Improve Your Exposure in Tricky Lighting

You've probably seen breathtaking photos using HDR (High Dynamic Range) techniques, and you might even have read some of my suggestions for how to make them yourself (such as "Stunning Photos With High Dynamic Range"). The problem is that making an HDR image isn't simple; you need to take several photos while bracketing the exposure, and then combine them afterwards in a program designed to process HDR. You might experiment with these kinds of photos once in a while, but it's probably not something you'd want to do every day--and it's certainly not the first thing you'd think of to improve the exposure in lackluster photos.

Thankfully, you can make photos that mimic some of the deep dynamic range of HDR with nothing more than a single image and a photo editor that supports layers. Let me show you how.

An HDR Primer

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Four Ways Photographers Can Use Microsoft Paint

I've met two kinds of photographers in my travels. There's the Frugal Photographer who eagerly tries all the cheap and free photo tools. These folks scour the Web for freebies like Windows Live Photo Gallery and Google's Picasa. They use programs like Paint.NET as a free alternative to commercial programs like Adobe Photoshop. And they like hearing about one-trick photo tools that do interesting things--for free.

Then there's the Snobby Photographer. These folks won't consider using a program that doesn't have a three-digit price tag. Sure, the can justify that decision by claiming that cheap software doesn't have the highest quality JPEG rendering algorithm or it's missing some high-end color management feature. But let's be honest: We don't always need the Space Shuttle; sometimes a hot air balloon is more than enough to get the job done. It's in that spirit that I wanted to remind you about a perfectly cromulent photo tool that comes in every edition of Windows: Microsoft Paint.

Take Microsoft Paint to a New Level

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Frequently Asked Photo Questions for September

Have a question about digital photography? Send it to me. I reply to as many as I can--though given the quantity of e-mails that I get, I can't promise a personal reply to each one. I round up the most interesting questions about once a month here in Digital Focus. For more frequently asked questions, read my newsletters from June, July, and August.

How Long Do Flash Memory Cards Live?

Do Secure Digital cards have a live expectancy? Should you replace them on a regular basis, such as every year?
--Bob Coker, Chicago

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Fine-Tune Your Photographic Miniature Planet

Cartographers have made stereographic projections for hundreds of years, but only recently have photographers discovered how much fun it is to take a photo and warp it into a circle, essentially turning a flat panorama into its only tiny planet. Last week I showed you how easy it is to make a stereograph like the one shown on the right (click the image to see a larger version).

This project can be done in just a few simple steps. Unfortunately, the stereograph that you get from this quick three-step process has a small flaw: the left and right edges of the photo are different, so they form an ugly seam when we wrap our planet together. This week, let's see how to eliminate that blemish for a truly seamless world.

Once More, From the Top

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Turn Photographic Panoramas Into Tiny Planets

If you have ever played a game like The Sims or Farmville, you know the simple joys of creating your own little world. In fact, there's a game on my Apple iPad called GodFinger, which takes this to the logical extreme, giving me dominion over all the beings on a small world that fits entirely on the screen.

The cartoonish planet on GodFinger reminds me of a simple photo editing technique that has been making the rounds on the Internet lately. Imagine taking a panoramic photo you've created with Windows Live Photo Gallery, Autostitch, or some other program and wrapping it into a circle. You'll end up with your own little planet, made entirely of whatever was in your panorama. It's easy to do and the results can be a lot of fun.

This kind of photo is called a stereograph--and if you took a lot of math in college, you might know it as a stereographic projection. You can see many examples of sterographs on the Web, such as in the Stereographic Projections or the Miniplanetas Flickr groups.

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Blur the Background for Punchier Photos

I've talked to a lot of digital photographers who are disappointed with basic photo editing tools because they don't always have the intended effect. Take sharpening tools, for example: Somewhat counterintuitively, sharpening doesn't sharpen blurry pictures. But you can increase your subject's apparent sharpness by blurring everything else. This is also an awesome trick for adding a sense of depth to your photos. A long time ago, I mentioned four ways to get a deep depth of field in your photos. This week I'd like to focus on one of those techniques in particular: blurring the background of your photo using layers.

Aperture and Depth of Field

Using a large aperture (which equates to a small f-number on your camera's aperture dial) is a time-honored trick for blurring the background and forcing the viewer's eye to look at the subject. It also adds a sense of drama to an otherwise nondescript scene. You can get this effect when you take the picture by shooting in Aperture Priority mode and choosing a relatively small f-number.

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Frequently Asked Photo Questions for August

Have a question about digital photography? Send it to me. I reply to as many as I can--though given the quantity of e-mails that I get, I can't promise a personal reply to each one. I round up the most interesting questions about once a month here in Digital Focus. For more frequently asked questions, read my newsletters from May, June, and July.

Making Free HDR Photos

My Panasonic ZS3 has a setting that allows me to auto-bracket a series of three shots with +1, 0 and -1EV. I'd love to use this capability to take high dynamic range photos, but I do not know if an inexpensive method to combine those into one HDR photo. Is there any inexpensive or preferably free HDR software?
--Jim Williamson, Summerville, South Carolina

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