China in Photos / Thoughts

How to Create Cool Photo Effects Without Photoshop

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I thought I’d share this piece that I’ve had sitting in my drafts queue for about a month now.

This summer, without the luxury of having my big desktop and the ability to run Photoshop Elements to edit my photos, I’ve started futzing with my camera settings trying to figure out how to make my photos look as good as possible before they ever leave my camera.

Turns out, you really, really don’t need editing software to make your photos pop.  You don’t need your iPhone and apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram to make blurry, kind of crummy shots look artistic and interesting.  You just need to know what kinds of photo styles you like and how to create them using the settings on your DSLR camera.

Step 1. First things first, you need to create a user-defined shot profile on your DSLR.

Never heard of such a thing?   There is a great tutorial for Canon users here.

(Otherwise, if you have a Rebel, here are some minimalist instructions: hit the MENU button on the top left-hand corner of your camera.  Go to the menu second from the left, the one that has AEB, Flash, Custom WB, etc.  Click on Picture Style.  Here you can choose from a bunch of pre-set styles or you can create your own.  To create your own, select User Def. 1 and hit the Display button in the top left-hand corner of your camera next to the menu button.  This will allow you to edit the style settings.  Select the setting you would like to adjust (Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, etc) and hit the center SET button on the right hand side of the display.  Then use the left and right arrows to make your adjustments.)

On the user-defined profile I use the most, I up the contrast and the brightness and tone down the color saturation.  I also adjust the color tone so that it’s slightly on the cooler side.  My camera tends to trend too warm and red anyway.

Your camera already has built-in profiles for landscapes and portraits and you can use those to great effect; but, if you are like, me it’s probably not a bad idea to have a user-defined style for indoor people photography and for food-type photography.

For people photography it’s usually a good idea to bump up both the brightness and the contrast.  For food photography, color tone and saturation may be more important.

Step 2: Adjust your ISO to fit the style/conditions

ISO, aperture and shutter speed are all interconnected.  Changing one without changing the other two will alter either the brightness, grain, or focus of your shots–or all three at the same time.  You can make these alterations to either render your shots more faithful to real life or to make them slightly less realistic and more artistic.

My photos have that sort-of, vaguely film-like look to them because I’m usually shooting with my ISO cranked all the way up to 1600.  This isn’t ideal and I wish it were more of an optional feature but I’ll admit that I’ve grown to like the grainy look.  If you want to replicate it, up your ISO and then…

Step 3: Futz with your shutter speed until you strike a nice balance between totally blown-out over-exposure and something vaguely artistic.

When you press the shutter down on your camera, there should be some metering that pops up through the view finder at the bottom to tell you how under or over-exposed your shot will be.

People tend to look better slightly over-exposed, it evens out skin tones.  When taking pictures of Will, I usually aim for 2 to 3 little bars beyond the, theoretically perfect, exposure level.

If you have a Nikon or a higher level Canon, you have spot-metering.  This means you can expose for one part of the photo without washing out the rest of it.  If you don’t have spot-metering, you’ll likely have to use some sort of Photoshop software and layers to brighten up faces without blowing out the background.

And if you don’t have Photoshop, well then you can do as I’ve been doing and aim instead for the slightly blown-out, dreamy-yet-gritty look I’ve been using these days.  By using a high ISO with a slower shutter speed I end up with really bright but somewhat grainy photos.  Combined with the high contrast and low saturation settings from my user-defined profile, the effect is a little like a soft-focus action– but more gritty.  It’s not a good look for food photography, but it works nicely for people shots.

Step 4: Use your white balance settings to create cool effects

Your camera likely has settings for full sun, shade, clouds, fluorescent-lighting, tungsten-lighting, etc.  Generally speaking, the Auto White Balance (AWB) is your best bet but you can have some fun by using the wrong settings for different conditions.

For instance, this is a completely unedited photo I took on a mostly sunny day at 10am in the morning:

Jun 12, 2012-1

Fun right?

So those are a few ways you can use your camera to create some really interesting shots without having to run a lick of editing software.  Happy Shooting!

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5 thoughts on “How to Create Cool Photo Effects Without Photoshop

  1. Thanks for posting this! I’m still learning how to use my Nikon and have only really ventured out of my apartment with it a few times (I have, however, taken hundreds of photos of random things around my apartment and food I’ve cooked). I still get bummed out when keeping everything on the automatic settings takes a better picture than I can while adjusting the focus, ISO, aperture and shutter speed manually. I guess with practice I’ll get better!

    • So glad you are enjoying your Nikon! It definitely takes time to figure out the manual settings, lots and lots of just shooting in manual constantly. It’s more of a muscle memory thing than anything else, after awhile switching the dials becomes automatic rather than something you have to think about. Love the photos you’re posting though so you’re doing something right!

  2. Pingback: Buddha Park (again) « Wanderlustress

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