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Post Processing in Photoshop: Digital Photographers Need to Process Their Photos Too

It wasn’t too long ago that everyone was shooting film and you had to take your film to a lab to be processed before you could get your prints (or slides). The lab would run your film through a chemical process to “develop” it. Some photographers had their own darkrooms and did the processing themselves.  Others took their film to a lab. But did you know that digital photographers need to process their photos, too? The difference is that with digital photos, the camera does some (or all) of the processing for you — depending on what setting you’ve selected.  There’s no chemistry involved.  (Note: If your camera produces a jpeg image, then most of the processing has occurred before you move the picture from your camera to the computer.  But if you have your camera programmed to shoot in RAW mode, then you’ll need to process the image on your computer before you can print it.) But regardless of whether or not your camera is set up to “process” your pictures, you can — and should — process them further on your computer to make them the best they can be. This is called “post processing.” Almost every digital image can be improved with some post processing because digital photos, by nature, tend to lack a little “zip” or be a little flat. Some cameras are more prone to this than others. As you get to know your camera and the photos that it produces, you will also begin to understand what subtle adjustments and improvements you’ll need to make with post processing. Most professional photographers do their post processing in Adobe Photoshop. Adobe will be releasing its latest version of the software — Photoshop CS3 — at the end of this month. But that’s a very robust program, and it costs about $650. If you’re just getting started, all you’re likely to need is the newly released Photoshop Lightroom, which retails for about $199, or Photoshop Elements, which costs about $150.

Post Processing in Photoshop: Basic Tasks

Whichever program you choose, the basic tasks of post processing are the same — you want to adjust for hue, saturation, and, most importantly, for contrast. Take this photo submitted to this month’s photo challenge: It’s a lovely shot, nicely composed, good light and good exposure… but it looks a little hazy or flat, even though it has all the essential elements. What it needs is some post processing. Your job as a digital photographer isn’t done when you’ve taken the shot. Your tastes and preferences continue to play an active role as you work further to tweak your image on your computer. With this photo, for instance, I made two very quick adjustments in Photoshop using levels and curves. Note: I never use the “Auto” feature and I recommend you don’t either.

Post Processing in Photoshop: Levels

Here is what I did: 1 EASY ADJUSTMENT IN “LEVELS” 1) I opened the image in Photoshop. 2) I went to “Layer” (at the top of the window). 3) I selected “New Adjustment Layer – Levels.” (NOTE: The jagged black “mountain” you see is your digital histogram. It’s describing the color in your photo — the brightness, contrast, and tonal range.) 4) I took the left slider and pushed it toward the right, just to the edge of the histogram. 5) I would have done the same with the right slider, moving it left to meet the histogram on the other side, however, the histogram already extends to the far right of the screen (an indication, incidentally, that the photo is slightly overexposed). 6) Then, using the middle slider and moving it slightly to the right, I lightened up the mid-tones in the photo so that the shadow area of the boy would not go too dark. 7) Here below is a shot of my final “Level” adjustments. To save them, I hit “OK.”

Post Processing in Photoshop: Curves

AN “ADVANCED” ADJUSTMENT IN “CURVES” Now, there’s a second, “advanced” adjustment I made to this photo in Photoshop. It uses the “Curves” tool, which is not, unfortunately, available in Photoshop Elements. (It is, however, included in the new Lightroom.) 1) I went back to “Layer” (at the top of the window). 2) I selected “New Adjustment Layer – Curves.” 3) It starts out with a simple, straight, 45-degree line as the default – meaning no adjustments have been made to the original file. Then I placed my curser at the top right point of the bottom left square (this is down in the darks) and I pulled my 45-degree line down slightly. (Note the little dot on the lower part of the line in the diagram below. This is to bring out details in the shadows.) 4) Next I put my curser on the bottom left corner of the top right square and pushed my line up ever-so-slightly. (See the small dot in the upper quarter of that diagonal line. This increases my highlights and brightens them a bit) That’s it … two simple adjustments that make a big difference!! Notice the shape of the resulting curve, a gentle “S”. This is one of the most often used adjustments in post processing. This S curve will give most photos more contrast – more “punch”, as it has here. See for yourself, here’s the before and after… One note about working in layers: this allows you free range to adjust your image without damaging your file in any way.  You can return to any layer to make changes or adjustments at any time. If you are doing any adjustments to the actual image I would encourage you to always make a duplicate of the actual image and work on that duplicate. That way you always have your original to go back to if need be.

Post Processing in Photoshop: Saving Your New Image

One of the advantages to shooting in Raw is the that the computer cannot write a Raw file – only your camera can produce one. That means you can’t write over it, as you can a jpeg file. When you try to save it, you’ll be prompted for how you want to save it: psd (Photoshop), jpeg, tiff, etc. I always save it as a psd or Photoshop file. That way, all the layers and adjustments I’ve created are saved as well. I can reopen this file years from now and fine tune these adjustments without having to start from the beginning. Even when I’m working with a jpeg file, I NEVER save over my original file.  I re-name it, save as a copy, or save in a different folder. You can do whatever works for you. But always keep your native file (that is the file that came right out of your camera). That way, if you need to go back to it and start over, you can. [Editor’s Note: Learn more about how you can turn your pictures into cash in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.  Sign up here today and we’ll send you a new report, Selling Photos for Cash: A Quick-Start Guide, completely FREE.]

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