Photo editing is an essential part of every digital photography workflow. Not only is it a way to handle basic problems – such as dust spots, color casts, and lost detail – but it also allows you to enhance your files with color grading, light leaks, vignettes, and so much more. In fact, thanks to modern post-processing software, users can give their files a refined, pro-level look with only a few clicks.
But while post-processing software is powerful, it’s important that it’s used with both careful consideration and restraint. Sure, you can refine your photos in a few clicks, but you can also ruin them – and I’m afraid to say that folks do have a tendency to edit in the wrong direction, especially when they’re just starting out.
In this article, I share the five photo-editing mistakes that plague beginners’ work over and over again, and I explain how to fix them, too. Fortunately, even if you do make any of the errors that I share, they’re pretty easy to correct – so without further ado, let’s get to work!
1. Selective coloring
Sometimes, we get so obsessed with a particular element in our frame that we desperately want to highlight it. You might capture a bright umbrella, a stunning bird, or a colorful dress, yet when you look at the final image, you feel like it doesn’t stand out against the background – and that’s where selective color can enter the picture.
I’m talking about the technique where you make the entire photo black and white, except you keep one part of the image in color, like this:
As a beginner, you might be super excited by the selective color effect. After all, it looks cool and it can make key elements pop at the same time. But while there’s nothing wrong with testing out different photo-editing options to see what you can achieve, selective color is generally looked upon as a bit…amateurish.
For one, it’s compositionally lazy. If you want to highlight a particular object or color, it’s better to do it through careful composition and perspective choices, not a bit of post-processing magic. It often also feels rather gimmicky, like the photo is primarily interesting because of the selective color effect, not because of its subject, lighting, composition, etc.
Therefore, if you wish to step up your photography game and make your images look more professional, I’d encourage you to avoid selective coloring (and other, similarly gimmicky effects such as artificial background blurring) as much as possible. If you do run into a situation where you need to highlight one specific area in post-processing, try selectively boosting the exposure or saturation; it’s effective, but it’s also a lot more subtle.
2. HDR techniques
Of the five beginner photo-editing mistakes I discuss, this one has probably seen the most use – and, unfortunately, ruined the most pictures. HDR techniques aren’t as popular as they once were, but I still see a lot of problematic HDR edits, especially in landscape and interior portfolios.
Now, HDR photography isn’t inherently bad. It refers to the technique of capturing several photos at different exposures (i.e., bracketing), then blending them together in post-processing to create a final file that features detail in the highlights and shadows. It’s an approach that’s often used by professional landscape photographers to handle difficult lighting conditions, and it’s one that I encourage you to try out for yourself.
The problem is not when HDR techniques are used. The problem is when they are taken too far, either in an attempt to create an artsy look or with the purpose of showing tons of shadow and highlight detail. When you push HDR processing to a ridiculous degree, you’ll end up with unnatural-looking shots that look crispy, over-saturated, and just plain bad:
So here’s my advice:
If you do decide to use HDR processing on a photo, make sure that the results are natural. The tones in the image should align with what you saw with your eyes at the moment of capture. I’d also recommend doing your HDR processing with standard editing software (e.g., Adobe Lightroom), which is designed to create a subtle blended effect, not an eye-catching but ultimately unpleasant HDR look.
3. Oversaturating your files
We’ve all come across photos with vibrant and attractive colors, especially on photo-sharing apps such as Instagram. I get it; some of these photos look amazing.
But in trying to reproduce those results, it’s easy to boost the saturation level way too far – so much that you end up with a garish, distorted version of your original shot, one that looks worse, not better.
Check out the image on the left versus the image on the right below:
The shot on the left features vibrant reds and blues, but they don’t seem unnatural. The shot on the right, however, is so saturated that the man’s skin looks strange and his clothing has experienced a complete loss of detail, which is not at all ideal.
Unfortunately, it’s tough to get this one right. When you’ve spent several minutes (or hours) editing a single frame, you can develop a sort of blindness, where you’re unable to objectively evaluate the shot’s level of saturation.
That’s why I recommend taking a two-minute break from the screen after your final edit is complete. When you come back to your device, peek at the image and see what you think of the saturation level. You may find that the colors look far too intense, in which case you’ll need to dial back that saturation or vibrance slider. I use this process, myself – so you can trust me when I tell you that it’ll make a huge difference!
4. Using a black-and-white conversion without careful consideration
For many beginners, black and white is an artsy effect that can save nearly any image from the Rejects folder – but while a monochrome conversion can certainly improve images, it’s not a one-size-fits-all look. There are plenty of photos that are harmed by the black-and-white treatment, and it’s important that you approach each new edit with a fresh and analytical mind.
Personally, I find that images featuring lots of contrast tend to look good in black and white, whereas images that have very little contrast are damaged by the approach. Therefore, if I want to decide whether to convert to black and white, I check if the frame has contrast in it.
And even if a scene has good contrast, I also like to check if the image has any prominent colors that might add to the composition. If your shot includes a beautiful and colorful sunset, monochrome probably isn’t the way to go, even if you often do like the effect!
Of course, testing out a black-and-white look is easy – you can simply drop the desaturation slider or click the black-and-white conversion button – but the key is to be patient and analyze the image (both before and after the conversion). If you feel the colors aren’t especially appealing and the image features some nice high-contrast areas, go ahead and stick with the black-and-white effect.
One more tip: If you’re really struggling to determine whether black and white works for an image, ask a friend or family member. They don’t need to be a photographer; sometimes, all you need is someone who can be a little more objective.
5. Overuse of the vignette effect
Vignetting refers to the practice of darkening the edges of the frame to direct the viewer’s eye inward. As with a number of the other photo-editing mistakes I’ve explored in this article, vignetting isn’t necessarily bad – in fact, it can be quite effective when done correctly – but it is often overused or applied without significant restraint.
Overuse of the vignette effect will make your entire portfolio look amateurish, and if you push the effect too far in a single image, the vignette will actually detract from the subject, not emphasize it.
I myself love using a vignetting effect in photos where I want to emphasize a particular subject, but I don’t recommend using it in every image. And when I do use it, I aim to be subtle about it. The best vignettes are felt rather than seen!
Look, for instance, at the difference between these two images:
Both use a vignette, but the shot on the left is far more natural, while the vignette on the right is so obvious that it causes problems.
Also, I’d encourage you to avoid using the editing technique on landscape and interior architecture shots (and if you do wish to use it, keep it subtle so the overall beauty of the frame doesn’t get destroyed).
Photo-editing mistakes: final words
Hopefully, you’ve identified whether you’ve been making any of these mistakes yourself – and if you have, you know how to handle them.
Do remember, however, that editing is a subjective process. If you like a certain look that goes against the grain, then by all means, use it! Just make sure you’re making the choice carefully.
So head on over to your favorite post-processing program, then see if you can find some images to re-edit. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to avoid these top mistakes without any thought!
Now over to you:
Have you been making any of these five photo editing mistakes? Do you wish to add any editing mistakes to the list? Share your thoughts in the comments below!