Photo editing is a fine art that you can only learn by experimenting. In the long run you will eventually find your own style, your own preferences and hopefully recognize some of your shortcomings as a photographer while tidying up in the post process.
Too much fiddling and you’ll end up with a photo that looks over-processed and gaudy, but focusing your efforts in the wrong area might not yield any improvements at all. There are a few fixes that can really make a picture stand out, and they’re often the simplest of things.
Better still, by paying attention to where you went wrong and fixing it in post, you can improve your overall skills as a photographer.
Retouchers Take Note
If you want to be able to fix, change and generally manipulate virtually every variable in your image then you should always be shooting in RAW mode. RAW files are considerably bigger than their JPEG counterparts, especially as sensor sizes continue to grow to full-frame levels. RAW files might take up more room, but your adjustments can go so much further.
You’d be amazed how many times a photographer has salvaged what is seemingly a throw-away shot with a bit of clever RAW manipulation. That said, by no means should shooting in RAW be your license to slack-off as a photographer and think “I’ll fix it in post” – it doesn’t work that way.
Balancing The Exposure
We’ve run a few articles in the past about the importance of the histogram when it comes to digital photography. It’s a luxury that analogue photography lacked, and once you learn how to read it then you should be able to produce better balanced images, with less blown-out highlights and lost shadows.
However if you have got a slightly dark or overly bright image, tweaking the exposure will remedy the problem to an extent. If your highlights are way too blown out (i.e. white is a prevalent theme) then don’t hold too much hope, but then again you might be surprised how much you can recover. Here’s an example image:
It’s not a great photo, it won’t win any awards and as you can see it’s been under-exposed. That doesn’t mean it’s completely lost however, and so if I increase the exposure by +1.3 EV then the histogram looks something like this:
Luckily I’ve not lost any detail in the sky because it was a sunny day, but if the sky is cloudy you might consider adding a graduated filter or manually touching up the sky to reduce the exposure slightly and recover the shadow details. The final image looks like this, and the adjustment took literally a second:
White Balance & Skin Tones
White balance is the bane of many photographers, depending on their specialty. If you’re shooting in conditions that rapidly change, or there are multiple sources of light that conflict (i.e. the sun and artificial lighting) then you’re looking at spending some time fixing all those off-whites and alien skin tones.
Shooting live music is something I’m very familiar with, and a good example of rapidly changing lighting conditions. Using colored lights to your advantage is all good and well, but there’s a fine line between creativity and ill-looking performers and for that reason you’ll want to correct the whites or the skin tones, like in this photo:
In the photo above I’ve slightly increased the exposure and pushed the blacks up a touch, but left the white balance on the “as shot” mode, which was set to automatic metering. There are two light sources here – natural light beaming through the top of the tent, and spotlights shining on the performer from the left and right. This means we’ll never balance the two – one will look warmer, the other cooler. When it comes to portraiture, or shots of people in general, I’d always recommend correcting for skin tones, which means that balancing for the white on the performer’s jacket should yield good results:
By changing the white balance temperature from 4800K to 2900K and balancing the results with the tint, the white of the jacket (and guitar scratchplate) now looks a lot whiter, though the naturally-lit roof now a slightly bluish tint. On the plus side, the performer looks far less jaundiced and there’s some subtle pink coming through on the left of his jacket probably from another stage light.
Bring Me The (Straightened) Horizon
If there’s one thing that consistently ruins photos for me it’s a wonky horizon. Dutch angles and “creative” composure aside, if you’ve got a picture with the horizon in it – or a body of water, a wall, or something else which otherwise represents “straightness” then you’ve got little excuse to not fix it. Take this photo taken on a lake in Switzerland:
Most straightening tools work in the same manner – grab the horizon or other “straight” feature and draw a line along it. You will lose some of your image because it will be cropped out to allow for the straightening, but your image will look so much more pleasing on the eye. If you start to notice a lot of your shots aren’t straight try shooting with grid lines on if your camera supports it, and remind yourself while taking photos to check the horizon:
This isn’t to say photos must always be straight, don’t be afraid to be creative. Just avoid being creative at the expense of a visually pleasing image.
Combining these three quick photo fixes can really transform a throw-away exposure into a keeper. Let us know what you think of these tips, what works for you and your own photo editing tips!