It seems like the most important skill in photography is editing. Looking through others’ portfolios and youtube videos, I have begun to realize that a big part of what makes photos look as great as they can is a little bit of editing. I have been researching and looking at the tools and techniques other people have used. For my purposes, these are my top three purposes for editing:
- Crop the image properly
- Fix exposure errors
- Add some drama
Since I don’t have the greatest camera in the world, my options for cropping seem a bit limited. I don’t have a very wide angle lens, so I have to try and work with what I’ve got. Still, there’s almost always a better crop. For example, here is an image I took when I first got my camera:
Overall, I like this photo. It’s simple, has a clear subject, and feels natural. However, it’s also got a gigantic tree on one side and a telephone pole. Yuck. Let’s try a crop:
I also tweaked the contrast a bit, but in my mind it’s the crop that makes this a better image. It’s still a bit boring, but you can’t win ’em all.
To practice my edits I have dug up some old files from my Nexus-5 smartphone. Many of these are surprisingly good, but the amount of detail in them is limited. I wanted to see how much I could do to add some drama.
I actually really like this one of King’s college, and it’s one of my oldest. I tried a crop to ‘fill the frame’ with the important bits:
I am not entirely happy with this one, as it seems to have lost some contrast and range. It’s definitely got more going on in it, but it seems a bit same-ey. What do you think?
A second shot from the Nexus-5 comes from Oxford:
It’s a nice shot, but there’s so much going on. Let’s strip it down:
Again, still not entirely happy with this one. The first one seems to have more scale to it, even if it’s a tad blurry. Maybe it needs a bit more negative space, as the second is just full of objects and feels a bit cramped.
Fixing the exposure is also an important feature of editing. Anyone who knows anything about photography will tell you to shoot in RAW for just this reason (and others). RAW is a file format where your camera takes ALL the data from the image sensor and saves it to a file. Normally, cameras/phones/etc. will save to a JPEG file which may look nearly as good, but loses a lot of information and is more compressed. This makes it harder to correct errors afterwards.
I have not been shooting in RAW, because I am an idiot. All my pictures up until this point have been shot in JPEG, but I’m switching to RAW now because I am getting more comfortable with the edits. Here is an example of a JPEG from the Nexus 5 that I have tried to fix:
This is a shot of some ladies walking down the street of a rural French village. It’s hard to make them out, as the foreground is underexposed. I went for an aggressive crop and some layered brightness changes:
This one was the hardest to do. The crop already adds a lot to helping us make out the subjects, but the brightness was a challenge. I had to separate the sky and the rest of the scene from each other with masks and adjust the brightness and curves separately. The result is much clearer, but a little ‘washed out’. I definitely prefer this one, but I wish it had a bit more contrast. If I had been shooting in RAW (or on an actual camera) this would have been a lot easier.
Adding drama is something that is easy to overdo. It’s scary to me to do anything out of the ordinary, because I don’t want to be ‘that guy’. Filters, borders, text, etc. don’t appeal to me, as I want my photos to look like they haven’t been edited. There are a few things I am finding out that allow me to make little adjustments that go a long way, depending on the photo.
Take this shot from Newcastle, for example:
I was in a hurry to get it, as we were gone through town on an aggressive walk, and my friends up ahead didn’t feel like humouring me as I took tourist photos. In this shot, I knew I wanted to frame it with the arch, but it ended up off-center, and because the camera adjusted for the dark/light conditions, I lost a lot of the detail outside. It has a cool effect if you ask me, but I definitely want some of that detail back.
Here I went for three things. I cropped the image to look a bit more balanced, I lowered the brightness to get some of the overblown bits back, and I desaturated the picture (made it black and white). Since it wasn’t a RAW photo, going with black and white makes the loss of detail much less noticeable, as the lines are still there. I am the most happy with this one. The crop worked out well, the contrast is nice, and I got the detail back. Most importantly, it doesn’t look like it was taken while falling down the stairs.
Are there any easy and powerful edits that I’ve missed that you use on a regular basis? Please share them in the comments.