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|| News Item: Posted 2005-12-22

Pushing Pixels: 2006 Digital New Year's Resolutions
By Reed Hoffmann, Blue Pixel

Photo by

"Never, never, never use Brightness/Contrast. It's too coarse a tool and throws away far too much data. Instead, learn to use Curves, or better yet, Adjustment Layers." - Reed Hoffmann
Okay all you hotshot photographers out there. I've got an easy New Year's resolution for you. All I want you to do is resolve to do digital a little better this year. That's not too hard now, is it? You know what I'm talking about - you've heard all this before.

For six years I've been working with news organizations to help them improve their digital photography and workflow. And it always comes down to the same group of issues:

White Balance - This is the number one (with a bullet!) offense of digital photographers. Just because the camera has an Auto White Balance setting doesn't mean you should use it. Auto white balance is what people who don't know any better use (and a majority of newspaper photographers too, if my experience is any indication). Is it really that hard to set a white balance based on the light you're working in? Do you think the manufacturers would give you other white balance choices if Auto worked well? Auto may or may not get you close, but this isn't horseshoes. Why not get the color right when you shoot the photo? At the very least, set the white balance to the light you're working in - daylight, fluorescent or incandescent. If you want to be a real pro, take an extra twenty seconds to set a custom white balance. Yes, I know it's a major investment in time (not!), but if you're truly a professional, you'll do it. Auto white balance is for amateurs and those photographers who don't care about their photos.

Get your exposure right - Digital cameras give us great tools to dial in our exposures, if we only bother to use them. Turning on Highlight Alert will make any parts of the image that are badly overexposed blink. If large areas, or important areas, are blinking, you've got exposure problems. Dial back your exposure until those parts aren't flashing. Remember, it's okay to have some small and unimportant areas flashing. Just not large or important areas. Every digital SLR today offers this tool, so find out where it is and use it.

The cameras today will also show you a histogram, which is a graph that details the exposure. These take a little time to learn how to read. Absolute black is at the left side of the scale, absolute white is at the right side. It's a graph that shows you how many pixels of that tone (256 total across the graph) exist in the image. The height simply tells you whether a LOT of pixels are of that tone or just a few. What you're looking out for is a mountain of info that slams into the far left or right sides, when there shouldn't be any solid blacks or white (a bigger problem - blown highlights) in the image. The key thing to remember here is that there is no such thing as a perfect histogram. It's totally dependent on the image, and a photo of primarily dark tones will look wildly different than one of light tones. The easy way to learn how to use that information is to open a photo in Photoshop, try to guess at what kind of histogram it would have, then open Levels and look at it. The histogram in the Levels dialog will be essentially the same as what you'd see on the back of the camera. Learn to understand them using Photoshop, then you'll be able to make sense of them on the back of the camera.

ISO - Despite the big improvements we've seen the last few years in high-ISO performance, lower ISOs still means better quality. There's no reason to shoot 800 ISO when you've got enough light to make the photo at 400 ISO. No matter what camera you're using, image quality is better the lower ISO you use. So start at the bottom and work up. Remember, push that ISO up when you have to, but otherwise keep it as low as possible.

Use flash - Okay, I know that using a flash can slow you down. If the alternative, though, is a picture that reproduces poorly, then you better use flash. So learn HOW to use your flash. Figure out what power ratio works best for fill flash in bright sun vs. heavy clouds. Try some of the many tools for softening and directing light, things like Lumiquest, light domes or soft boxes. Get a cord so you can take the flash off your camera and hold it in your hand. Just getting it a couple of feet off the camera can make a big difference.

Use multiple flash - If you really want to show some moxie, try using more than one flash. Both Canon and Nikon make that easy to do. Canon's 550 and 580 EX strobes can fire other EX strobes in range as well as the one connected to the camera. It's almost too easy. Take it a step further by using the ST-E2 wireless controller to fire the strobes, and even change power ratios. Nikon has a similar system with the Speedlight SB-800. In Commander mode it can control up to three groups of other SB-800 or SB-600 strobes, and even allows you to change the modes from Manual to TTL to AA, while also allowing you to vary the power output. The new D200 will be able to do that with the pop-up flash built into it, although it can only control two groups. With multiple flash this easy, everyone should be using it.

Gel your flash - Also high on my list of complaints are those photographers who can't be bothered to put a gel on their strobes when under artificial light. Why spend a lot of time trying to fix a picture in Photoshop when you don't have to? If you don't gel for the light you're shooting in, then you're going to have a color cast in the photo that needs to be corrected. At the very least you should have two gels with every strobe you own - a fluorescent gel (often referred to as "Plusgreen) and an incandescent (CTO) gel. Putting one of these in front of your flash will change the color of output from daylight (what the flash normally puts out) to fluorescent or incandescent (depending on gel used). Matching your flash to the available light means you'll have far less work to do in Photoshop. Gels can be ordered from Lee or Rosco or picked up from your local theater supply store. For about ten bucks you can get enough for all the strobes you can carry. Cut them to fit over the head of your strobe and have Velcro on the edges of them and on the head of your strobes, to they're always there and easy to use. And don't forget to set a custom white balance when you use them!

Practice non-destructive editing - Every time you touch a photo with Photoshop and then save, you take away information from that file. While you often have to do this to make a photo look better, there are good ways and bad ways to do this. Never, never, never use Brightness/Contrast. It's too coarse a tool and throws away far too much data. Instead, learn to use Curves, or better yet, Adjustment Layers. Do your editing the right way and you gain in two areas - you'll be faster and your images will have better quality. For some tips on good editing techniques and using Adjustment Layers, look in the Education area of the Blue Pixel website (

There, I'm finished. Just a few little New Year's resolutions that will help you make better pictures. There's also the added bonus that they'll require less work in Photoshop afterwards. And the best part is, you already knew all this, didn't you?

(Reed Hoffmann writes about digital issues for Sports Shooter. A newspaper photographer for over twenty years, he's now a partner in Blue Pixel (, a company that specializes in digital photography, training and workflow consulting. If you have an idea for a good column, please write him at

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