The secrets of taking good pictures: Elbow grease

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

Puppy being held 311 (photo credit: Wendy Gardner)
Puppy being held 311
(photo credit: Wendy Gardner)
I enjoy receiving the pictures that readers send in for constructive criticism. Entries come from many different countries and vary in quality enormously, but they often share a basic problem that digital photography has encouraged.
Not that many years ago, when we used film cameras, enthusiasts would learn how to make prints of their best pictures in a chemical darkroom. This took skill, time and effort. Only family snaps were printed automatically by photo-labs as 4” x 6” “enprints”.
Today’s equivalent of an enprint is a picture straight out of a digital camera. Its brightness, contrast, color balance, saturation, and sharpness have all been set automatically by the camera. This is fine for family snaps, but Good Pictures deserve work in the digital darkroom. You don’t need to roll up your sleeves and mess about with chemicals any more, but you still have to employ skill, time and effort at your computer to bring a Photograph to life. 
There are many free you can use. On my courses we use Picasa (a free download from Google) which has all the basic features you need, and lots more besides. More creative and advanced work requires a program such as Photoshop – it’s expensive but costs far less than building a chemical darkroom.
Basic Improvements
Here’s a good portrait shot by Wendy Gardner from Rehovot, Israel. She would like to know more about improving "my snapshots that tell a story". It looks a bit flat and faded, just as it came from the camera. Let’s see what we can do with it, and if we can help to tell its story more effectively.
I opened the picture in Picasa and did a bit of simple editing. In Basic Fixes I used the Straighten tool to rotate the image and give it a little more life. Straightening automatically crops the picture and this tightened up the composition.
In Tuning I used the sliders to brighten the highlights and darken the shadows. I played about with the color temperature slider but this didn’t produce any usable effect. In Effects I increased the saturation a little.This helped the background but also made the face redder so I had to go easy with it.
Here’s the improved version. Using basic editing software is really the minimum that’s required if you are to progress with your photography.
Now let’s see what we can do with more advanced digital darkroom work using Photoshop.
I rotated the shot as before, and cropped it with more precisely than Picasa would allow. Then I removed the excessive red from the face and increased the saturation of the yellow background. Next I adjusted the overall contrast to bring the picture alive. I brightened the dog’s eyes and sharpened its face to make it more prominent and finished by darkening the edges around to picture to hold the attention on the dog. I did all of this using “adjustment layers” which have “layer masks” that are used to precisely place each adjustment. This is exactly what I would have done in a chemical darkroom years ago. Now it’s much, much easier using a computer.
The danger with digital darkroom work is that you can get seduced by the special effects and forget that only the picture and what it communicates is important. All the adjustment made were to help the picture tell its story clearly and bring the focus onto the dog having a cuddle from a loving girl. We are witnessing an intimate moment while the dog observes us.
Taking a picture is the end product of a set of visual skills that anyone with interest can learn. It’s a creative process that is only complete when data from the camera is fashioned into a Photograph that you are proud to show to the world. Creativity takes skill, time and effort - elbow grease is the name of the game.
Send me your picture
If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback.
Use a little elbow grease to bring it to life please. Send one picture only, at a reduced size to [email protected]
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at: