Much effort goes into creating an image; you have to buy the camera gear, learn how to use it, and then get out there and take interesting photos. However, once they are taken and downloaded on our computers, many images never see daylight. Perhaps we take too many shots and can’t choose the best ones? Maybe our editing skills are not where we would like them, and we are frustrated? It could be that we find editing boring?
While there is a school of thought that minimal or no editing is a preferred choice, the other end of the scale is all about luminosity masks, HDR and Photoshop layers by the dozen. In between, there is a middle ground where many of us fall.
Here, we’d like to edit our images better but don’t necessarily understand the capabilities within the software we have. We may be uncertain how much editing is too much (or conversely, not enough). Perhaps we don’t know what all the tools and sliders do and get confused and frustrated as a result.
One of the most powerful things that had a positive impact on my editing was choosing to play and experiment freely – to go in completely different directions. Many of the outcomes were unexpected and gave me results that I really liked.
Note for this article I work with Lightroom and Photoshop.
Beyond the basics
Let us assume you’ve completed the following steps with your image editing:
– you’ve uploaded your image to your computer
– its loaded into your software program of choice
– you’ve completed basic edits – exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, etc
– you have applied any cropping, lens corrections, and other adjustments
So what is left? You have a nice shot, that is well composed. The exposure etc is all right. However, it may still feel lacking in some way? Perhaps you feel you could do more to the image if only you knew how?
Let’s look at what else makes up your image and how you can work further with that to achieve a stronger picture.
Most likely your image is in color, and color has a significant impact on people’s brains. A lot of the way we process and relate to color is instinctive and emotional. Our culture, society and personal experiences also contribute to how we relate to color. Color psychology is a fascinating area to research.
As an example, in the Western world, white is the color of purity and innocence. However, in Eastern cultures, it is the color of mourning.
All colors have different emotional contexts associated with them, and people react differently as a result. So the people viewing your images, (especially online around the world), may relate differently to the color in your work. How often do you consciously think about the color in your image from this point of view?
Contrast can be several different things within your image. It can relate most directly to the tonal range, i.e. the contrast between the light and the dark areas. However, it can also relate the different colors and how they interact together. How your subject matter relates to the rest of the image can be part of the contrast too. Does your subject stand out in a particular way?
Can you somehow use these different contrast ideas to process your image in an alternative way?
For example, using a spot of color in a black and white scene can provide a point of interest and color contrast and change the way the viewer sees the image.
While the tonal range of the scene is part of the image as you shoot it, with some careful editing you can change it. How can this be impactful? Visualize very high-key fashion or wedding photography images where its all white and bright, and the tonal range can be quite restrained. Professional images may be purposefully lit and shot that way, but we can still achieve a similar look via editing on the right image too. This can completely change the mood of your image as well.
Adding textures to images has become relatively popular, especially in still life and flower photography. Its also being used with portraits and landscapes. Imagine if you had a beautiful subject with a great pose and an awful background? What if you could remove the background and make it awesome instead?
Alternatively, add some extra depth and interest, elevating your image above the average approach?
Sometimes a hard crop is called for to bring out the best in an image. Alternatively, an abstract approach could make a big difference.
Some before and after examples
For me, color is the most versatile and flexible option to work with. By changing the color, you can instantly change the whole mood and feel of your image.
BEFORE – This image had basic edits done and a black and white process – this was originally shot to be a black and white image. Nice depth of field, a bit of tweaking on the vignette to bring focus to the center, but it feels cold and unwelcoming.
AFTER – the addition of a sepia tone makes the skin tones more inviting and adds warmth to the image. Sepia invokes a feeling of nostalgia. Perhaps a reminder of careless childhood days where adventures were had?
There are two types of contrast used in this image. There is much contrast between the bright background and the heavy dark marble of the headstone. Also, the pale stone behind the words offers tonal contrast as well.
This image was originally shot to be a black and white image, and as such, it looks quite good. However, when I read the words on the headstone, I saw that a whole family was buried here over 200 years ago. Still, there was a bunch of flowers carefully poked into the corner of the headstone base. Who left the flowers and why?
BEFORE – unedited RAW
AFTER – I wanted to bring attention to the flowers, so I brought the color back into the final black and white image. The flowers were only a small part of the overall image, yet enough to catch the eye. My intention here was to ensure the flowers were part of the overall story.
Radically altering the tonal range is one of the tools that offer the most excitement in my editing process. Being brave and going way up or down the histogram has resulted in some very creative and exciting results.
BEFORE – this is shot with my Lensbaby Velvet 56 which gives much softness when it is wide open. This shows the unedited RAW file.
AFTER – This histogram has been pushed way to the right. Doing this overexposed the image. It removed most of the blacks and shadows, giving it more of a high-key tonality. The mood of this image now comes across as light, airy, floral, delicate and fragile. The original image was heavy and spiky and didn’t feel like a flower at all.
BEFORE – I spent ages taking shots while this gorgeous steam train puffed up. The dark coal smoke against the white clouds of steam was very atmospheric. The background is pretty awful and doesn’t do it any justice at all. So time to get creative!
AFTER – this one went through a range of edits. First, I played a bit with color. I did a straight black and white treatment. Secondly, I added a sepia tone with an old vintage newspaper frame to add more of that vintage feel to the image. This is a side by side image for comparison.
AFTER continued – the background was annoying me, so I very carefully extracted the train and all the smoke from the background and then had some fun playing. This one had a Scribble Action along with a replacement background added.
AFTER continued – still wasn’t happy, so I put a new replacement background on the image. However, it was quite heavily textured and didn’t fit, so I ran a Topaz Impression over the whole lot to apply a painterly effect. I also added a subtle framing texture. Doing so, finally provided the outcome I wanted.
Sometimes a hard crop is what an image needs to bring the focus in or to tell the story that you want. People often seem afraid of a hard crop. I let the image tell me its story and work from there. If it is only ever going to be a digital format, i.e. not printed, then a hard crop has little long term effect.
BEFORE – original unedited RAW file. The flowers are pretty, and the focus is good, but the background ones are distracting.
AFTER a hard crop and a soft edit. Now the focus is on the delicate veins in the petals, the water droplets and even the pollen grains on the anthers.
There are many things you can do in post-processing that can further enhance your images. Any good RAW conversion program has reasonable editing capability included. What you choose to do with it is really up to you.
Maybe one day you take a handful of images, forget the rules and play and see what you get?
I find presets are a great source of creative inspiration – where someone else has made up a recipe of settings. However, it can be a random lottery to what the outcome is. Still, you can quickly click and get a very different result, cancel it and move on to the next one. It might surprise you what you end up with.
What about the deliberate considerations you make when editing? Do you shoot with a specific outcome (like black and white) in mind? Do you edit and then wonder what other possibilities there are and then dabble a bit until you find something you like? Alternatively, maybe you have a definite outcome in mind and work hard to get there?
It is allowed and encouraged for you to color outside the lines! Be brave! Experiment! No one ever needs to see it, but you might be surprised at what you can achieve, what you might learn and how much fun you can have.
Share your images with us in the comments below.