Workshop: Instagramming your own photos

No, DSLRs weren't made to do this

No, DSLRs weren’t made to do this

So you’ve bought yourself an expensive DSLR, but you can’t figure out for the life of you why your photos don’t look anywhere near as trendy as all the photos people upload of their latest meals and get-togethers through programs like Instagram. Well there’s a simple answer for that: your DSLR wasn’t designed to do that.

But there’s a good reason for it; so before you think any further on abandoning your DSLR, this little workshop will show you in a few simple steps how to achieve the same effects. Here we go…

Step 1: Understand what Instagram is doing differently

Your DSLR is designed (ideally) to take a perfectly exposed photo, with sufficient light reaching every corner of your sensor (the modern equivalent of film) and being rendered in realistic colour and detail. In contrast, programs like Instagram are designed to simulate the characteristics of older, cheaper, less competent lenses that couldn’t spread light evenly across the entire frame, and which behaved differently in response to light. For that, and numerous other reasons (such as the type of film used, or the chemicals used to develop them), photos from those different eras and cameras produced startlingly different results in terms of colour accuracy, contrast and so on. That said, all programs like Instagram are doing is applying a pre-selected filter to a photo you’ve taken, and voila, you have a retro-looking photo.

Step 2: Get yourself some photo-editing software

If you can afford an expensive camera, you can afford some expensive software. It’s part and parcel with buying extra lenses, memory cards, an off-body flash, a tripod, and all that caper. I’m using Adobe Photoshop and I am shooting in RAW, because that’s the best way to preserve the most detail in your photos. There are cheaper alternatives, and even free ones such as GIMP, but for now I’ll just be doing it via Photoshop with RAW files as the process and techniques are all very translatable.

Step 3: Load up your photo

Flat and uninteresting straight out of the camera?

Flat and uninteresting straight out of the camera?

To some people, this photo is a little flat. It lacks pop. The colours aren’t dynamic enough. So let’s have a play around with all the little switches and sliders on the right-hand side of the screen.

Step 4: Add a generous vignette

Bring a focus on your subject

Bring a focus on your subject

I’ve highlighted the relevant tab and sliders to use to add a vignette. This simulates the effect of the corners of the frame/sensor not being exposed to enough light, hence the oval-like shadow around the edges. Forum nerds argue ferociously about whether vignettes are desirable or not, but it all really comes down to your personal taste. So add to taste.

Step 5: Change up the colour balance

Change the colour balance

Change the colour balance

This is the tricky part, because there are many, many ways to change up the colour balance. I’m just showing the one method here because it’s the simplest and most effective way; and it’s one of the many benefits of shooting in RAW. Here, I’m using a split-tone to alter the hue of the highlights and the shadows in the photo. The relevant tabs and sliders have been highlighted above.

Mix away. Your mileage may vary

Mix away. Your mileage may vary

Here’s an enlargement of the split-toning tab. They key to remember here is that the intensity of the hue you add to the picture will only be seen if you increase its saturation. If it’s at zero, it will have no effect. Try different combinations of hues, or just doing the shadows and not the highlights, or switching the balance so that you see more of one hue than the other. Some colours work together better than others, but as aways, this is a matter for your personal taste.

I’ll briefly explain a few of the other methods of changing the colour balance in radically different ways:

  • Cross-processing. This simulates the effect of using mismatched chemicals to develop different colours on the film. You can achieve the same effect digitally by individually altering the Curves of the Red, Green and Blue colour channels in different ways. This can be applied directly to jpg images.
  • Colour temperature. If you’re shooting in RAW, you’ll know that white balance isn’t a massive concern. Likewise, you can move the temperature slider to make your photo as cool or warm as you like.
  • Changing the overall hue or tint of the photo.

It’s possible to use a combination of some or even all of these techniques to create some interesting effects. Personally I think it’s overkill.

Step 6: Finishing touches

Almost there…

Almost there…

After all those edits, here’s how the picture is looking so far. I’ve actually used a burn tool around the creature’s head to bring more attention to it and, conveniently, it looks like a random aberration of light.

Step 7: A note on working with JPGs

RAW files are bigger, but they're worth working with

RAW files are bigger, but they’re worth working with

Here, I’ve opened the photo as a jpg and I’m continuing to work on it. I’ve simply tweaked the exposure settings so that the highlights pop a little more and the shadowy areas are more contrasty, making it a little more dramatic – which brings us to the opening shot of this page.

The thing to remember about working with jpgs is that it’s a destructive form of editing. Once you save it, all the little details you’ve lost or gained as a result of your changes are there for good. There’s no going back – so save multiple versions. Or, get better results by working with the RAW file, with the added benefit of being able to backtrack if you change your mind.

Well, thanks for indulging. I hope you found this tutorial helpful or at least informative. If not, then you’re probably either a seasoned photographer or a graphic designer, and you most certainly don’t need my help!

Here’s something I prepared earlier…

All of this is a wonderful technique for turning average photos into interesting ones. On the left is a dull, flat, massively out-of-focus photo I took of Harry that I’d normally delete right away. Using the same steps outlined here, I’ve turned it into an arty, more dynamic image that I might be comfortable showing in public.

Oh who am I kidding? It still looks rubbish.


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