Are You Guilty of these 5 Over-Processing Sins?

Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building

My most common critique when looking at digital images is that they look over-processed. It is so easy to do this and such a common mistake, that it is important to understand the main mistakes that photographers make when retouching their images.

Keep in mind that I am not referring to images that purposely are made to look like fairy tales or use creative color for a specific purpose, but I am referring to heavy handed post-processing when it is not necessary.

Good photographs do not make you notice the post-processing first. Good post-processing is subtle, aims to stay out of the way and not become the focal point of the image. But you need to be careful not to overdo it. With a program like Adobe Lightroom, it becomes so easy to move the sliders and increase the contrast and saturation significantly, and before you know it the image does not resemble a photograph anymore.

So here are the most common mistakes that I see when people over-process their images.

**This article is assuming that you shoot in RAW. If you don’t, I highly suggest that you do. Yes, it makes the files larger, but to get the highest quality image and have the most latitude to process your images well, it is necessary to shoot in RAW.

1. Over sharpening

Wall, Gowanus

Wall, Gowanus – normal sharpening

Over sharpened

Notice the funny halos on edges in this version? This is a result of over sharpening

Over sharpening is one of the most rampant problems for digital photographers. The reality is that most digital photographs need very little sharpening, if any. If the image is sharp when it is captured, meaning there is no handheld camera shake, the correct aperture is used, and the most important element is perfectly in focus, then you are a majority of the way there for sharpness.

You do not want the sharp areas to look like they are jumping off the print. You want them to be sharp, but more importantly you want them to look realistic. The second that your sharpening makes the photo even slightly unrealistic, then you’ve gone overboard. When in doubt, always keep in mind that it is much better to be slightly under sharpened than over sharpened.  I have many images that were taken with a good digital camera and sharp lens with the perfect settings, and they don’t need any sharpening at all. None. This is not every image, but some.

Also, always make sure to sharpen your image after you have sized it to the final print size. It is a bad practice to sharpen your image and then convert it to a different size.

2. Over colorized images and heavy-handed White Balance changes

Layers of a City.

Layers of a City – strong colors but not too strong or unrealistic

Over saturated

Garish, unrealistic and neon colors area  result of over saturating

In my opinion, color is the toughest aspect to get correct in digital photography. It takes a lot of experience to become skilled at working with color.

To be able to do good color work, it is vital to have a solid monitor and a color calibrator. You should calibrate your monitor every few weeks. If your monitor’s colors are off, then what looks good to you is not how the image will look to others when you share it on the web or when you create a print.  While there are a lot of great options for monitors in every budget, I prefer the NEC SpectraView line and an X-Rite i1 Display calibrator.

Color is subjective. I might prefer realistic and subtle colors, while another person might prefer dreamlike and surreal colors. That is fine, but always be careful about overdoing it with color. Over saturating an image might make it more noticeable at first, but it can easily look heavy-handed and fake.  Always use caution when pushing the saturation slider to the plus side. Sometimes this can work when done a slight amount, especially in hazy light, but too often it will make the colors in the image look unrealistic.

In addition, some people also frequently go overboard with tinting images. It’s the Instagram effect. For instance, if all of your images have a warm or red tint, then there’s a good chance you are being too heavy-handed.  This is not true for all cases, of course, but it is important to keep this in mind. Tinting, especially slightly, can be very important, but not every image should look red. Always pay attention to the White Balance of an image and fiddle with it. See how the image will look both without a tint and with one, and print out test images. This will train your eye to see  color.

Also, when you do a lot of editing to an image, such as when increasing the contrast, that can make the colors look too strong. It often helps to pull back the saturation slightly in these cases.

3. Too much contrast

Plaza Hotel

Plaza Hotel

Over contrasty

Overly contrasty – this one is subjective and could be used for effect

Most cameras will purposely capture images with flat contrast in RAW settings, so often some contrast increase is needed. However, it can be easy to overdo it and add too much contrast to your images. This is a problem that I have frequently, and I often have to catch myself and pull back the contrast.

This is another issue where balance is important. There is a very small range where the contrast is perfect. Too little and your image will look flat; too much and it will look fake. Creating images with too much contrast is a very frequent problem, especially with black and white images.

Sometimes, instead of increasing the contrast, you really just want to turn the darkest grays into black by lowering the blacks slider. You will find that this will give you the effect that you want without overdoing the general contrast of an image.

Finally, pay attention to the light sources in your image, because they will determine how much contrast is needed. If the sun is shining directly on your scene, then much less contrast will be needed, because the natural light will be providing the contrast. If the sun is behind your image, then you will often need to darken the blacks or increase the contrast, unless you want to emphasize the haziness of the scene. Shooting into the sun, then not increasing the contrast much is how many of those gorgeous, hazy engagement and wedding photographs are done.

4. Too much vignette

White Hair, SoHo

White Hair, SoHo. – subtle vignette

Overly heavy and obvious vignette

Overly heavy and obvious vignette – you do not want it visible, just subtle to draw the eye inward to the subject

I love vignettes. They can look great and be very important to keep the eyes within the scene. However, be careful about overdoing it, because it can easily look fake and over-processed. That being said, some photographers use harsh vignettes as a style and it looks fantastic, so take this tip with a grain of salt. Use it when needed, but be aware of overdoing it.

5. Not getting the photo right in the camera

Skater, Bleecker Street

Skater, Bleecker Street

I find that the most common situations where over-processing occurs is when the image was not taken correctly in the camera. Perhaps the lighting at the time of the capture wasn’t ideal or the exposure was off. It’s easy to think you can just fix this in post-processing, and sometimes you can, but it’s hard and it’s not the same as getting it right in the camera. The image will look different if it is captured perfectly versus captured with the wrong settings and then fixed. I find that in their quest to fix poorly captured images,  this is when photographers will most often get heavy handed with post-processing.

If you go out to capture the image at the right time of day, in the right lighting, and get the exposure and sharpness correct, then you will only need to do a very subtle amount of processing to get the image perfect. This is the recipe to create a gorgeous print, and while it’s not always possible, it is what you should be aiming for. It is so much easier to create a good image this way.  If you are spending an hour to fix an image then most likely something was wrong with the image to start with.

True photography starts with the camera and post-processing is meant to improve the image, not fix it.

How do you feel about this topic? Are you or have you been guilty of any of these? Do you have others you’d add to this list? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Post Production category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • RR

    my thoughts too

  • hans cras

    Try switching to colorpriority in stead of highlightpriority when adjusting vignetting in lightroom. Much more subtle. Btw, I even adjust my camerasettings considering what I know I will do in post processing. Underexpose for instance. To keep colors alive.

  • David Palmer

    Just like everything else in life, you have to do it and learn from it. If a little bit of contrast looks better, then a lot of contrast looks great! Everyone has to go through the process, no pun intended…

  • sally wallis

    I admit that on some of my photos I deliberately overprocess to get the effect I want, particularly on art shots. I take photos of discarded and found objects in situ, and I like to make them look deliberately high contrast and oversharp and saturated, however for other pictures – landscapes and people I like to use the bare minimum. It does depens on context, and I would say that if it is what the photographer intends then it isn’t an issue.

  • Drae

    Overprocessing is a concern – I don’t want to do that. I took some photography school classes which helped me tremendously. My goal was to be consistent & to get as much right in camera, to do minimal editing.
    Great article.

  • Thanks James and DPS. Yes I was absolutely into this over-processing trouble, at first because I was looking for an “artistic” look to bring to my images, but now I’m almost totally disappointed with my portfolio. Thus I’m concentrating only on light, subject and composition, no more than 5 minutes of editing for each photograph and often I try to practice to view the image in b&w BEFORE taking the photo itself. Photography is far more beautiful, interesting and storytelling than over-photo-processing-fake-art.

  • petervandever

    I try and over do it every time I can 🙂

  • Ricardo Camacho

    There is not such thing as over process, it is called different taste

  • Raden Adams

    Yes, It seems that I have been guilty of that also and thought, for some reason, that I just had to shove all the way up and down until recently I started noticing that my photos were looking overdone or off and much worse when I would over work the highlights and shadows and that it wasn’t a requirement for me to do this so much. Now, I can’t beleive how much I had done this.

  • Raden Adams

    Yes, a very good article and quite timely for me as I have just recently figured out the same thing about sharpening, and that is that most of my photos really don’t need any sharpening done and especially like I used to do and that was automatically push upwards of the 50’s to 70. I shoot birds and other wildlife that hang out in the dark shade of the tree canopy and I have to mention how too much noise reduction can ruin an image and sometimes it’s hard or just impossible to remove it all and still maintain a sharp photo. I have only had a budget Sigma Telephoto, but decent for the money, I guess, for less than a year and had never actually dealt with noise until I started shooting telephoto lens in low light while chasing birds in the woods. But, then, they will jump one branch over and be in harsh light or something that is challenging for me, but fun. But, I was guilty of most of all these bad habits at some time or another. And, yes, I finally learned that you can pull back on the saturation, clarity, contrast and the other sliders a lot of the time but I used to never even consider it. I suppose you learn more as you grow but you have done a very good job in writing this article and the previous article that I just read by keeping it fresh and also a very educational tutorial for where I am in my photography. I think a good measuring stick for how well received a tutorial is, is by the number of people that are not only commenting but also sharing their experiences that I also find very educational. Well done!

  • Ingrid

    Hi there! I’ve been thinking about this issue for quite some time and have realized that most of the people (non-photographers here, I mean) do prefer the over-processed images, esp. those that include extra sharpening. I even wanted to conduct a study to try and find out what is it about over-processing (what exact parameters, and why) that people find so appealing.
    It seems that the majority of photographers and photo enthusiasts try to produce images that are close to reality and only slightly corrected / enhanced. I include myself in this, I post-process images quite a lot but nowhere near some of the stuff I see online. But then I exaggeratedly play with a parameter while someone happens to be walking from behind my computer screen and they will go like “wow”, and I will be like “really???”
    What I am trying to say is: why would it matter if in the end most people (clients) will love the over-processed images? 🙂 Who is right and who is wrong? Is it about capturing or about creating? 🙂

  • richard coughlan

    Good article! I think the reason most of us photographers over process our images when we first start out is, as you stated, because our images do not look good enough straight out of camera. The camera settings were off when taking the shot and we try to pull a good looking image out of a mediocre exposure. As you get better, your exposures get better in camera, but we tend to hold onto our old processing habits. I think the key is to reach that point where you realize your images are finally, truly good straight out of the camera (it takes a while). At that point, you can really reap the rewards of very subtle editing. As you mention – A perfect image out of camera, needs very little post processing. Basically it comes down to taking enough pictures to get get good enough to take a good picture! Once you can finally take a good picture, it’s time to stop using all your old (bad) processing habits and concentrate on where you want the viewers eye to be drawn in the image. Use refined, simple adjustments…… It can take years to reach that point because people often think their images are perfect in camera, when in-fact they are not.

  • Mike Robinson

    Guilty of oversharpening and colour. Some good points about the monitor too. I’m colour blind, so always struggle with the small differences

  • Justin C. Hilts

    or people seeing a bad HDR and the over processing there not HDR images to “match”. I only bracket my shots for HDR if it is low light that way I can get a little more of the detail, but try very hard to make it look natural and not over processed.

  • Justin C. Hilts

    diddo, I have seen some of my pictures and im like “holly vignette Batman” lol and I have no desire to set there for a long time editing, less editing gives me more time for other creative things

  • Antonio Efondo

    Hi. Thank you for this very informative, eye opening even, article. Most of the time, I’m guilty ?.
    Is over sharpening same as over clarity? Do you have any tips or suggestions as to the max level of sharpening or clarity, that if you go beyond those levels, the photo is just not good enough? Or is this just my illusion??
    For example, a portrait, how do i see if it’s over sharpened or over clarity?
    Thanks again!

  • Ben

    Great read, I try to stay away from doing a lot of post processing and work on getting the shots right in camera.

    Today, a lot of people do too much processing and to some it looks like “wow” but it looks so fake. Grass looks like plastic, over saturated colors, totally unnatural look.

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