Why Are My Photos So Dull?

I first became interested in photography as a hobby during the years when the industry was making the slow and awkward transition from film to digital. Like many serious hobbyists, I at first resisted switching from film to digital cameras, even though digital was clearly a more efficient solution. I wanted to like digital. However, I found it to be missing something that film often delivered in spades: personality!

Why Are My Colors So Dull?

Film had personality. Each film brand and type had its own way of rendering color. Digital cameras strive for measurably accurate colors. Film, on the other hand, was anything but accurate. Film emulsions would emphasize certain colors, it would darken shadows dramatically, boost warmth and in other ways alter the look of what you photographed. When the eye becomes used to the way that film alters the look of photographs, digital can seem so dull by comparison.

Why Are My Photos So Dull?
Kodachrome Film Image, Steve Curry, National Geographic Magazine

National Geographic Magazine owed much of its visual appeal for decades to the legendary color virtues of Kodachrome film. Starting in 1937, its photographers first began using Kodachrome. Kodachrome film became synonymous with the National Geographic ‘look’. The “iridescence” of (Kodachrome) color was “just something that color photographers had never dreamed of,” stated lab technician B. Anthony Stewart in the book The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery.

Kodak film photograph
Tulips, Kodak UltraColor 400 35mm Negative Film scan

As a film photographer, you did not need to think much about the look of your images. The film you choose determined that. Here’s an example: The photo of tulips shown above was shot on Kodak UltraColor 400, a negative film that had a short lifespan in the final days before the takeover by digital cameras. The colors are punchy, dramatic, larger than life and pleasing to the eye. I did not have to process the photo in any way to achieve those colors. That is how my film interpreted the scene.

Why Your Digital Camera Photos Are So Dull

With digital cameras, it’s much like ordering broiled fish in a restaurant. An unprocessed digital photo is like the broiled fish before you add any seasoning or condiments. Once you add a bit of lemon juice, pepper, salt or other seasonings, it becomes a tasty meal. Digital images straight from the camera have little or no visual ‘seasoning’. Film images always came pre-seasoned. To transform your digital images you need to add some digital “seasoning” to make it suit your visual tastes.

Before & After Digital Image Processing
Before & After Digital Image Processing

The image shown above shows a digital photo straight from the camera (before) and the same image after my personal blend of ‘digital seasoning’ was applied. The processed image looks warmer and more vibrant and reflects the emotional impact this scene had one me when I photographed it. Which looks more appealing to you?

So, how do you make your digital images go from dull to wow?

For a beginner, there are some software solutions that can prove invaluable for this. If you are serious about photography, chances are that you have a Photoshop/Lightroom Creative Cloud subscription. That is the best single investment ($10 per month) you can make as a new photographer. These tools provide a solid basis for learning digital post-processing (processing your images after they are shot). However, they do provide a somewhat daunting learning curve to master.

But let me give you a delicious shortcut! The Google Nik collection is a set of Photoshop/Lightroom plugins that are optimized to give your images an artistic look. In fact, I use the Google Nik Viveza plugin to adjust the contrast, saturation, and brightness of nearly every image I create. It is simple to use and produces color enhancements that are more pleasing than a beginner could ever achieve using Photoshop and Lightroom without advanced skills. Many people have asked how I have achieved the beautiful color in my photos. The Google Nik plugins are my secret. And, best of all, they are free!

Google Nik Photoshop Plugins

The download and installation process for Google Nik plugins is straightforward and simple. They are easy to use and give you a wide range of professional looking digital ‘seasonings’ that will allow you to tweak and adjust the mood and color of your images, injecting the emotion and drama that digital images leave out. You will get the best results by choosing to shoot digital raw files (not jpg) with your camera to preserve the greatest amount of detail before processing. All DSLR and mirrorless camera will shoot in raw mode.

Update: DxO has purchased Nik Collection from Google and will be incorporating the plugin technology into its image editing softaware products. For the time being they are still offering the plugins as a free download, but that can change at anytime. Here is the download page for DxO Nik Collection plugins.

Update II: DxO now charges $69.00 for the Nik Collection plugins and will be updating them to be compatible with future versions of Photoshop.

Like learning to cook, learning how to digitally season your images improves with time and experience. With a bit of time and practice, you will soon be creating tasty digital images that pop with color and drama!