Five Easy Ways to Add Special Effects to Your Digital Photos

It once took a darkroom to do the stuff you can now do on your PC or right in your camera--thanks to some simple image-editing tricks and creative scene modes, you can turn full-size objects into miniatures, compose panoramas, and more.

Taking Your Photos Beyond Reality

Art historians will tell you that modern art--with its emphasis on distorting reality--came about after cameras were invented, as painters were looking for ways to differentiate their art from the realistic "perfection" of photographs. If you think about it, we're kind of like those nineteenth-century artists. Our digital cameras take great photos--but after a while, it all starts to feel pretty mundane. What can we do to jazz them up? It turns out that there are a slew of easy, eye-popping special effects that you can try--tilt-shift, high dynamic range, blur effects, and more--both on your PC and, in some cases, right in your camera when you take the picture.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ernst Vikne.

Turn Real Life Into a Miniature

This faux-miniature style of photography is called tilt-shift because it ordinarily relies on a special articulating lens to create photos in which the depth of focus falls in an unexpected way. If you take a normal photo of a city skyline, for example, everything is so far away that it's pretty much all in focus at the lens's infinity setting. But if you take a picture of a dollhouse, everything is so close that only part of the shot can be properly focused. If you were to capture the skyline in such a way that only the foreground were in focus, then it would look like a miniature. Expensive tilt-shift lenses deliver that unique effect--but you can use your image editor or a spiffy new in-camera feature to get the same look.

Photo courtesy Flickr user drew_anywhere.

Get the Tilt-Shift Look in Your Image Editor

You can use almost any image editing program to take an ordinary scene and make it look as though it were a miniature. A few years back I described how to do this in Adobe Photoshop Elements. Here you can see a regular photo of my kitchen remodel, and the tilt-shift "dollhouse" version. Don't have Photoshop Elements or a similar image editor? You can do it for free with Tiltshift Generator, which you can run in a Web browser, download to your PC, or even get as an app for your iPhone.

Use New In-Camera Features for Automatic Miniatures

Creating a miniaturized look used to require a special tilt-shift lens or an image editor, but Olympus's latest Micro Four-Thirds cameras (the Pen E-P2 and Pen E-PL1) and three new Canon PowerShots (the SX210 IS, SD1400 IS, and SD3500 IS) put access to this trickery inside the camera itself. Olympus's Diorama Art Filter and Canon's Miniature scene mode both choose a narrow horizontal plane of focus, blur the top and bottom of the image, and give colors an artificial boost. The resulting images make big objects look tiny, as you see here.

Stitch Together Photos for Panoramas

In the old days, taking a panorama meant using a special camera or taping together a set of pictures. (That's right: You'd actually take together a bunch of photos and tape them together.) Today, of course, perfectly joined panoramas are a snap. You need to take a series of photos, pivoting your body a little between each shot so you get about 30 percent overlap in each. Then import them into your favorite photo editor or a free program like Windows Live Photo Gallery and let the software automatically "stitch" them together. I explain the whole process in "8 Tips for Photographing Panoramas."

Use Sony's Sweep Panorama Mode for Instant Results

With Sony's Sweep Panorama mode, just press the shutter button once, pan the camera from side to side, and then wait a second or two for the camera to create an instant, seamless panoramic image like the scenes you see here. The Cyber-shot HX5V, Cyber-shot DSC-TX7, and Cyber-shot DSC-TX5 improve on this feature and offer a revamped Intelligent Sweep Panorama mode that scans the scene for moving subjects and makes them appear still in the final panoramic image.

Create Artistic Blur Effects in Photoshop Elements

Blur is the jig saw of the photographic world--a tool that, when wielded properly, can create beautiful things. Perhaps you've seen the Orton Effect, for example. That's what you get when you layer two versions of a photo--one sharp and one blurry--to get a dreamy, artistic picture. Check out "Artistic Digital Photo Effects: Zoom Blur, Orton Effect" for a guide to this and a handful of other eye-catching effects that make use of blur.

Use an In-Camera Background Defocus Mode

With most digital cameras, you need to adjust your aperture settings (and shutter speeds and focus controls) to capture a crisp, well-exposed shot with a very shallow depth of field. Although most people love this effect—it draws the viewer’s attention to the subject and away from the distracting background—it can be tricky to find the perfect balance of settings. A number of new cameras make it dead-simple to create shallow depth-of-field effects by digitally blurring the background after you take a photo. Many cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony all have dedicated Background Defocus modes, so you don’t have to adjust anything but the scene setting. Here's a background-defocus shot taken with the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX5--it looks dramatic, but the in-camera automation sometimes blurs out parts of the foreground.

Use Your Image Editor to Create HDR Photos

Cameras have a dirty little secret: None can fully expose the full range of lighting in a typical outdoor photo, from bright sunlight to deep shadow. That's why shadows turn murky black and devoid of detail, and the sky is sometimes bright gray instead of blue. There is a solution, though. A technique called high dynamic range (HDR) lets you take a series of photos at various exposures--some properly exposing for shadow, others for highlights--and combine them to get a single, eye-popping photo. It's like taking a panoramic photo, only your software stitches together different versions of the same photo. Check out "Simple Ways to Create Photos with High Dynamic Range or Infinite Depth" for details.

Apple's iPhone 4 HDR Mode

Due to the popularity of the Apple iPhone 4, you may have already used an HDR mode. Apple’s latest smartphone has an HDR setting that snaps three photos in succession (one overexposed, one underexposed, and one that’s just right), then stacks the images automatically to create the ultimate exposure. Shadowy areas are brightened up, highlights are sharp, and some photos take on a "dreamlike" state. However, there are times when using an automated HDR mode just isn’t appropriate. When the subject of your photo has vibrant natural colors, is in motion, or is in a dark setting that really requires a flash, it may be best to leave HDR mode off. Read our guide to the right and wrong times to use your camera’s (or phone’s) HDR mode.

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