Free Photoshop alternatives for fixing image flaws

Hah! You thought this was going to be a list of free software utilities. Not so. This is going to be a post that puts you to work out in the field rather than in front of the monitor.

Removing without cloning

bright distracting water drops

bright distracting water drops

Position change cloning!

Position change cloning!

The first step is just noticing you've got unwanted things in your picture. This takes a little practice but it's easy to do. Instead of framing a shot and snapping the shutter, take a little extra time to run your eyes around the edge of the frame looking for what I call "intruders". You know, those little things you find at the edge of the frame after you've taken the picture.
Also be sure to look inside the frame for things that unintentionally draw your eye. These include merging and converging items, bright spots, and litter in the landscape.
Because the lens is wide open when you're looking through the viewfinder, and wide open means shallow depth of field, there may be some things so close to the camera that they're completely out of focus and therefore unseen in the viewfinder. Use your depth of field preview button to help detect these items.
Using a tripod will make all this easier. It gives you the time to look around the frame and, since the frame isn't moving around as it would if you were hand-holding, you don't risk unintentionally adding things that are just outside the frame.
And once you notice these things, you can take steps to remove them or to use a different composition that either hides or doesn't include them.

And don't be afraid to do a little gardening. There's no sin in removing dead twigs or grass. And if you're in your own yard, hack away at whatever you want. National Parks are another matter: picking living plants is actually against the rules.

Highlight reducer

Without a polarizer

Without a polarizer

With a polarizer

With a polarizer

When photographing outdoors, especially in forests and around streams and waterfalls, you can get a lot of glare from leaves, wet rocks, and the water's surface. This is what a polarizer is for. It will reduce or completely eliminate the bright reflections off of these items, allowing the colors to come through and mitigating the distracting glare. You just need to remember to use it.
Here's a hint: When you're not sure if you need a polarizer, take one out and hold it up to your eye with the filter threads pointing at you. Rotate the filter. If it makes you say "Oooh!", then put it on your lens.

Polarizers are also great for reducing glare on windows or seeing beneath the surface of a lake or stream.
Here's a little before/after lesson in using a polarizer.

Exposure, and brightness

Your camera has a wonderful tool that allows you to get the best possible exposure. It's your histogram. This little graph on the back of your camera can show you if you're image will be under or over exposed. If the graph is jammed up on the right hand side, you're severely over exposing the scene. Unless this is what you want to do, reduce the exposure by either using a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture (manual mode) or dial in negative exposure compensation if using an automatic mode.
On the opposite side, if the graph is piled up on the left, you're severely under exposing. If this is not intentional, add some light with slower shutter speeds or a more open aperture setting (manual) or add positive exposure compensation.
Another of your camera's useful tools is the highlight indictor, or what we call the "blinkies." This feature can show you what parts of the image will be overexposed, so learn how to activate this feature on your camera.

Contrast control

Clear fork, Cowlitz River

notice the haze at the top of the photo? That's not mist, that's lens flare

Do your images sometimes lack contrast? As if a haze filter has been applied? Lack of contrast is often due to lens flare. This can happen on sunny days as well as cloudy days.
Say what? Lens flare on cloudy days? Yep.
Lens flare results from a bright light source directly hitting the front element of your lens or filter. It doesn't matter if this is a point source of light like the sun, or a big bright diffuse source of light like bright clouds on an overcast day.
It's this latter situation that can really bite you. Bright cloudy days can cause lens flare. And the really insidious part is that it's not very obvious when looking through the viewfinder; you don't see any of the usual telltale signs of lens flare.
Because the light source is big and diffuse, so is the lens flare. It affects your images by causing an overall reduction in contrast and clarity.
Try this test next time you're outside, especially if it's a cloudy day: simply shade your eyes. Notice any difference? If you notice an increase in contrast and clarity when you shade your eyes, what do you think your lens will see?
Ideally, you'll be using a lens hood all the time. It does more than just reduce lens flare. But even so, when using wide angle lenses, the lens hood is often not enough to shade the lens on cloudy days. In this case, get your hand or hat or something out there above the lens. Look through the viewfinder and alternately add and remove your additional shading. If you see a difference, then be sure to keep that additional shading in place for the shots.

Shadows and Highlights

Using a diffuser

Using a diffuser

Close up photography on a sunny day can pose a real problem. Because of the direct light, you can end up with a lot of contrast: sunlit areas and deep shadows. These can rob the image of color, detail, and simplicity; a lot of contrast can be a huge distraction to the eye.
But when photographing up close you have a lot of control over your subject. It's right there in front of you after all. Up close!
This means you can use some simple tools to control the light. One of these is a diffuser. A diffuser is nothing more than a piece of white fabric stretched taut. I like diffusers made by Photoflex and prefer one that is at least 32 inches in diameter. I often want a larger one but that takes up more space in the pack and acts as an even bigger sail in the wind. So 32" is a good compromise.
The way to use a diffuser is to place it between your subject and the sun. Get it as close as possible without getting it in the photo. The closer the diffuser, the softer the light. And softer light means no shadows. A diffuser will probably give you the biggest bang for your photographic buck. For more on using a diffuser, take a look at this short lesson.

The flip side of the diffuser is the reflector. These little wonders can toss some light in just where you need it. They come in different flavors: white, silver, gold, and a mix of silver and gold. I prefer the Photoflex soft gold, which is a combination of gold and sliver in alternating zig-zag rows. It's great for adding a subtle bit of warmth as well as adding needed light to shadow areas.
The reason I like reflectors so much is that I can see exactly where the light is going and I can adjust the location and intensity of the light by simply moving and aiming the reflector.
Try a reflector the next time you're taking a portrait, or need to add a touch of light under a flower's petal, or even to add a bit of light to your landscape image's foreground.
Here's another short lesson, this one on reflectors.

Selective exposure adjustments

grad nd filters

grad nd filters

Admittedly, making selective exposure adjustments is often more easily done in post-processing than in the field. But there are still plenty of situations where you can greatly reduce, or even eliminate, the amount of post-processing needed.
Back in slide film days, when we would walk five miles in the snow to school….wait. Wrong rant.
Anyway, back in slide film days, one really needed to nail the exposure in the camera. This was especially true for those of us submitting work for publication. Back then publishers would only accept slides: no digital images and no prints. Accordingly, our pictures needed to be "finished" in the camera.

As you probably know, the camera (and especially slide film) can't record the same range of light that our eyes can see (not yet anyway). So when photographing a dramatic sunrise or sunset, the range of light is often way beyond what the camera can record. The background is much, much brighter than the foreground. In film days, (when we were doing all that walking in the snow) this meant using graduated neutral density filters. These are rectangular filters, one half dark, the other clear, and the transition between the two either very abrupt (hard) or gradual (soft). You'd place the filter in front of the lens so that it covers the bright sky, thus reducing the amount of light to a point that the film could record it and it would look faithful to the scene. The filters come in different densities and transitions and I carried, and used, a set of filters ranging between one and three stops of density. With today's digital cameras, I find I only need to use the two and three stop filters. For more on the affect of these filters see these short lessons here and here.

Super secret sharpening technique

Use a tripod.
I'm tempted to stop there. But ok, I'll elaborate.
It should be obvious that a tripod will hold the camera still. This will eliminate camera movement, one of the main reasons for soft images. But what it also does is give you the time and opportunity to critically focus and to use a wider range of aperture settings.
Most of today's digital cameras have a feature called Live View. This feature allows you to view the image on the camera's LCD before you trip the shutter. This means you can zoom in on critical areas to check and adjust focus.
Even if you're just using the regular viewfinder for focusing (I still do), working from a tripod lets you critically evaluate the image for focus (and other things). It also allows you to use the slower shutter speeds often necessary with the small aperture openings needed for increased depth of field.
When using wide angle lenses for landscape work, there's a technique called Hyperfocal Focusing that maximizes the depth of field you can obtain with small aperture openings, thus giving you sharp focus throughout the picture. There are two reasons you really need to use a tripod to take advantage of this: the point of focus is critical so it's imperative that the camera is placed accurately, and you often need slow shutter speeds combined with the small aperture openings you'll be using.
For more on hyperfocal focusing, check out this article and this blog post.
And to get an idea if you need a new tripod, check out this article.


So there you go, some free alternatives to Photoshop/Lightroom for cleaning up your images. Or I suppose that would actually be pre-cleaning!

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One response to “Free Photoshop alternatives for fixing image flaws

  1. Mike King says:

    Rod, these are great. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Mike

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