How to make pictures with a point and shoot camera look great

July 21st, 2014

If you’ve seen the pictures that I’ve been posting, you might be wondering about what kind of camera equipment I’ve been using. Today I’m proud to show you the powerful and expensive equipment that I’ve been using to take the shots of my travels.

Canon PowerShot Digital ELPH SD750 – Around 50$ on eBay

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to spend hundreds of dollars for a good camera, but that is not part of the living small philosophy. Plus I love to push the limits of technology, just to see how much I can get out of something cheap.

So how do I get great pictures with this beaten-up, cheap, 5 years old camera?

Automated post processing

People usually buy an expensive program like Photoshop and start photo-retouching pictures one by one. That’s no big secret. One of the problems with this approach is that Photoshop costs quite some money. Even if you don’t use Photoshop and you opt to use a cheaper or free alternative, you are still spending a lot of time retouching pictures one by one.

GIMP is an alternative that lacks some of the features of the expensive Photoshop, but it has more than enough features to satisfy the amateur photographer. Most importantly, GIMP comes with a powerful scripting engine. People are often quick to dismiss GIMP because they do not know how to use it to its fullest (complete manual available here).

Armed with GIMP, I do three simple adjustments that seem to inevitably improve the quality of the picture:

  • Stretch the levels curve (Colors — Levels — Auto).
  • Increase the saturation by 15% (Colors — Hue-Saturation — Saturation, increase by 15).
  • Sharpen the image (Filters — Enhance — Unsharpen Mask with 2 pixels radius, 0.4 amount and 0 threshold)

As a good software developer that always tries to automate redundant, boring, repetitive tasks, I fully automated the process of applying the three adjustments. So whenever I’m done with a day of hiking, I download the images from my camera to my computer, I do a double click and… voilà! Even if I took hundreds of pictures, it takes me only a few seconds to enhance them.

Here’s how you can do it too

  1. Download and install GIMP (version 2.8)
  2. Open GIMP for the first time, wait for it to load.
  3. Download this archive and extract the files in your GIMP scripts directory (usually c:\users\<youruser>\.gimp-2.8\scripts). If you are on a Mac the .gimp-2.8 directory should be in your home directory.
  4. From GIMP, go to Filters — Script-Fu — Refresh Scripts.
  5. Notice that a new menu, “Enhance”, has been added to your menu bar.
  6. Open an image of your choosing, then press Enhance — Image Enhance.
  7. After a while you should see your image look sharper and with more vibrant colors.
  8. Now it’s time to do this with lots of files: create a new directory “images” wherever you want on your drive.
  9. Open a word editor (Notepad) and copy-paste the following:
    • If you are on Windows

      "C:\Program Files\GIMP 2\bin\gimp-console-2.8" –verbose -i -b "(batch-enhance \"*.jpg\")" -b "(gimp-quit 0)"
      pause

    • If you are on OSX:

      #!/usr/bin/env bash
      /Applications/GIMP.app/Contents/Resources/bin/gimp-console-2.8 –verbose -i -b "(batch-enhance \"*.jpg\")" -b "(gimp-quit 0)"

    Regardless of your operating system, make sure the path to gimp-console-2.8 is the correct one.

  10. Save the file in your new “images” directory and name the file “enhance.bat”. If you are on a Mac save it as “enhance.sh”. If you are on a Mac, you will need to also open a Terminal, type “chmod a+x ” (do not press enter, don’t forget the space after “a+x”), drag-and-drop your “enhance.sh” file into the Terminal (this will copy the path of the script) and then press enter.
  11. Copy a bunch of images to enhance in your “images” folder. Make sure you keep a copy of the originals in some other folder. These images will be automatically modified and you will not be able to revert them back.
  12. On Windows simply double-click enhance.bat. On Mac right-click the “enhance.sh” file — Open With — Other… — Terminal.
  13. Wait and enjoy, as you watch the preview of all of your pictures getting automagically enhanced!

Mac users need to pay attention to the extension of the images they are dropping in the “images” directory. If the images have JPG extension (upper-case) they will not be picked up by the script. You will need to change the script line near “*.jpg” to “*.JPG”. Similarly, both Windows and OSX will not pick up JPEG extensions. Change the script to “*.jpeg” if your camera saves pictures with a JPEG extension.

That’s it!

BeforeNote the dullness and lack of colors

After – Much better!  And it’s only a click away

While it’s nice to have a good camera, we can get more than satisfying results using free tools and a little bit of programming.

I’m sure there are other programs / web services that do the exact same thing (and probably better), but this is a free method that does not require internet connectivity and that allows the user to be in control of the enhance process (if you know Scheme, just edit the GIMP script to your liking).

By the way, I’m going to write about this sometimes in the future, but learning how to program is really not that difficult and it’s a lot of fun. You should try it sometimes. For your curiosity, this is the code doing the work for you in each of the images:

(define (script-fu-image-enhance image drawable)

    (let* ()    

        ; Prep
        (gimp-context-push)
        (gimp-image-undo-group-start image)

        ; Actual work here
        (gimp-levels-stretch drawable)
        (gimp-hue-saturation drawable 0 0 0 15)
        (plug-in-unsharp-mask RUN-NONINTERACTIVE
                     image drawable 2 0.4 0)

        ; Finishing Off
        (gimp-image-undo-group-end image)
        (gimp-context-pop)
        (gimp-displays-flush)
    )
)

Very nice, right?


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