Create the perfect photos

1. Add a vignette

A vignette effect – the darkening of the corners of an image – is incredibly fashionable at the moment, not only in photography but television too. Watch any recent episode of Top Gear on BBC iPlayer, for instance, and almost every location sequence has vignetted shots.

Vignetting has an interesting effect on the way you perceive an image. The darkening of the corners tends to make the central subject appear more vivid. It can be a great way to enhance portraits and almost any shot where there’s a definite central subject.

The easiest way to get a basic vignette effect is with Paint.NET. It doesn’t have a vignette function built in, but you can download an excellent, free extension plugin called Ed Harvey Effects that adds the ability (plus a slew of others). Download the zip file here. Just copy the two files in the zip archive to Paint.NET’s Effects folders (which you’ll usually find in C:Program FilesPaint.NETEffects), then quit and restart Paint.NET.

You’ll now find the Vignette effect in the Effects | Photo menu. The tool itself is self-explanatory, with only four slider controls – two to control the centre point of the effect, and two to control the amount of vignetting and its radius.

2. Go black and white

Rather than trying every single one of your photos in black and white, it pays to think about which shots are best suited to the technique. Once you have the shot, converting it to black and white gives you more opportunity for creativity.

Don’t simply choose “convert to greyscale” in your photo editor – that will give you mediocre-looking results. The best way is to mix the three colour channels of a colour image (red, green and blue) manually into a monochrome image. Mixing the three channels in different proportions can have a huge effect on the final image. In a landscape shot, for instance, using only the red channel can give brilliantly dramatic dark skies.

Children snow

And in portrait shots, choosing the right mix of channels can make either for a gritty, warts-and-all representation of a face, or can be more flattering by including more of the red channel and less of the green and blue, which reduces the appearance of blemishes.

Not every photo-editing package has a channel-mixer function. If you haven’t invested in the likes of Photoshop Elements, the best package to use is the GIMP. To use the channel mixer in the GIMP, fire it up and load your image. Select Colours | Components | Channel Mixer. Check the Monochrome and Preserve Luminosity boxes; the latter will mean the sliders only affect the proportion of red, green and blue rather than the absolute level, which means you don’t have to worry about the totals adding up to 100%. Now you can play with all three sliders until you get the effect you want, with a view of the resulting effect in the preview window.

3. Make a panorama

Stitching together several shots to make a panoramic view is good fun. Until recently, there was no free tool available to stitch them together automatically, but that’s changed with Windows Live Photo Gallery, which is included with Vista and can be downloaded for Windows 7 – just type “photo gallery” into the Start menu and follow the link through to the download. Windows XP users can get it here.

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