Thinking Ahead For Better Photos

Ansel Adams, one of the greatest photographers of all time, was big on thinking ahead, or as he put it, envisioning the end result.

I’m also big on envisioning the end result, as illustrated by the picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco that I used to open this column. It’s one of my favorite images from a recent trip.

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Here’s the original snapshot (a RAW file), taken during an early-morning walk in a nearby park. The morning light was flat, but I loved the fog that was rising from the water and shrouding the lower portion of the bridge.

Using Apple Aperture, I transformed this snapshot into that postcard-type image. The same adjustments are available in Adobe’s Camera RAW and Lightroom applications. You also can get the same end result using the adjustments in Photoshop CS4 and Photoshop Elements.


The first step was to crop and straighten the image (using the Crop tool and Straighten tool). I crop as a first step because I like to eliminate dead space/distracting elements in a photo—areas that don’t add to the scene. In this case, the sky is dead space and the stuff in the foreground is distracting.


Next, I adjusted the Levels by moving the Shadow slider (left) and the Highlight slider (right) in the Levels panel to just inside the “mountain range” of the histogram (which shows the distribution of the highlights and shadows in an image).


Next, to make the image look more dramatic, I moved the Black Point slider a bit to the right and the Saturation slider a bit in the same direction.

It’s not shown here, but I also boosted the contrast somewhat, again by moving the slider to the right.


All RAW files need processing, and that includes sharpening. (JPEG files come out of your camera already sharpened, unless your camera allows you to turn this off.) Here, too, I moved the Sharpness slider to the right until I was pleased with the result.

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When working on (and playing with) a picture, it’s important to always sharpen as a final step because adjusting the Contrast and Levels also sharpens or adds to the apparent sharpness of an image. The main idea is that you never want to oversharpen an image.

The opening image was a result of the few easy image-processing steps that I just covered.

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Here’s a version of that opening image—one that looks as though it could have been taken by the light of the moon at midnight. Hey, I wanted to take a shot like this, but coming from New York, I had jet lag and midnight was 3 a.m. to my body and mind, and I actually was snoozing at midnight (which unfortunately goes against one of my photo philosophies: You snooze, you lose). Once again, digital darkroom adjustments came to the rescue.


To create the moonlight effect, I moved the Temperature (as in the color temperature of an image) slider from its 5628K position all the way to the left to 2500K. That “cooled” off the image, saving me from getting out from under the cozy sheets.



I created this final effect using the Antique Plate 1 effect in Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro ( So, the next time you’re shooting, try to envision the possibilities for your end result and shoot accordingly.

If you find yourself spending a lot of time working on and playing with an image, also keep this in mind: Ansel Adams often worked for weeks on a single image.

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