10 Fixes for Common Digital Photo Flaws

By Julie Adair King

When you return from a photo outing, don’t be discouraged if you like only a handful of images out of the dozens of frames you shot. First, understand that a 100 percent good-to-garbage ratio is unrealistic, especially when you’re photographing kids, wildlife, or other unpredictable subjects. Second, most photo-editing programs offer tools you can use to eliminate certain photo flaws — your camera may even have some of those tools built in.

Correcting exposure problems

When you photograph a subject that’s set against a very bright background, you may get a result similar to the one shown on the left, where the background looks fine but the subject is underexposed. On the flip side, if the background is much darker than the subject, the subject may be overexposed.

raise-ev
For a brighter picture, raise the Exposure Compensation value.

Here are two solutions that are available on most cameras and are easy to implement:

  • Apply Exposure Compensation for an all-over exposure change. Raise the value for a brighter exposure. Lower the value for a darker exposure.
  • To brighten only your subject, try adding flash. Check the camera manual for details on how to enable flash in bright light; by default, most cameras are set to fire the flash only in dim lighting.

Fixing focus flubs

A blurry photograph can be caused by several different problems, each of which requires a different solution.

  • Mount the camera on a tripod to avoid all-over blurring.
  • When using autofocusing, specify which part of the frame you want the camera to consider when it sets the focusing distance.
  • Use a fast shutter speed and continuous autofocusing to capture moving subjects without blur.
  • To make a slightly soft picture look a little more in focus, apply a sharpening filter in your photo editor.

Some photo-editing programs also have a Clarity filter, which applies the contrast increase only to midtones (areas of medium brightness). With either filter, don’t go too far or else you’ll give the picture a rough texture.

sharpening
A slightly soft image (left) can be improved by applying a sharpening filter in your photo editor (right).

Eliminating distractions

At first glance, the left photo below looks like a winner. The exposure is fine, focus is sharp, and the subjects appear happy and relaxed. But on closer inspection, the astute portrait photographer notices two problematic issues: A tree appears to be growing out of the head of the male subject; and the black bag on the woman’s shoulder draws the eye away from her face.

distractions
The tree directly behind the head of the male subject, along with the bag on the woman’s shoulder, marred the left portrait; eliminating those distractions produced the better image on the right.

Sometimes, you need to work a little harder to eliminate distracting elements. Look for a camera angle that doesn’t include nearby objects, for example. Another option is to shoot with a telephoto lens, which includes less background than a wide-angle lens.

Even if you want the final image to be in black-and-white, shooting it in full color is a good idea. The black-and-white shooting modes found on most cameras tend to produce flat, low-contrast images, and you often can get better results by doing your color to black-and-white conversions in a photo editor that enables you to control which areas are emphasized in the black-and-white version.

Softening the impact of a busy background

If you can’t eliminate intrusive background objects, you can diminish their impact by using settings that throw the background out of focus — or, in photo terms, settings that produce a shallow depth of field. This tactic works because the eye is drawn more strongly to objects that are in focus than to those that are blurry.

shallow depth of field
A shallow depth of field blurs background objects, making them less visually intrusive.

You can reduce depth of field in one of three ways:

  • Select a lower f-stop (aperture) setting.
  • Use a longer focal-length lens.
  • Get closer to your subject.

Getting rid of lens distortion

When you photograph buildings and other tall structures, you may discover that vertical structures appear to lean inward or outward from the left and right edges of the frame. You also may notice that structures seem to be leaning toward or falling away from the camera. The left image below offers an illustration. With the exception of very expensive lenses designed for architectural photography, most lenses produce this type of result.

architecture shot
If your architectural shots display distortion (left), you can straighten things out using a photo editor or in-camera tool.

In addition, some lenses create barrel distortion, which makes the object at the center of the frame appear larger and closer to the lens than it really is — imagine a face wrapped around the front of a barrel, and you get the idea. The opposite problem, known as pincushion distortion, pinches everything toward the center of the frame so that your subject appears smaller and farther from the lens.

Try these two inexpensive (and maybe even free) solutions to correct distortion:

  • Check your camera’s menus to find out whether you can enable automatic distortion correction.
  • Look for a lens-correction option in your photo-editing software.
lightroom
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is one program that enables you to improve a photo that suffers from lens distortion.

Both solutions result in the loss of some original image area, although the in-camera lens-distortion filters rarely result in as drastic a change as what you see above.

Straightening a tilting horizon

In this case, the horizon line tilts noticeably downward to the right.

9781119235606-fg1109
Either the ocean is sliding off the edge of the earth or the camera wasn’t level.

A fail-safe solution is to mount the camera on a tripod that has a built-in level. But here are two other options:

  • Enable a viewfinder or monitor alignment grid, if available on your camera. Check your camera manual to find out whether you have this feature and, if so, how to enable it.
viewfinder grid
Some cameras enable you to display a grid in the viewfinder to help you frame your scene so that the horizon line is level.
  • Apply a straighten tool in your photo-editing program. Even most free programs offer this type of tool. In Windows Live Photo Gallery, you simply click the Straighten button, for example, and the program automatically rotates the horizon to a level position. In other programs, you drag the mouse across a line that should be horizontal (or vertical), and the software rotates the image as needed based on that input.
straightening tool
Windows Live Photo Gallery offers a one-click straightening tool.

Check out the corrected seaside scene.

straightened photo
The straightened image contains slightly less image area than the original, which is an unavoidable result of the correction.

Cropping away excess background

To crop an image simply means to trim away some of the perimeter of the photo. You may find cropping necessary when you can’t get close enough to your subject to fill the frame, for example, or to produce an image that fits a particular frame size.

Some cameras have built-in tools that make a cropped copy of the original photo so that the original is left intact. If your camera doesn’t have a crop tool, any photo editor should offer one. You can even find crop tools in most photo apps for phones and tablets.

crop tool
After selecting the crop tool, adjust the boundaries of the crop box to control how much background to eliminate.

Notice the crop tool symbol labeled above; this shape has become the standard crop-tool icon.

In the digital world, all crop tools operate pretty much the same way: Either the software displays an initial cropping frame or you drag from one side of the image to the other to create the frame. You then can drag the edges or corners of the frame to adjust the size of the box. You may be able to limit the frame to a particular aspect ratio (4 x 6, 5 x 7, square, and so on). When you execute the crop, all the areas outside the box are clipped away.

Quieting noise

Noise is a digital defect that has the appearance of small grains of sand. Noise can occur for two reasons: A high ISO (light sensitivity) setting and a long exposure time (slow shutter speed).

image noise
Here’s a look at image noise, which can be caused by a high ISO setting, long exposure time, or both.

To lessen the chances of noise, then, shoot with the lowest ISO setting and the fastest shutter speed that enable you to expose the picture given the lighting conditions and the aperture (f-stop setting) you want to use. Of course, sometimes you need a long exposure in order to create motion blur effects — for example, to make the water in a waterfall appear misty.

If you notice a problematic level of noise in your pictures, find out whether your camera offers built-in noise removal filters.

Solving color miscues

When image colors are off base, the most common cause is an incorrect White Balance setting. If your camera is set to the Auto White Balance (AWB) setting, try changing to one of the other options.

It’s best to check the White Balance setting before every shoot. Otherwise, you may wind up with extremely out-of-whack hues.

incorrect white balance
The strong blue cast is an indication of an incorrect White Balance setting (left); switching the camera to Auto mode (AWB) solved the problem (right).

With many cameras, the Auto setting works quite well except when your subject is lit by multiple light sources, each adding its own color cast to the scene.

Avoiding weird halos

This image displays a defect: Large halos of white along the borders between light and dark areas of the photo —in this case, the areas where the palm fronds meet the sky.

blurred background
A shallow depth of field blurs background objects, making them less visually intrusive.

These halos sometimes occur when you use shadow recovery tools, which lighten the darkest areas of your photos without also making highlights brighter. Haloing can also be a side-effect of applying HDR (high dynamic range) tools, which try to capture a larger-than-normal range of brightness values, giving you more detail in both shadows and highlights. With HDR, you may see dark halos as well as light ones.

Some cameras have these tools built in; you also can find similar tools in many photo-editing programs. Either way, you usually can specify how much shadow recovery or HDR adjustment you want the camera or software to apply. Experiment with different settings to find the point at which the solution becomes worse than the problem.

As for the blurred edges of the palm fronds in the sample photo, that issue is partly due to the haloing defect and partly due to the fact that the shutter speed (1/200 second) was too slow. There was just enough of a breeze blowing that morning to blur the waving palm fronds at that shutter speed.