Many beginner photographers find photo editing (post-processing) scary and a lot of them believe editing is about manipulating the photos. This is far from the truth. Photo editing is simply about making already nice photos even better. It's not about cheating.
There are several reasons why you need to learn photo editing if you want to take your photography seriously. With today’s modern cameras nearly anyone can take good photos.
However, the days are gone when photographers accepted their images straight out of the camera as the final result. Almost every appealing photo you see online or printed are edited to some extent.
Three steps to great photos
- Understand the technical basics. How to use your camera and camera settings for properly exposed and sharp images.
- Composition techniques. Learning how to get the most out of a scene and create well-balanced composition is essential in photography.
- Post-processing. Image editing is like “the icing on the cake”. You add the final touches and make the picture your own.
If you master the first step only, your images will be just fine. If you master the two first, it's even better. But to stand out from the crowd, you need to master all the three steps.
In this article, I will focus on photo editing tips and techniques. Photo editing doesn't have to be complicated.
Digital photos need some level of editing unless you save your photos as JPG files. JPG are processed in camera and are supposed to be final. This approach gives you very little control of the result.
RAW files available in most DSLR cameras are unprocessed and must be edited. If your image is poorly composed or have technical issues, post-processing will not make it great. Like in cooking, it’s hard to achieve an excellent and tasty result if the "raw materials" are not first class.
Edit your best photos only
Portrait and wedding photographers who often edit series of images from the same session, it's a lot about speeding up the editing. Landscape photographers tend to work on one or two images from a location to make them look like we experienced the scene when we took the images.
Photographers connect strongly to their photos, so it’s hard to decide which ones to delete and which ones to keep.
How do you choose which photos to edit?
- Check the exposure. With digital RAW files, you can to some extent recover details in shadows and highlights while editing. So don’t throw away an otherwise good photo too fast. Give it a try.
- Check focus. Is the photo sharp? If it’s blurry, no post-processing can save it.
- Is the composition good? Are there any disturbing elements in the frame? You cannot fix a messed up composition. You can to some extent improve the composition by cropping.
How can you foresee the end result?
- How do you want the image to look?
- Is there a problem with the sky? If you include the sky in the photo, the sky is often too bright with no details. Can you improve the sky a lot with editing?
- Does the image have a main subject? How can you emphasize the main subject further?
- What is the light source and from where is the light coming? What is the quality of the light? Can you strengthen the effect of the light?
- Are there any shadows you can work on to create depth in the composition?
- What is the mood of the photo - can you strengthen the mood further or maybe change it?
Now, let’s get started. I’m using Lightroom in the examples covered, but you can do everything I discuss in Photoshop or any other image editing software. The principles are the same. You can read about the differences between Lightroom and Photoshop here.
Photo editing tips #1 - Basic edits
Lens and perspective corrections - all lenses and in particular wide angle lenses have some distortion. The edges of the frame are often darker than the rest of the image. Sometimes the subject is distorted. You can correct both issues with the Lens profile tool in Lightroom. Adjusting the lens profile is the first adjustment I do when I edit my images.
Chromatic aberration - also known as color fringing. If you zoom in on the picture on the computer screen, you can see red and green color fringes along the sharp edges of a subject. Fringing is more visible in transition areas between bright and dark pixels. It’s the camera lens that causes this problem. The problem increases the cheaper the lens is. Fortunately, it’s easy to fix in Lightroom in the Lens correction panel.
Leveling the horizon – crooked horizon is one of the most common errors beginner landscape photographers do. One of the most important photo editing tips in landscape photography is to get the horizon right. It doesn’t look good when the horizon is leaning to one side.
Cropping - you can to some extent improve the composition with cropping. You can “reposition” the horizon to one of the thirds (using the rule of thirds). You can “fill the frame” and remove empty space around your subject. You can also crop to remove unwanted elements sticking into the frame from any of the edges.
Remove sensor dust spots – sensor dust is a common problem in all cameras with interchangeable lenses. The good thing is the spots are quite easy to remove in the editing process. Lightroom has a dedicated tool for this purpose.
This is how the image look straight out of the camera - no editing yet
Photo editing tips #2 - Global adjustments
Exposure - the exposure is rarely spot on when you take the image. Most often you can fix a too dark or too bright photo by adjusting the exposure. As you make other adjustments, you might need to come back and correct the exposure several times.
By increasing the exposure aproximately 1,5 stops the details in the shadows are recovered. The side effect is the already too bright sky get even brighter with this adjustment
Correcting White Balance (WB) - you can change the look of an image by adjusting the white balance. In general, we like images that have a warm tone. When you drag the WB slider to the right, you add more yellow to the image. The result is a warmer feel to the photo.
By increasing the White Balance the image get a warmer tone which I like better
Contrast - most unprocessed images from RAW files look flat and lack punch. Adding contrast helps to bring out more details in the picture.
Expanding the dynamic range - two of the most powerful sliders for landscape photographers are the highlight and shadow sliders. A typical adjustment for landscape photographers is to lower the highlights and increase the shadows to bring back details in a bright sky and dark foreground.
I brought back some of the details in the sky by dragging the highlights slider to the left and opened up the darkest parts of the gras slightly by dragging the shadows slider to the right.
White and black point – with the white and black sliders you can set the very brightest and very darkest parts of an image. This adjustment expands the tonal range in your photo. A useful tip is to hold down the Alt key (PC) or the Option key (Mac) when you adjust the white and black sliders.
Vibrancy and Saturation - are probably the two sliders that are most overused or used in a wrong way. We like colorful photos but be careful not to overdo the colors. It’s easy to create something that looks unnatural and fake.
Dehaze - is a very useful tool if your image looks hazy or foggy and lack overall contrast. Dehaze as the name suggests removes haze.
All the tools mentioned in the global adjustments are also available from the local adjustment tools which I will talk about next.
The photo was taken at sunrise and there was some early morning haze in the air. By dragging the Dehaze slider to the right I was able to remove some of the haze and bring back both color and contrast
Photo editing tips #3 - Local adjustments
Gradient filters - often the global adjustments are not sufficient to darken the sky enough. This is where one of the other very useful tools for landscape photographers comes in handy - the gradient tool. You can drag a gradient over the sky and reduce the exposure and brightness further. In this case, other parts of the image like the foreground is not affected.
The sky was still way to bright so I added a Graduated filter to the sky and lowered the exposure and highlights slightly. Finally I increased the Clarity a tiny bit.
Selective contrast and exposure - one of the challenges in landscape photography is to create a three-dimensional feel in the photo. One way is to add more contrast between highlights and shadows. With the Adjustment brush, you can make some parts of the image lighter and other parts darker. It’s easy to go wrong with this unless you understand the relation between light and shadows.
Selective color adjustments - you can enhance separate colors in an image. Most common in landscape photography is to make the sky bluer or the grass greener. Lightroom has different options to adjust colors selectively. You can use the Adjustment brush and paint in more color in areas you want more saturation. Another method is to use the HSL panel where you can adjust individual color more precisely
With a few adjustments in Lightroom I was able recover a underexposed image to something usable. All the adjustments took me less than 5 minutes.
Photo editing tips #4 - Creative edits
Black & White (B&W) - converting photos to B&W is popular. I have special love for B&W since I started my photography career in the darkroom developing my photos. I love B&W, and of some reason I associate monochrome photos with art more than color photos. Not all photos work as BW but give it a try.
Color toning - a popular way to add a hint of color to B&W images. You can create color tone using the Split toning panel. Pick a color and add it only to the shadows. Play around with the Hue and Saturation sliders until you get a result you like.
Split toning - split toning or duo toning are similar to color toning but now you use two colors. In the Split toning panel, you add one color to the highlights and another color to the shadows. Play around with the Hue and Saturation sliders until you are happy with the result. Split toning works best with B&W photos but can be used with color photos as well.
Vignetting - a final touch is to add a vignette to your image. A vignette makes the areas around the edges darker. Darker edges draw the viewers eyes into the image. You can add a vignette many ways but the most obvious and easiest is to use the Post-Crop vignette tool in the Effects panel.
To try something different I converted the image to B&W and used the Split toning panel. For me this image works best in color (but I gave it a try). It's easy to do, that's the beauty with LR
Photo editing tips #5 - Finishing effects
Remove noise - When you take photos at high ISO you are likely to introduce some level of noise. Noise is of some reason one of the most discussed topics among photographers. I don't care too much about noise, and I certainly don't look for it.
Obviously, if you’re going to make big prints noise can be a problem and you should remove it as best you can. But how often do you make big prints?
Sharpening - All image files need a certain level of sharpening. There are several reasons, but the sensor and the lens are the most important. In front of the sensor is a high pass filter (in most cameras). This filter "blurs" the photos slightly.
Typically, cheaper lenses create less sharp images. It’s easy to go hard on the sharpening slider, so be careful. Too much sharpening and your images will look terrible.
Resampling - When you have finished the editing, you have to decide which format you want to export the photo. The most common are web format for social media and websites or as a print.
A mistake some photographers do is not to resample their huge image files before they upload the photos on the web. Huge image files cause the load times to be longer than needed. Some services will resize too big files automatically when you upload them. The results are often not good, which is another reason to do the resizing yourself.
Only when you print your photos, you want an as high resolution as possible. The bigger, the better.
Image editing is fun, and you can unleash your creativity. You don’t need to be an expert, but you should know how to do basic editing. As you progress and learn photo editing the risk is you will get hooked and want to learn more and more. With so many techniques and styles you can develop, the possibilities are endless.
Now it’s your turn. Use the comment box below and tell me how you edit your photos. Do you have an editing style?