Are You Guilty of these 5 Over-Processing Sins?

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.

  • I like the spirit of this article, but think it could go further to explain where the line of “too much” is. I understand these are subjective, but in the vignette section for example, you say “Use it when needed, but be aware of overdoing it.” That doesn’t seem like very constructive advice since it doesn’t offer any guidance. I think that what you are really getting at is that processing too much will blow out certain colors, highlights, or shadows and lower the range in the final photograph. Maybe a companion article could explain how to use histograms and highlight/shadow overlays to determine when processing has ruined an image.

  • RichardKLopez

    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.

  • UPDATE: After I wrote my comment the article was revised with additional images to show the extent of over processing and I think it makes for a great improvement in supporting the text, nicely done; as photographers we all know a good visual can make all the difference!

  • I just read it and didn’t understand the original comment. It’s very good now.

  • Thanks for a good summary of these issues, James. I know that I am often guilty of these. This is a good checklist to go back over images and make sure you’re not guilty of any of these.

    The most interesting thing, to me, is that this is all subjective like you pointed out. I like the overly contrasty black and white image. My number one fix for most of these problems is to convert to black and white. You “fix” the problem of overly saturated colors and the extra contrast looks good now!

  • Great article. I’m learning as I go and all the articles posted at DPS have been extremely helpful. This is one of thoss things that I’m guilty of. I don’t always realize I’m overprocessing images until I go back and look at them a while later. I’ve also noticed that the longer I sit and edit pictures, I slowly start using more and more of the processing tools. I no longer see the difference in the colors — softness, hard lines — after doing it for long stretches. Does anyone else experience that as well?

  • Robert

    Great article, thanks for the advices!
    In my case, I am just getting started in digital post processing and it is very helpful to read about self contention when modifying some basic parameters.

  • Yuri

    In my case, I always push up the shadows and bring down the highlights too much, almost turning the picture into an HDR looking 🙁

  • lexplex

    That contrasty image looks quite nice. I used to shoot high contrast black and white film and then push the contrast even further in the darkroom. Looks go in and out of fashion. Some of the best rated high art photography out there at the moment has ultra high contrast.

  • I try to avoid those extreme manipulations very consciously and, in case of doubt, I always reduce instead of increasing the post-processing.

    I particularly agree with your last point; I have been there myself more often than I would like to admit, and normally the results are not that good. Yeah, you turn a mediocre image into an acceptable one, but making it “good” is impossible. For that you have to get it right in camera. So true!

    My personal contribution: a monochrome photowalk along the railtracks in Bangkok. I hope I didn’t over process any of the captures there!

  • interesting article, even if IMHO images in items “2” and “3” feel a bit “underprocessed”. Maybe it’s just the comparison that makes them flat, but I think a mixed version between the “base” and “extreme” could work better.

  • Christos

    The more processing I do the more subtle I become with it. I look back at shots I processed a few years ago and cringe. Thanks for the article!

  • Well, sometimes I do one or more of the above, beyond the point of the photo being a 100% accurate depiction of reality, but isn’t that the value of artistic expression?

    I don’t do it by accident, and take great care not to create artifacts, haloes, clipped areas etc. I much prefer the high contrast version of the Plaza Hotel and think the garish version of the Taxi shot is only slightly overdone and would look great if the global saturation was dialled back slightly – certainly more so than the leftmost “correct” version.

    The overly vignetted and the overly sharpened ones are poor but both of those look like technical errors rather than artistic taste; this being my point; if you deliberately push the contrast / saturation into unrealistic territory, but without creating obvious technical errors (clipping, haloes etc), then surely it’s artistic, and therefore down to the artists’ own style, rather than being ‘sin’?

    In my opinion a far worse sin is “HDR for HDR’s sake” with sharp-edged clouds and brutally sharp colours and textures…

  • Thanks for the comments Stephen and for helping make the article better. This is a really tough subject to write about, because it’s all so subjective.

  • Thanks for the comment Steve. A big issue and probably something I should have added is how it looks in a large physical print. While the contrast version might look better to some people at 600pixels wide on monitors, the less contrast version looks so much better in print. You have all the details and this hazy overcast mood that is lost when you increase the contrast too much.

  • Hi Patty – thanks for the comment. I experience it every day and it’s one of the toughest issues. If you’re making images that have too much contrast eventually too much contrast seems normal, especially when staring at it for a long time. I always come back to images I’ve edited the next day with fresh eyes and re-edit. I often pull back some of what I did.

  • My pleasure Robert. I suggest trying Lightroom and when in doubt aim on the subtle side of editing.

  • That’s a very common problem Yuri. Be subtle.

  • Yeah it’s definitely a judgement call Lex. In my personal opinion people go way overboard in high-contrast photography. There are some who do it really well. I love the contrasty look of Daido Moriyama or Jacob Aue Sobol but I do still think in everyday use it’s way overdone. When you make a print from the less contrasty version of this image it holds the mood of the day – hazy and overcast and moody. High contrast just kills that mood.

  • It’s definitely the comparison and the 600pixel wide size that might make them seem flat. If you were to open a photo book the ‘flat’ images would actually seem much more beautiful, moodier, and interesting. Even though it’s a value judgement, the internet tends to make people over-processing and why those images seem flat to you.

  • Of course it’s about artistic impression Steven and it’s certainly up to each person’s opinions, but even by extreme standards the Plaza Hotel and Taxi shot are extremely overdone.

    You can certainly create a high-contrast style to your work but my point is that for beginners this is often way overdone and viewing images only over the internet is probably one of the main factors. Over-done seems normal by comparison. This is not about not eventually creating a high-contrast style to your work, it’s just noticing at first that it’s so easy to overdo high contrast and saturation and other effects in creating good images and a lot of people make that mistake.

  • That’s a good point! I’m learning a lot.

  • Ira Thomas

    This is one of the best, simplest and most meaningful articles I have read for the black and white fine art photographer. All common faults we make in an attempt to heighten image appeal.

  • Michael Owens

    Yes yes and yes!! Lol.
    I do some of them. 🙁

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    There are not right and wrong when comes to many things, including taking photos. If things are under controlled, then it must have some reasoning why the photographers do so; otherwise (if things are not under controlled), then it could be technically deficiency or error, or uncontrollable environments. Something errors could be inviting. If here are right and wrong in final result (photos) and processes (photo taking processes and post-processing processes), then every photo will be have same patterns, will they look dulll and uninteresting? Assume every photo is beautiful in same way, same lighting, angle, composition, color, depth perception, shadow etc.. ;}. And if there are right and wrong in phototaking, perhaps it could be a great mistake to have Manual Mode and handcarry capable cameras… Blame the manufacturer for not creating “right” cameras. Just that, my technique and output may not fix your taste.. that’s all ;)lol

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    PSA has new category for BW photos this year (if not mistaken), my friends modify their camera (remove & add) to become infrared camera and could get many accepted photos for that new category. Those photos could fixed in be high contrasty.. One of my friends have 240 photos accepted for 2 categories..

  • Albin

    Good article. Only a couple of minor differences:

    1. Nobody else’s monitor is calibrated the same as yours so the only point to it is if you are printing to paper. If the only other viewers of an image are going to be on their own screens, no need to go nuts about monitor calibration.

    2. Photography is split between highly composed and planned shoots, where the idea is to get it right in camera, and the opposite sheer good luck of just happening to be there at the right place and time to capture an unrepeatable event. In the latter situation, the shot will rarely be right in camera and god bless Photoshop or whatever.

  • Brett

    I read once (unfortunately I just can’t find who and the exact words) something along the lines of : adjust saturation until it is just right and then reduce it a little. This works for me and I now often do this as a matter of habit on some of the RAW adjustment sliders. Usually after I have done it, the reduced image does appear to be subtly better than my first bolder attempt.

  • Rod Leach

    I’m exactly the same – I’m even considering going over the first couple of weddings I did and just doing it all again! 🙂

  • Marek Michalek

    Great article. I agreed on many of your points. I think too often people try to justify poor processing as artistic or aesthetic choices. Often those choices are made by just discovering a ‘new’ technique and getting a little too excited about it or trying to follow short term trends.

  • Richard Baker

    I learned news photography on a Speed Graphic and spent most of a lifetime working with the unrelentingly WYSIWYG nature of slide film. Get it right in the camera!

  • markxt

    Surprised no one has mentioned it – unless I’ve missed it – but overdoing the Clarity slider in Lightroom is common (although it is tempting…)

  • Happy you enjoyed it Ira!

  • Thanks Albin. I agree about the calibration comment, which is why it is so important to have your monitor calibrated. Otherwise you will work your image to look good on your monitor but when printed or shared the image will look completely different.

    It’s certainly not possible to get the images correct in camera every time, and when it’s not Lightroom and Photoshop are indispensable, but the point that I meant to make was to try as hard as you can to get it right in the camera.

  • Completely agree Brett – I often bring the saturation down a little bit after I am happy with the image.

  • Thanks Marek – completely agree.

  • Yes, that’s a very common problem mark.

  • mma173

    IMO, over-processing screams ‘Beginner’. It’s the biggest mistake that newbies fall in. However, the amount of processing doesn’t matter. The key is to get a result that looks natural, if you are not aiming at artistic look.

  • Shani Cohen

    the over contrast image is much more interesting,

  • Then this article is meant for you Shani. This stuff is personal opinion, but even by overdone standards, the contrast is extremely overdone.

  • Completely agree! Over-processing was meant more to mean the final look. You can process a lot and still have it look natural.

  • Sharmon Lebby

    I kind of feel like a lot of these are subjective. Most of the “overdoing it” photos don’t look bad to me. In a couple of the examples I actually like them better.

  • ziplock9000

    It’s very self centered to presume those things are wrong. A lot are stylistic choices and are neither right or wrong. This is especially true for the higher contrast example which is very much an artistic choice. Remember photography is not just documenting a scene, but art in it’s own right.

  • asim khattak
  • This wasn’t meant in a self-centered way, and I explained that a lot of these could be artistic choices. The problem is that a lot of less experienced photographers default to over-processing their photos from the very beginning and this is who the article was written to. This is one of those situations where you have to learn the rules before you can break them effectively.

  • ziplock9000

    This is true. Even now my after I process my images I leave them alone for a while and come back. I frequently then tone them down a notch due to my fresh eyes.

  • Fobok

    Where do you draw the line, though? I agree with Steven, I think the ‘overdone’ pictures are much better (except the vignette and sharpening), coming at it as a viewer. So, if I like it as a viewer, how am I to say it’s too much as a beginning photographer?

  • NatG

    Thanks, a really useful article, guilty of all of these!

  • Laurie

    I always used medium-to-high contrast (that is, in Canon’s Photo Professional program, contrast was always around 4, I never used more however). Now that I read this post, I played around with the shadows, highlights and contrast sliders to see what difference it makes and it makes a HUGE difference. Although sometimes contrast at 4 works quite well, there are some subjects when shadows at -5 (and contrast at 0) makes your photo pop (especially flowers and street photography). Not only does it darken the shadows, it also somehow ups the saturation in a subtle way.

    Thank you for this post! I’ve never paid much attention to the shadows slider, but I will use it more often now and play with contrast, shadows and highlights to achieve this POP-effect that I so desperately needed for my photographs. (I have always been so dissatisfied with my photos because they looked so flat.)

  • Stacey

    Yes! And over processing the eyes should be in here as well. As a portrait photographer I try hard to find the light and get natural catchlights in the eyes. I rarely do any processing on eyes after the fact unless they are too shadowed, but too many times photographers are editing eyes to the point where they look like laser beams or alien eyes. They do NOT look natural.

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