RGMP 8: Learn how to crop, tone, and optimize photos

This is the eighth post in a series titled “Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency.” In the seventh post, I explained how you can improve your photojournalism skills (assuming you’re not already a photojournalist). Today I will discuss basic photo editing for online use. We don’t handle photos exactly the same way for print and for online.

First, I need to point out that Photoshop is the industry standard for photo editing. If you’re a journalism student, you must learn to use Photoshop. Even if you do not own it (and it’s damned expensive, even with the education pricing), you need to haul your butt into a computer lab and learn it. The good news is, you don’t have to learn all the million and one things Photoshop can do. I always say that photojournalists know more about what Photoshop can do than I will ever know — because it’s their primary software tool, and they use it every day.

That said, it is possible to perform basic photo editing tasks with other software. I’m going to discuss Picasa below; it’s a free program from Google (see information) that’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Another good option is Gimpshop, which works very much like Photoshop but is completely and legally free (background: Wikipedia). It also works on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Things you should know how to do

(1) Cropping: This is cutting around the best part of the photo and throwing the rest away. In most software applications, there is a tool called the Crop tool. You select it, click and drag, and thereby make a rectangle within the larger rectangle of your photograph. Then you double-click (usually), and the outer part is eliminated. Professionals don’t have to crop every picture — they tend to get exactly what should be in the frame!

Here’s a good tutorial about using the Crop tool in Photoshop.

(2) Toning: Sometimes the image is too green, too red, too bright, or too dark. Our ethics as journalists require us to represent reality as accurately as possible, but you know the scene you photographed wasn’t really that green or that dark — the camera made it that way. In most photo editing programs, we can make adjustments to the image to shift it back closer to the real thing. Most people know about contrast and brightness controls in these applications — but you’ll get much better results if you learn how “levels” work in Photoshop.

Here’s a good tutorial about adjusting the color and tone of a photo. It’s pretty sophisticated, but it will help you understand how to use levels in Photoshop.

This tutorial explains how to dodge and burn, another aspect of correcting a photo. You need to use these tools with great care in photojournalism so that you don’t substantially change the image as it really was.

And just so you understand the ethics of editing journalistic photos: Here’s the Code of Ethics of the National Press Photographers Association.

(3) Resizing: A photograph from a 7-megapixel camera might have print dimensions of, say, 10 inches by 8 inches. But inches mean nothing online. What you need to see are the width and height in pixels. Pixels will determine whether the image will fit neatly on a Web page. Generally you cannot use a photo wider than 1,000 pixels — that reflects the majority of Web users and their computer screen resolution. Before you change the dimensions in pixels, you will need to change the image resolution itself. Print resolution might be 180, 300, or even 600. Online screen resolution is 72 ppi (pixels/inch).

After selecting the correct resolution (72 pixels/inch), change the width (for horizontally oriented photos) or height (for vertically oriented photos) of the image. Maximum width: 1,000 pixels. Maximum height: 550 pixels.

Here’s a good tutorial about resizing correctly in Photoshop.

(4) Sharpening: After you have resized an image — and only after you have resized! — you might see that it seems a bit less distinct and sharp than you would like. Most photo editing programs have a filter or dialog box that allows you to improve the sharpness of the image. This effect can be badly misused — it can make the photo look quite unnatural! But used properly, the sharpening filters can really improve a photo.

Here’s a good tutorial about Photoshop sharpening effects. (Note that two other good options in Photoshop are the Unsharp Mask and Smart Sharpen.)

(5) Saving in optimized format: The file format for photos online is JPG (that means the file extension is .jpg). But saving as a JPG alone is not enough. The JPG can be saved at maximum, high, or medium quality. The resulting file size will be larger for higher quality. The trade-off is often not visible to the average Web user (that is, the photo looks no worse at medium quality), but the savings in file size — and thus the download time for the whole Web page — can be huge if you choose medium instead of high or maximum.

Usually (but not always) we use Photoshop’s “Save for Web” option when we have a photo destined for online. (The one exception is if we want to preserve caption, credit and copyright information embedded in the JPG file itself.*) The reason that “Save for Web” spawns a much smaller file size than simply saving a JPG is that “Save for Web” deletes everything except the image data. This is what we want for most Web images.

If you’re going to use your photos in a slideshow application, such as Soundslides, you need to keep that textual data. Your photo file sizes will be larger if you do. For example, “Save for Web” might produce a 40 KB file, and simply saving the JPG directly might produce a 120 KB file — from the same photo, with the same width and height in pixels. This can add up to a lot of unnecessary download weight on a page displaying 20 thumbnail images, for example.

Here’s some information from Adobe about “Save for Web” in Photoshop.

*Open the Photoshop File menu and select “File Info” to see this information. You’ll get a dialog box where you can view, add and edit data about the photo: author, description (caption), copyright information, and more.

Using Picasa

Picasa provides only simple editing tools, but they will get the job done, and they are insanely easy to use. In addition, Picasa gives you a non-invasive way to manage all the images AND videos on your computer. That is, it provides an automated organizing system that does not change where you have saved your photos or how you have named or arranged them. (I have more than 3,000 photos on my MacBook, and Picasa catalogued all of them in about 15 minutes!)

You can download Picasa from this page. There is a good introductory video for Windows users (5:02) and another one for Mac users (2:29). The Mac video explains why you might prefer Picasa over iPhoto (I won’t use iPhoto; it’s quite annoying, in my opinion).

Managing photos

You want to make sure that you never overwrite your original photo file after editing. Why? Well, the edited version for the Web will be smaller and not suitable for printing, for one thing. What’s gone is gone. So I suggest you take care to “Save As” at the beginning, when you first start to edit a photo. That will create a new copy, leaving the original untouched. (Picasa has an “Export” button; using it gives you the option to resize the photo by choosing a width, in pixels. The optimized photo is then stored in a new folder created by Picasa, preserving your original.)

Another wise practice is having a master system for storing your photos. Even if you use Picasa or another photo manager, the way you keep the photos on your hard drive can make it easy (or hard) to back up photos for safekeeping and to find images you want months or years after you have saved them.

Although some of my photo folders have names as bland as “February 2009,” I try to always make specifically named folders for travel, conferences, holidays, events, and so on. There’s no need to rename individual photos — just stash them in appropriately named folders on your hard drive.

Finally, cull your photos — but do it wisely. Professional photojournalists delete a large number of pictures from the camera before they even upload to a computer. I don’t do that; I just upload everything, because I don’t typically shoot hundreds of photos in a day like the pros do. But I do take the time to delete the absolute losers after I have uploaded.

Previous posts in this series: