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4 Steps to Less Stressful and Easier Photo Editing

Have you ever returned to your computer with a memory card full of photos and become overwhelmed at the idea of going through all of them?

Tree starburst

The thought of sorting and analyzing so many pictures can seem so daunting it’s sometimes hard to even know where to start! Often we find ourselves copying the contents of our cameras to our computers and letting our precious memories collect digital dust, though we promise ourselves we will get around to organizing them – someday. Modern technology has made this task easier, with various software and cloud-based services even promising to find your best photos for you. And while these digital assistants certainly have merit, I like to take a different approach to dealing with all the images I capture.

The following tips will help you streamline your photography workflow and make the task of sifting through your images not only easier, but a lot more enjoyable too. While I work mostly in Adobe Lightroom, these general practices will apply no matter which photo editing software you use.

Step 1: Get rid of bad photos

This is the first thing I do when sorting through pictures, and it’s a tough hurdle to overcome because I have a tendency to want to save everything. But this step will make all the difference in managing your growing photo library, especially if you have never done it before.

Let’s say you went on a summer family trip to a national park, and you returned home with thousands of pictures to deal with. It might be tough, but as you look through them, try to think about what images will matter the most to you a year from now. You might have had a wonderful time at the Grand Canyon during your vacation, but will you really want 50 pictures of your child looking down at the great abyss? What about the ones where he is blinking, out of focus, or looking the other way? It is likely that two or three good pictures are all you need. In this first step, it’s up to you to find the ones that best encapsulate your experience as a whole, and ditch the rest.

Unicycling

I captured close to 100 photos on my brother’s recent visit, but this is one of just a handful I really need to remember the day, and all the things we did.

This approach might seem coldhearted and cruel, but it’s a necessary step in taming the photo-management beast. When you revisit the pictures from your summer trip a couple years from now, you won’t need a thousand of them to help you remember the experience. A tenth of that will probably be perfectly appropriate. If you hang on to every last one you might find that they become an albatross around your neck, weighing you down so much that you don’t even want to look back at your pictures because there are just so many of them.

To put things in another perspective, think about a time when one of your friends wanted to show you photos from his or her family trip. How long did it take you to grow tired of looking at the same types of images over and over? You could have easily gotten the point with just a few pictures, and then spent time visiting with your friends about the events surrounding the photos.

Moth

Of all the photos I took during this nature walk, this was one of only a few that I decided to keep. And in the years since, I haven’t missed the others at all.

One nice advantage of using a photo management program is that you can remove unwanted photos without actually deleting them from your hard drive. In Lightroom, pressing the “X” key on a photo will mark it as rejected, so it will no longer show up in your photo library but will still exist on your computer. This helps soften the initial blow, and then you can go back later and actually delete the rejected photos if you so desire. Alternatively, you can press the “P” key to flag a photo as one of your favorites, or assign star ratings to the images you like best. Then you can instantly sort out your best shots later down the line, and delete the rest when you are ready.

Step 2: Basic Editing

After culling your pictures to find the ones you like most, the next step is to perform basic edits and save the real heavy lifting for later. After removing the duds from my most recent camera import, I typically go through each of the remaining images and apply the simplest of edits such as crop, straighten, and exposure. Not much else is needed at this stage, as you are essentially preparing your photos for any real edits that might need to be done later. These basic adjustments are very quick, and you can churn through your recent batch of vacation, birthday, or hiking photos in a manner of minutes or hours instead of days or weeks.

You can also copy and paste adjustments, so if you have a dozen similar photos you can edit one and then apply those adjustments to the rest with a simple keystroke. This is also a good time to do apply some rudimentary organization to your photos as well, using tools like keywords, flags, categories, or star ratings. Be careful not to get caught up in editing any single photo in depth at this stage. The goal of Step 2 is to dig a little deeper into the photos you like, which will help you decide where to concentrate your efforts if you do need to do more intensive edits afterwards.

Husky

I had to crop this photo in order to draw the viewer’s attention to the dog’s eyes.

Step 3: Advanced Editing

By this point you should now have a curated set of photos that you really like, with some mild corrections applied to help them look a little more pleasing. Now it’s time to perform the types of more detailed edits that will help your images truly shine. Advanced adjustments to a photo’s white balance, color saturation, contrast, and other parameters, while also applying localized improvements like dodging and burning can take a long time, but the results are well worth it.

It’s important to do this step last, or else you can easily wind up spending a great deal of time editing a single picture early in the process only to realize there are plenty of better ones that should have had your attention instead.

Family

This family photo turned out fine, but I had to do some color corrections and other enhancements to get it to look how I really wanted. By doing this step last I was able to devote more time to the editing process and not worry about processing hundreds of additional images.

Step 4: Walk Away

This might sound silly, but often the most useful activity you can do when editing your photos is nothing at all. Take a break, get a coffee, head out for a walk, or just go to bed and come back to your pictures the next day with a fresh set of eyes. I’m amazed at how often I stare at a photo performing detailed adjustments trying to get things just right, only to leave my computer and return after a short hiatus and realize the solution was much easier than I realized at first.

As a case study in how all this works, let me share the following example. My brother and I recently I spent an afternoon at the beach trying to get pictures of a rock hitting the water. When I got back to my computer I found that we had over 50 of images to go through, and following the aforementioned workflow strategies helped make things much easier. After importing the images into Lightroom I went through and rejected about 35 right off the bat. That left me with a much more manageable set, so I cropped and applied some basic adjustments to the remainder. This helped me realize that I needed to reject more of them, now that I was looking at the cream of the crop in greater detail, and I ended up with three photos to edit more extensively. When I was finished, I ended up with exactly one photo from the afternoon that I really liked.

Water splash

Not only is this the best photo out of the many I shot that day, but looking at it allows me to remember many other things about the afternoon as well. I don’t need a hundred poorly-composed, out-of-focus pictures to remember a fun afternoon at the beach. Instead I have this one and just a couple others that all serve to bring back some amazing memories.

Following this simple process, and adjusting it to suit your individual needs, can transform photo sorting from a tedious chore into an activity that is enjoyable, relaxing, and fun.

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.