Ten Graphic Workshop Filters to Improve Your Digital Photographs

Digital cameras – real ones, not the cameras that also place phone calls – embody a level of sophistication that makes even the best old-style film cameras look like cave painting. This having been said, they’re nowhere near as smart as the people who buy them. Human beings have much more sophisticated image processing software in their brains than any digital camera can aspire to.

You can usually improve the appearance of your digital photographs by switching on your image processing software, and then booting up ours. Graphic Workshop Professional‘s rich library of interactive image processing filters can give your pictures the subtlety and refinement of professional photography without requiring that you put up with a balding forty-something auteur who keeps saying “give it to me” and waving his hands incoherently.

To access the Graphic Workshop filter library, double-click on an image you’d like to improve from within a Graphic Workshop Professional browser window to open it in View mode. Select Filters from the Picture menu or click on the Gear button in the View mode tool bar. The Filters window will open.

The Filters window will show you two views of your digital image – an unprocessed version in the left pane and a processed version, using your currently-selected filter and parameters thereof, in the right. Use the hand tool to move around the view windows, and the magnifying glass tool to adjust the level of zoom.

The combo box in the upper left corner of the Filters function will let you choose the filter you’d like to work with. Click on Preview to update the right view window with your current settings for the filter you’ve selected. When you like the look of the filter you’ve chosen and configured, click on OK to apply these settings to your image.

Here are ten filters to make your pictures rock. As a rule, it’s a good idea not to use them all on the same image.

  • Contrast and Brightness: It’s actually fairly difficult set up a digital camera to reproduce the contrast and brightness of a scene so it looks right, and as digital image sensors have a much lower contrast range than old-style photographic film, the results of not doing so are likely to be visually obvious. Simply adjusting the Contrast and Brightness settings of a picture with this filter ’til everything therein looks natural will almost invariably improve it.
  • Color and Intensity: Human eyes – which are connected to that really high-end image processing software that turned up a minute ago – have a remarkable ability to compensate for bad lighting. Your brain will fool you into seeing white light when your eyes are really looking at light with a considerable color tint. Your camera will show you lighting as it really is. The most commonly seen example of this is in digital photographs taken by florescent light – they usually appear decidedly blue. Use the Color and Intensity filter to back off the color index value that corresponds to the unwanted tint, and increase the Intensity index to compensate for the resulting slightly reduced image brightness.
  • Hue, Saturation and Brightness: The Color and Intensity filter, while useful for basic image processing, doesn’t really work in an intuitive manner that corresponds to way your eyes see color. The Hue, Saturation and Brightness filter will let you perform the same color correction functions, but in a manner you’ll probably find easier to get your head around.
  • Black Threshold: Digital camera image sensors, especially the sensors in lower-end cameras, don’t produce as convincing contrast ranges as your eyes or a conventional film camera can, and perhaps more to the point, the software that drives them tries to fine-tune this contrast range to produce the best mix of image detail. This often results in shadowed areas that don’t show much shadow. This is a shame, as shadows can create the impression of rich, textured photographs. Use the Black Threshold filter to cast more of your picture into shadow, and make it look darker and more intriguing. Be warned, however – crank the Black Threshold control up too high and everyone will look like a vampire.
  • White Balance: Most high end digital cameras will let you manually set the white balance of a picture – you can point the camera at something you perceive as being white, and the camera will thereafter know how to adjust the rest of the colors in whatever it finds itself looking at accordingly. Sadly, few of us remember to use this function. The White Balance filter will let you perform retroactive white balancing – it will find the brightest area in the pictures it’s applied to, and adjust the whole image so that area becomes pure white. While it’s not as effective as correcting your white balance prior to banging on the shutter button of your camera, it can take poorly exposed or poorly balanced images and make them look much more lifelike.
  • Sharpen: Digital cameras can produce less than perfectly focused pictures for a number of reasons – if you call the support line for yours, you’ll probably hear them all. The official list of excuses is somewhat irrelevant, however, when you’ve just discovered that all your vacation picture are slightly fuzzy. The Sharpen filter will improve on poor focus and poor detail resolution to a reasonable degree. You’ll need to experiment with its controls to get a feel for how it behaves when it’s confronted with different sorts of images, and it’s important to keep in mind that it’s good, but it’s not God. If your pictures all look like sand paintings, you might have to book another vacation. The Edge Enhancement filter can also be used to sharpen up images – it’s a bit more radical, and while its results typically aren’t as attractive, it’s slightly better at rescuing serious turkeys from digital oblivion.
  • Equalize: You can force more or less of your picture into shadow and into highlights with the Equalize filter, both creating the illusion of better and more lifelike contrast and bringing out detail than was hidden in your original image. Almost all digital images will benefit by equalization. The catch in using this filter is that it takes more than usual degree of experimentation to learn how best to apply it, and its settings will vary somewhat with the images it finds itself confronted with. More than any other tool in the shed, however, this one’s worth mastering.
  • Gamma: The known universe’s most misapplied image processing filter, “gamma” actually refers to the contrast and brightness compensation required to make a non-linear output device – such as a monitor or a printer – correctly reproduce your pictures. Most contemporary monitors and printers are installed with “color models” that pre-compensate for their gamma issues, and as such, you’ll never need to use this filter for its intended purpose. This having been said, it’s a quick tool to adjust pictures for contrast issues in a way that’s more intuitive than the Contrast and Brightness filter. Keep in mind, however, that its control works backward – turn it down to create a brighter image.
  • Normalize: The normalize filter is something of a sledgehammer, but sledgehammers can be useful tools. It will expand the contrast range of your pictures and fiddle their color balance until their darkest areas are pure black and their lightest areas are pure white. You can do the same thing with the Equalize function, and ultimately come up with more interesting results, but Equalize demands a lot more work. By comparison, the Normal filter has no controls to set – it’s a one trick pony, but its trick is often surprisingly effective.
  • Resize: If you plan to e-mail your digital photographs, get to know the Resize filter. There’s no point in sending your friends 12-megapixel JPEG files that are several times too large to view on a monitor, ‘specially if some of them have dial-up Internet connections and they’re going to require a day and a half of connect time to download the beasts. Resize your pictures down to something like actual screen dimensions – 1024 by 768 pixels or smaller is usually a safe choice – and your recipients will thank you. At least, they won’t stick pins into wax dolls that look like you, which is almost as good. The Rotate filter is handy in this regard as well, if you take portrait-mode pictures that subsequently turn out to display lying on their sides.

Graphic Workshop’s filters apply their changes to a copy of the image presented to them, not to your original files. Once you’ve processed a picture, you can save your changes back to disk if you decide you want to keep them. Select Save from the Picture menu to save your changes back to your original image file, or select Save As to save your changed image to a new file. Unless you have a really good reason to loath and despise your original images, you should never save a changed image back to its original file – always use Save As to make a new copy.

In addition, while most digital cameras produce JPEG files, you should never save your changed full-resolution images back to the JPEG format. Every time an image is read from and then written back to a JPEG file, it’s degraded slightly – JPEG degrades images to arrive at more effective file compression, and as such smaller files. While a degree of image degradation is acceptable to allow your digital camera to get a reasonable number of pictures on an SD card, there’s no reason to further beat up your pictures once they’ve been downloaded to your computer. Save your filtered pictures to a new file in the PNG format for the best possible image quality.

You’ll probably want to save to JPEG files if you use the final filter discussed herein, Resize, to create reduced-resolution copies of your photographs suitable for e-mailing to the in-laws.

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