As a photographer you want to control where the folks viewing your images look. A strong focal point, or center of attention, in your photos will almost always make them more powerful and more interesting. We’ve all made pictures, shown them to a friend, and gotten the “what the heck were you taking a picture of?” response. Most of those should go in the trash can. They should have been tossed before you even showed them to anyone.
Where you put your main subject in the frame is most important. If you’ve been around photography or art for any period of time you’ve likely heard of the “rule of thirds” or the “golden mean.” That’s a technique for positioning the main subject at one of the power points within the frame. I’ll write about that in more detail another month.
This month I’d like you to think about using differences in brightness, color, or sharpness to direct attention within the frame. You may or may not be able to achieve exactly what you want in camera. My examples, photographed February 1 with my Canon G12 pocket camera, have been adjusted in Adobe Lightroom 3. Post-processing isn’t an excuse to be sloppy when you shoot, but it’s a way to strengthen an already good exposure. All of these photos are of the same plant, Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, which is also my plant of the month for February.
My first example was photographed with my camera’s zoom lens at its maximum telephoto setting, the aperture as wide open as possible, and the camera as close to the flowers as I could focus in macro mode. My goal was to have sharply-focused flowers against a soft-focus background. While it’s counter-intuitive, most pocket cameras don’t focus as close at the telephoto end of their zoom as they do at the wide end.
In Lightroom I used an adjustment brush set to the ‘Lighten’ preset to paint over the blossoms and brighten them a little. I cropped the original image from the right to eliminate a bit of branch that I didn’t like. Finally, I added a little bit of a dark vignette to the corners.
The photo at the right is the original, straight from the camera, before editing.
The second group of flowers, on the same shrub in my front yard, was photographed against the blue sky overhead. The camera was pointing almost straight up. I was careful to keep the telephone wires and power lines out of the frame, and rotated the camera to get a nice diagonal line. I used the on-camera flash, set to –1 2/3 stops, to brighten the blossoms a little.
This time, I used a subtle curves adjustment to bump up the contrast slightly. Then I used a selective color adjustment to bring down the brightness of the sky. By selecting luminance in the HSL panel, clicking the targeted adjustment tool, and then clicking on the sky I could easily slide my mouse side to side until I got the amount of darkening I wanted. It’s harder to describe than to do. Next, I set the adjustment brush to the ‘Lighten’ preset and brushed over the blossoms to brighten them up a little more. Finally, I added a very subtle darkening gradient to the lower left and right corners. I didn’t use the vignette adjustment here because I didn’t want to darken all corners. I don’t think that looks natural, or pleasing, with a blue sky.
Here’s the original, straight from the camera. The difference between the original and edited versions are more subtle this time.
My third photo was made with the camera in macro mode, zoomed to the widest setting. Then I moved in very close, being careful to watch what was happening at the edges of the frame. I had to keep the neighboring apartment building and parked cars out of the frame.
In Lightroom I used the adjustment brush, with both sharpness and clarity sliders all the way to the left, and painted around the flowers to further soften the background a little. Then I made another adjustment brush, set to the ‘Darken’ preset, and painted around the outside of the flowers again. That enhanced the contrast so the flowers stand out better. Finally, I added a dark vignette around the edges.
Here’s the original version.
The goal of my adjustments on these three photos was to direct attention to the blossoms. The techniques are all variations on the idea of localized contrast, whether of focus, colors, or brightness. Get as close to the final result as possible before you squeeze your shutter release, but don’t be afraid to use the software tools we have available to us to take your photos to the next level.
Although my examples are all of flowers, the same principles and techniques apply to almost any subject — people, landscapes, pets, whatever. You can apply many of the same adjustments in other programs as well like the guys at Printmylogo.co.uk. do it to make those awesome images. I’ve just come to appreciate how quickly and easily I can punch up my images in Lightroom.