It’s a Cow’s Life – Photo Analysis and Minor Editing in Aperture

| January 23, 2011

The final image of our happy Swiss cow

Today’s digital image processing tools can create endless possibilities. They can go a long way toward repairing an otherwise mediocre image or provide a subtle boost to make it sparkle. In the case of today’s image of our very happy Swiss cow, it was pretty good right out of the camera. Personally, I have been working on taking better pictures in camera from the get go so I don’t have to spend unnecessary time in post processing trying to fix it. The better the data we capture to begin with the easier our post processing will be. It’s that simple.

Why do I think this image is pretty good to start with? Well first off, I like the subject matter and composition. My goal when taking this shot was to capture the essence of our cow in the beautiful surroundings. I shot low to the ground so I would be at his level. I did not want to shoot down on the subject. The cow’s head, which I see as the focal point of the image has been positioned deliberately on the left third vertical axis of the composition. Having the head in sunlight as well as the brightest and in-focus part of the image also works in my favor when trying to reinforce the focal point. The grassy foreground, distant Alps and sky serve as simple and interesting masses that complete the composition. When I paint, I try to keep the composition simple just like you see here. Don’t give the eye too much to take in. I have read that if everything screams in the picture you hear (or see in this case) nothing. Makes sense doesn’t it?

The original histogram

Being happy with the composition, I now turn to the histogram. Frankly, beyond the basics of good composition and artistic vision, the histogram is perhaps the most important tool at your disposal for determining whether you have taken a well exposed photograph. Numerous articles I have read say don’t trust the camera’s LCD preview of your photo. Your photo may look good on the back of the camera but you may be very disappointed once it is downloaded. You are much better off setting your DSLR to show not only the image preview, but also the histogram of the exposure data you have collected. When I look at the histogram above I can instantly tell that I have a very good exposure. OK, I might take a few points off for the little spike on the left side but that is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things and I can fix that in Aperture. For the most part, all of data captured for this photo falls within the exposure capability of the camera’s sensor. The histogram data is nicely distributed from the darkest areas on the left to the brightest areas on the right. Even the sunlit snow on the distant Alps is not blown out. I can tell because there is no spike on the right side of the histogram. It makes me happy to know that I really did not leave any detail on the table when I took this picture 6000 miles away on my vacation. If the highlights had blown out while taking the shot, I could have applied a negative exposure compensation in camera to bring the highlights into the acceptable range. More on that in another post.

Before jumping into the minor editing that I performed on this image, I want to talk a little about the camera settings that contributed to this exposure. If you look at the data below the histogram above, You can see that I shot this image at an ISO of 100, an f-stop of 6.3, and a shutter speed of 1/200 of a second. On a bright day, an ISO setting of 100 will give me a virtually noiseless photo. The ISO/noise performance of today’s DSLRs is very good. You can actually shoot at pretty high ISO settings without too much noise degradation. That said, It is still a good idea to shoot with a low setting on a bright day to make sure you capture the best quality possible. As for f/6.3, I chose that setting deliberately so the distant Alps would be thrown out of focus. Since our Swiss cow was the subject, I set my camera’s focus point on his eye and let the aperture setting blur the background, which created the nice subject/background separation I wanted. You can still see they are the Alps but they don’t command as much attention since they are out of focus relative to the subject of the photograph.

Before and after adjustments

OK, now let’s cover the minor edits I used in Aperture and Photoshop CS5 to make the photo sparkle a bit. TIP: You can see a high res version of the Aperture edits above by right-clicking and opening the image in a new window. I have shown the original adjustments panel on the right and the after-adjustments panel on the left. Where minor slider adjustments have been made, I had colored the slider indicator bright red. As you can see, the changes were pretty minor. I pushed the “Shadows” slider ever so slightly to the right to move the dark side of the histogram within the acceptable value range. The visible impact on the finished photo is very subtle. Just call me a perfectionist! Basically the photo after adjustments has a little more vibrancy and saturation. Please note that the contrast and sharpening edits are not material but I indicated them none the less.

One major change that I actually made in Photoshop was to remove a bunch of flies from the cow’s face. The were ruining an otherwise pristine presentation for my cow in the Alps. If you enlarge the adjustments image you will see them. Now look at the finished mage at the top of the post. They are all gone! This task was easily accomplished in about five minutes using the “Spot Healing Brush Tool” in Photoshop. You just set the diameter of the brush and click the flies away. The brush samples the pixels around the area to create new pixels that cover up the blemishes. Pretty cool!

I hope this long winded post is helpful. There is a lot to editing photos. I will post these from time to time to give you insights into my thought process. As always, I would love to hear about your techniques as well. We can all learn from each other. Thanks for visiting!


Category: Photography, Travel

Comments (4)

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  1. Chris Wray says:

    Perfect exposure, with the help of Aperture. Really nice framing and composition, Lee. Enjoy reading your tutorials. Keep ’em coming.

  2. Hi Lee, you do wonders with transferring a great photo into an excellent one, I’ll vote for this picture for use for your next challenge or a similar one. Thanks for your work.

  3. AutumnLeaves says:

    Beautiful photo, Lee. I would guess that bull wishes getting rid of those pesty flies was as easy for him as it was for you!

  4. neil says:

    Hi Lee, this time the comments worked for me 🙂 Great Post, interesting reading 🙂 Just one small mistake 🙂 It’s a cow, not a bull! Love the mountains! Best wishes from Switzerland, Neil