Photo Editing the News

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With the advent of digital photography, news has become closer and more immediate.  A combat photographer embedded with troops in Iraq can shoot a hundred pictures while out with the soldiers, and have them on his editor's server minutes after he gets back, thanks to the magic of the Internet.

However, with digital photography comes digital photo editing, and the possibility of a photo that doesn't reflect the truth.

One technique for faking news photos is cloning.  This could be used in humourous ways, like putting Oprah Winfrey's head on Ann Margaret's body, as done by TV Guide in 1989.  Several magazines have used this trick to make a point, and they generally document it in the credits (as in, image by one person, and head shot by another).

Cloning is also used to create photo montages--which can give the impression of things that didn't really happen.  New York Newsday merged images of Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan into one shot that appeared to show them skating together.  Again, the magazine admitted to it, by calling it a "composite image."

Montages can be deceptive, though.  Los Angeles Times veteran photographer Brian Walski used montage techniques to combine two different photos, making it look like a soldier in Iraq was threatening civilians.  Walski was fired for "improving" on his picture.

Even a simple adjustment in brightness can change the meaning of a photo.  Both Time and Newsweek put OJ Simpson's mug shot on their covers, but Time darkened the picture.  This made Simpson appear much more threatening on the cover of Time than Newsweek, since Newsweek didn't adjust the image.  Similarly, USA Today published a poorly edited picture of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.  The eyes of the picture had been sharpened or brightened far past the proper level, and the result gave her a feindish glare.

Photo Editing Overview

Photographs capture a moment in time.
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Photos are generally regarded as "factual," as opposed to a drawing or painting, which would be the artist's interpretation.  Photos tend to be trusted more, because they accurately depict what was in front of the camera at the moment the picture was taken.

At least, photographs are supposed to be accurate.  How easy is it to edit a photo so that it shows something different than what really happened?

The concept of photo editing is almost as old as photography itself.  The first photographic images were recorded in the 1820s, and one of the first widely known edited photos was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.  Sometime in the 1860s, someone took a standing portrait of Southern Congressman John Calhoun, pasted in Lincoln's face from the portrait for the five dollar bill, and created a historic photo of Lincoln on the spot.

Even an action as simple and innocent as cropping the picture can be controversial.  Imagine a scene of the wreckage left by a tornado.  If the photographer cropped out all of the damage, and focused instead on a single building that somehow survived, it would appear that the tornado hadn't damaged very much at all.

In today's world of digital photography, some photo editing is necessary on nearly every picture.  Digital cameras have to "guess" at the proper color, contrast, and shading of the pictures they take, and proper use of photo editing tools can correct or even enhance the camera's guesswork.

At the same time, digital photographers must keep in mind that photography--especially journalistic photography--is meant to be a record of a moment in time, and not an artistic recreation of what the photographer wants his audience to see.  While editing photographs has become quicker and easier, the temptation to alter the photographs has risen as well. 

What Photo Editing Software should I use?
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If you're serious about photography, and if you're looking for the best and most powerful photo editing program around, the de facto standard and market leader is Adobe Photoshop CS2.

Unfortunately, with it's steep learning curve and equally steep price tag, Photoshop is overkill for the people who just want to play with their pictures.  Photoshop CS2 has every possible feature that a digital photographer could want except a low price.  What other programs are available?

Adobe recognized that their flagship product was a bit much for the beginner, so they scaled it back.  With a few of the more complex features removed and a price tag under $100, Photoshop Elements still packs quite a punch, and might be considered the market leader in it's own price range.  It has the same basic interface as the full powered Photoshop, and most of the same functionality.

Elements' leading competition is Corel's Paint Shop Pro XI, and some reviewers prefer Corel's product to Adobe's.  Paint Shop Pro, in general, is easier to learn in many areas, and is just as powerful in most of it's tools. 

Both Elements and Paint Shop Pro have red eye removal features and bundled photo organizer programs, and quite literally run neck and neck in terms of features and ease of use.

Another product on the market is the Microsoft Digital Imaging Suite.  With the latest version, Microsoft has added wizards to help novice users work their way through the program.  While the new features are an improvement, most reviewers still don't rank this product as highly as either Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro.  One feature that really stands out in Microsoft's package, though, is the slide-show program called Photo Story, which is much better than the equivalent in Elements.  Photo Story is offered separately as a free download.
Brightness and Contrast

In photography, exposure is controlled by a variety of things--the size of the lens opening, the film speed, and the duration the lens remains open taking the picture.  In digital photo editing, we can adjust exposure further, with the Brightness and Contrast controls.

Brightness, as the name implies, is the amount of light in the picture.  The longer the lens was open and the wider the lens aperture, the brighter the resulting picture will be.  Every photo editing program will have a Brightness control.  Changing the brightness setting will adjust the colors of the pictures as if the photo was taken with a wider or narrower aperture.

However, increasing the brightness can cause the picture to look washed out.  This is where Contrast comes in.  Contrast is the range of dark and light in the picture--the spectrum between the darkest and the brightest regions of the picture.  Changing the contrast will make the brights brighter and the darks darker, which will counter-balance the changes made by the Brightness control.  Brightness and contrast are generally used in tandem in most photo editing projects.

In most projects, it's rare to have a photo that needs overall brightness and contrast adjustments.  What's more common is to have a picture that needs adjustments to small areas.  For example, a dark cityscape against a bright blue sky, or a portrait with sunlight behind the subject, would likely be ruined by changing the overall brightness and contrast.  These pictures need smaller, focused adjustments.  In the old darkroom days, the only choice the photographer had was to dodge or burn.  With modern photo editing programs, however, he can use a Lasso selection set, and then apply Burn, Dodge, Brightness, Contrast, or even Levels and Curves adjustments, to only those parts of the picture that really need it.

History - Deluxe Paint
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One of the first really powerful photo editing programs was Deluxe Paint, designed by Dan Silva and Electronic Arts for the Commodore Amiga computer.  With a wide variety of features and an eye-catching, high quality image of King Tut's mask on the cover, Deluxe Paint was the leader in graphics programs for years.

Originally designed as a program called Prism, Silva added so many features that it became the showcase program for the system.  Commodore commissioned Electronic Arts to write an updated version, which became the graphics and animation standard for the entire Amiga line.

Deluxe Paint was ported to other computer systems, including the Apple IIGS and the PC, but it never caught on as well on those systems as it did on the original Amiga.  The last version for the PC could handle images up to 800 by 600 pixels with 256 colors.

Electronic Arts once tried to claim that they should hold copyright on any pictures which were produced using Deluxe Paint.  However, their arguments were shot down with the observation that makers of pen and paper couldn't claim copyright on writing that was created with them.  It wasn't a groundbreaking case, but it showed an interesting viewpoint on the use of photo editing programs.

Even though it was originally released in 1985, Deluxe Paint had many features that are still considered revolutionary today.  It could do transparent backgrounds, animation through color cycling, lasso selection, brushes clipped from an image like the modern Stamp tool, and Animbrushes, which evolved into the concept of Tubes in Paint Shop Pro.  Deluxe Paint was the perfect tool for creating bitmapped icons and game animation graphics.

Deluxe Paint Version 5, the final revision of the Deluxe Paint program for the Amiga, was released just after Commodore declared bankruptcy in 1994.

Blurring the Background

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The best Wildlife photography will always show a crystal-clear animal against a blurry background.  This is done by using just the right combination of lens, aperture, and shutter speed, and really helps to make the subject stand out.  If a background of branches and leaves were as sharply focused as the bird in the foreground, it would be very easy to lose the bird in the background "noise."

You can use photo editing techniques to achieve the same effect.

Load your picture into your favorite photo editing program.  Using a selection tool like a "Lasso," select the foreground image, the "animal" that has to be set off from the "leaves and branches."  Once it's selected, "Invert" the selection.  Most photo editing programs have this option.  In effect, it means "swap the selected areas for the unselected ones."  By inverting, you'll select only the background of your image.  If your program has the feature, you might also consider Feathering your selection.  This helps to break up the outline of the selection, so that it doesn't have such a sharp edge to it.

Once the background is highlighted, use a tool called Gaussian Blur.  This is a specific type of blurring routine designed to imitate the blurring that happens in traditional photography.  Don't be afraid to experiment with the settings, but remember that a little bit of blur--leaving the background out of focus, but recognizable--is better than a lot.

A related photo technique is called Panning.  Focus on a moving object, like a racecar, and keep the camera pointed at that object as it goes by.  Done properly, the racecar will be in focus, while the crowd behind it will be blurred.  This kind of blur is called Motion blur, or sometimes Radial blur.  Using Radial instead of Gaussian will make your subject appear to be racing past the background.

Workflow:  The Digital Darkroom
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Before digital photography came of age, photographs had to go through the darkroom.  Like cars on a conveyor belt, each image had to go through a series of steps, all the way through the development and printing process.  Digital photography doesn't require a darkroom, but it does help to keep that conveyor belt in mind, and run each picture through the same process, or Workflow.

Everyone develops a workflow that's best for them, and a process that makes perfect sense to one photographer will be hopelessly confusing to another one.

First, the pictures have to be transferred from the camera.  Most cameras have an Upload feature, where the camera is plugged directly into the computer.  Plugging the chip into a chip reader also works well.  Archive off a master collection, so that you don't overwrite the original with the edited version.

Second, filter the collection.  Delete the accidental shot of the photographer's knee and the portrait where the baby crawled out of the frame.

Next, make the edits that will apply to the entire image.  Color balance, contrast, brightness, and cropping, for example.  If you're working with RAW images, you have a lot more control at this stage.

Once the large adjustments are made, it's time to focus on the smaller ones.  Are there areas of the picture that could use cloning (like painting away the electrical wires passing through the subject's head)?  Would a little bit of background blur make the subject stand out better?

When you're satisfied with all of the large and small scale edits, it's time for one final sharpening step, like using Unsharp Mask.  Multiple sharpening steps will make a picture look terrible, so only do it once.  Save the edited and sharpened version under it's own name, and then save a JPG compressed copy for emailing and web work.

Photo Editing Terms 1 - A to D
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The Aperture is the size of the opening in the camera lens at the moment a photo is taken.  Aperture is measured in fractions, so the larger the number, the smaller the aperture opening.  Shutter speed and aperture are the two primary controls for limiting the amount of light that hits the film or sensor.

An Application is just another word for computer program.

A Browser is an application that allows the photographer to sort and rename the pictures in his or her collection.

Burning means darkening part of a photograph.  In the darkroom, it's done by blocking some of the light that would normally reach the rest of the photo.  In digital photo editing, it's usually a paintbrush-like tool built into the application.

Compact Disks are the typical means of storing digital photographs.  They hold about 700 megabytes of information, and can be CD-R for writeable CDs and CD-RW for re-writeable CDs.

Cloning is an image editing term for copying one part of the image into another part of the same image or a different image entirely.  It's used for painting out unwanted items, like electric lines.


CMYK is an acronym for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black.  These are the four colors used in the standard printing process.  It's also a color mode in photo editing programs.

Compact Flash
Compact Flash is one form of digital camera media.  It was the original standard, and is still one of the most common formats.

Cropping involves chopping out part of a picture.  You might crop to focus attention on the real subject, or to remove extra stuff that intruded on the picture.


When it comes to storing digital pictures, a DVD is basically a monster-sized CD.  It will hold over four and a half gigabytes of data.

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