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The Missing Digital Photography Hacks

by Derrick Story, author of Digital Photography Hacks

O'Reilly's just-released Digital Photography Hacks contains 100 industrial-strength tips and tools. But the quest to compile compelling hacks is not something one can just turn off once the book hits the streets. It's an addictive process. And I admit it; I can't stop.

Secretly, in the depths of my hard drive, I've kept an ongoing list of new tricks and workarounds, and now for the first time I'm going to divulge a few of these "missing hacks." They're not in the book or in anything else I've written. They are simply the fruits of my ongoing obsession.

I've even written them in the Hacks style, complete with thermometer ratings. You may even want to print them out and stick them in the back of your Hacks book. They're the perfect complement to the original one hundred.


Judge Image Exposure in Camera Using Histogram Display

Your camera's LCD screen is great for judging exposure... except when working outdoors on a bright day. Under those conditions, even the best image looks washed out on that little screen. That's when it's time to switch to Histogram Display mode.

The convenience of the LCD monitor has certainly helped me become a more confident photographer. I like being able to review composition and exposure right there on site. Most of the time I can make a good judgment just eyeballing the image on the screen. But sometimes, such as when shooting under harsh lighting conditions, I need a little extra help making a good evaluation.

Turning on the image histogram mode has proven to be wildly helpful. How this display mode works varies from camera to camera, but generally speaking, you see a small thumbnail of the picture with a graph next to it plotting the highlights, shadows, and midtones. Under harsh lighting conditions, it's much easier to read the graph than to judge the actual image tones.

A good exposure will typically display information across the entire width of the graph. Shadow information is on the left side, highlights are on the right, and midtones are, well, in the middle. The particular shape of the graph depends on how the light is distributed throughout the picture.

What you want to be leery of is when the graph information bunches up on one side or another. A graph heavy to the left usually indicates underexposure with the image appearing dark (move exposure compensation to +1). If everything is scooted over to the right, that often indicates overexposure with blown highlights and washed out shadows and midtones (move exposure compensation to -1).

Underexposure Overexposure Normal Exposure



Normal Exposure

As you become experienced working with the histogram, you'll begin to correlate spikes in the graph with various intense tones in the actual picture. And when you open your shots in your favorite image editor, such as Photoshop Elements, you can adjust the photo's tones using the histogram display in the Levels dialog box (Enhance > Adjust Brightness/Contrast > Levels). Think of it as another way to look at your pictures.

But the real hack here is being able to quickly evaluate the image exposure in the field under any lighting condition. Find the histogram display mode on your camera and give it a try. I think you'll get hooked on it just like I have.


Eliminate Skin Imperfections with Infrared Portraiture

Black and white portraiture is very popular these days. But there's an added benefit that many photographers don't realize. If you shoot your B&W as infrared, you can virtually eliminate acne and blemishes.

Not long ago I was reading the May 2004 issue of Popular Photography and found an article titled "How to Flatter a Woman" by Peter Kolonia. In this piece Peter described how infrared film can eliminate facial blemishes. I thought, well, shooting infrared with a digital camera is much easier than with film, I wonder if this technique works with my favorite infrared digicam, the Canon G1?

Hack #25 (p. 55) in Digital Photography Hacks shows you the ins and outs of digital infrared photography. I explain how to set up and test your camera, and apply the techniques for creating stunning landscapes. What I've since learned is that you can use that very same setup for portraits too, and with equally impressive results.

To test this, I took a few casual color snapshots of Emily, a teenaged friend who often volunteers to model for me. (with a mild amount of arm twisting). I asked her to wear no makeup for this shoot, and she bravely accommodated.

Color close up.
Close up in color without any makeup reveals some adolescent acne.

First of all, isn't it great to be young when having your picture taken? I shot this very tight close-up with Emily and managed to capture some acne that often comes with teenaged life. As you know from your shooting, you can also encounter things like ruddy complexion, a sunburned nose, and other challenges that can eat up a lot of time in Photoshop trying to eliminate them.

Then, under the same lighting, just minutes later, I added my infrared filter and shot the same portrait again. I like to shoot infrared in color, then desaturate the image in Photoshop, leaving just a hint of tinting. This is the digital equivalent of toning B&W prints as I did in the days of chemical darkroom. OK, now take a look at the skin tones.

Infrared close up.
Same model, same shoot, still no makeup. But look at how the skin tones have changed with infrared.

The skin in the infrared shot is virtually flawless. The only Photoshop work I did on it was resize and desaturate the color tint -- no healing brush or clone stamp was needed.

As impressive as this is, some people don't like the look of infrared portraiture. And I must warn you, unexpected things happen. For example, sometimes the hair will go very light for no explainable reason. It's the same sort of unpredictability that happens with infrared landscape when some trees go white and others don't.

Related Reading

Digital Photography Hacks
100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools
By Derrick Story

But unlike film infrared photography, which has a very difficult workflow, digital infrared results can be immediately evaluated on your camera's LCD viewing screen. It is definitely a technique you'll want to stash in your photography bag of tricks.


Camera Strap Tripod

Camera straps are designed to go around your neck, right? But for really steady shots, try using your foot instead.

Ah, the eternal quest to triumph over camera shake, that low-light demon that rears its ugly head and makes our pictures soft and blurry. It's ironic that so many great shots appear when light is low, challenging our picture-taking technique.

In Digital Photography Hacks, I show you a parade of handy accessories specifically designed to help you steady the camera in all sorts of shooting situations. But, when you've left your favorite pocket pod in the car, here's an emergency fix that might just help you get the shot.

Take your camera off your neck, let the strap hang down, put your foot through it, then pull the camera upward until the strap is taut. This technique works exceedingly better when you have a rotating LCD monitor that you can angle upward and look down into it while composing the shot.

You'll be amazed at how steady you can hold your camera when you put your foot through the strap. If your subject isn't moving, you might even want to use the self-timer to trip the shutter. That way you can remain perfectly stationary during the entire picture-taking process.

If your camera only has a wrist strap, I'm afraid you're out of luck on this one ... unless you have really tiny feet.

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The Missing Digital Photography Hacks


Personalized Wallpaper for Your Camera Phone

Want to look like a real hotshot when you flip open your camera phone? Create a personalized wallpaper featuring your name and business URL.

Whenever I talk about camera phones with people, sooner or later someone always comments, "Well, yeah, they're fun, but you can't really do anything useful with them." Ah, not true! In fact, in Digital Photography Hacks, we dedicated an entire chapter to camera phones.

Just to give you a taste, here's a very useful hack that isn't even in the book. Use your camera phone to create a custom wallpaper that displays whenever your phone is active. You can even create different versions and rotate them as your mood dictates. Here's how it works.

First create your design on your Mac. I used Photoshop because I'm familiar with it and can work quickly. But AppleWorks, Graphic Converter, or just about anything that lets you control the type and background will do. Take a look at the design I'm currently using on my phone.

Custom wallpaper design.
Here's a simple design I created in Photoshop to serve as my camera phone wallpaper.

One you have a design you like, put you camera phone in picture-taking mode and photograph the design right off your Mac's monitor. I recommend that you use the "Nighttime" shooting mode and the self-timer on your camera phone for best results. Also, if you make the design nice and big to fill the entire screen of your Mac's monitor, your camera phone will probably capture a sharper shot.

Here's a tip: Rotate the image horizontally on your Mac so it's the same alignment as your camera phone screen (camera phones have vertical orientation and computers horizontal).

Rotated design.
Rotate your design horizontally on your Mac so it is the same proportions as your camera phone screen.

Once you've captured the shot with your camera phone, you'll have the option of making it your wallpaper. You can even create specific wallpapers for special occasions.

Best of all, if you ever accidentally leave your phone behind, the person that finds it will know immediately who it belongs to and how to get in touch. Now tell me that isn't a useful camera phone application.


Eliminate Backgrounds with the Extract Filter

A beautiful background for your portrait is great until you're asked to get rid of it for a newsletter or some other use where only the image of the person is needed. That's when it's time to learn about the Extract filter in Photoshop CS.

In Digital Photography Hacks, I dedicate an entire chapter to Photoshop magic. I cover all sorts of stuff from brightening teeth to softening facial lines, but one of the most difficult tasks is to separate a subject from its background. There are many tools you can use, such as the eraser, but they often lead to hours of tedious clean up to get the image just right. In Photoshop CS, tucked away in the Filter dropdown menu is Extract. Why this is considered a filter is beyond me, but regardless of where it's located, it's a powerful collection of tools you might want to explore.

When you have your image open in Photoshop, simply click on Filter > Extract and you'll be greeted with a new work area. You have a collection of tools on the left side or the work area and some settings for them on the right. The Adobe Help menu does a good job of explaining what is what.

The process is quite simple. First you use the Highlighter tool to outline the subject you want to extract. Make sure you "close the loop" and highlight the entire subject without any gaps. If your subject has relatively smooth edges, check the Smart Highlighting box. It chooses the correct brush diameter and assists you with drawing a clean outline.

Using the highlighter tool.
Use the Highlighter tool to outline the subject you wish to extract.

Then use the Fill tool (bucket icon) to fill the inside of the area you've highlighted. Simply click once to fill.

Using the fill tool.
Click once inside the highlighted area with the Fill tool.

You can sneak a peek of how things are looking by clicking the Preview button. If all is well, click the OK button and Photoshop will place your extracted subject on its own layer. If you need some more work before clicking OK, use the Cleanup and Edge Touchup tools to tidy things up before making the final extraction.

The subject on its own layer.
Your subject now appears on its own layer with a transparent background.

I recommend that you don't work with your original image when using this tool; instead, make a copy, then extract to your heart's content and not worry about losing your master image. You still have to work carefully, but having a dedicated environment with its own set of tools can be a real timesaver for these normally tedious tasks.

Final Thoughts

You can see how addicting this digital photo hacking can be. I already have a new list in the works. Until I write those up, have a great time playing with these creative solutions and exploring the original 100 in the book.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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