They say photography is an art form, and I couldn’t agree more. There are so many elements that go into making a great piece of art. Not only do you need to know your gear and the environment you work in, but you also need to know how to put the finishing touches to your art, that takes it from good to great.
This can be quite challenging especially to a beginner. But like any great artist would say, all of this can be done with a lot of practice and patience. Great photos tend to have universal appeal. They are technically sound, and also have an editing style that appeals to the mass majority. While most photographers, including myself, advocate getting it right in camera, there are some basic steps that you may need to follow just to add the right amount of oomph to your images in the post-processing stage.
Choosing the right type of editing software
The type of editing you apply to your images does depend on the type of software you use. There are many different options for editing software on the market. Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are two of the most popular ones for serious amateurs, and professional photographers. But if you are an absolute beginner they might be cost prohibitive for your needs. There are some good free editing software, like PicMonkey and Picasa, that work great at a basic level. If you are a cell phone photographer, then most smartphones have built-in editing software that does the job fairly well too. Apart from the basic editing steps they also have a ton of filters for adding some really cool effects to your images. But just be careful of the audience and the purpose for these cell phone images before applying funky filters.
For the purposes of this article, I will be using Lightroom. Most of the steps are common to all editing software, just choose the one that works for you and your photography needs.
Adjust the horizon
One of the first things I do to any image is to adjust the horizon, also known as straightening the image. I am not a fan of tilting my images. I find that when I look at tilted images, I don’t know which way is up. Am I supposed to turn my head to the right or the left? Crazy tilts make me dizzy. I don’t see images in tilts in my day-to-day, so why would I want to click images that are tilted. This is just my personal preference. I know some photographers who consider it very artsy to have tilted images. If that is your thing, then go for it and do what makes you happy. For images that have the horizon or leading lines in them, getting the horizon level is an absolute must.
This was taken from the passenger side of the car – I really loved the leading lines but knew the horizon was way off.
In Lightroom, I adjusted the horizon, increased the contrast gently, and warmed up the image by adjusting the temperature slightly.
Adjust or crop out any unwanted elements
Nothing can be more distracting than an unwanted element in the frame. Before cropping or removing unwanted elements ask yourself whether the object is actually adding value to the image, or is it competing with the subject for attention. Removing unwanted elements can be done by using the clone/stamp tool in Photoshop, the spot healing brush Lightroom or a simple crop function in your photo editor of choice.
I loved the texture of the brick wall but hated the stains on the wall right near the chair.
I chose a closer crop for the chair, and cloned out the stains using the spot removal tool in Lightroom. I also brightened the image a tad.
Remove any dust spots
This is something that is prominent if you are photographing against a light background, or when converting to black and white. If your sensor is dirty or has minute dust specks, they appear in your photographs. You can use the clone tool or even the patch tool (Photoshop) and clean out these dust spots in the image.
Adjust the exposure and contrast
After you have straightened the horizon and removed any unwanted or distracting elements from the frame, next adjust the exposure of the image. This adjusts the brightness. If the image is too dark, add light in and if the image is too bright, reduce light. Keep in mind that often times adjusting brightness will affect the contrast of the image as well. This can be fixed by adjusting the Contrast Slider in Lightroom. It makes the brightest parts of the image brighter and the darkest parts darker, and improves the overall look of the adjusted image.
While I adore this pose of my clients, the image is a little too dark (underexposed) as the light was changing very fast.
As part of my edits to this image, I increased the exposure, warmed up the image by increasing the temperature and also adjusted the contrast a bit to add a little more umph (punch) to the image.
Typically if I have adjusted temperature and contrast in an image, I do not adjust the saturation slider. But this is a personal preference for most people. Adjusting the saturation value of an image can add a certain punch to an image, but use this tool with a light hand as you don’t want you image to look too processed.
I love this image of fresh snow on the blades of tall grass near my home. But, because everything was so dark and gloomy due to the snow, the image appears a bit flat and dull.
I wanted to exaggerate the colors of the blades of grass to show that they were extremely dry and also pop-out the white snow on the grass. So I adjusted the saturation and vibrance sliders in Lightroom, and also warmed up the image by adjusting the temperature.
Export for web or print
Depending on what is the final treatment for your images, you can either save them as low resolution JPEGS or high resolution JPEGS. There are many other formats as well like TIFF, BMP, and GIF. JPEG are more universally accepted, and is the format that I use for all my images – the ones for print as well as for the web. Typically an image approximately 72PPI (pixels per inch) is considered as a low resolution image, ideal for the web (but on the web only the actual pixel size matters so 1000px on the long side is usually a good choice for the web). An image of 150DPI or 300DPI is considered a high resolution image ideal for print. DPI stands for Dots per inch. Per wikipedia, it is used to describe the resolution number of dots per inch in a digital print.
Ultimately how you process your images is an extremely personal decision. Choose the style and the tools that best describe your photography style. It is okay to experiment with the latest fads, filters, and looks but keep in mind that you may want your images to have a timeless look and feel so that years from now when you look at them, they still evoke an emotion.