Photography Fundamentals – Four Rules for the Digital Darkroom

Most of the time, photographers are often hungry for the “why” as well as the “how” of correcting photos.  Learning techniques alone, while important, is insufficient.  Understanding why a particular Technique is effective, when to apply it, and how to modify it to adapt to changing circumstances are the most important skills you can develop and are the keys to developing your artistry in the digital darkroom.

While these concepts aren’t necessarily simple, they can be described through a series of guidelines for refining digital photos captured by your Digital Camera for greater depth, presence, and emotion.

Rule 1:  your eye is always drawn to the lightest and highest contrast area in a photograph.  Out brains are wired to scan a scene quickly, looking for edges, contrast, and shapes.  When glancing at a photo, we’re biologically programmed to look at the lightest and highest contrast areas first.  Use careful composition and judicious burning and dodging to make sure your subject is the lightest and highest contrast area in a photo.  This establishes a visual hierarchy in which the lightest elements are the most important and therefore demand the most attention.

Rule 2: When looking at a photo, a viewer looks first at shapes and then attempts to interpret those shapes based on familiar patterns.  We have a visual database in our brains that allows us to identify common objects quickly.  This is how we can identify a silhouetted tree as a tree, not as a dark blob on the horizon.  Unfamiliar shapes take longer to read and require more careful attention.  Well-conceived abstract photos are successful because they break this rule, creating a visual puzzle for us to solve.  A key to making your photos engaging is to make sure all key Elements in a Photo “separate” visually from one another by selectively lightening and darkening the tones of elements within the photo.

Rule 3: Contrast = Detail.  The human visual system has evolved to be highly attuned to movement and edge contrast.  When looking at a photo, a viewer’s eyes naturally travel along areas of high contrast and sharp detail.  By controlling contrast and sharpness, you can, in effect, control exactly where the viewer’s eyes travel in your photos.  On a technical level, the appearance of derail in digital photos is due to subtle differences in the lightness and color values between pixels.  Enhancing contrast increases those differences and makes detail more apparent.

Rule 4: Warm colors feel more comfortable and inviting than cool colors.  Cream is the most popular paint color for rooms because the subtle addition of a little orange makes the room feel more cheery and inviting than a strictly neutral white.  Adjusting saturation and hue to make colors warmer, cooler, or more vibrant is one way to enhance the mood created by your photo.