Almost every week, I receive e-mail asking how I create my wallpaper images; this is an attempt to answer those questions. Until I sat down to outline this article, I didn’t realize how many steps I actually go through!
For context, I’ve been a photography enthusiast for many years. Though I’ve taken only two photography classes, I’ve read a lot of books, and I’ve subscribed to many photography magazines, including Digital Photo Pro, Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, and Petersen’s Photographic (which is no longer published). I’m also a member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP), and I receive their wonderful Photoshop User magazine and Layers Magazine. I’ve owned many different cameras, including a few older Minolta SLRs, some Nikons, and most recently, a Canon Rebel XT. I made the transition to digital photography sometime in 2000, and I haven’t looked back.
As far as I can tell, my first digital “wallpaper” image was created on March 21, 2002 while on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Key West, Florida. I was walking past the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum when I noticed a backlit banana leaf. I leaned over and captured the image using my Nikon COOLPIX 990, a 3.34 megapixel consumer camera that had a remarkably good macro mode. As it turns out, that image was an early favorite, and it ended up shipping as one of the Windows Vista wallpaper images. It’s mind-boggling to think that—as of June 1, 2008—more than 100 million people have a copy of my image on their computer.
The tips and techniques in this article have worked well for me, and I hope you’ll get some insight and inspiration in creating your own wallpaper images.
Attributes of Good Wallpaper
Before you push the shutter button, it’s worth thinking about the attributes of a good wallpaper image. There are many sites on the internet that simply crop existing photos to create new wallpaper. But if you’ve ever downloaded and used those images, you may have noticed that they just don’t seem to work very well. Hopefully, I can explain why that may be the case.
Nearly every desktop contains icons for various documents and programs. Though I haven’t done any scientific research on the subject, desktops seem have a majority of their icons on the left side of the screen. When they’re not on the left side, they’re nearer the edges. Perhaps this is because we like our applications to open in the middle of the screen. Regardless, I try to avoid unnecessary visual detail on the left side. I’ve seen way too many wallpaper images that are beautiful photos, but when I actually use them, my icons get lost, or they’re difficult to find. Photographs with a lot of visual detail tend to overwhelm anything that’s placed on top of them.
Depth of Field
One way to reduce the visual detail in an image is to shoot with a shallow depth of field. For those unfamiliar with photography, depth of field refers to the portion of the image that it is in sharp focus. With a shallow depth of field, a lot of the image is out of focus, and these out-of-focus areas work great as a background for icons. The icons will “pop” and be very easy to find and read. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with an image that’s mostly out of focus, many people find it counterintuitive to take a photo like this. We’re taught to shoot images that are as in-focus as possible. But, if the image is to be used as wallpaper, this is one way to make it more usable.
For mostly in-focus images, large blocks of similar texture and color can solve the same problem. This is why photos with a big, blue sky or a deep, sandy beach work so well as wallpaper.
As mentioned earlier, if you’re thinking about icon placement, put the in-focus parts of the image in the center, away from the edges.
I take many kinds of photos, but I particularly enjoy close-up, or macro photography. I can literally grab a camera, walk into my back yard, and discover new photographic opportunities in a relatively confined space. Once you’ve started taking macro photos, you’ll find yourself looking at the world through different eyes. I like to take close-up photos that are more abstract. My purpose isn’t to simply document the subject (like you might expect in a text book). It’s to take a closer look and accentuate features like color, contrast, lighting, texture, lines, and relationships. These are all elements of composition.
Photos should also have a clearly defined subject. This advice isn’t specific to wallpaper images, and it’s always important. Photos with too many subjects create confusion. Subconsciously, the viewer’s visual system won’t know what to focus on. Ideally, pick one thing (like a leaf floating in a pond) to use as your subject, then frame or crop the image to accentuate the subject. Don’t be afraid to try cropping more tightly than you’re comfortable. You may be pleasantly surprised with the result.
I used to have to think consciously about these elements when I looked through the viewfinder on the camera. It seemed like a lot of work! But, as with most things, the more experience I've gained, the more I seem to intuitively “feel” where I should point the camera, place the subject, and crop the photo. In my opinion, strong composition is how you turn an ordinary snapshot into an artistic photograph.
Any image that you create should be balanced. That is, if one side of the image is “heavy” (this could be based on colors or objects in the image), then there should be something on the opposite side to balance it out. For example, in many of my nature close-ups, there’s often a dark, out-of-focus area behind the main subject. If I show any of that dark area in one corner of the image, I look for a way to include a darker area in the opposite corner. Balance won’t work with every single photo, but it should always be considered. Squinting your eyes a bit to blur the image can help to identify areas like this.
Test Your Wallpaper
The most important thing I do is to “test drive” each candidate image I create. I use the wallpaper on my home machine for a few days, and if it doesn’t seem to fight with my icons, it still holds my interest, and the quality is high enough, I’ll publish it. You’d be surprised how many seemingly good wallpaper images I reject. I’m convinced that most wallpaper sites never try this simple test.
Now that you're familiar with the attributes of a good wallpaper image, we'll move on to some of the more technical considerations. As you've likely heard before: it isn't the equipment that matters...it's how you use it. Following the guidelines above will improve your wallpaper images much more than the technical tips and tricks below. But, proper understanding and use of your technical equipment can certainly make a good image even better.
You can’t edit an image with confidence if you don’t trust that the colors on your screen are correct. To ensure color accuracy, I work with a color calibrated system. This means that a color like “red” has a common representation across all of my devices (scanner, printer, and monitor). So, the image I scan looks like the image I edit, which looks like the image I print.
For wallpaper images, it’s most important to calibrate your monitor. I personally use a calibration tool called Spyder by Datacolor. A calibrated system ensures that any modifications I make to an image don’t surprise me, and it also provides a consistent context for my work. Granted, most users of your wallpaper images won’t have a color calibrated system, but in my experience, it still provides a big benefit.
Cameras and Lenses
I used to shoot my close-up wallpaper photos with a Nikon COOLPIX 990, an older 3.34 megapixel consumer camera. Its macro mode worked surprisingly well, and it served me for many years. Like many consumer cameras, it had a swiveling monitor that allowed me to take low-to-the-ground images that would be extremely difficult with a SLR. All of my older photos were taken with this camera.
As with anything, I started to notice limitations of the equipment as I gained experience and honed my critical eye. In particular, the small sensor size in the Nikon (like most non-SLR cameras) was more subject to noise. This meant that a lot of my photos had more perceptible “grain” in them than I liked. Plus, a smaller sensor isn’t as sensitive to light, and when you’re shooting very close-up images, you want a sensitive (“fast”) camera and lens combination.
A few years ago, I upgraded to an 8 megapixel Canon Digital Rebel XT digital SLR with a Canon EF-S 60mm macro lens. I love this lens! It’s very lightweight, which makes it easy to shoot handheld. Plus, it’s nearly distortion free and has great color. For shooting out of focus wallpaper, its f/2.8 aperture lets in a lot of light and allows me to throw much of the image out of focus. My newer photos were taken with this camera and lens combination.
I personally prefer the look of natural light, so I don’t use a flash for any of my macro shots. This is an artistic preference of mine. It does introduce some challenges, because things like flowers and leaves like to move in the breeze, and with less light, I often have to use longer exposures. This means that the shutter is open for a longer period of time, and the subject blurs. No fun.
Shooting in RAW
I used to shoot only JPEG images. Until I learned what a RAW image truly is. As the name implies, RAW stores the actual raw data that the camera captured when you pressed the shutter button…without any interpretation. Think of it like the digital equivalent of a film negative. This extra data means that you have a lot more flexibility when processing the image after-the-fact. With a JPEG image, the camera makes many decisions about processing on-the-spot, and many of those decisions can’t be reversed. Also, JPEG images contain 8 bits of information per color, while RAW images typically contain 12, 14, and even 16 bits of information. For those of you who have no idea what this means, let me try to explain.
When a digital camera opens its shutter, light from the scene flows through the lens of the camera and strikes a sensor (similar to how light strikes your eye). Like your eye, the sensor is made up of very small red, green, and blue detectors. Each of those detectors records the intensity of the light that strikes it and stores it as a number. A zero means that no light hit that sensor, and higher values mean that more light was detected. The total count of computer “bits” per number/color determines how many different intensities can be stored. The more intensities that can be stored, the more colors that can be represented.
If you don’t understand what bits are, thinking about everyday numbers might make it easier. If I told you that I was going to shine a light on a piece of paper, and I wanted you to record how bright that light was, and I told you that you could only use a single digit, you’d be able to record 10 different intensities (0-9). If I asked you to do it again, but this time you could use two digits, you’d be able to record 100 different intensities (0-99). Each extra digit I give you allows you to increase the measurements you can capture by a factor of 10. Well, with binary numbers that only have two digits (0 and 1), it’s the exact same thinking, except that each additional digit allows you to record two times more instead of 10. So, an 8-bit (digit) number can represent 256 different values (0-255), whereas a 12-bit number can represent 4,096 different values…16 times as much! And a 14-bit number can represent 16,384 values! As you can see, the more bits you have, the more data you can store about your image.
By shooting RAW, I’m able to capture a wider dynamic range (difference between the darkest and lightest parts of the image). This means that I can “recover” highlight and shadow details that may have been completely thrown away in a similar JPEG image. There are many different opinions about RAW on the internet, so you should experiment for yourself. For my money, though, if you’re trying to create the highest quality image you can, RAW is the way to go.
When I process my RAW photos in Photoshop, I use the 16-bit ProPhoto RBG color space. This color space is larger than what my Canon Rebel XT supports, which means that no information is lost when I open the file. By working in 16-bit mode, I can make more modifications without noticeably degrading the photo. Only when I’m ready for output do I convert the image to 8-bit with a standard sRGB color space.
Do you need a camera with more megapixels? The common argument is that megapixels don’t matter much after a certain point, unless you intend to print your image really large. But, what if you decide to crop the image? As I stated earlier, good wallpaper requires good composition, and composition can almost always be improved by cropping. Cropping can remove a lot of pixels, leaving the final image with lower dimensions. If you then want to print that lower dimension image on large paper, you can run into limitations.
My advice, especially for photos that may be cropped (most of mine are) is to shoot an image with as many pixels as possible so that you have more flexibility later. Think of more megapixels as an insurance policy against poorly composed photos. Recently, the smallest I’ll crop my wallpaper is 2,560 x 1,600 so I can support bigger monitors like the Dell 30” 3007WFP. There have been many times when—after cropping—the image is barely big enough to fit that size.
Use a Tripod
While I like handheld macro photos because of their relative ease, whenever I want more of my image in focus, I use a tripod. The tripod allows me to use a slower shutter speed by keeping the camera stable while the lens is open. At close-up magnifications, even the slightest movement of the camera or subject can cause undesirable blur. A tripod is the best way to ensure that your photo is in sharp focus.
When a digital camera takes a photo, it uses sophisticated algorithms to examine the image and guess the color of the light hitting your subject. While cameras have become quite good at this, for close-up photos where one color is dominant (like a group of green leaves), the guessing algorithm can be confused, and a color cast may be introduced. Because the human visual system can quickly adapt to different lighting situations, it can be tough to notice when the color isn’t correct. White balance is the process of removing these unwanted color casts. There are two ways to ensure accurate color. One is to use the custom white balance feature of your camera to photograph something neutral (that is, something containing equal parts red, green, and blue). Expodisc makes a product that works with this feature.
The second method involves including a neutral reference in one of your photos. This way, you have a reference that you can point Photoshop to when you open the image. By telling Photoshop where the neutral reference is, it can calculate how far “off” the colors are and adjust them automatically. There are expensive multicolor targets that can be purchased, but I’ve found the WhiBal card to work extremely well. It’s very portable, relatively inexpensive, floats, and is neutral all the way through (so scratches don’t diminish its effectiveness). I highly recommend it for anything where you want accurate colors. I use it almost all the time, especially for my close-up photos.
All of my images are finished in Photoshop CS3. Because I shoot RAW, I start by opening my Canon .CR2 files. I first use the eyedropper tool to set the white balance by clicking on the image with the WhiBal card. I then apply those settings to any other image that was taken under the same lighting conditions. This ensures that I start with accurate color.
Next, I try clicking the “auto” mode in Camera Raw, because I’ve found that it provides a good starting point for edits. From there, I generally follow the settings from top to bottom. I make sure that I haven’t clipped any highlights, and I “recover” them, if necessary. I ensure that I never trim blacks and add fill light if areas of the image are murky. I almost always bump up the contrast a bit, because I like the look of images with more contrast. I generally set clarity somewhere around 15, and I bump up the vibrance to +5 or maybe +10 in an extreme case. With the addition of the vibrance setting to Camera Raw, I no longer touch saturation.
Though there are settings in the other tabs, I don’t use them very often. If I do, it’s to slightly increase sharpness or selectively saturate/desaturate a specific color. If you really want to understand how to use Camera Raw in Photoshop, I highly recommend Real World Camera Raw with Adobe Photoshop CS3 by Bruce Fraser and Jeff Schewe. It’s a fantastic book.
Once I’ve opened the photo, I use PictureCode’s wonderful Noise Ninja plug-in to remove any noise. If I shot the image using ISO 100 or 200, I first take a look at blocks of dark color to see if this is necessary…often times it’s not. If it is, I’ll let Noise Ninja clean things up for me. It’s “auto” mode works surprisingly well. For even better results, though, I recommend following the simple steps to create your own camera profile. Noise Ninja is a plug-in that works in Photoshop’s 16-bit mode, so full image quality is retained.
The next step is to remove any visual distractions. Examples might be: small pock marks on leaves, ugly blemishes, perhaps a bright highlight, or an ugly bug. If there’s anything that says “hey, over here…look at me” that isn’t an important component of your subject, I’d consider removing it. Remember that a wallpaper image isn’t meant to distract, and this step will separate the good images from the great images. I never want to reduce the “truth” of the photo, but then, I’m creating wallpaper, not documenting nature.
If any color adjustments are necessary after using the WhiBal card, I’ll make them now. I find that I rarely have to make any adjustments, though. Then, I’ll pop up the Curves menu (Ctrl+M) and try the Linear Contrast preset…I usually like the result. I don’t generally make many other changes at this point, especially if I was careful about the settings I adjusted in Camera Raw.
Before proceeding, I save a master copy as a PSD file. Then, I use the crop tool to create a 16:10 aspect ratio version of the image. I start with 16:10, because more and more monitors are shaped like this. There’s a lot of experimentation in this step, and I crop off anything that doesn’t directly contribute to the image. Sometimes, I crop so that the image feels cozy or “enclosed.” While this may sound touchy-feely, I use it to create a visual border around the edge of the wallpaper. Note the rock photo where the rocks seem to surround the image and keep your eyes “inside” of the frame.
After I’ve created the 16:10 version and saved it with a different name, I then create a 4:3 version using the same method. Then, I use the 16:10 original to resize to a 2,560 x 1,600 image and a 1,920 x 1,200 image, both common monitor dimensions. For 4:3, I create 1,920 x 1,440 and 1,600 x 1,200 images.
I only sharpen images when they’re at their final output resolution. So, after resizing to 2,560 x 1,600, I use the Smart Sharpen feature on the entire image. I find that my typical Amount values are between 50% and 100% with a Radius of 0.8 pixels. Whatever settings I use for this first image are applied to all of the other sizes I create. While this may not be optimal, I find that it works very well, and it keeps my workflow more straightforward.
After sharpening, I first save the resized image as a PSD file for archival purposes. Then, I convert it to an 8-bit image (Image, Mode, 8 Bits/Channel) and covert the color profile to sRGB (Edit, Convert to Profile, Destination: sRGB IEC61966-2.1). Don’t forget this last step, or you may find that your image colors look strange in different programs. After converting the color profile, save the image as a JPEG file. I find that a Quality setting of 9 works well with most of my photos; it’s a good balance of file size and quality.
Finally, I add three pieces of metadata to each image: Author, Comments, and Copyright. This ensures that someone can always find their way back to me for more wallpaper images.
Well, I hope that this article was somehow informative or inspirational. Like I said at the beginning, I'm surprised that I go through this many steps for each wallpaper image that I create. I've been editing photos for so many years that I no longer think about each step individually. I've never kept track of my average processing time per image, but if I had to speculate, I'd say that it's probably around 30 minutes. Depending on your familiarity with the tools, I think you can expect to take a bit longer until you get the hang of it. Please leave a comment if you'd like me to elaborate on any of these tips.
More importantly, grab your camera, get outside, take some photos, and have some fun!