Making a good picture a bit better

Author: Pieter De Pauw

With this article I want to share a couple of steps I followed to make a good looking picture look a bit better.  In most of the instances, I follow the same kind of processing flow, but with different parameters.  Importantly, I only do this with pictures that have potential, i.e. well-shot pictures (correct composition, right lighting and fully sharp).  I strongly believe that a mediocre picture won’t become a winning picture with some simple post-processing techniques.

 

The picture of the posing Bald Eagle was taken in Alaska, on a boat trip to one of the glaciers.  Despite a very calm sea, there was always a bit of movement on that boat, so I choose lowest aperture and an ISO to have a shutter-speed of at least < 1/1000 sec (f/5.6, ISO 125, 1/1250, 400mm).  I was lucky to have the light coming from behind me, and the reflection of the light on the ice gave even a bit more light to the eagle.  When shooting, I wanted to capture the eagle on the ice. 

 

 

The below first picture is the original one, right from the camera (RAW converted to JPEG).  The picture below is the end-result: a picture that sold a couple of times via microstock within a week after submission.

Picture straight from camera
Picture straight from camera
End result after image processing
End result after image processing

First step: improve the composition.

Yes, the composition from the original picture was a good starting point, but not sufficient.  The story the picture had to convey was something like “impressive Bald Eagle overlooking the area from floating ice berg”.

The Eagle had to look in the picture, so I had to frame him on the right (as he was looking left).  Following the rule of thirds, and acknowledging that the eagle was the most important object in the story, I positioned him 1/3 from the new right side of the picture, and chose the crop so that the head of the eagle was at 1/3 from the top.  In order to keep the enough ice on the picture, I choose a square format.  

Cropped picture
Cropped picture

Second step: optimize the White Balance and small corrections on the entire picture.

Since I shot in RAW, I could optimize the White Balance without affecting the picture’s quality.  I optimized slightly (warming slightly as the picture was too blue) so the white became more white and the blue in the ice became more visible.  I also increase the contrast by 10%, added a bit more vibrance and saturation to the entire picture, and increase exposure by 0.2 stops to make the picture a bit lighter.

After correcting the White Balance and adding contrast, vibrance, saturation and exposure
After correcting the White Balance and adding contrast, vibrance, saturation and exposure
Histogram
Histogram

Third step: level the histogram.

As you can see in the above histogram (this is the histogram from the edited picture), the entire range was not completely used (see red circles), so the histogram of the image shows an opportunity to leverage better the shadows or darks and the highlights in the picture.  An “auto-leveling” gave a good indication, but I decided to adapt manually each of the color channels.  Importantly, whilst a got a fantastic result for the background (sea and ice), the bird in itself became a bit too dark.  I selected the bird, made a separate layer so it would not be touched with the leveling adjustment.

After Leveling the histogram
After Leveling the histogram

Forth step: make the bird stand out more.

There are two sub-steps in this one.  What I wanted, is to have a bird with a bit more vibrant feathers, but also ensure the white of the head is really white.  This would help to have the bird standing out better.  So, first, I selected the brown feathers from the previous layer, made a new layer and increase its vibrance by 25%.   Secondly, I selected the head and the beak and made three interventions: adding 25% if brightness, so the white became real white; slightly sharpening the beak and the eyes with the selective sharpening tool; increase the saturation of the yellow color by 15% to have the beak standing out a bit more.

Correcting the bird
Correcting the bird

Last step: check noise levels.

Last step is always to check noise levels by checking the image at 100% zoom.  I applied a noise filter level 2, as some of the adjustements created a bit of noise, primarily visible in the background.

Final picture
Final picture