Keeping it Simple – Using Sagelight with Small Compact Cameras

Before I continue on the RAW processing article (part 2), I thought I’d go the other way and talk about editing more simple photographs.  In fact, in this article I am going almost to the completely opposite spectrum by taking pictures from a small compact camera to see what I can get, mostly by just using the JPEG the camera gives me.

Powershot 780 -- Actual Size!

I wrote a blog entry about using CHDK with the Powershot 780, and the question becomes, “Can you get quality pictures with such a small camera?“.  The answer is yes and no at the same time, because it depends on how you define quality.  Can you get near the quality of a bigger and more expensive camera with a nice lens and bigger CCD?  No, not really.  But, you can get some pretty good quality for the size of the camera, and it’s very apparent that the camera manufacturers have been doing a lot of work in the processing that happens between the CCD and putting out the JPEG you get from the camera.

Dropping the exposure

First, I have to mention this, because this, for me, is just a hard-and-fast rule:  In almost every case, I dropped the exposure time quite a few levels.  This tends to be true of all cameras, especially the smaller ones.  Otherwise, the highlights just get too washed out.  Even at 8-bit per-channel JPEG, it’s still a better option to deal with the shadows than to lose the highlights.

Editing with Sagelight (or some other editor)

This article is really about a couple things.  One, let’s see what we can get with a really tiny camera — a camera so small that I can fit it in my shirt pocket (you know, when my calculator isn’t in there).   Ok, well, maybe I mean to say a camera that I can roll in my shirt sleeve like a pack of cigarettes.  Ok, that’s better for my ego.

Looking cool with my Canon Powershot 780 in my shirt sleeve (a great way to get those quick shots)

Two, this is also about taking the images you get from such cameras — images that can only be described as basic — and making them look pretty decent with just a few edits.   In most cases, it’s just about dropping the midtones down, using the fill light, or perhaps going a little farther and using the Smart Light.  Adding Saturation typically doesn’t hurt.  In a lot of cases, adding a vignette all by itself can make a picture look much more artistic and intentional.

Using RAW and JPEG together — both as defaults

There really is a third thing I’m looking at here.  In a few pictures, I have to admit that I cheated.  Completely consistent with the article I just wrote about RAW processors, I’ve also found that these little cameras have much more range than you’d think — but only if you use RAW.  These little cameras don’t really let you write RAW images out.  Anyone who has looked at the blog knows that I am a big fan of CHDK that will allow you to write out RAW images with these little Canon cameras.  So, I cheated on a few pictures where the highlights were just too washed out or the shadows were just too dark.   I’ll point out which is which.  I’ve found a fairly decent range with many of the JPEG-only images (where I dropped the exposure, as I suggested above), and then used RAW for a couple images where the highlights were just too far gone.

Using RAW or JPEG when it makes sense

The nice thing here is that since I am using CHDK, I get a RAW and a JPEG both.  This is great, because, realistically, I’m lazy.  Being lazy, I’d really rather use the JPEG when I can.  I’m not looking at every picture as my professional masterpiece, and using RAW on every picture just takes a lot of time.  The camera does a whole lot for me with the JPEG:  it reduces the color noise, smooths the image, sharpens it, balances it, and corrects the lens distortion — all things I have to do when I bring it in as a RAW image.  Of course, I can do it better because I can look at the results as I go.  But to do this on every picture represents work.  So, I want to use the JPEG image where I can, and then use the RAW where it makes a practical difference.

Some Pictures – Examples of plain pictures enhanced with Sagelight

The first couple pictures are, in a sense, nothing special.  I didn’t really work on the pictures except to bring down the light and add color.  But, the difference between the original image and the result is also the difference between something very nice and something very basic. The main idea here is that by just performing simple edits, the average-looking pictures from a very small, compact camera suddenly become much more viable as something you could post artistically.

Picture 1–  Palace Hotel in Port Townsend

This is a picture that really didn’t take much editing.  I just use the Smart Light, lowered the light a little, and then added some color.  I also corrected the perspective with the ML Perspective Transformations plug-in.  The original picture is fairly plain, and the simple editing I did in Sagelight really brought out the colors.  I may have sharpened it, too.  But, the specifics of what I did don’t really matter too much.  I always try to avoid anything formulaic — in all pictures I just play it by ear and if the result makes it look better, I keep it and then move on.  If not, I undo it and then try something else.

Palace Hotel in Port Townsend Washington (click image for full-sized image)

The small sized-images in this blog posting are somewhat unfortunate, since this article is about the quality that you can get with these small compact cameras.  Click the picture for the full-sized (12-Megapixel) image.

Picture 2 — Train Station, Portland Oregon

In many ways, this is a mundane picture, and the original from the camera was very plain.  By bringing down the light and adding a vignette, the picture is now much more moody.  The brilliant cloud against the sky with the late-afternoon light makes this picture very nice.  This is an example of where I used CHDK to get the RAW image.  The cloud was washed out and parts of it were unrecoverable — but that’s the only difference.  I was able to get the same results with the JPEG, except for the detail in the cloud.  But, it’s important to note with this picture that the detail of the cloud is one of the things that makes the picture.

Train Station, Portland, Oregon. (Click image for full-sized 3936x2976 version)

Getting More Creative

Just like with any camera, getting creative with angles and post-processing can really make a difference in an image.  It’s no different with these small cameras, though I have to admit it took me a while to really get into it.  I’m used to cameras that are much bigger, have an SLR viewfinder, many functions and a decent zoom.  With this small Powershot 780, I had to basically ignore the zoom because it degraded the image too much, even when it was just on the optical zoom.  It’s probably because the lens is so small — and, really, how much quality are you going to get in a camera like that?

Once I realized that I was going to have to think differently about it, it started to work better for me.  I just had to keep in mind to take a larger range than I normally would and to crop what I want later.  At 12-Megapixels, there is some room to crop, though not as much as you might think — there is so much CCD noise with the small cameras, I can’t really say that I’m getting any more effective pixels than about half.

Picture 3 — Some Factory in Portland

Here’s how you can take a fairly mundane picture and turn it into something more interesting by using the effects in Sagelight to tone the picture.  Here’s the original:

Some Factory in Portland, Oregon (Original & Unchanged JPEG from Camera)

Not too interesting, but it certainly has potential.  The foreground elements with the factory in the background suggest something can be done.  Well, I went to town on it just to play around and see what I could do:

Some Factory in Oregon (click image for full-sized image)

Definitely different!  I basically did a duotone function on the image to give it common tonal range and then put the sky back to a pale blue.  I like the brownish trees against the factory.  Now it looks like a fall picture, and the full-sized image stands on its own as a picture that you could display at any resolution. The foreground is now much more prominent in the picture.

Picture 4 — Train Engine Overhead

This may be my favorite picture of the group, mostly because it really gave me a chance to be creative.  It’s a very good example of a cropped picture — with a bigger camera, I could just zoom in and get what I wanted.  With the compact camera, I couldn’t do it because the picture was just going to be too degraded.  So, I cropped it and it came out very nice.

I toned it, converted it to black and white, toned it some more, and then added some noise to give it a much older, classic look.

Train Engine Overhead (click on picture for full-sized image)

As a full-sized image, this came out very nice and you wouldn’t know it came from such a small camera.

Picture 5– Train Engine

Train Engine (click on image for full-size)

In this picture, I reduced the light and added a vignette.  I also increased the contrast to highlight the grease and dirt lines by the headlight (which I also highlighted).  It’s hard to see in this small picture, but if you click on the image to see the full size, the lines coming from the engine in the yellow area really stand out.

I would have included the original image to show the difference, but the original image really fell into a common category of image where it becomes so different that it contrasts against the result too much. If anyone wants to see it, let me know and I will provide a link.

Picture 6 — Port Townsend

This is a view of Port Townsend from a ferry.  This picture came out very nice, especially as a cropped picture.  The original looked nowhere as nice as the result from Sagelight:

Port Townsend (click on image for full-size)

Just as with the other pictures, you really have to click on it to get the idea of the quality.  This picture is an excellent example of what you can get out of these small compact cameras when you edit them.

Picture 7 — Seagulls

This picture points out a few things.  One, how using RAW (through CHDK) not only made a difference, but THE difference.  See the article on CHDK where I use this picture as an example.  This picture also points out the idea of getting closeups.  It’s just not possible to get closeups with these small compact cameras very easily, so being more creative becomes necessary.  In this case, these Seagulls just happened to be sitting on top of a mooring right next to the ferry.  This picture was taken from the ferry as we were leaving.

Here, I’ll show the original JPEG and the resultant picture taken from the RAW image.  In the JPEG, you’ll see why I couldn’t use the original  and get a good picture.

Seagulls (Original JPEG from Camera)

As you can see, the white areas on the seagulls are too blown out to make this picture interesting.  It would always be glaring no matter what you did with it — except for, perhaps, using the clone brush or another tool to subtly borrow non-washed out areas of the image.  I’ve had success with this before, but it is a lot of work.

But, there is no need here, because the RAW image has all the information we need:

Seagulls (Result from RAW image -- click on image for full-size)

This image also has the distinction of being the first image I fully edited on my Notebook at the hotel.   There’s really no point to go into what I did with Sagelight — I just went for it and did so many things to this picture by just experimenting.  Now the picture has the color and depth of a more professional picture, and, as with the other pictures, the full-size picture looks quite nice.


My first thought about these small cameras was that they were a lost cause.  The only reason I took the Powershot 780 on my trip was because I was riding my motorcycle and didn’t want to take a larger camera.  I just took my Netbook, the Powershot 780, and some clothes.  I really meant to just test out the video capability.

But, I have to say, I was surprised.  The default JPEG images from the camera are very plain, but it was a pleasant experience to see that I could take some pictures and then edit them with Sagelight to do more than just salvage them.  In fact, I’m quite pleased with the results.  I don’t think it will replace my nicer cameras, but sometimes just having a small compact camera around — and knowing that it can yield some great results when coaxed — is nicer than carrying around a big camera all the time.  It makes it more informal and fun during the times I’m not out on a specific trip to take pictures.


5 thoughts on “Keeping it Simple – Using Sagelight with Small Compact Cameras

  1. Pingback: Musings on Google Street View (in Sagelight) « Sagelight Image Editor Blog & Newsletter

  2. Pingback: Working with Jpeg vs. RAW: do you lose too much?

  3. Pingback: Working with Jpeg vs. RAW: do you lose too much? | Sagelight Image Editor Blog & Newsletter

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