If there is one thing that comes up again and again when we talk about photography, it's EDITING - the steps you take AFTER you have pressed the shutter and uploaded your images. It's a whole other world of things to learn and master and as such it can be quite overwhelming for new photographers.
Because it's yet another thing you need to add to your "to learn" list, it can be tempting not to bother doing it, or slap a action / preset on and call it a day. However, editing your images is an important part of the photography process and one that I believe you should at least start to learn as soon as possible.
In this post I'm going to share exactly WHY you should edit your images, what you should be thinking about, which software you should use, and the order in which you should learn everything in.
Ooooh, that sounds like a lot to get through! Best get started then :)
Before we get get going with this post, I want to let you know that I have an Lightroom Starter Kit that includes an editing checklist that will help you understand the steps you need to take when editing your images in LIghtroom. It's totally free and you can get it by clicking on the image below!
With that out of the way, let's get this post started properly, kicking off with the reasons WHY we want to edit our images. Personally, I think it's always easier to start to get to grips with something when we understand more about why we should do it - so if that is you too, read on.
#1 - Your images always need to be processed, it’s simply a question as to whether you do it, or the camera does it.
When you take an image, your camera captures it is the RAW file format - and this is regardless of whether you have your camera set to shoot in RAW or JPEG.
If you have it set so that you shoot in JPEG, the camera will take this raw file, add saturation to the colours, apply some contrast and noise reduction, along with a bit of sharpening and maybe some other stuff too. It will flatten the file, and process it to give you a JPEG file.
Although that sounds just dandy, just like shooting in AUTO, it's not the best option for getting images that you love. That's because our camera doesn’t really have a freakin’ clue what you’ve just captured, or even whether it really needs any of that editing applied. It doesn't know whether it would look better with less contrast or whether the amount of saturation it has applied is just making that colour cast on your subject's face worse. All it can do is blindly apply a pre-set level of editing, shrug, and hope for the best. (OK, so it doesn't actually shrug, but if it could, it would. Honest.)
On the other hand YOU can process the image. You switch to shooting in RAW, and the camera leaves the editing alone. You can then apply the contrast, saturation, sharpening – but at the level YOU like and what the photo NEEDS.
That’s why I always recommend that you shoot in RAW – so that you can have full control over the editing process. Again, just like shooting in manual gives you the most control over how your image is captured in camera, so does shooting in RAW and processing the image yourself in editing.
#2 - Because it gives you a second chance to get it right.
The second reason is simply that you might not get it right in camera. Although we should always strive to get it right when taking the picture, no matter how good you are there are times when you are going to stuff up a little.
For example, you might muck up the white balance, or the exposure, or not see that trash can in the background that’s ruining your shot because it's behind your subject. Editing can be a way of getting a second chance to get the image the way you would have wanted to capture it in camera.
Although you can edit a JPEG image, it's generally considered easier to edit a RAW file instead. That's because the raw file format gives you more latitude than editing a JPEG, as it captures a larger tonal range - handy when you have under or over exposed. It also allows you to change the white balance preset easily - something again you can't do with a JPEG.
(If at this point in the proceedings, you are thinking, "heck, I need to switch to RAW!", here's the post to help you do it)
I just want to add in a little caveat here though - don't think this means you can photograph however you want and you can just fix it or make it into a brilliant image in processing. Whilst you can make some changes, there are some things you WON'T be able to do, like bring back focus on your moving toddler, bring back blown highlights or make an uninteresting image into a work of art. Get it right in camera, but be safe in the knowledge that if you are not 100% perfect, no-one need ever know 🤐
(psst - remember to download the LIghtroom Starter Kit to get the editing checklist to help you!)
In this image below I've stuffed up the exposure, to the point where I HAVE actually blown the highlights, but in processing, I can bring that file back to life. It may not be perfect, since I totally stuffed up in camera, but it's better than the delete bin for photos you otherwise would have loved.
In my course Launch into Lightroom the very first editing steps I teach you is how to do a "clean edit", which is basically getting your image to a point where you have great overall exposure, white balance, contrast and clarity. It's the basic foundation for ALL good editing, so never miss this part out or it doesn't matter how good the rest of the editing is, it will always fall flat.
#3 - So you can tell a story
The third reason to edit your photos is because editing is another way for you to tell your story, or get across what you were trying to capture when you took the photo.
That's because what you capture in camera sometimes does not accurately reflect that moment. Firstly because we might not get our settings quite right in camera, but also because you can enhance a mood or a general feeling in processing that you will never really be able to fully capture in camera.
For example, you may not feel you have accurately captured the warm hazy feeling you felt that late afternoon on the beach, in which case, some processing can help enhance and create that mood. Or you may wish to emphasis the moodiness of a portrait, or a feeling of nostalgia - although this can be done to some degree when shooting, a lot of this comes from how the image is edited..
You also might want to bring out a certain aspect of the image to bring the viewers attention to it, and this something that can be done or enhanced in post-processing. Again, this is something that we go into in a lot of depth in my Launch into Lightroom course, because you do need to know both WHAT to look for in your image, along with the steps that show you HOW to do it.
#4 - It can help you develop a style
Editing is also another way you can put your own personal stamp on an image. Of course, it's not just editing that allows you to do that, but it is another way of making your way of viewing the world stand out, or have a certain feel that makes the image feel like "you".
Now, when you first start out there can be a tendency to be all over the place when it comes to editing your images. A matte effect here, a high contrast image here, a black and white with a sepia tone there, all topped with a bright saturated image with a film effect as the cherry on top. If that's you, don't worry - it can really, really be fun to experiment with different editing styles and it is, without doubt, a great way to learn how to edit. I heartily recommend it so you can find out what you like and what you don't like. (Heck, I still enjoy a play with my images!) So, don't worry too much that you haven't "found your style" yet. As you get more familiar with editing, and see what you find yourself doing most to your images, it will become apparent. Generally speaking, your style finds you :) .
Once you have found your preferred editing style, you can use this consistently to have a common "look" to your images.
What editing program should I use?
There are a number of programs that you can use to edit your images, based on your budget and your goals for your photography.
The two I recommend for beginners is either Lightroom or Photoshop Elements. Photoshop Elements really is a great little photo editor, especially for the price. It allows you to do more extensive pixel editing, but it won't help you much with managing your growing image collection, and it is slower to edit.
Lightroom is also a fantastic photo editor, but has the added advantage of being an end-to-end management system for your images. I know that sounds totally dull, but trust me when I tell you it is incredible for saving you time processing and managing your images. (You can read 8 reasons why I love it so here) It's also super quick to edit multiple photos, however, it does lack the more advanced pixel editing features of Elements.
If you are thinking to yourself that you want to be able to manage your photos, edit them quickly, and do more extensive pixel editing when required, then you would be absolutely right! The truth is, these programs don't compete, they complement.
For a mere $10 a month, you will get Lightroom for your image management and the majority of your editing, and you'll also get access to Photoshop (Elements big brother) which means you can do the pixel editing stuff if and when you ever want to do it.
If you don't like the idea of "renting" software, then you my next recommendation would be to get Lightroom, simply because it's easier and quicker to edit, and because you can manage and use images more easily. (I personally have a bit of an issue with not having that many free hours in the day, so anything that shaves off a few hours of week is a winner for me!)
You can read more about the differences between all of these in this post, which goes into which editing program might be right for you.
If you do go with Lightroom, remember to download your free checklist that walks you through the steps you can take in editing.
Where do I even start?
The best thing to do for learning how to edit your photos is to break it down into much more manageable steps, and don't try to run before you can walk.
First off, switch to RAW and then simply learn how to get that RAW image looking like a JPEG one. Simple adjustments for sure, but the first step is really about you taking control and learning what everything does. (If you are using Lightroom, also check out my post How to Get Started With Lightroom, which walks you through some basics of Lightroom)
Then, move onto adjusting the image to get it the way you would have wanted to capture it in camera - white balance correct, exposure correct for the scene, no obvious or distracting noise (unless you want it) and removing any unwanted elements.
After you are being able to do that, move onto some basic enhancements - playing with color and contrast, and starting to make smaller adjustments that you can build up, before taking it further by learning creative enhancements to affect mood, such as color toning or converting to black and white, and learning how to pull your viewers eye around the frame.
Finally, fine-tune your editing so that you have a consistent style and feel to your images, regardless of the editing steps.
In a nutshell, get the foundations right first, then layer the rest on. So many people swoop into trying more creative edits when they don't have the foundations right, and then feel like their images never look as good as they thought they would, or worse, they look over edited because they have been randomly following tutorials without thinking about what the image NEEDS.
If you want a step by step program that will show you EXACTLY how to edit your images from beginning to end, then check out my Launch into Lightroom course. It covers everything you need to know to help you get your images to be more engaging and have wayyy more impact, along with ALL other the other stuff Lightroom can do too!