Making Your Photos Better

Light Levels before/after

Adjusting light levels.

No matter how often you take photographs, there will always be time when the picture doesn’t turn out as you expected and so you need to be able to find a way to make your photos better.  There are many types of photo editing you can get involved in. In this blog I hope to give you some insights into Lighting Levels.

Lighting levels simply means the amount of light that was captured by the camera. Not surprisingly, different areas of and photo will have different lighting levels (or different tones).

Why do we need to adjust the light levels?

The main reason is, the camera captures lights differently to our eyes so we typically see more details in the dark areas or light areas than the camera.

In every photo there are dark areas, mid-tones (medium lit) and highlights (light areas) and the difference between the most lit areas and the poorest lit areas is called the “contrast ratio”. Our eyes see only about 100:1 but our eyes are tricky devices, designed by an expert and automatically adjust the exposure in both the white areas and the black areas to give us a dynamic contrast ratio of about 1,000,000:1. In a digital photograph, the available contrast ratio will depend on how we look at the photo. A modern computer screen or a TV set can produce about 4000:1 contrast ratio under the right conditions. So what we see in a photograph is not what we see with our eyes.

How do we Fix It?

To make a photograph look more realistic(or maybe even better than that), we need to work with each of the areas (light, mid tones and darks) separately because you may need to add more light to the shadows and take away some light from the highlight areas.  Note that some software refers to about five different levels (such as Lightroom or PhotoDirector).  Other simplified software such as PhotoScape or smartphone software tends to deal with levels all at once. They typically refer to this as adjusting “the exposure level” which they do by altering these levels according to some unknown formula.

There are an assortment of terms used to refer to editing lighting levels in different software. This can make it very confusing. The challenge is to know which light levels you are changing when you adjust them.

Some of the terms used:

  • Highlights – brightest lit areas. If you make them too bright you will lose some of the details.
  • A blown out image – large highlight areas that are nearly completely white.
  • Dark areas – shadows. If you make them too dark they will lose details.
  • Fill light – added light that brightens the dark areas.
  • Luminance – the amount of light per area.
  • Contrast – adjusts the difference between the white and black areas.
  • Saturation – the amount of colour in an image
  • Bloom – a glow, can be added to an image
  • Backlight – light/highlight that comes from behind the subject. Can be annoying!
  • Exposure – adjusts all levels of light in the photo
  • Brightness – adjusts the mid levels more and sometimes preserves the highlights
  • Brilliance (Apple) – adjusts the contrast and sharpness of an image.
Editing Light Levels

Editing Light Levels

So why not open your chosen editor and try and change these settings. In Apple photos select an image and press the edit button at the top right to see the adjustments listed there. If you choose the magic wand icon it will make adjustments that it thinks you need. In Photoshop express its called “Auto Smart Fix” under the Enhance menu. However, because artificial intelligence is really artificial stupidity, it won’t always improve the image in the way you want it to. But it is an easy way to start and you can always press Control Z (or Command Z on a Mac)to undo what you just did.

You should try each of the controls and see what what you are changing in a photo one setting at a time. That way you can gain an insight into making things look better. And you can reset the photo back to where you started before altering the next setting. Then later you can alter multiple settings on the same photo knowing what you are changing with each setting.

My process is usually to get the blacks right first, then the mid tones then the whites and finally the amount of colour (saturation), you can end up with a much better result than the Auto adjust features. Most photo editors have an adjustment to make the photo warmer or colder. That tried to adjust the colours to compensate for different light colours when the photo was taken. So be all means fiddle with that adjustment too. I’ll write another blog about that some time.

To help you avoid destroying the original image, use “Save as” and call the image by a different name when you save a photo. That way you won’t overwrite your original. Then you can come back to the original and start again if you want a different result.

If you click on the images with trees here and zoom in you can take a closer look at the results of editing in PhotoScape and PhotoDirector.

There is more editing control available in PhotoDirector and Photoshop than PhotoScape and with some practice a lot better result can be obtained but PhotoScape is free!!

Related blogs:
Photo Editing – why, and what I can start on?
How to install the free PhotoScape Software

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