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The skies, labs, and P&S cameras
Important banalities


1. Photo Labs

When I collect my pictures from a photo lab, I am often annoyed with their quality. So are many other amateur photographers. Although labs offer rather a good value for the money I pay them, they cannot do exactly what I need. It is not their fault. It is the reality.

Let us have a look at the picture I received from my photo lab this summer (see the left image below). I made this shot in Prague. When I saw the print for the first time, I thought I had been quite unlucky to cut womens legs. The dull sky also spoiled the impression.

I threw the picture to the wastebasket and decided to analyze the negative (see the right image below). The impression was different. The entire women's legs could be seen in the negative, and the sky contained more details compared to the print.

As I have already said, I am not going to blame the lab for those defects. It was simply impossible to represent the entire range of densities in a piece of photo paper. An operator had to choose what to show in the resulting image: either the sky or the details in shadows. Moreover, he unintentionally cropped the photograph in such a poor way. Frame gaps on film can be unequal. Because of this, it can be very difficult to provide high quality cropping. In addition, the machines are simply not designed to print the whole frames. Sometimes labs do warn their clients about such things.

Now it is time to say the first useful banality:
You have to scan and/or process your images by yourself to get high quality results. Another alternative is to visit a professional photo laboratory. Both solutions will take more time and money.

2. The Skies

Quite often photographers have to decide how to correct grey and dull skies in their pictures. Three options are available:

- Gradient filters and polarizers can be very effective solutions. Unfortunately, they do not work in all cases. Polarizer performance depends on the mutual orientation of the camera and the sun. Gradient filters cannot be applied in many cases either. My picture above with a big tower that cuts the sky into two sections is an example. Another thing to remember, a polarizer affects the entire picture, not only the sky.

- If the sky is white as milk or slightly grey, the only thing you can do is to decrease the area the sky occupies in the picture. Large areas of dull sky can rarely serve as a special artistic technique.

- You can also scan your film and apply a computer processing technique to make the sky more artistic.

Let us discuss the third option, since the other methods are self-explaining.

In my picture of Prague, the sky can be slightly improved by increasing the contrast in the highlights.

The left picture is the original scan produced by a film-scanner, while the right image is a version produced by Photoshop (Curves):

I am not going to say the new image is undoubtedly better. I will not insist that the initial image is a piece of art either. I just used it as a suitable illustration. Other manipulations with the curve in the highlight area can also be very useful. Feel free to make your own experiments.

Another method works when there are a few pale clouds in the sky. Mention should be made that I am not the inventor of this method. It can be found in a number of Internet articles.

Since there are no clouds in my picture of Prague, let us experiment with another my picture that shows
a view of Moscow (Photo #1 below).

1. 2. 3.

The step-by-step procedure for Photoshop is as follows:

- Copy your image to a new layer. (Duplicate Layer -> Background copy)
- Select the new layer and activate the Apply Image option from the Image menu
- Set the parameters in the Apply Image window:

Layer = Background copy
Channel = Red
Blending = Normal
Opacity = 100%

- Set the Blending option to Luminosity for the new layer.
- Adjust the opacity. (Photo #2 corresponds to Opacity=100%).
- The effect can be intensified. To do this, just slightly bend the Curve for the Background copy, pulling its center point downwards (see Photo #3).

As a simplified approach,
you can also bend the Curve
for the entire initial image.
The clouds will be emphasized,
but the color tones will be distorted.
The described procedure is more accurate.

Of course, you can combine both methods to get the best result.

It is time to say the second banality:
The sky can be digitally improved only if it contains some natural details or gradients. The white sky can be corrected only by direct painting.

3. P&S Cameras

Many people say P&S cameras cannot produce decent images. They say a photographer should buy an SLR to enjoy his pictures. I own both, and I consider that opinion to be a complete nonsense.

I made that shot of Prague with Yashica T5, an excellent P&S camera. It performed perfectly. Moreover,
I would not have been able to make that shot with a bulky SLR. The scene was not organized. I decided to shoot spontaneously only a couple of moments before the women approached me. I raised my P&S camera and switched it on. The lens cap opened automatically. It took me only a second to do the job.

If it had been an SLR camera, I would have removed the lens cap first. Then I would have had to wait until the AF system finished its job. Only after that, I would have been able to shoot. I am afraid, the entire process would have taken a slightly longer period of time, but it would have been long enough to miss the scene. To say more, I assumed the SLR camera was set to a proper operational mode when switched on, that might not be the case either.

I consider this to be good example of a situation when a P&S camera outperforms an SLR camera. However,
it must be a good expensive P&S camera. Cheap devices with plastic lenses are truly bad.

What about the picture quality? Look at the magnified fragment of my picture of Prague. I scanned it with a film scanner @2820 dpi. No Photoshop tricks. The pixel scale is 50%. If your screen resolution is 600 x 800 pixels, it is like looking at the entire picture with dimensions of 3 x 5 feet. I do not know your impression. In my opinion, the quality is very good. Sometimes SLRs can produce poorer images.

Download sky_fragment100.jpg (160K) to see that fragment at 100% scale. The compression was very moderate. Treat the picture as a real TIFF.

I am not going to say P&S cameras are always a better choice. Functionally they are not that good as SLRs. But as far as quality is concerned they can be perfect.


The third useful banality is:
It is a photographer who takes pictures, not his camera. Even P&S can produce great images.

* * *

Thank you for your attention. Have fun! Good Luck!


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