Getting a Clearer Message

Getting a Clearer Message

Microsoft in its latest ad campaign attempts to communicate the message that as a company they are more than the stereotype. Of course, they’re paying $10 million to Jerry Seinfeld to try to prove it. The first commercial shows a conversation between Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates at a shoe store. You can watch it on YouTube. Like many viewers after watching the commercial, I scratched my head. I could see the image that they were portraying but I didn’t get the message. After all, they didn’t even show anyone using Microsoft Windows.

In a similar way, you may find that you have a photograph where you like the image but the picture suffers from artifacts so the image looses its message. The key part of any photograph is not just that it’s clear and in focus, but that it’s message is clear and in focus. In fact, out of focus images used in photography in some cases can communicate better when presented well.

While at the Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, California, I saw a beautiful landscape in warm, glorious September morning light. I kicked myself for not bringing my Fuji S5200 FinePix for a few quick snapshots. All I had with me was my first generation iPhone with its wimpy camera. What to do? What to do? I decided to take the photograph anyway with some hopes that I could salvage the picture.

When I got home and downloaded the photo to iPhoto, my heart sank. Since Apple designed the iPhone with a fixed lens targeted at close ups of people, the camera often turns out crummy photos with bad lighting. I don’t think that the camera of the iPhone 3G is much better. I stopped, took a mental step back and looked at the message of the photo rather than the image. A peaceful, serene September morning. Could Adobe Photoshop coax this message out of a bad image? After an hour or so of experimentation, the answer turned out to be a resounding yes.


A noisy, dark image from my iPhone fails to communicate the message

BEFORE: A noisy, dark picture from my iPhone fails to communicate the message. Click to see the full image.


A few Photoshop techniques improve the image and the message

AFTER: A few Photoshop techniques improve the picture and the message. Click to see the full image.


The light in the message suffered from being too dark in the foreground and too light in the background. It also had a lot of noise due to the lighting conditions. I added a Levels Photoshop layer to do some non-destructive editing to the image. Since it’s a layer rather than a filter on the image, I could turn it on and off as well as edit it later. I copied the original image into a different layer to give me the freedom to mess up. At first I went down the path with Photoshop’s reduce noise filter on this new layer. Photoshop handily cleared out the noise, but then I ended up a blurry image. Okay. Now what?

Many consider impressionists like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas to be the masters of color and light. They worked using daubs of paint, visible brush strokes and human perception as keys to creating their image as well as their message.

I turned to Photoshop’s set of artistic filters selecting Filter > Artistic > Paint Daubs. After fiddling with the settings to get the look I wanted, Photoshop rendered the layer with the effect. Many Photoshop filters are a little heavy handed. While the filters have various settings, I prefer to use the opacity feature of the layer with the effect applied to allow the original image to shine through. The good news is that you don’t need Adobe CS4 (Creative Suite 4) to use these filters. They have been around at least since the mid-1990s and work about the same.

Using Photoshop to enhance my image not only fixed the photo, it also caused its message to shine. Although I rarely use of Photoshop’s filters because they seem to gimmicky, in this case a filter accomplished my final goal. In the second commercial of Microsoft’s current ad campaign with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates, Microsoft shows them living with an average family to find out how ordinary people live. I enjoyed seeing the wealthiest man in the world sit down at a chaotic family dinner. It made me laugh. As Microsoft seeks to refine its image, the message is getting clearer. Now if only there was a Photoshop filter for improving ad campaigns.

When Joshua Wait isn’t teaching himself new programming languages or computer tricks, he’s hiking, swimming, cooking and playing outdoors with his family.