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A Short Introduction to Basic Photo Editing for Beginners

If you’re a beginner, using editing software can be a daunting prospect. What if you can’t get a handle on the technology? What if it’s too complicated a process? What if it’s just too time-consuming? What if the images turn out horrible? So many what ifs! I get it; I’ve been there. In this article, I’m offering a very simple way of delving into editing if you’re a novice. These are basic principles that I hope will set you in good stead for more fancy editing in the future!


First things first.

You need to be able to see what is a good image and a bad image. The key is in your perception.

If you think heavily edited images are the perfect image, then your editing will lean that way and vice versa. If you think an overly-tinted image is perfect, then that would be your bar for perfection. We all have a bias towards something. However, for editing, I think we need to try and be as neutral as possible and leave our personal preferences for the moment.

To be able to see things objectively, we need to:

  1. See the differences between over-exposed and under-exposed images and decide as to what is the correct exposure
  2. Understand white balance where white looks white, as it should, and not yellow or blue or orange
  3. See the contrast between dark and light
  4. Decide on the noise

Once we have a basic grip of the above, then editing will be a breeze, and we can get more creative from a solid image base or what I’d like to call a clean edit.

But first, a word on shooting format. Shoot in RAW.

The images below are the original RAW images opened in Bridge without any edits applied.

You can see there is a choice of Adobe color profiles. See the difference between the standard profile below left and the color profile used on the image on the right.

You can choose which profile you prefer.


To successfully understand the above, and make the edits towards them, it is important that you shoot in RAW format. If you shoot in JPEG, you are allowing the camera to process the image, discard pixels the camera deems unnecessary, and accept the color adjustments the camera has made. With a JPEG image, you have less control, are working on a great loss and compression of pixels at the very start and an already compromised image color.

You can read more about RAW processing in Bridge here.

Having said that, someone who is a really good, seasoned, experienced photographer may well shoot JPEGS and achieve the desired image they want. I am not there yet!

Secondly, the type of camera you use affects the original images you get.

A full-frame camera gives you the 35mm sensor – wider, more space, more light hitting the camera sensor and more pixels. What you see through the lens is pretty much what you get. A crop-sensor, on the other hand, works in the opposite way. The lens only allows you to use a portion of the sensor so that a 35mm lens mounted on a crop-sensor camera will only give you the point of view of a 52mm lens equivalent – a more zoomed-in longer focal length. You are losing some width, some light and some pixels.

Let’s dive in!

1. Correct exposure

Correct exposure means getting the balance right between the 3 components of the exposure triangle. Namely: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Balancing all three correctly will give you a perfectly exposed image. That means no blown highlights or details are lost entirely in the shadow or darker areas of the image that should still be visible.

A most useful tool in determining whether your exposure is perfect is to look at the histogram when you are editing. Alternatively, you can view the histogram when you have just taken the photo as there is also a histogram on the LCD of many cameras these days. Simply put, a histogram is a representation of the tonal value distribution across your image in the form of a visual graph. Just by looking at a histogram (that graph on the top right corner of the image below), you can immediately tell whether there is an even spread of tonal values on the image judging from the troughs and crests on the graph or a stark contrast.

If the image you shot has incorrect exposure, then editing is your solution. You can move the sliders on your editing software to increase exposure if the photo is too dark or decrease your exposure if the photo’s too bright. You can usually recover some blown highlights in the case of overexposure.


Take a look at the image above. This is the RAW image opened in Bridge. You can see it’s a little bright with the histogram showing a tall mountain almost touching the right edge. When the histogram touches both left and right edges, this would indicate the dark and light parts of your images are clipped and therefore there is overexposure and underexposure in the image. This is an okay image as nothing touches the edges, but it is too bright for me.

The image on the left below shows an overexposed image with the exposure turned up and the image on the right shows an underexposed image with the exposure turned down. See what the histogram is doing in these images.


2. White balance

Simply put, white balance is the adjustment on your camera that reads the color temperature of the light you are shooting in in relation to neutral white. A perfect white balance should show white to be white as perceived in reality and there are no color casts that distorts the whiteness of white. You can, however, go for a warm white or a cool white by adjusting the white balance sliders. Generally speaking, what you don’t want is for white to look too yellow or orange or too cold like with a strong blue cast. Compare both photos below: too cool on the left and too warm on the right.


3. Contrast

There is nothing rocket science about contrast in my opinion. It is simply to do with the strength of the blacks on the photo. After the adjustments above, our photo is still looking very flat. All that’s needed is a fiddle on the blacks, shadows, highlights and light areas. Just remember not to clip your blacks or whites or if you want a bit more contrast, not too much clipping. You can also use the curves tab (the one that shows a grid with a curvy line) for contrast adjustments.


I also played with the other sliders to get the result I wanted on the images above. Just do so gently – a touch here and there rather than extreme adjustments.

Remember, you are only after a clean edit at this stage. The images above show the same edits on the standard and color profiles. The results are different so deciding on your color profile matters.

4. Noise and Sharpening

If you click on to the third tab which shows two black triangles, you get to the panel where you can adjust noise and sharpening. Again, gentle adjustments are needed here.

It is vital to view your photo at 100% so you can see what the adjustments are doing to the image.

Luminance has to do with the smoothness of the pixels. You don’t want to go too much, or you lose definition.

Color has to do with how much the RGB pixels show up and extreme adjustments will either strip your image of color or make the pixels appear too saturated.



Now I have a clean edit, there is still so much I can do to this photo. The eyes are a tad soft so I will need to adjust that. I could add vignettes or change the appearance of the background. I could add sunflares or textures. The possibilities are endless. But most of that has to happen in Photoshop.

I hope this has helped you understand the basics of editing.

Please share your comments below or if you have any questions!

A Short Introduction to Basic Photo Editing for Beginners

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Lily Sawyer
Lily Sawyer

is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on “mummy” dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on www.lilysawyer.com Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

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