How not to over-edit your photos
Editing digital files is an essential part of an image creation process. Beginners don’t often realise; you don’t have a choice of whether or not to edit. The choice is simply whether you edit or whether the camera edits.
If you shoot JPEG then your camera has already edited your digital file for you and then discarded all the information it didn’t use. It will have boosted contrast, increased saturation and sharpened your file. People who say they prefer not to edit because they like to get it right in-camera probably don’t realise the camera is doing the editing for them. By shooting RAW and doing your own editing you are taking more control over the whole image creation process.
In this post I’m not talking about using Photoshop to clone out people, add textures or change what you saw. I’m giving you some guidelines about using editing as a digital darkroom; how to coax the information from your RAW file to create the best image possible.
Read this post if you want more information on RAW: What is RAW and why do you need it?
How much is too much?
Avoid these beginner mistakes when you first start to edit your photographs:
Too much: your digital file has a finite number of pixels that make up the whole image. If you crop too many of them away you risk being left with a file too small to display properly. If you crop radically always check how many pixels you have left. The shot below on the right shows how an image degrades if cropped and then displayed at too high a resolution for the available pixels:
Too little: having said that, don’t be afraid to crop your shots slightly to improve the position of your subject in the frame, to get rid of distractions at the edge of the frame and to straighten the horizon.
RAW files will need the saturation or vibrance boosting slightly. It’s very, very easy to overdo saturation especially if your monitor isn’t calibrated (more on that in a couple of weeks). When you first start editing take your saturation beyond what you think is right and then bring it back down until it doesn’t look unnatural. Then walk away from your computer for 10 or 15 minutes. When you come back if it still looks wrong tone it down some more.
Monitors are back-lit and show images much more brightly than printed images. If you have a shot printed and it is disappointingly dull then this is why. To avoid disappointment in addition to calibrating your monitor you should also proof your shots on screen using the printer’s ICC profile. This reduces the contrast, saturation and gamut of your digital image to mimic what’s possible with print.
Sharpening your image will not fix focus mistakes.
Sharpening is the process of increasing the contrast between edges in your image. A small amount is needed on every file; more for print images than those that will be displayed digitally. Sharpening should always be the very last thing you do, and only when you know how the shot will be displayed.
Too little sharpening means your shots will look soft. Too much sharpening brings the tell-tale ghosting as seen in the shot on the right below:
Contrast is the range of tones between dark and light. Low contrast shots can look dull and flat. High contrast ones tend to pop a bit (sometimes too much). As with saturation, some contrast should usually be added but be careful not to overdo it:
5. Too much HDR
Once you discover how to increase the dynamic range of your shots it can be tempting to overdo it. Done sympathetically HDR simply makes up for the deficiencies of your sensor to mimic what the eye could see at the time in a high contrast situation. You shouldn’t be able to notice it. But overdone HDR shots look like cartoons. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Free Beginner’s Workshop
If all this is too much for you, join my free online beginner’s photography workshop and go right back to basics. Join here and get started today: