Photo editing. Loved by some, loathed by many. But always a necessary part of the photography process. How can we make it a more enjoyable task?
The photography industry’s attitude to editing has come a long way over the past few decades. When I was starting out the ethics of editing were being hotly contested as analogue photographers who’d spent their careers getting it right in camera were suddenly losing market share to a new breed of digital photographer. Bodies were being warped and liquefied into shapes that reality couldn’t compete with and photography started to lean more into selling fantasy rather than faithfully capturing reality. Thankfully much of that debate has died down now as a new generation recognises that photography is an art form and not merely a way to document reality.
And yet I still see the odd discussion in photography groups about whether editing is necessary. There’s always a few commenters who nobly claim to prefer capturing the world as is. Each to their own, of course, but whenever I see comments like this I immediately assume two things, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Either the person is a beginner who is still in that beautiful stage where every subject is fascinating so they don’t see a need to edit OR they’re threatened by technology and not ready to face the daunting task of learning one more thing. Now, I could be wrong in making these assumptions. Perhaps these people are absolutely devoted to doing whatever it takes to get a shot right in camera. But personally I prefer to spend time on the couch perfecting my photos in editing, rather than stressing out trying to manage all the variables it can take to get a photo right on the spot. There are no brownie points for the extra effort. Usually no one can tell the difference.
Editing is absolutely a necessary and non-negotiable part of the photography process for several reasons.
For starters our cameras just aren’t capable of capturing the full dynamic range of light in a scene. Put simply, when we expose for the light our shadows become dark. When we expose for our scenes, it blows out the sky. And that’s why we need to be careful about the time and weather conditions we shoot in or use filters, modifiers and artificial light. OR we can edit.
Secondly, there will always be imperfections or distractions in our scenes and in many cases those elements will be out of our control. So we use editing to remove those problems and direct the viewer’s eye to the subject or story we’re trying to convey.
Thirdly, If you’re shooting in JPEG your camera is designed to apply editing to your photos whether you like it or not. It makes them sharper, brighter and more vibrant. Why wouldn’t you want to take ownership of that? That’s why photographers shoot in RAW, an untouched file format, so they can edit to match their own personal vision.
Next, if everyone else is editing their photos how do you think your unedited images can possibly stand out and compete?
And lastly, editing allows you to add your own personal style. Photography is not just about capturing, it’s about creating and expressing your unique vision. Editing is just another tool to give your work a specific look and brand it as yours.
So with all of that out of the way, what I really want to address today is how to approach editing when you don’t really enjoy it.
A lot of this comes down to mindset. If you’ve got the attitude of ‘I hate sitting at a computer and would rather be out experiencing life’ you’ve doomed yourself to loathing editing before you’ve even begun. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, many of us now spend our lives looking at a computer so editing is merely one more task to be done. It’s really how you approach the task that matters.
There’s something in my DNA that makes me love editing. At high school I wanted to be a video editor and I went on to study film at university. Then I learned sound engineering as a trade, editing audio for musicians and documentaries. When there wasn’t enough work in that I studied copy editing with the goal of working for book publishers. And now I’m a photo editor creating complex artworks in Photoshop. Editing is my thing.
But that doesn’t mean I enjoy all types of photo editing. Merely the thought of editing an entire wedding with hundreds of photos that are all roughly the same makes me want to scream. I much prefer to work on one image at a time and so my specialty is fine art photography where I can spend weeks perfecting one image. Like any artist, I love getting lost in the art of creation and experimentation. And I only ever edit at night while watching TV. It doesn’t need a lot of concentration and I find it incredibly relaxing in a way that helps me wind down. Which is what editing should be. Not a laborious and hateful task.
But that doesn’t mean I enjoy all types of editing. I photograph lots of different subjects. Variety is key for me when I’m shooting. But variety is not key for me when I’m editing.
One thing I love to photograph is landscapes but I don’t feel the same passion for editing them as I do shooting them. My mind likes to spend a long time in things. I’ve never enjoyed reading magazine articles or watching short films because I need total immersion and I bring that same approach to editing. I much prefer to spend hours on one photo than minutes editing lots of different images. So to combat this I have a Lightroom preset that I apply to all my images as a starting point, and that helps me get a better indication of which of my images will be worth spending more time on. The preset isn’t anything special. Its main purpose, really, is to raise the shadows and drop the highlights with a little contast, vibrance and sharpening added. So once that’s applied I cycle through my images, choose a handful that have promise, and spend a little more time working on those. I don’t tend to take landscape images into Photoshop because I very rarely ever share them. They’re something I do more for fun. So what does this say about me as a photographer? Well, I probably wouldn’t make a very good landscape photographer unless I trained myself to love editing and sharing them more.
When I shoot portraits I can usually tell pretty easily what’s a keeper and what’s not by the model’s expression and pose. After a portrait shoot I tend to choose about 20 images to work more on and primarily use Photoshop to do that work, fixing backgrounds, directing light and occasionally some skin retouching. But skin retouching is not an area I enjoy, which is odd, because it involves the kind of lengthy editing process I usually like. I just find it really, really dull and unless the photos will be featured in a magazine I struggle to justify the amount of work required to perfect it. So while I absolutely love to shoot creative portraits, I would probably be a terrible beauty or fashion photographer because I don’t like skin retouching. I could outsource, of course, and that’s always an option for you too. There are many retouchers in the world who’d be happy to help you out.
Another area I enjoy is travel except I always massively overshoot and it’s a real problem. This is because I tend to shoot differently from most people. I usually approach a setting in three ways. I’ll take a faithful reproduction of a scene, then I’ll try and capture the character of the place using creative techniques. But THEN I also photograph background plates for my composite work such as grounds or mountains or trees or props I can use and I shoot these from lots of different angles because I don’t yet know how (or if) they’ll be used. Little wonder that I often forget to document the trip itself, rarely capturing photos of my travelling companions. Which, as a sidenote, means I’m probably not cut out for event photography.
So this means I return from trips with thousands of photos that are a mixed bag to edit and sometimes I just don’t. I went to Japan, I think, in 2016 and I STILL to this day, have not looked through all of those photos which I’m kind of ashamed by.
So a big piece of advice I can give you, is if you don’t enjoy editing just be much more mindful about trying to capture the most powerful photo you can rather than overshooting and having to deal with a tonne of images. Some photographers, myself included, have a real ‘gotta catch em all’ mentality. For me, sometimes, photography is a game of breaking a scene down into as many amazing images as I can capture, and when the game is over, I’m not interested in it anymore and onto the next new thing. And this is a fairly common, but not ideal, way of approaching photography.
My true joy is to spend a long time editing just a few stand out photos rather than a short time editing lots of photos. It’s why I love creative photography because I’m often shooting a lot of photos of one well-crafted set up. So while I might end up with several hundred photos of much the same scene, it’s easy to narrow it down to just a few favourites to put extra effort into. Then I can just delete the rest and not worry so much about storage. That’s why fine art and creative photography are the perfect fit for me.
So what I’m really trying to say is, how you approach editing gives you a really good insight into who you are as a photographer and what genre is the right one for you. For example, if you prefer to edit one good image over several similar ones that could very well define your career choice. And that’s a whole perspective you’re missing out on if you don’t spend time editing and learning what you do and don’t enjoy.
What I love about editing most of all, is that I still get to be a photographer even when I’m not able to be out shooting. Editing is a creative practice I can turn my attention to at any time of day simply by sitting at my computer. There’s a real joy and freedom in that.
And it’s funny, I almost always hate my photos when I first load them onto a computer. I’ve never worked out why. So I need to leave them a day or two and approach them with fresh eyes when I can begin to see the promise. Then I’m able to really get stuck in and am always amazed by what I can achieve with editing. It’s a wondrous thing how much promise every photo holds. During my time working in a photography studio there were often lots of people shooting in succession and not a whole lot of opportunity to really get in and manipulate the lights and sets to your liking. But if I didn’t like the light, well, I could just fix it in editing.
So, what’s the best approach to make editing a more pleasurable experience?
Well first, let’s talk about what not to do.
The first mistake every photo editor makes is to add too much vibrance, and clarity or sharpening. This is a normal part of experimenting with editing so I don’t want to discourage it. But when people share these types of images on social media they often get criticised for their efforts which can be really disheartening. So when you’re new to editing, I suggest doing a Google search of popular images of a similar subject to whatever you’re editing and keep them nearby as a reference to make sure you don’t go too far with your edits. I am naturally drawn to vibrant colour in my images but it’s always my images with a muted colour palette that sell the best. Still, this is your work, your style, and it’s important you pursue what feels right for you. You’ll learn what does and doesn’t get good reactions by regularly sharing your results and not taking critique to heart.
The next mistake they make, and I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately, is to throw a terrible preset over all their images and think because it’s kind of a weird colour that it makes their photographs arty. Again, they tend to cop a lot of flack on socials. It’s certainly important to experiment and if you’ve purchased a preset you probably want to make the most of it. But no preset will work well on every image so if you are experimenting with presets, use lots of them and study what they are applying to your image. Don’t just find one look, apply it to every image, and call it done. Every preset needs tweaking and every image needs to be experimented with and over time you’ll eventually find the components you like which will become your editing style.
So here’s a little process that will help you take pleasure in editing.
- Learn your tools. Lots of people try editing a couple of images, get frustrated by the process and become resistant to editing altogether. But editing is a whole lot easier when you can do it confidently. Lightroom (or whatever you choose) may look daunting but it’s easy to use once you know how. Find someone to give you an introduction and experiment with all the options. I don’t suggest tackling Photoshop until you’re comfortable with a basic editing system first.
- Give your images a purpose. Are you going to share them? How? How many? Will you print them? I’m always saying a goal is the best way to stay motivated and this situation is no different because it gives you something to work towards. What a shame to let your photos stay unseen because you can’t find the motivation to edit them.
- Create a preset that applies the basics so you’ve got a good base to start with but as I said earlier, no preset works well in every situation. I have one that I always use on landscapes but it doesn’t work on skin. So you might need a couple.
- When you’ve create an edit you’re happy with, save yourself some work and sync it to similar images from the same shoot. Then you’ll only need to do some minor tweaking to each image rather than starting from scratch each time.
- Develop a good rating system to narrow your images down. My process is to scroll through all my images and give the ones I like a one star rating. Then I sort by my one star images and compare these side by side two at a time. I give my preferred images two stars. Then I compare the two stars the same way and keep repeating the process until I’ve narrowed it down to just a handful of favourites.
- If you don’t enjoy editing only spend time on your very best images. You’ll start to develop a critical eye for what photos do and don’t work for you which will help you shoot more mindfully and means less images to edit in future.
- When it comes to editing your chosen favourites ask some questions first – Where do you want to direct the eye and what can you add or remove to achieve that? What will enhance or improve the image? Do you want a natural edit or an artistic one?
- Experiment. Like I’m always saying, photography is supposed to be fun – and that includes editing. Sit in front of the TV and just play around with several versions of one image using different edits and presets and compare the results at the end to see which effects you like best.
- Learn when to stop. When I’m editing (and I’ve been known to spend weeks purely on getting the colour right), there is always a moment where I go ‘aha, that’s it!’ Then I tend to leave it a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes for final tweaks. When I can’t find a colour I like, it’s usually because I’m unhappy with the light and just don’t realise, so remember to spend time on both.
Editing can be a beautifully cathartic process when you find a method that works for you. Hopefully you’ve discovered a new way to approach editing and are less reluctant to dismiss the task knowing that just because you don’t like editing one type of image doesn’t mean you won’t love editing another type. But the only way to learn is to try!
Stay connected with Creative Photo Folk!
Subscribe for 5 creative photo ideas to reignite your photography mojo.
We hate SPAM and keep your email safe.