I am not a skilled enough photographer to notice while composing a shot all the little background factors that can have an inordinately large effect on the quality of the final image. I often fixate on the main subject when shooting, as I suppose is natural, only to discover after the film is developed that something in the background is distracting. This can be quite irritating.
Back in the days of wet printing, a photographer with the requisite skills could make adjustments in the darkroom. In this (ahem…) wonderful modern age in which we live, there is an easier solution: post-processing. All the old darkroom tricks can be replicated digitally, without all those messy chemicals. Yes, it can be time-consuming, but it can work really well (if you know what you’re doing; I just pretend most of the time). Somehow it always feels like cheating, though.
A single example of how a relatively simple change to a photo makes a big difference in its overall impact may help to illustrate just why you’d want to spend time doing this. You may recall this photo (well, a version of it) from my earlier post on my own mostly vain attempts at street photography:
The image above is the original photo. The main problem should be readily apparent: the left side of the silhouette of the woman in white is lost in the brightly lit light color of the jacket worn by the man behind her, which also blends into the white building beyond. When I took the shot, the woman’s white outfit stood out; in the photo, its impact is far less because it is not distinct from the background.
Fortunately, this is a relatively simple problem to correct. The man’s jacket is a defined object that can be altered somewhat to make it less noticeable, and thus help to isolate the foreground shape of the woman in white. This will also help to separate the man from the similarly-colored building, creating a greater feeling of depth.
After scanning and loading the photo in GIMP, all I did was added a couple of layers (one for the man’s jacket and one for his hat and the bright spot on his leg; one would have sufficed, but I wanted slightly different shades for the two pieces of clothing), and used a soft-edged brush to cover the areas in question in black. I then shifted the layer type to “grain merge” (whatever that means) and reduced the opacity until I got the sort of effect I wanted. No other changes were made. Then the layers were merged and the image saved as a JPEG.
The result is an image much closer to the way the scene felt when I shot it. The woman in white stands out, while the man in the jacket fades into the background. Now the viewer’s eye is drawn the same way mine was when I took the photo. It’s a relatively minor change, it does nothing to materially alter the nature or composition of the image, but it makes a big difference in the final result. This sort of adjustment is not going to make a poor photo into a great one, but it can help to create a bit more impact in pictures that might otherwise be relegated to frustrating mediocrity.
But it still feels like cheating.