Have you seen a photo that looks so real it almost comes off of the page or draws you into it? Have you seen one that gives you the sense of actually being there? Does it seem like you are there where the photographer was and now seeing it with your own eyes?
If you have, you’ve probably seen a photo with one or more of the following qualities that make it look realistic.
How to Make a Photo Seem Real
I assume that a photo is already well shot and adjusted for white and black, highlight and shadow areas. The tone and color must be correct first. This makes the photo acceptable and like so many others out there. The next things I’ll describe are the things that will make the photo pop off the page or look like you could step into it. Here they are.
The photo must be sharp in all the right places. This does not mean well-focused (although it should be this also). I mean “sharp” because the edges of items in the photo (not the edges of the picture itself) are crisp where they are supposed to be and soft where they are not.
Look at something right now. Where your eye focuses on it, it finds all the edges and tries to show its sharpness. Where your eye is not focusing, the details are not as well-defined. This is what you want to strive for in a photo. If you can include this in a photo, this will make it seem real.
The ultimate way to achieve this is to have a perfect lens. There are no perfect lenses, though, so the only way is to improve the sharpness in post-processing. But you can get better results using a good lens with minimal distortion and softness. Start with a good lens.
Good lenses help create sharpness, but software can do even more than that. Deconvolution and lens softness correction are two great methods for achieving sharpness after the photo has already been taken. Please do not think for a moment that I am talking about the traditional sharpness sliders or “unsharpen mask” found in most software. Lenses get softer (blurrier) at the edges of their view. This is the location to sharpen and not anywhere else. If sharpness were applied traditionally, it would oversharpen the center and properly sharpen the edges of the lens view. This would ruin a photo. Deconvolution and lens softness correction tools can sharpen a photo in only those places where it is needed.
Now let’s talk about the edges of items in the photo.
The edges of the elements in the photo must be sharpened on all lenses because no lens is perfect. These edges are sharpened by the deconvolution and lens softness correction tools. Making the edges of items in the photo sharper gives them more realism to the photo and the viewer’s mind. This is because the resolving power of the eye is greater than that of a camera and lens, so if the photo is viewed by the eye, it appears more realistic if the edges of items in the photo are sharp and well-defined.
The sharpness of edges has a limit. This limit is the maximum sharpness, and if exceeded, then artifacts are introduced. This artifact is common with traditional sharpening methods that are incorrectly applied but not in properly deconvoluted images. With traditional sharpening methods (sliders, unsharpen mask, etc.), an oversharpened image will have ghost edges that are extra edges not present in the original scene. This oversharpening makes a photo appear unrealistic and must be avoided. For that reason, I do not recommend any sharpening using sliders or masks. I recommend using deconvolution to take the sharpness to the maximum limit without exceeding it. The question of how much sharpening to apply is invalid because there is only one amount, which is the maximum without oversharpening. Using sliders with variable radii and masks, I always had problems with oversharpening or under-sharpening, but with deconvolution, there is only one limit: the maximum.
After getting the maximum sharpening of edges by deconvolution of photos taken with good lenses, further sharpening of edges can be obtained by applying contrast adjustments at only the edges of items in photos. This means lightening and darkening at only the edges of objects. This makes them stand out from the background and further enhances realism. Several good software packages can do this. By selectively making these adjustments on only the light or dark areas of a photo and not on the mid-tones or overall, the perceived sharpness can be further enhanced.
This technique is often called dynamic contrast because it is a change in the contrast only in a local area and not overall.
Sharpening cannot stop at the edges, as you may think. As described above, items within the photo with sharp edges must also have well-defined surfaces. The surfaces must have a texture that is visible and yet appears smooth. Look at something nearby. If you can see the texture on the surface of it, then you need to show it in a photo of it. The problem always is that lenses are not our eyes. Lenses are imperfect. They will blur that texture your eye can see even if they are well-focused on an object. In a photo, you have to bring this back.
Items our eyes focus upon appear with sharply defined textures on their surfaces. But, we are more susceptible to subtle color gradations, so this must also be taken into account. Actual smoothing or de-sharpening of the flat areas (not the edges) helps create realism for the viewer.
Strange as it may sound, the technique adds blur to the surfaces. Blurring the surfaces in a particular and subtle way leads the eye away from the surfaces and toward the edges. It gives the appearance of sharper edges because of the contrast of the edge with the now-blurred surface. Usually, we talk of contrast as a difference between light and dark, but in this case, we are talking about a contrast of sharpness. The surface’s fuzziness and the item’s edge make the article appear sharper.
This slight blurring of the surfaces is called “surface blur” in most post-processing programs. It should be used sparingly, or the image can look fake. It was originally used for smoothing skin blemishes and bumps but works nicely on landscape and nature images. Again, use it carefully and sparingly. The effect must be subtle and not noticeable, yet still perceptible. In some programs, this can be done using a soft focus filter, but at a very low level.
Care must be taken not to blur those areas where the eye is supposed to focus on the image. Some sharpening of the surface can help in this case, and quite often, film grain is beneficial here.
Film grain can be applied overall to a photo, giving the appearance of greater detail everywhere. This is not what is needed to make a realistic-looking image. The grain must be applied only to the areas where the viewer is supposed to be looking. This may be the focal point of the picture or could be subtle details in the background that the photographer wants to be brought out.
Another factor is lens selection. The human eye sees a wide angle called the dual overlap region (both eyes overlap) and includes peripheral vision. The eye also has a central region where the most perception is gained. This is the area that the viewer will focus on and remember. See the graph below that shows how the angles of different lenses on an APS-C camera are compared to human vision.
This would then say that lens selection is crucial. Choosing a lens like the Sigma 8-16 mm and shooting at 8 mm would approximate the viewing angle of the human eye’s dual overlap region. Selecting a lens with this angle makes the viewer feel like they are standing there in the scene. But remember that items in the central viewing region must be chosen carefully because they are what the viewer will get the most perception from.
The photo must take into account the atmosphere. The features of the atmosphere affecting a photo are called atmospherics, and they are important. They are the particles in the air that glow in the sunlight. They are the way edges seem not so sharp when sunlight billows over them. They are the fog and mist. They make your eyes squint or open, trying to see anything. They are everywhere in any photo. Do not overlook them.
Edges glow slightly in sunlight to our eyes, but the camera cannot accurately capture this effect. So to achieve it, you must add this in post-processing an image. Some software packages have sunlight and glow settings that can be successfully used to replicate this effect. Including it will give the viewer a sense of being there. This is because your eyes see far better than the camera or lens, so you see this effect when looking at something in the real world. Try it. Look at a tree lit by sunlight; I’m sure you will see what I mean. Around the edges of the leaves and trunk, there is a slight blurriness caused by the light reflecting and refracting off the particles in the air. This is even greater in foggy conditions, but you can also see it in the clear air. You can even see it at night in moonlight reflected off of surfaces. Adding this sunlight and glow effect to photos gives them something that no camera can ever capture and makes them seem very realistic.
Distant objects appear hazy. Think of distant mountains or treetops extending into the distance. The farther away they are, the more haze there is on them. This is a reduction in contrast. They also appear to take on the color of the sky around them. This is a decrease in saturation and a color shift. For example, distant mountains at sunset appear reddish, while remote islands on a clear day appear bluish. This desaturation, shifting of color, and reduction of contrast are called the aerial or atmospheric perspective. To give a greater depth, the photographer only has to accentuate these items in post-production. By selectively painting in this reduced contrast (haze) and slight color cast (of the surroundings), distant objects can look even more distant, giving greater depth to a photograph. Not every photo will need this, but applying it correctly makes an image much deeper and more realistic.
Although I haven’t covered everything about how to make a photo seem real, it can be said that it is all about the subtle details that make a photo seem real. How the eye and camera work are two very different things. We try to make a camera out to be like an eye. Knowing the difference between the two can trick the viewer’s eye with a photograph and make it seem real.