How Post-Processing Helped Me Become a Better Photographer

How Post-Processing Helped Me Become a Better Photographer

The following post is from author of the Photo Nuts DPS ebook series Neil Creek. The third book in the series Photo Nuts & Post – A Guide to Post-Processing launched on dPS this week! If you have any post-processing questions for Neil, he would be happy to answer them on Google+ or Twitter.

Post-processing your digital photos is a controversial topic for some. The idea that you change and manipulate a photo after it’s been taken is seen by some as changing reality; creating something that’s ‘fake’. I disagree strongly with that idea for many reasons, but the reason I’m going to talk about here is that post-processing made me a better photographer. Not just that I think it made my photos look better, but actually helped me to become better at taking photos.

Accelerated Learning

Getting your photos onto the computer and into an editing program gives you access to an instant feedback machine. You can learn a great deal about how to take photos by looking at those you have taken before:

  • Looking at each photo closely reveals problems. You may not notice some issues if you just resize and upload a photo.
  • Comparing the results with the settings used gives instant feedback. The EXIF data in a photo is invaluable for giving you clues about why a photo may not have worked.
  • Playing with photos in post is almost like touching them. Experimenting with sliders lets you ‘feel’ the potential in a photo.
  • The hard-to-define and harder-to-teach skill of learning to see is made so much easier by this process of shooting and feedback.

Lessons Learned

After you’ve been processing your photos for a little while, some lessons about how digital photography works – and the limitations and strengths it has – will become more apparent to you. You can then keep these in mind when shooting and change your settings or shooting technique to avoid running into any problems and make the most of the format:

  • You’ll get a better understanding of exposure and the capabilities of the RAW format (you ARE shooting in RAW, right?).
  • Learn the consequences of a poorly exposed photo, and how much latitude you actually have to correct such a photo.
  • Understand how much can be gained and lost at various noise settings so you know when you can push through low light and keep shooting, or when you need to consider alternative strategies.
  • Understand why it’s important to ‘get it right in camera’.
  • Conversely, understanding how much can be done in post and what’s best left to that stage.

Expands the Mind

Creating images from the shooting perspective only is a bit tunnel-visioned. Once you free yourself from the metaphorical shackles of preserving some idea of ‘reality’, then you will open your mind to the creative possibilities of processing your photos. Not only that, but you will understand that you are the one in control of how real the photo looks, or how unreal. Your confidence will grow, and that will be reflected in your future work.

  • Processing lets you see the hidden potential in a photo.
  • You will realise that most of those amazing photos you admire online started with something quite different out of camera.
  • You will also realise that your photos could be so much better.
  • You are in complete control of the final look of the photo. Whether you just tweak things to reflect your impression of being there, or you create something completely new that was never seen by the human eye, it’s completely within your control.
  • Your confidence will build by giving you the tools and knowledge to take your photos to the next level.

An Extra Opportunity

If you’ve been thinking that processing is an extra step you don’t have time for, you’re missing the point. It’s an extra opportunity to learn more, make better photos and become a better photographer. And to be quite honest, post-processing can be fun! Import your photo, sprinkle a bit of magic ‘post’ dust on a photo, and export something with much more life and impact.

Getting better photos is wonderful, but don’t underestimate the power that post-processing has to make you a better photographer.

Want to learn more about Post Production? Check out Neil’s new eBook – Photo Nuts & Post – A Guide to Post-Processing.

Read more from our Post Production category

Neil Creek is a professional photographer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been shooting with a DSLR since 2004, and blogging about his experiences since 2006. Neil has authored five ebooks and a video training course, all designed to help others improve their photography. View Neil's folio at his home page. Learn about his publications here.

Some Older Comments

  • Keith Cooper October 3, 2012 07:04 pm

    Post processing IMHO is fine so long as it doesn't overwhelm the original image. Straightening and leveling, cloning to remove unwanted bits, level adjustments, sharpening and cropping are nothing more than have always been done by keen photographers. It's so much easier and not so messy these days.

    For me that is where the boundary between photography and what could be called digital art begins. Very few pictures will be perfectly as the photographer saw them in their mind's eye when they pressed the shutter but for me I want a photograph to look as if it could have been taken with a camera, had the circumstances and settings been correct. If the PP becomes glaringly obvious then it has moved into the realm of digital art and graphic art. And that is a different subject.

  • Jo Harley October 3, 2012 05:55 am

    I could not agree more. I started getting seriously into photography just over a year ago when I moved to a place near the sea that brought out the creative side of me that I had long since shelved. I have learnt so much from taking the time to process my shots to the point I have gone out and taken the exact same shot because of what I have achieved, I l am learning how to see things in many different ways. Prosessing gave me the courage to only ever shoot in manual (I still only use a compact camera until I have learnt how to use it 100% without taking any time to think about the settings for the shot then I will move up) and to learn everything I could about the technicalities of photography, my camera, lighting the lot. From where I started out I think I can see the improvement both in my photographs and my perspective. Also I love the fact that it gives me the opportunity to get really arty and creative with a shot that perhaps went a bit wrong and it brought out my creative side once again. Yes sometimes I still get it wrong but I am not a purist. I love emotion, art and expression in photography and that comes from the person who is behind the camera, not just the camera itself.

  • Mick March 28, 2012 03:04 pm

    Bottom line is this: as soon as you download a photograph from the camera, you are entering the realm of graphic art. Do not confuse these two disciplines. If you wish to be a Photographer, then don't post process; if you wish to be a Graphic Artist, then start with a photograph and post process as much as you like; if you want to do both, have at it! But please don't tell a Photographer that he/she must post process their photographs because you don't know what they want to be!

  • Adam February 18, 2012 04:13 am

    Great Post! I agree completely that post processing has made me a better photographer. Before, I always felt bad that I would post process every photo that I took. Over time as I got better, I did not see the need as much as I was fixing, behind the camera what I was post processing. Still process some, but now its for more of a artistic thing.

  • ColininOz February 17, 2012 09:08 am

    Very little mention is made in the article or the comments on the dangers and pitfalls of OVER post processing. Editing is fun , is effective, but can result in totally unrealistic images. In my opinion almost all HDR images are over processed and bear little resemblance to the original scene. Similarly it is very easy to over saturate and over brighten colours. What used to be called 'Kodak' colours. If the images used in this article are untouched on the left and edited on the right I personally think a bit LESS extreme editing might have been better ! The blonde model with the feather in her hair is an example. Half as much would have been twice as good . But then I am an old Pommie.

  • raj singh arora February 15, 2012 09:40 am

    you dont take a make it ..... love the art of editing :)

  • ounkeo February 14, 2012 09:22 pm


    The reason why it's nearly pointless to learn or teach jpeg photo editing is because jpeg files are already moderately to heavily post processed in camera. The camera does colour adjustments, sharpening and other compensations to achieve a predefined rule of what generally looks good to the eye. But in that process, it leaves little else you can do to the image beyond basic global editing because data gets destroyed during the process. If you take a RAW picture out of camera and compare it to the jpeg, you'll see they look quite different (vastly different in many cases).

    Jpegs *can* be saved to certain extents but it's generally not worth the time/effort. Shooting in jpeg means if you lose detail, there is no way to recover those details. Jpeg is destructive and final output. The reason why adjustments in RAW are worth doing is because RAW files exist as very nearly as possible to what the camera captured WITHOUT processing. So you have many more detail and data to actually edit.

    For example, you can't recover detail from a blown out sky in a jpeg because that detail was lost during in camera processing. In RAW, in most circumstance, you can recover a good deal of detail from the sky even if it's blown out because the camera hasn't done anythign with it.

    There simply is no point to trying to photo manipulate jpeg photographs unless you're doing creative digital artwork from it. If that's the case, there are a ton of books on how to use photoshop creatively for digital art.

    Any way, digital editors are just tools. As someone posted, everyone has different limits to what they consider to be acceptable/cheating. As a designer, I try my hardest to make sure the photo out of camera is very nearly exactly what I want (or I toss it), then I make very minor tweaks and adjustments; sharpness if needed, straightening, contrast. The only thing I really don't touch are colour and saturation. If adjusting gamma, bright/dark settings don't give me the desired colours, so be it; that's what I shot.

    My rules are: Adjust (minor) but don't manipulate and don't make the picture into something it wasn't unless you're relegating it away from a photo and into a piece of digital art.

  • Prophoto - Wedding Photographer Perth February 14, 2012 08:51 pm

    I was a Wedding Photographer for years using film, now digital has opened new horizons and I for one would never look back.

  • Keith Cooper February 11, 2012 02:43 am

    I agree with larry gregory and think his 'surrealist image and steroids' expression is a perfect description for much of the post production work we see nowadays. Careful cropping, gentle lightening, judicious adustment of colour and contrast can all add to pictures but we have to be careful not to take it too far otherwise we are treading in the realm of the impressionist painters whic is, after all a whole other art form. Just because we can doesn't mean we should.

  • Dick Brigleb February 2, 2012 12:30 am

    Just thought I'd pass along this link. It seem to fit here.

  • Hiten January 31, 2012 11:57 pm

    Nice article,thanks...

  • Larrry Gregory January 28, 2012 01:03 am

    Post processing is simply a continuation of the creative process....Reality? Today what is reality...
    Reality is what ever the mind conjurs up with all the digital tools now available.. No longer do we settle
    for what we just record in the camera..That is just the start of the creative contribution to the final image..
    And yes, sometimes like everything else in our subjective lives we go a tad too far and change a perfectly
    good image into something that looks like a surrealistic image on steroids... Our ability to alter reality has
    its place...However, as the wise man once said..."Less is more."

  • raghavendra January 27, 2012 07:27 pm

    Wow, this is fine editing
    But editing too much makes it worse

  • Naman Chitkara Photography January 27, 2012 06:14 pm

    I completely agree with u peter, its the new era and u have to go wid the flow..There is no alternative or u can say this is the only alternative

  • Theo January 27, 2012 06:13 pm

    "Post-processing your digital photos is a controversial topic for some. The idea that you change and manipulate a photo after it’s been taken is seen by some as changing reality; creating something that’s ‘fake’."

    If you consider the photography an art and not a simple documentation, then in art you should behave like in art. How "real" were the paintings of Canaletto, known for his "photographic" paintings of Venetia? Well, I'll tell you: he changed sometimes even the place of buildings for obtaining more spectaculous views.

    I myself visited a house painted by Wyeth and observed that he changed a place of a column, to say nothing about his colors which were very far from reality.

    So, if you consider yourself an artist, no need to justify yourself concerning the use of post-treatment.

  • Peter January 27, 2012 02:13 pm

    Jan. 26, 2012@8:58pm

    I knew post processing is a time consuming when it comes
    to manipulating images. But if you want to get involve on
    digital technology you can't get away from it.

    Even though you want to be excloded or exempted the process
    sitll going on. This is the way it should be whether you are a
    professional, amature or newbie photographer. So we have to
    go with the flow.

    Nice article Neil.

  • Marco January 27, 2012 07:08 am

    Let's get one thing on the table from the beginning -- Every JPG image that comes out of a digital camera HAS BEEN POST PROCESSED!!! It is just that the camera did the processing from the RAW sensor data and it used the factory settings unless you modified them in the camera menus.

    Now do you want the camera manufacturer to decide what needs work or do you wish to take control of that yourself? When I shot with point and shoot cameras, I would change the menu settings to "landscape" so that the images I took would emphasis the greens and the blues in the image and would raise the saturation a little. I shoot wildlife and landscapes so this was appropriate for me. If I shot people as my main subject then setting the menu to "portrait" would have been a better choice.

    I quickly moved to DSLR and I leave the camera set to "standard" and do my adjustments later in GIMP. Today I mostly shoot RAW+JPG highest. The majority of times I use the JPG file and all is well, but if there is a major problem that can be fixed by going back to the sensor data (RAW file) I have that option available. Mostly this is white balance issues, but sometimes I miss the exposure by a little and can save the shot by using the RAW file.

    One of the major issues with digital over film is that the RAW data is never as sharp or as color saturated as a film negative. Even with film, there were hundreds of choices of film that each had their own characteristics. Landscape photographers almost all used Velvia film for its blues and greens with deep saturation. Portrait photographers used other film for their great skin tones. And on and on with each type of photography having its "best" film for its type of photography. Digital sensors don't come with variations for type, so they do this in post-processing whether you do it or if you let the camera do it for you!!!

    For all of the purists, IF YOU MUST CAPTURE IT "IN CAMERA" WITHOUT POST-PROCESSING, THEN YOU MUST USE FILM!!!! All digital photos are post-processed!

    Ok, with that said, the best photographers used professional labs or developed their own film as the developing process could alter the outcomes! Amateur photographers got their film developed at drug stores and they used bulk labs that rushed everything through at "normal settings" that may or may not be best for your image. Their target customer was the family snapshot! So the developing process could alter the negative and then the print process could be altered by "dodge and burn" among other techniques. So even film was POST-PROCESSED in its day!!!!

    And yes a full understanding of the post-process techniques can greatly improve your "in camera" results by informing your choices of exposure settings and your understanding of the histogram and what it means, so if you wish to improve your shooting, you should learn the post methods. Great article.

  • spirat January 27, 2012 05:53 am

    I used it a lot to learn too, by I grew to hate my shots and realize I lack real talent sometimes. I can take a snapshit and make it look good, but in the end when I look back, I don't really like that.

    Now I'm only using Lightroom to develop my RAW files (contrast/saturation/ and other necessary things) or do black hand white. If I fuck up a shot, it's because I consider it failed to begin with and I want to hide it.

    Good shots = lens correction + basic developing. That should be all.

  • Chris January 27, 2012 04:58 am

    Thank You! There has never been a photograph taken that has not distorted reality in some way. Whether you use aperture, focus, speed, white balance, focal length...or Photoshop, you are still processing the scene. A camera is just a box with a hole in it, all of the other gizmos we cram into it have no purpose except to modify the image - just like Photoshop!

  • javier January 27, 2012 03:16 am

    IMO, post-processing is as essential to digital photography as developing was for film. One could just bring the roll to the lab, dump it into a machine and wait for the result, but many photographers used that step to experiment with different chemicals, papers, lights, burning and dodging... same trade, new tool.

  • Katie January 26, 2012 03:06 am

    I completely agree...I have learned so much about correcting my photography through post processing. And post processing adds that extra edge to your images, it's like comparing regular TV to HD- Post processing adds that extra body and depth to the photograph.

  • Albert Shu January 25, 2012 10:44 pm

    Lol I totally did not notice that feather and I stared at that photo for a good minute too.

    Post processing is definitely important. I'm really trying to do as little as possible to my photos but I find that there's always something more I can improve. Even for photos that have potential but I've screwed up some other aspect of the photo, I can usually salvage with post processing. Here is a photo that I wasn't originally thrilled about that I completely changed in post processing and I now love.

  • Joe January 25, 2012 06:34 am

    I'm fairly certain that is a feather in her hair.

  • John January 25, 2012 03:13 am

    Interesting post and indeed a very important topic.

    Not to be nit-picky butI do find it interesting that one of the portrait images you chose to display here seems to be a poorly composed one with a light(?) sticking out from the side of her head. And the fact that this was not addressed in any way in the post processed image is even stranger still.

    Just my 0.2c

  • PK January 25, 2012 12:23 am

    It's just a shame that every book or tutorial I have ever encountered in my quest to learn how to post-process properly is aimed squarely at RAW, and not for those of us whose camera doesn't shoot in RAW (I can't afford to take the DLSR route, and my compact high-zoom doesn't shoot RAW). Even the handbook I got with Photoshop Elements 9 has nothing in it for non-RAW processing! I try the best I can, but I find the results always make the pictures look fake and processed - I'm a big fan of photorealism in my own photography - and no tutorial I have been able to find is of any help, as RAW processing does not translate to non-RAW photos in PE9. I can't even load my photos into "camera Raw" to attempt to process them properly.

    Somehow I doubt this book will be any different, either - especially after the patronising comment (you *are* shooting in RAW, aren't you) above. Not everyone has the money to go down the DSLR route, but we would like to make our photos the best that they can be, too.

  • Dick Brigleb January 24, 2012 11:30 pm

    I cut my teeth when photography was all about chemicals. There was plenty of post processing and plenty was learned from it just as Neil says. The biggest difference is that my fingers are no longer stained yellow and I don't have to work in the dark.

  • JC Ruiz January 24, 2012 11:21 pm

    I agree completely. Post processing does give me the insight I need to be a better photographer. I can learn from my mistakes just by looking at the way the photo was composed and by the exif data.

  • Dewan Demmer January 24, 2012 05:44 pm

    I pretty much treat the two acts seperate in mind. The photography is something to its own as is the post processing, now I am not saying I do not think about the processing while photographing. Now apart from catering to cropping or black and white I dont think post processing is considered during the photo shoot.
    That said Post processing does help me see where my errors are, far more than simply viewing a photo so definately I can say the your right there.

    The prefernce between RAW and JPEG is personal, I shoot both and find that I use JPEG more often. I will happily say that using RAW wont make me a better photographer, even during post processing.

    When I am busy shooting I know when a shot is useless and when it may need minor tweaking, sometimes a shot that looks like it went horribly wrong can be given a new look and with a little clever post processing can be something worth looking at. That said it does help me see my errors, and I hope I am learning from them.

    This shoot I see so many different things I could have done, and with post processing I cleaned up the images the way liked them.

  • Dave January 24, 2012 02:27 pm

    HD photography effects are being abused

  • Charles January 24, 2012 11:19 am

    Just agreeing with what has already been said. I continue to refine and hone post-processing, particularly after switching to RAW and realizing the hug opportunity to make each shot great.

  • ansarips January 24, 2012 10:54 am

    Personally, I think that those who thinks that post processing is "cheating" is a bit arrogant and possibly doesn't know enough about photography itself. It's like those people who thinks full manual is the only right way to shoot pictures.

    The idea of post processing is to give potential pictures extra polish, not saving those bad pictures. Photography is an art, and there are no rules to produce art, so use whatever tools at hand, as long as it makes a good picture.

    Of course, there are those code of ethics that may apply, especially when you want to show the pictures as facts, such as in journalism. In that case, just don't push post processing to the point that it alters the facts.

  • Scott January 24, 2012 10:38 am

    Nice article. Thanks for writing it.

    One of the nice things about post-processing is that it essentially lets you continue "taking photos" once your shoot is finished. Sitting at home at the computer you can take a sepia shot, a cross-processed shot, a B&W with a red filter, etc, all using that one good shot you took at the location.

    I really like Ansel Adam's comparison of the negative to a piece of music. At the end of the day, that piece of music is actually how a bunch of computer techs at think that the electrons hitting the sensor relate to the real world. Even the RAW image has been interpreted.

    From an episode of Pure Pwnage: "Just because it's on a computer doesn't mean it's not real!"

  • Stanley H-O January 24, 2012 10:38 am

    Personally, I don't think post-processing should be used to fix mistakes. Of course, if you make a mistake, post-processing can help, but I think the camera should do as much as possible, when possible. Framing and other things that can be achieved by moving your body or flicking a couple dials are things a photographer should pay attention to, not take for granted because Lightroom or Photoshop can fix it. That being said, post-processing can make images like the last one posted (the building in the middle of... nowhere?) stunning. There would have been no way to create the final image just by using the photographer's skill and camera settings. Post-processing can show off the creativity and vision of the photographer, and I think it should complement photographic skill.

  • Carine January 24, 2012 09:55 am

    I used to think that if I became good enough at photography, I wouldn't need post processing, just getting it right as I shot it would be good enough. Then I learned about RAW and jpg and digital files and everything else. And I discovered Lightroom. Now I see photo editing as a necessary step. Whatever your camera produces is just never as it is, and yo need to PP to get that little extra.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck January 24, 2012 07:05 am


    Totally agree with the points in this article and the comments from Jason. There is mothing more annoying than working through a project or job, coming home and finding that almost every shot needs a little something, that a batch adjustment just couldn't handle. Having been through this pain several times, I am a lot more careful with things like White Balance (even though I shoot RAW all the time)

    Even for model shots, like this High Ket lightinf setup, I always test in advance, so I am dialed in before the model even shows up - and less post work to boot!

  • hubblefromthesun January 24, 2012 06:17 am

    I am just getting acquainted with digital editing. I can't agree more at having the opportunity to look closely at your images and try to understand what can be learned for next time. I also like looking at before and after pictures to get a better sense of the potential in images.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer January 24, 2012 05:03 am

    @Neil -- it is refreshing to read a photography article that is a proponent of establishing one's digital photograph editing skills. I am a big proponent as well and write why I think shooting and editing skills should be developed simultaneously:

    Working on my editing skills, as you wrote, translated into me making better shots in the field. I used to shoot a lot of beach weddings and every shot would be underexposed to a degree requiring an annoying adjustment (times 100x images, each one a little different), then after awhile I did not have to touch the exposure adjustment when editing because I knew my shots needed to be better from editing.

  • Gonzalo Jara January 24, 2012 04:25 am

    Hi, i am a little scared of post processing my pictures. I really want to learn how to properly shoot photos and i feel like using post procesing is like cheating. I mean, photographers used to relly only on one shot to make a great picture, and they achieved it perfectly, but now, al you need to do is take a normal picture, post process it and it looks cool, but it is not really the picture you took.

    I am really interested in post processing, so i will give it a try, but can somebody try to convince me it is not "cheating" so that i can do it more comfortably? hehehe, thanks!

  • HarlanSanders January 24, 2012 03:57 am

    Post processing is a tool like any other. When applied well it gives you great results and is an art. For some people, it can become a crutch and they will never nail their exposure. The best method (atleast to me, and I think this is fairly hard to dispute) is to try to get it as close to your final result as possible with your equipment in camera. That way you lose the least amount of data.

    Of course there are the things post-processing will never fix, like bad focus, exposure that's off by more than a couple stops, and bad lighting.

  • Andy Mills January 24, 2012 03:04 am

    Some people seem to think that post-processing is new to digital photography, when it is not. Only the method/tools has changed.

    Going back over the decades, photographers would use different papers to change contrast, would enlarge and/or crop, then would dodge and burn prints to get the best (or their vision) out of them.

    The following link is to a Youtube video of an interview with Ansel Adams' son, and they talk about how he would post process the image. In fact they go on to say that Adams felt the negative (RAW image) was like the score in music and the print the interpretation/performance.

  • Jack Larson January 24, 2012 02:21 am

    This certainly is my story. The Digital Darkroom more than digital cameras has taken my photography to the nexr level.

  • THE aSTIG @ January 24, 2012 02:17 am

    This is totally true. I couldn't agree more. I'd like to share my story as to how post processing allowed me to earn more money!

    I'm also a photographer, where my focus is on Car Photography for

    The blog has been around since 2009, but I only started doing Post Processing in December 2010. From then on, it has completely changed. I started getting more and more pageviews, and of course, ads and sponsors since! And now, I also get client offers to have me shoot their cars and motorsports events! I'm having a blast now and I never knew I could reach heights like this if I didn't learn post processing.

    Just note that post processing is simply to enhance the photos. A bad photo to begine with will end up as a bad photo, even when post processed. Garbage in, garbage out.

  • Andy January 24, 2012 01:22 am

    Nice post. Personally, from the moment I got my DSLR on, I've always considered post-processing to be a necessary step. On some photos, it's just to add contrast and sharping to RAW files (you know, the things that the camera would have done for you when saving as JPEG if you weren't shooting RAW). Some photos, I take knowing that shooting the shot is just the first step and I have a vision in my head for what I want to do in post-processing.

    When I get my photos on my computer, I sort what's worth post-processing and what's not. If it's not worth post-processing at all, it's not really worth ever looking at again to me. Some photos barely get touched, others get a lot. It doesn't mean all photos I post-process turn out to be good photos, but it means that I think they came out of the camera good enough to warrant spending a little time with.

    Unless you are a photojournalist (in which, I don't think you should be doing anything to alter the look of a photo other than maybe a little brightening/darkening), post-processing (to some degree) is a necessary step to making a photo of what your mind sees. This is most evident in your last example. The original photo tells very little story, it's not interesting at all. But the processed version says a lot and really speaks to me. I can look at that photo and feel as though I can write an entire story around it.