Photo Tweakage: Mouse Tunnels in the Snow

Mouse tunnels in the snow
Mouse tunnels in the snow

As the snow cover melts away in the spring, you discover how much activity has been going on.

The mice make elaborate tunnels with spaces for seed stores, latrines, and numereous secret entrances near the bushes. For a few months, at least, they can scamper all over the yard without worrying about becoming snacks for owls and hawks.

This kind of picture requires a bit of tweakage, because the default camera settings deliver an essentially gray picture with no contrast. The usual auto-exposure settings assume a more-or-less neutral background, so the camera adjusts the exposure to deliver a neutral result. Unfortunately, you really want most of the background to be white, so the default snow image will be grossly underexposed.

Set the camera to overexpose the picture by 1 or 2 EV; if your camera has a histogram display, adjust the exposure to put that huge bump on the white end close to the right side of the histogram. It helps if you frame the picture before doing this, as the LCD monitor will be pretty much retina-burn white.

Take the picture and get it into your PC.

GIMP Level Adjustment Window
GIMP Level Adjustment Window

Now, in your favorite photo-editing software (The GIMP on our desktops), adjust the photo’s levels & contrast. This screen shot shows the logarithmic histogram; the linear one is basically just one peak 3/4 of the way to the right side with a little grass on the rest of the chart. The two little buttons in the upper-right choose linear or log.

Drag the white point (the teeny white triangle on the right, just below the histogram) until it’s just a bit to the right of the abrupt dropoff’s foot. That sets the whitest part of the picture to real white, not half-a-stop-down light gray.

You can do the same with the black point (the black triangle on the left), setting it to just left of the black dropoff. In this case, we have some genuinely dark areas, so leave it alone.

Now, the key part: drag the middle triangle to adjust the gamma. Move it rightward to darken the overall image by decreasing the gamma and emphasize small differences on the bright end of the histogram. That makes the tunnels pop out of the image, although it also tends to make the snow look very contrasty.

Don’t go overboard with this sort of thing, but a little adjustment can reveal details and bring pictures back to life. It’s not for Ansel Adams quality pix, that’s for sure.

Here’s possibly more than you want to know about levels & gamma & contrast, but with much better illustrations and more descriptions: Unai Garro’s Blog. He has other useful tutorials, too.