Improve the Exposure of Your Photos With Just a Few Clicks

Digital cameras are designed to take pretty good photos under average conditions. In fact, they're dramatically better than even the best film cameras were 20 years ago. But that doesn't mean they're pocket geniuses, able to churn out award-winning photos all on their own. Almost any photo can be improved with a little tender loving care from a human being. As I've mentioned before, one of the best things you can do to start taking better pictures is to master the basics of composition. And once you have that in hand, you can try this week's technique for tweaking the brightness and exposure of your photos to really make them come alive.

What's Wrong With Most Photos

The problem is that frequently your camera doesn't take advantage of the full dynamic range available. By trying to capture a good, "average" exposure, it often settles for a setting that leaves the light looking flat and dull. You can see this graphically by looking at a histogram of the photo. A histogram is a graph that depicts the distribution of bright and dark pixels in your photo. Check out this photo of Lady Liberty. The peak on the right side of the graph indicates there's a relatively large number of bright pixels in the photo.

If the peak is on the left side, that means the image has a preponderance of dark pixels, as with my little ghost. If the extreme left or right edge of the graph has a peak, then that's a signal that the photo is over- or under-exposed. There's not a lot you can do to fix that.

But consider a histogram like the one for this rather blah photo of a wolf. You probably have a lot of photos like this, where the peak is somewhere in the middle and the left and right edges have little activity. There's an opportunity here to improve this photo with just a few clicks.

Where Is the Histogram?

Before we get to the good stuff--making the fix--you might be wondering where you can see a histogram view of your photo for yourself.

Many cameras can display a histogram over the top of your photo on the LCD. Check your camera's user guide for details on how to switch to that mode. It's handy to review your photos with the histogram turned on, because that will give you a really accurate indication of how well the photo is exposed. (You can't trust the LCD on its own, because if it's set too bright or dark, the image preview that you see won't be a good representation of the actual exposure.)

In addition, most photo editing programs have a histogram view. In Adobe Photoshop Elements, for example, choose Windows, Histogram to display the Histogram palette.

Fix the Exposure With the Levels Tool

Since we identified an exposure problem using the histogram, it only makes sense that we fix the problem in the same way. Generally, you'll want to use your photo editor's Levels tool for this. The Levels tool displays the histogram, and it also lets you adjust values. In Photoshop Elements, choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Levels. You should see the histogram, but this time there are sliders you can use to adjust the photo.

Both the right and left side taper off, with just one peak in the middle of the photo. Grab the slider under the right side of the histogram and drag it towards the middle. As you do that, you should see the photo get brighter. What's happening is you're telling Photoshop Elements to "remap" the available brightness to the darker pixels in your photo. The further you drag the slider, the brighter your photo will get. This is definitely art, not science, so drag it until it looks right to you. Now repeat the process on the left side to deepen the shadows. Here is what my photo looks like after some Level control adjustments.

There's one other slider, below the middle of the histogram. This one controls the gamma, which is a strange technical feature that "stretches" or "compresses" the effect of the brightness control. The bottom line is that by moving it to the left or right, you can control the relative brightness and darkness of the midrange colors.

Of course, not all photos will benefit from this kind of adjustment, and sometimes a photo might look perfect even it its histogram shows a single bell curve-like peak and a lot of unused dynamic range. But in most cases, you can use this technique to add a real punch to your photos.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Sunset Behind the Barn" by Laura Casey, Rose Hill, Kansas

Laura writes: "I was driving home, watching the progression of the setting sun. I saw this old barn and stopped the car. I took this picture just as the clouds started changing color."

Laura used a Panasonic DMC-FZ8 to take this photo.

This week's runner-up: "The Graves" by Dwayne A. Taylor, Salem, Massachusetts

Dwayne says: "I shot this outside of Boston Harbor while cod fishing. It is a little island with a lighthouse on it called 'The Graves.' It's the tallest of three lighthouses in Boston harbor and an historic landmark."

Dwayne captured this photo with an Olympus C2100UZ.

To see last month's winners, visit our April Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "Improve the Exposure of Your Photos With Just a Few Clicks" was originally published by PCWorld.

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