This lesson is part of the How To Photograph Life - FREE Course. To see the full list of lessons, and learn more about the course, click here for the index.
The bus rocketed down the dirt roads, careening around hairpin corners as the Sacred Valley sped past the windows.
We were in Peru, in one of the world's most beautiful landscapes – a sprawling vista of patchwork fields, dominated by the looming Andes in the background. Our cameras were out, and we bounced from side to side on the bus, shooting like crazy and filled to the brim with excitement over what we were capturing.
When we finally arrived home that night, I couldn’t wait to get the images onto the computer so I could sit back and bask in the glory of the photos we took that day. As the progress bar chugged along, I could practically smell the ink of huge prints for the walls.
Then the photo popped up, and…blah.
What I saw on the screen was not at all like what I saw in person. With my eyes I saw vivid greens, dark grey clouds, bright patches of light and the mountains etched with bold lines.
On the screen I saw dull colors and faded details. A decent picture, but nothing compared to the real version.
So what did I do? Cry? Throw the camera out? Vow to never return to a place that vexed me so?
Of course not. I simply brought the file into Lightroom, made a few adjustments, and brought it to life.
From the Bus // Before Editing
Before editing, this shot of the Peruvian countryside looks washed-out and lifeless. Disappointing!
From the Bus // After Editing
With a little post-processing help, we've made the photo more closely reflect what we saw with our eyes.
See, digital files need to be edited to look their best. Simple. Our cameras do not see the world the same way our eyes do, and often they lack the ability to capture the richness of color and contrast that we see in a scene.
Luckily there is the wonderful magic of post-processing (aka editing) that allows us to fine tune the look of the photo, so that we can create a truer representation of what we saw, or to even go further and get creative. Post-processing doesn’t just change the appearance of the photo, but how it feels as a viewer, and where your eyes go when you look at it. It’s a big topic, so today we’re going to look at the fastest and most effective adjustments you can make.
Note: When I discuss post-processing I’m going to refer to how it’s done using Adobe Lightroom. It’s our favourite editing program, and we find it to be fast and intuitive. There are many other options out there, and most will generally do the same things we mention here (though perhaps with different names!).
There are four big edits that you can apply to make an enormous difference in the look of your photo.
This changes the overall brightness or darkness of the image. Often when you’re shooting you may not get your exposure quite right, or later on decide you’d like to adjust it. The exposure of an image can change what you look at. Our eyes are naturally attracted to the brightest points, so by adjusting this setting, you can change where your viewer will look.
In Lightroom you can further fine tune the brightness of a photo by adjusting specific ranges of tones. To do this, experiment by adjusting the Blacks, Whites, Highlights and Shadows sliders. Very powerful!
Before Exposure Correction
Straight out of the camera, this scene is a little darker than I'd like it to be.
A little brightening goes a long way!
Contrast refers to the difference between the brights and darks in an image. When you add more contrast, you make the brights brighter, and the darks darker. As I mentioned earlier, our cameras often lack the ability to capture as much contrast as our eyes can see. So by adding a little bit of contrast in post-processing, you give the image punch/pop/zest/pizzazz. You know what I mean.
A warning: too much contrast will look unnatural! This is not a “more is better” situation. We generally add just a small amount of contrast. It’s also important to note that different cameras, lenses and lighting situations will render more or less contrast in your images. The best approach is to fine tune your eye, and learn how to tell when you have too much contrast. If the details start getting tough to make out, or things are looking unnatural, try backing off a bit until it’s just right.
This is the image straight out of camera. A little flat and dull.
By adding contrast, we get some zest into the photo, and bring it more in line with what our eyes saw. The darks are darker, and the brights are brighter.
But too much contrast and now things look unnatural. His face and skin tones look pretty wonky!
In our lesson on light we talked about how light has different color temperatures. The light from the sun in the middle of the day is neutral white, the light in the shade is blue, and the light from an indoor lamp is yellow. Our brains automatically adjust for this, so we don’t usually notice. But our cameras work a bit differently. They have automatic white balance modes that attempt to adjust for the color temperature of the light and create a neutral toned image, but they don’t always do a great job.
This is where white balance in your post-processing comes in. It lets you adjust the color of the image, from blue to yellow, and green to pink, to compensate for the color of the light.
There are two common adjustments that you’ll probably find yourself doing often with your images.
Straight out of camera, photos taken during midday or on cloudy days can have a distinctive blue cast. To look their best – and look more like what we see with our eyes – they need a little help.
Adjusting the colour temperature of this photo just a bit adds warmth and makes it look more true to life. It's a simple adjustment, but it can make a big difference in the feel of a photo!
These can be very useful, but tricky sliders to use. Here’s the difference:
Saturation increases the intensity of all of the colours in the image.
Vibrance increases the intensity of the colours, but keeps the skin tone colours the same, to help you avoid over-saturating people. When you over-saturate, faces tend to turn orange. Ick.
So these sliders can help bring some color into your photos, and reflect those bold hues you saw in real life. But it’s easy to go too far, and create scenes that are over-saturated and look unnatural. A general rule of thumb: if there are people in the scene, use Vibrance. Otherwise use Saturation. And this is the same deal as contrast: be careful, train your eye, and look for the sweet spot.
(Note: As with everything in photography, there are no real rules, and personal preference is king. So while I said that you may want to avoid super-saturating your images, or adding a ton of contrast, some folks have taken that and turned it into their style. The key thing is to make your decisions with intention! Don’t be afraid to experiment, but think about why you’re making the choices you are.)
This enthusiastic group of kids we met on the street made for a great shot, but the colors look a bit dull.
By increasing the Vibrance, we have brought some punch back into the colors, but not the skin tones. Check out the blue wall, or the yellow dress in the top right to see the difference.
When we use the Saturation adjustment those blues and yellows are more vibrant, but the skin tones of the kids have turned orange. Not good!
One of the real powers of post-processing, beyond recreating what you see, is the ability to make adjustments that help draw your viewer’s eyes where you want them to. We’ll talk about three different ways to do that.
If you’ve ever played around with photo editing software, even on your smartphone, you’ll probably have come across a vignette. This is a slight darkening of the edges of the image. What’s this all about???
Well, when you darken the edges of the photo, they are less attention-grabbing. Remember that our eyes go towards bright things. Dark edges help to draw your eyes into the centre of the frame, where your subject usually is.
So using a vignette can help to direct your viewer to look at your subject. This is especially handy when there are some distractions at the edges, like tree leaves, or buildings.
Now, here’s the thing: if your vignette is too strong, it will attract attention itself. That’s the thing about post-processing. When you go too far, your viewer will start to notice that you have done adjustments – usually not what you’re aiming for. It’s all about trying to keep those edits subtle enough so that your audience doesn’t even realize you’ve done them.
By slightly darkening the edges of the photo, we can bring all the attention to Rob in his awesome Indiana Jones hat.
But too much vignette, and now we can't stop looking at those crazy black edges. Poor Rob is all but forgotten.
How do you find that balance? Lots of practice and lots of checking your progress while editing (in Lightroom just hit the backslash key to see the before and after).
In Lightroom there is a dedicated vignette slider, but one of the new tools that we really like using is the Radial filter. It essentially lets you create a subtle, natural vignette around any point in the photo. Draw it over your subject, and the rest of the image will gradually darken. Very powerful!
Dodging and burning refers to brightening and darkening areas of the image, respectively. This is an age-old process, and used to be done in the darkroom, by allowing different amounts of light to hit the print. It was tedious and time consuming. Today with Lightroom it can be done super fast, and with endless adjustments.
So you want your subject to stand out? You can grab the Adjustment Brush tool in Lightroom, and lighten them up. Then start another adjustment, now darkening, and darken everything you don’t want to stand out. Presto! The attention is now where you want it!
Indeed that’s an oversimplification. Intense dodging and burning can be incredibly involved, complex, and take hours to do. And it can create some incredible photos! But for our purposes here, you’ll probably find that a quick little touch of brightness on your subject, or a slight darkening of a distracting element, goes a long way.
Whatever you do, try experimenting with the Adjustment Brush tool and doing some dodging and burning, and you’ll see just how post-processing can change where your eye goes in an image.
In this image, the background is brighter than our subject's face, making our eyes go to the sky instead of the smile. It's kind of uncomfortable to look at, because we know we should look at her, but it just isn't easy to do!
By dodging (selectively brightening) her face, it now feels a lot more comfortable. Our eyes easily go to her, instead of the sky, and the attention is right where it should be. I used the Adjustment brush in Lightroom, with an increase in Exposure to do the dodging.
A big post-processing decision you can make is to take all of the colour out of your image, and make it black and white! Woah!
Y’know, I think a lot of people make this choice without fully thinking it through. See, changing an image to black and white fundamentally changes where your eye will go, and how you’ll interpret the frame. Color is a big draw to a viewer, so once it’s gone, the image will now rely a lot more on light, shape and contrast to communicate. This can really help draw attention where you want it to go if you have colours that are distracting from your subject more than they are helping!
Before you go black and white, take a look at the frame and see whether it has enough shape, light, and inherent contrast to remain interesting once color is gone. Sometimes you just can’t tell, so it’s handy to quickly convert to black and white (pressing ‘v’ in Lightroom) and seeing if the image is still strong. Over time you’ll be able to know instinctively whether a photo is a black and white candidate or not, but while you’re learning a quick conversion can help.
Once you’ve decided to go black and white, you need to still tweak the image. Nothing is more boring than a flat, dull black and white. They can handle a lot more post-processing than a color image, so be a little more bold with your contrast and dodging and burning. A great black and white really stops you in your tracks – it’s so simple, yet so rich.
Black and White
When making a black and white, look for contrast, shape and light that will stand out when all the color is removed. Then don't be shy! A black and white can handle more post-processing than a color image. Give it a go!
Luckily I’m married to an expert preset maker, so I have a bunch of Lightroom presets I can use to make a ton of edits with one click. A Lightroom preset (like a Photoshop action) automatically makes a set of adjustments to the photo. From there you can either leave it, or make a few quick tweaks, and then move on. What’s super about Lightroom is that you can apply presets to as many photos as you want, all at the same time – you can even apply a preset right on import so that it’s all done before you even look at the photos! Incredible time saving stuff here.
Making your own presets isn't hard or time consuming, so I highly encourage you to do it. Make a few simple adjustments, nothing too crazy. I usually go for a small exposure bump (since I like my photos bright), a little bit of contrast, and a touch of vibrance. It doesn’t need to be anything more than that. As we’ve talked about, those small adjustments do indeed make a big difference!
From there, click the plus button on the Preset panel, name your preset, and select only those adjustments that you made. And…well that’s it! You’re done! Now try applying it on another image and see if you like the results. If not, try again.
If you make your own set of presets you’ll both understand Lightroom better, and be able to create looks that are your very own. Plus, you'll save a boatload of time. Win-win-win.
Make Your Own Presets
It takes just one click to make your own preset. Make your adjustments, then click the +, and you're set! They can save mega time, and help you create a consistent style.
Every once in a while I go and turn my brain off and shpot a whole set of photos underexposed. It happens. Maybe I didn’t have my coffee yet.
I could go through each one and get the right exposure, but that would take too long. Instead, what I use is the Quick Develop panel in the Library module of Lightroom.
Basically, as I’m viewing my images, I can make quick adjustments to whole sets of photos at once. This is super handy when you have a bunch of images that are taken with the same settings, in the same location. They can all benefit from the same adjustments. So I just select them all, and then using the arrows in the Quick Develop Panel, increase the exposure, fine tune the white balance, and then I could apply a preset as well. You can edit hundreds of photos crazy fast this way, letting you improve the look of your images, without taking a ton of time.
Certainly the results here won’t be as good as the one-by-one fine tuning approach. And for client photos that’s still the method I use. But when I’m dealing with thousands of photos of my travels, or home life, I know that I need to be efficient if I’m ever going to keep up with them. The results are good, and that’s great.
In the Library Module, select a bunch of images with similar settings, and then make adjustments using the Quick Develop panel. You can edits TONS of photos all at once this once, and shave hours off your workflow.
Believe it or not, this is really just scratching the surface of post-processing. There are so many things you can do, it’s really an art all in itself! But I hope this quick peek has given you a place to start. Post-processing seems to be one of the things that many folks never work up to, maybe because the programs can be a bit intimidating. But with just a few quick adjustments, you can really bring your images to life, and put the attention right where you want it.
And even if you’ve already done a lot of post-processing, don’t forget to both experiment, and think about your work. There’s always room to improve and refine your eye! I’ve been editing my photos for nearly a decade, and I am always learning new things! It's a blast.
Like I said, Lightroom is a powerful program, and we really just touched on a few of the features here. You can do so much more in post-processing to create images that stand out. Like:
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Now tomorrow we’re moving on to a topic we’ve alluded to, and it’s time to give it our fullest attention. If you take anything away from this course, I hope it’s the information we’ll discuss next. Because every single thing you learn here will be for nothing if you wind up losing years and years of photos. And unfortunately that is a situation that happens to photographers every single day. Yep, we’re going to talk about how to backup your images – something that every single person who takes photos needs to understand. Do NOT miss this one!
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