it at home but now that we’re on the road with a netbook, I’m much more limited in the software I can use. I actually am trying to work on better photography that way I don’t need to edit at all. That’s probably the best way to go about it, haha, but quite unrealistic. I’ve really enjoyed this series, cheers!

    • says

      I’ve been using Photoshop since 2001 (Photoshop 5… ouch!), and I’m still learning new tips and tricks. This program has evolved so much!

      Haha! We all wish to have all our pictures edit-free. Hopefully that will be achieved in the near future. :) Thanks Andrea!

  9. says

    Very extensive tips. I am going to study this thoroughly.
    I really love photography but I’m being held back by my ancient point-and-shoot camera.
    I have to stick with it for the time being because my toddler wrangling duties mean I never have two hands free.

    • says

      Thanks Jade. Yes, practice with your photos and experiment with them. Use filters, and play with the different tools photoshop has. You’ll see you can get great results even from the most “blah” pictures. 😉


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