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Photo tip: Auto Contrast can improve photos taken through a window

Summary: Taking digital photos through an airplane, car, or building window often produces relatively poor results.  Auto Contrast is a quick and easy way to really improve digital photos you might otherwise not have considered worth keeping or sharing.

Ania and I recently went to Europe and we took several pictures through the window of the airplane.  We didn't expect much, since they were taken through a multi-pane window, but there were some shots we wanted to capture nonetheless.  As expected, they didn't turn out too great.  Later, while processing the pictures with Picasa, I decided to see what the "Auto Contrast" button would do.

It turns out, that single basic fix changed many of our pictures -- some through plane and car windows, others not -- from blah and faded to quite presentable!  Look at the difference between these two photos:

   Top: Original image
Bottom: Same image with Auto Contrast applied


I'm sure most photo editing tools have this functionality, but I can't speak for the results other tools' Auto Contrast fix may produce.  I really like Picasa (another free tool from Google), so it's the example I'm using.  To use Auto Contrast in Picasa, just double-click on the picture, and choose it from the "Basic Fixes" tab on upper left:

You may or may not like the way this fix changes a given photo, but it's worth trying it on more than you might think; it often makes a nice improvement.  I'm sure some photography "purists" will say this changes the image too much, or in the wrong way, but they probably don't run into the problem of poor contrast much anyway!  In my experience, Auto Contrast -- at least as implemented in Picasa -- usually improves the photo, especially if it was taken through a window.

One major benefit of using Picasa; Auto Contrast and other photo modifications (even cropping) are implemented as filter layers which can be applied and removed any time (as long as you're using Picasa).  This means you can try several changes at once and undo as much as you want without having to worry about the original, which Picasa preserves intact.  Nicely done, Picasa developers!