Well, that's not quite all that I did. The color in the original image simply didn't measure up to what I saw when I framed the shot. I could have grumbled and let it go, but why? I had the tools I needed to bring the objective image and the subjective reality closer together. It only took slight tweaks to tonal balance, contrast, and color saturation. In so doing, I didn't add anything to the shot. I just restored what had been lost in the process of capturing the original image. I could have done the same thing with film, though in that case I'd have been manipulating silver salts and color dyes rather than digital code. Take it from me — code is much easier to work with, not to mention both cleaner and safer.
Which brings us to the heart of the digital darkroom: image‑editing software. Adobe Photoshop is the gold standard here. So tenacious is its grip on the popular imagination that "photoshopping" is now all but synonymous with image manipulation. But Photoshop's acknowleged versatility and power don't come cheap, and that's bad news for those of us who can't quite stretch to gold. Still, there are plenty of less costly alternatives, and some of them have a price tag that's mighty hard to beat — free. In fact, you may not have to look any further than the box your camera came in. Chances are that you'll find a DVD with photo‑editing software right there. My advice, as always, is to experiment. Take some photos and give the camera's editing software a try. It might well be all you'll need. Or not. For the record, I rely most heavily on two complementary programs, neither of which "came in the box": Gimp, a free cross‑platform graphics editor, and GraphicConverter, an editing and file‑conversion program that's as inexpensive as it is capable.
OK. Got your darkroom software? Good. Now let's see how to address some of the most common tasks that paddling shutterbugs are likely to encounter, namely…
- Bringing sloping horizons down to earth
- Optimizing brightness and contrast
- Improving color saturation
- Modifying white, black, and gray levels
The screenshots that I use to illustrate this article are from GraphicConverter, but if you use some other program don't worry. A little time spent reading the documentation (online, PDF, or hard copy) for your software should answer any questions you might have. The key functions will be labeled "Rotate," "Trim," "Scale," "Brightness," "Contrast," "Saturation," and "Levels," or something so close to these as to be immediately obvious. Once you've found where the critical functions reside, you're ready to roll.
Before we get down to work, though, here's the First Commandment of image editing. Would‑be darkroom wizards ignore it at their peril!
ALWAYS WORK ON COPIES OF IMAGES, NEVER ON THE ORIGINALS
I'm sure you see why this is so important. Everyone who edits photos makes mistakes, and folks who are just starting out make the most mistakes of all. If you err while you're editing the original of an image, and if you then fail to catch (and correct) your blunder in time, you're simply out of luck. On the other hand, you can edit a copy of the original image with impunity. If things go wrong, just consign the failed experiment to the Trash. Then make another copy and try again. 'Nuff said? I hope so. Let's…
Go to Work on a Photo
The horizon is an important element in any scenic shot. And except on the steepest stretches of the steepest rivers, horizons are straight and level. But boats pitch up and down. Not to mention rolling from side to side. So any paddler who shoots photos while she's on the water can count herself very fortunate indeed if the horizon lines don't slant uphill a good part of the time. This problem can even bedevil you when you're shooting from shore. Consider this picture of an impressive stack of driftwood stranded high above The River by past years' floodwaters: