The Basic Truths of Editing

Anyone who pursues photography must learn the basics truths of editing. There are many tutorials on the web sharing editing techniques, but I'd like to look at the overall purpose of editing as it affects photography.

First, what is editing?

This is an age-old, much-debated question with many answers. To sum it up, editing returns the scene in a photograph to its natural state. When you are finished, the scene in your photo should look like it did when you took the picture. This is, after all, the purpose of photography; it is to preserve what you see before you. Editing also enhances a scene, making it more eye-pleasing. For example, perhaps there is a wonderful vista, but a stray telephone wire mars it. Editing removes the wire without making any great changes to the scene itself.

Next, what are the rules of editing, and where does one begin to get started? 

Here is where I would like to introduce a concept I call "overkill." I see photos like these all the time - photos processed so much they more resemble artwork. There IS a place in the world for this type of graphic design. However, please avoid calling your creation a photograph once you've done all that to it. With photograph editing, honesty is always the best policy. You do not have to advertise all the steps you took to come to your final result, but do not attempt to hide them either. Be up front and candid when asked.

(This photo was edited for color saturation and a slight filtered effect was added.)

Overkill comes in many forms.

Over saturation
Over filtration

Over saturation causes the natural colors in the image to take on an unnatural shade. You know the type. You look at the picture and think inwardly, "Wow, no plant comes in that shade of green!" The easiest rule where colors are concerned is to avoid creating colors that do not exist in that landscape or scene. Pay particular attention to flesh tones and white objects. These are often your best gauge for when you are "over-doing" it.

Cropping has place in photography. Whenever the main object is out of place or too far away, cropping is an option to correct the photograph. (I did this in the image of the bluebird, above.) However, I offer up a word of caution. Steer clear of creating unusual shapes. If the bird is too small in the image, then your shot may work fine as documentary proof of its sighting. However, over-cropping and afterward presenting it to the public as original work is generally frowned upon. The truth is, sometimes a lost shot is just that, a lost shot.

I do minor cropping all the time. Sometimes there is too much negative space and so the focus of the photograph becomes lost. I always crop to either a 2:1.5, 3:2, or 4:3 ratio. Occasionally, I use 16:9 for widescreen. These are the most common shapes for photographs. There is no hard and fast rule here; no one is going to shoot you for cropping to, say, a square, but consistency of action is a good habit to have. Cropping is especially appropriate when your horizon is not level. No matter how hilly the landscape or bumpy the ride was, an un-level horizon is distracting.

Over-sharpening is typically a beginning editor's biggest faux pas. The best rule for sharpening is to remember that when all is said and done, a blurry photo is just a blurry photo. At some point, you must face your failure and move on. When sharpening, sharpen only the areas that need it the most. Most software comes with a sharpening brush. Also, look back and forth at your original image and then your changes several times. Paying close attention to the smallest details is a great way to prevent overkill. 

(In this image, I sharpened only the center stamens of the flower.)

When talking about over-exposure, I am more specifically discussing correcting overly dark images. This problem goes back to the science of the human eye. Cameras cannot capture the range of lighting of the human eye. This creates problems photographing in high contrast lighting and often results in dark images. (There are also the times you forget to change your camera's settings back to their default location.) 

There are a number of ways to correct under-exposure - Brightness/Contrast functions, Dodge/Burn brushes, and even HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. However, no matter what tool you choose, the general rule should always be to abstain from creating odd lighting. It helps to pay attention to each photo's histogram. Remember, the purpose of editing is to return the image to how the scene would appear naturally. Too much editing on the exposure of dark areas leaves the photograph looking either too flat or strangely dark and brooding. In the following image, the reflection of light off the water caused the bird to be too dark. I used a shadow lightening tool to correct this problem, but only so far as the image looked natural to the eye.

Over-filtration is an easy problem to get into, especially now when photo filters can be so easily accessed from your phone. Yet too much is still too much where filters are concerned. The overuse of photo editing filters creates images that are more artwork and less photography. Again, don't present your work as a photograph when you've altered it way beyond its original form. Be careful too when entering heavily filtered photographs into photo contests. Most contests have specific rules about editing. I have seen winning images lose because they didn't read the rules.

When used correctly, editing is a great tool. As with anything, there is always the possibility of overkill. Keep in mind the idea that "less is more," and set a goal to take "perfect" images in the camera. That may seem an impossible task. However, it is having the goal that will better your photography. Through time and experience, you will find yourself making better photographs and spending less time editing on the computer.

Suzanne Williams  Suzanne Williams Photography Blog

Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.