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Digital Darkroom, General Stuff, Theory n Technique

Basic Photo Editing: Part 1


Alright, in this post I’ll be trying to describe my basic workflow when I’m working digital. I think it’s a very good practice when you shoot digital to have an organized workflow, a method of doing things from the time you’ve captured the shot on your memory card, to the moment you have a finished, edited, polished photograph on your computer, so try to follow a systematic method like this one for the entire process and maintain that consistently; and while it doesn’t have to be this exact flow I’ve written here, adapt what I’ve written here to your own, and keep it simple and sensible. It will help you get consistently good results when editing, while keeping your library organized and well maintained. Very useful once you stack up 20,000 images

And yeah, I edit. Do not listen to people who say good photographers do not edit. Or anything along those lines. Pretty much any photographer does some form of editing. It’s normal, and is part of digital photography. In fact, I often visualize a scene while capturing it, and imagine right at that moment how it could look with some form of editing, right there in my mind i.e. I try to envision the scene Photoshop’d in my head. This often gets me good results. For example, look at the scene, and imagine it in black and white. Or in HDR. With faded colors, perhaps. Anything. But yeah, editing…minor touching up or serious Photoshop work…is part of the art. Use it

Even in the old days of film photography, a certain amount of editing was part of the darkroom process. Cropping was as common then as it is now. When developing or wet printing, photos could be corrected for exposure. You could use color filters to increase contrast. The Dodge/Burn tools from Photoshop come from the darkroom process of dodging (darkening) and burning (lightening) areas of the print. No, it’s not just the digital guys that started editing – it’s been around for a while – and if you want to get into the whole digital photography thing, you really should learn some of the basics of this ‘sub-art’, if you will, so that you can edit your shots and do so properly, without overdoing it or doing the wrong things, and end up with an enhanced result of your original, instead of some ghastly over-processed rubbish

OK, I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. It’s a fantastic piece of software, and does a great job of organizing your photographs, while also giving you a superb bunch of editing tools, which are enough for most people’s editing tasks, and more than enough for mine. In fact, if you need more than Lightroom offers, this post really does not apply to you!

Lightroom edits its photos in a non-destructive method, which means your original files are left untouched, so you can really experiment with your stuff knowing that your originals will not be ruined. Lightroom is kind of a stripped down version of Photoshop, and performs all of the basic editing stuff you will need, while adding the organizer function that Photoshop CS4/5/6 does not have. I do not use Photoshop (the full version), nor do I know how to, but I’ve been using Lightroom for years, and I don’t see any reason to change. I highly recommend this app

If you do not use Lightroom, most of this stuff will still apply, and you can go try it out using whatever app you have…but it might be in a different layout, or in a different order…or simply name differently…just adapt it, most editing stuff is basically the same across most platforms. Alright, my workflow…

Digital Photography Workflow

First, you will want to upload your shots. Organize them on your computer. I organize them by year/month folders (i.e. “2012-03), unless I do a specific shoot, in which case I create a separate folder for that shoot. This is really up to you. If you shoot more projects or specific shoots, then creating individual folders for each project makes more sense. But I often go around exploring streets and capturing street life, random stuff like that…and the organizing-by-date system works fine for me

Next, import to Lightroom. Or any other editing app you use. If you use an editing app which does not include an organizer…well, you will need one…so you’ll probably be using two apps, one for viewing/organizing, and another for editing. A bit messy, but no worry. Anyway…yes, import to your organizer app. Try to add keywords to photos when you import your shots, which really helps you later on when you’re trying to find this one shot, in the midst of thousands of others. Save yourself some trouble and add at least some basic keywords – maybe even the city you took the shots in, or the basic type of shots – for instance if I took a bunch of shots on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, I’d tag “ho chi minh city” and “street” at least. It’ll at least help you narrow your search to 200 shots compared to your entire library of 15,000!

A screenshot of how my shots are organized in Lightroom

Next, open up the location in Lightroom and view your stuff. Delete the crap. Seriously, it’s good to keep most of your work, but if the shot is really bad, why waste space? If a shot’s shaken beyond recognition, or you accidentally cropped out half the main subject, just delete. Fixing over/underexposure can be done, correcting color/white balance can be done. But if you’ve shaken the shot, there’s nothing you can do. If you’ve cropped out the subject, there’s nothing you can do. And if I see a shot that has nothing in it, even if it’s framed properly and super sharp… a ‘nothing-shot’…I’d just delete that too. If you have 10 shots such shots per session, and you shoot once a week…that’s over 500 shots per year, using up like 3GB if you shoot JPEG, and around 10GB if you shoot RAW. Unnecessary

After that, the fun part: Editing. At least it’s fun for the first few shots – it can become a bit tedious afterwards – but oh well. It’ll always be interesting, at least. Note that if you shoot RAW, there’s a lot more you can correct and edit than if you shoot JPEG. After small corrections on JPEGs, you will start to notice quality degrading, while you can make much larger corrections on your RAW shots before you notice any such degradation. This is because RAW files capture much more data (they’re around 3-5 times larger files than JPEGs), so you can really dig out stuff from all this data in a RAW file when editing. Check out my RAW vs. JPEG post for more details on this topic (I really went all-out on that post!)

Anyway, here’s how I edit, what I edit, what they do, what differences they make, and the order I generally follow:

NOTE: Turning on the Histogram in Lightroom gives you a visual representation of the tones in your shot. I usually don’t use this while editing – a quick look before or after just to tell me what kind of shot I’ve taken is all I use this for, and that’s available in the Library module of Lightroom – but it’s always available if you want it in both Library and Developing modules. I usually keep this closed in the Developing module, but it’s not a big deal to turn on: just click the arrow on the side of ‘Histogram’ and that’s that. A more useful option is to turn on the Clipping Mask. This shows the blown highlights of your shot, highlighted in red…and the clipped shadows, highlighted in blue. Blown highlights = parts so bright that they’ve lost detail completely…and clipped shadows = the dark areas so dark that have also have lost all detail. This is very useful when you’re trying to recover highlight/shadow detail using all the little sliders and dials on Lightroom (discussed later) and you want to know when these have been recovered. It’s useful. You don’t need the histogram on to view this mask. In the Developing module, just press the J key, and it’ll turn on. From the histogram, however, you can select to only show clipped highlights or shadows – the upward pointing arrow at each end of the histogram turns on the mask. Here’s a quick look at the histogram, and the clipping mask – a good way to start off your editing process (with the clipping mask, at least):

Lightroom Histogram, with clipping mask off and on

Ok now to the rest of the editing process – the stuff that will help you fix the problems you see from your histogram (probably), and much more. Starting with the simple stuff, this is how I do it:

Crop: First, I’d crop the shot until I like it. I rarely crop too much as I value resolution too much to crop a lot, but a bit of cropping is always necessary. Remember to check out the horizon in landscapes, as slightly crooked shots can look very amateurish. Mess with different aspect ratios too (1:1 is a refreshing change), and always see if you can improve your composition with a simple crop. Sometimes, you can

Spot Removal: Dust on your lens/filter/sensor can appear as spots on your shot and look ugly. Pimples or other unattractive marks on skin can look bad too. These can be made to magically disappear using this tool. It basically replaces a small area of the shot that you select (size selectable by the size slider) with another area from the image, of a very similar color/tone/texture. You can manually adjust the part it picks, although it does a great job by itself for most cases. I usually set the Opacity control to 100% to make the second area completely replace the first area…but if you like a blend of both, feel free to play around with this slider. There are two options for Spot Removal though: Clone and Heal. These decide how the spot is removed and fixed. If you choose Clone, it does simply that: it takes a bit of the image from one area, and clones it onto the part you want removed. It completely replaces Spot A with Spot B. This can work, but it can sometimes look out of place, fake, and quite obvious. If you feel that happens, try the Heal tool. It works the same as the Clone tool, but instead of cloning the second area onto the first, this tool tries to match the tone and color of the original area that you’re replacing, and blends it in. I find this to work best in most cases, and I’ve got very natural results with the Heal tool. In rare cases, though, you might notice a weird blur around the edge of the spot-area – if you do, go back to Clone! The spot removal tool on Lightroom works very well indeed, and can be used to remove any similar-sized distractions in your image

Red Eye Reduction: Simple red-eye reduction. Click on the red-eyes and they’re gone!

Graduated Filter: Just like the actual lens filter, which reduces the exposure of roughly half the image, the tool in Lightroom does just that. And more. It can be dragged over less or more than half the image as well, and gives you a lot of options in how you want it to cover your shot, making it more flexible – it can be dragged vertically, sideways, diagonally, or anywhere between – and unlike the filter, it can also increase the exposure of the selected area; and adding to that flexibility, it can also adjust a host of other settings, and is not just limited to exposure control. I’m explaining the same settings in the next tool (Adjustment Brush) so I won’t go through them here, but know that these very same settings can be used on the Graduated Filter selection too

Adjustment Brush: Using this brush, you can ‘paint’ effects over specific areas you want. Set the brush size you want, and paint over the area you want the effect applied.  Easy as pie. The Auto Mask is a rather cool feature, where the brush detects lines of contrast to detect specific areas of your subject, and automatically keeps the painted mask within this area, which means that you can quickly get an accurate mask of a person’s eye, for example, without accidentally masking the skin below the eye and having to correct that a million times. It works most of the time for me. Ok, so what can you do with it? It can control (for the painted area): Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Clarity, Saturation Sharpness, Noise, Moire, Defringe, and Color

It also has presets using the above controls, which give a certain effect:

  • Dodge: lightens the selected area
  • Burn: darkens it
  • Soft skin: reduces the clarity so the skin has a nice soft effect
  • Teeth whitening: whitens teeth, what did you expect?!
  • Iris Enhance: saturates and sharpens the iris, to make the eye pop out

In case you’re wondering about the Moire and Defringe controls, let me explain. Moire reduces the moire effect that is caused when photographing some subjects (Google if you don’t know what moire is!) and the Defringe setting removes color fringing in the painted areas (see the next part of this post for more on color fringing). All the other settings are explained somewhere between this post and the next part. Read on

All these settings, along with the very useful presets, can work wonderfully if used right. Some presets really do a good job, especially if you’re in a hurry, and with a bit more time, you can click the little arrow on the side of the preset to tweak each preset to your liking. Fantastic

Here’s a screenshot to give you an idea of how spot removal and the adjustment brush work:

Spot removal on the left, Brush mask on the right

Looks quite cool, doesn’t it? Easy to use too. I find these two tools to be the difference between many basic photo editing apps, and Lightroom. This really feels like it’s the middle ground between a complex and advanced app like Photoshop CS6 and a dead basic app. I love it!

the NR Panel on Lightroom

Noise Reduction:You could do this early on, before you adjust your tone curve or exposure or anything, or you could do this towards the end, but I just advise you to apply noise reduction BEFORE sharpening, else your noise will get sharpened too. Doing it early or later in the workflow both have benefits. Some say you should do it at the end – as adjusting contrast/exposure etc. could possibly add more noise to your shot, and you can remove it all at the end. Others say you should apply noise reduction as early as possible, because the noise that’s created by tone adjustment and such can be very hard to remove, and you’d be stuck to more noise. I favor doing it early as possible, but you might want to try it out yourself and figure out which works best for you, but once you decide, always stick to that, and maintain an systematic workflow! Ok, two basic controls for NR:

  • Luminance NR: Luminance noise is a grainy, grey noise that appears when shooting at high ISO speeds. Use this form of NR carefully, as from what I’ve seen, it generally softens the image noticeably and loses lot of detail. If I shoot at high ISO and notice this form of noise, I just leave it…it sometimes adds to the shot…a nice grainy look
  • Color NR: Also known as chroma/chrominance, this is the ugliest form of noise that appears on digital shots. It appears, as the name suggest, as colored specks on your shot, and is again common in high ISO images. You can apply this form of NR more than luminance, as I find it remains fairly sharp, and in any case, I’d compromise a bit of sharpness for getting rid of the godawful color specks

Under each NR type, there’s a Detail slider, which controls how aggressive the NR applied is: basically, a higher Detail value will preserve more detail, although this might result in noisier shots, while a lower Detail value will attack the noise more aggressively, but this could obviously cause loss of detail

Luminance NR has a Contrast slider, which does nothing more than attempt to increase contrast after noise reduction by increasing luminance contrast, and there’s not much more to say about it. I don’t use it much. The basic NR sliders, and the Detail control, is what you should work with

And that’s it for noise reduction in Lightroom. Ok the rest of the controls below fall under the Basic control panel in Lightroom, which looks like this (expanded for your viewing pleasure):

The Basic panel in Lightroom

I usually work with this part of the developing panel in Lightroom first, the only exception being Noise Reduction, which I like to get done early. Apart from that, I start with the Basic panel, and move down. Of course, this is just the way it flows in Lightroom – if you’re using another app, this will not really apply – but as Lightroom is designed to work in this order, it’s a good idea to just go with the flow. Then again, the same should work for any app you use, so just go with it! Ok first up on the basic panel:

White balance

Absolutely vital, this – wrong white balance can make your shot look really. Amateurish. Horrible. Yeah. Sometimes your camera will get it right – a lot of new digital cameras do quite alright most of the time – but if it didn’t, you should be able to correct a JPEG to a reasonable amount. Of course, if you shot RAW, you can correct even the worst errors in white balance. I use this control a lot when scanning film, as my scanning software usually gets the color balance of color film quite wrong, so I’ve been tweaking these sliders quite a bit recently, and become something of an expert! But anyway, it’s pretty easy to use – you control it via color temperature, and tint:

  • Temperature: Temperature is what gives your shot a ‘cool’ (blue) or a ‘warm’ (yellow) color cast. If you find your shot looks ‘cool’, or bluish, slide the Temperature control towards the yellow end i.e. make it warmer. If your shot looks warm to begin with (most indoor shots taken with automatic white balance have this look), slide the other way
  • Tint: The other thing to watch for is the tint, which generally takes a green or magenta look. If you feel your shot has a green-y tinge to it, slide it towards magenta, or vice versa

I’ve written a full post on White Balance so read it to understand more on what these tints and temperatures look like, and you’ll realize how easy it is to fix

The easiest way to fix white balance automatically is by using the White Balance Selector (W key on Lightroom). Click that, then click a part of your shot that you know to be pure white – not necessarily something that looks white IN the image – and Lightroom will adjust the sliders for you to make that spot white, which should result in a correct color balance for the scene. Very easy. It usually works quite well, and at the very least you’d get a solid starting point to tweak further from

To learn to spot incorrect color/white balance on your shots, use this automatic method, and note the changes that Lightroom makes for you. Then slide back to 0 – and slide it back to the position that Lightroom set – all the while watching the image, and the changes it undergoes as these sliders are moved. This will train your eye to notice the little color corrections that these sliders make, so that later on you won’t have to depend on having a part of pure white on your shot to correct white balance

Black & White?

Once that’s done, you can decide if you want this shot to be black and white. I never shoot by setting my camera to black and white mode. Why? In-camera conversion sucks. And in case you change your mind, you cannot bring the color back. If I simply have to shoot in my camera’s monochrome mode, I always shoot RAW, which gives me the option to go back to color later on, and do a better conversion – among other things – but I generally shoot in color and convert later

Anyway, there’s always a point in your workflow where you want to know if this shot is going to be black and white or color. If, at the moment you clicked the shutter, you decided this shot will be black and white, then there’s nothing more to think about – you can even skip the above white balance part too – just convert to black and white. However, if you feel this shot can go both ways, I suggest you fix white balance to see how it looks in color. If it’s still not working, this is a good time to check out a monochrome version!

Exposure

Pretty clear, this one. If your shot is underexposed, increase. Overexposed? Decrease. You wouldn’t want to adjust this too much when shooting JPEG – I’d keep it to a +/- 1 stop adjustment at most – if you don’t want to lose too much image quality, but with RAW, you can safely go up to 2 stops or even 3…or 4 stops! without issue. See how it looks: if you think that the quality is acceptable with a 4-stop increase, and looks much better than the shot looking dark with an increase of just 2 stops, then go for the 4-stop increment. There are no real rules

Contrast

According to Adobe, increasing the contrast slider will darken your mid-to-dark tones, and lighten the mid-to-light tones…and yeah, what that does is it increases the contrast between the tones. Reducing this slide will do the opposite. Pretty simple. I agree, increasing the contrast does tend to improve the look of a photograph…but try to avoid overdoing it…too much control can cause loss of detail in the dark and light tones, and can give a rather cheap, amateurish look to the shot. Black and white shots can be greatly enhanced with an increase in contrast, and I usually bump up the contrast to about 20, at least, on my black and whites. On color shots too. You can also go for a low contrast monochrome look – it can be extremely fresh to see a shot like that – it’s always good to try being different. Color shots can look a bit flat without contrast so try not to lower it too much!

Highlights/Shadows 

The Highlights slider allows you to control the lighter tones of your shot. Increasing it will brighten these tones, while reducing it will darken the same tones. It’s basically a brightness control for the highlight tones of your photograph. And naturally, the Shadows slider does the same thing for the darker tones

Whites/Blacks

Technically, these sliders set the tonal end point in your image. Yeah, I didn’t get that either. Breaking it down, let’s look at the Whites first: Technically, this slider sets the white point in your image. Still don’t get it. Ok, the white point is what determines how close to pure white your highlight tones look. Increasing this slider turns these light tones of your image closer to pure white, and causes clipping (reducing detail in these tones), while reducing this slider turns these tones into a pale grey (less pure white!) and increases detail (reduces clipping!). With the Blacks, it’s the same, and opposite: it sets the black point in your image. Reducing the Blacks will turn the darkest tones of your shot closer to pure black, which causes clipping – and of course, increasing this control will reduce clipping, and turn these dark tones to a dark grey

This can give a great effect to your shot, and can be used to increase contrast in a controlled manner. Use it carefully, though – adding too much contrast this way can cause too much clipping, giving the same, cheap look to the shot that too much contrast is prone to give

TIP: Hold the ALT/OPTION key on your computer, which turns on a ‘mask’ guide to help you set good tonal end points for your image. When you’re dragging the Whites slider, hold down this key, which will turn the entire image black. You then simply need to drag the slider until you start to see some black detail appear through the white mask, and you can be sure that’s a good white point to start with. Same, and opposite, for Blacks!

Clarity

A sort of basic sharpening tool, it does exactly what it says: clarifies the detail in images, and makes everything a bit sharper. Reducing this gives a softer look to the shot, as you must’ve guessed…and dramatically reducing this can give a dreamy look to the shot. Do this AFTER noise reduction

Vibrance/Saturation 

I usually use vibrance instead of saturation. They both do the same thing, pretty much i.e. they both increase the saturation, the vividness, the colorfulness of colors, but the thing is, saturation affects all tones, while vibrance avoids saturating colors associated with skin tones. Oversaturated skin tones can look really bad, so you can safely bump up the vibrance control without risking a horrible skin tone. So why bother with different controls for different shots? I just use Vibrance


And those are the most basic controls to use when editing a shot, aptly titled in the Lightroom panel as “Basic”. I think that’s quite a bit to ‘process’ for now (yes, that was intended)…so I’ll leave it at that, and cover the rest of the stuff sometime next week. That will include adjusting Tone Curve, Sharpening, Lens Corrections, Hue/Saturation/Luminance control…a bit more advanced stuff really. To be continued…

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By Heshan Jayakody
All content in this post is my own

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Discussion

12 Responses to “Basic Photo Editing: Part 1”

  1. Hello Heshan. Thanks for visiting my blog 🙂

    Posted by Aidyearts | April 22, 2012, 08:40
  2. wow, i love your workflow. i should start following one too, i think! it really makes sense, how you do it. your editing tips and description helps a lot to (in your part 2 as well)

    Posted by Ursula | February 10, 2013, 15:32
    • Thanks! A workflow is very important, especially once you start working with huge numbers of images, and you want to maintain consistency. Best to start from now, so you don’t feel overwhelmed later on! And thanks for your kind comment!

      Posted by pixelogist | February 10, 2013, 18:21
  3. I love the adjustment brush on LR4 (or previous versions). it’s so easy to use, and makes LR so much more Powerful than any other simple photo editing app, purely because of this, and maybe the GND and the tone curve. i love it!

    Posted by Andy | February 18, 2013, 07:12
    • I agree 100%, the adjustment brush is a tool that sets LR apart from the rest of the apps in its class. It’s a superb little tool, isn’t it? I often use it a lot too, along with spot removal

      Posted by pixelogist | February 18, 2013, 12:02
  4. When I was just starting my career in photo editing, the most enjoyable thing I do is the spot removal. I guess ti will help people look flawless. Glad you shared your tips!

    Posted by Larry | October 17, 2013, 12:30
    • Thanks! 🙂 Yeah, it’s a lot of fun, especially since these new apps make it so easy. Not only to beautify people, actually – it can be used to beautify images in general, to remove some unwanted bit that ruins an otherwise perfect picture. It’s also extremely useful when processing scanned film – removing dust spots!

      Posted by pixelogist | October 17, 2013, 16:35

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  1. Pingback: What Makes a Photograph #2 « pixelogist.me - April 15, 2012

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