Do you need to edit your photos? Yes, you do. Editing photos is so much more than just tweaking. It’s a chance to critically assess your work and to develop your own unique style.

Actually, that’s not true. Everyone in the world doesn’t have to edit their photos. It’s not the law. But as you’re here, on a website about how to improve photography, you probably need to be editing. This website is about how to get better photography. How to get great photography on a budget. You’re not here because you don’t care about your photos. You’re here because you do care about your photos. And you want to make them better.

So, as you’re here to improve your photography, the answer for YOU is yes, you do need to edit your photos. And here’s why…

What is photo editing?

You can go completely crazy with editing your photos, even down to changing the colour or brightness of individual pixels. But bear in mind that on a 10MP camera you will have 10 million pixels to play with. So we wouldn’t recommend the pixel-by-pixel route unless you have a very clear purpose!

These are some of the things that, as a beginner, you might want to consider working on when editing:

  1. Framing – otherwise known as cropping. You can change the size of the frame, shape of the frame, center of the frame. You can also level the image, so that that it is perfectly horizontal. This is often a telltale difference between an amateur and a pro, that horizons haven’t been levelled. Sometimes you don’t want the horizon level, but often a horizon that’s off by just a little bit looks like a mistake and is painfully obvious to anyone looking at your photo.
  2. Brightness – aka exposure (note: brightness and exposure are technically not the same thing, we know that, read on, it will all make sense), although technically you can’t change the exposure after the photo is take, because exposure refers to how long the sensor or film is exposed. But you can change the brightness – basically how light and dark it is. Having said all that, in many photo editing products there are both options, brightness and exposure, as things you can tweak. They do have slightly different effects, exposure tends to favor highlights, making bright bits brighter and changing the dark bits less, whereas brightness will change everything in a uniform way.
  3. Contrast – essentially the difference between the light bits and the dark bits. Increasing the contrast will make the bright bits brighter and the dark bits darker! This is often something that you will want to add a bit of to your photo. But beware, it’s also something that, if overdone, can ruin your photo. So use wisely, don’t go too crazy.
  4. Color temperature – this refers to the base color palette with which your image is interpreted. It’s also known as white balance. To very briefly explain, white is not always white. Light comes out at different “temperatures”, depending on the light source. Sunlight is actually quite blue. Your standard old-school bedside lamp is quite orange. Your eye naturally compensates for these things, so in general you don’t really notice, but your camera will be seriously affected by the differences. If you’re shooting JPEGs, instead of RAW, then the color temperature is burnt in, and you can’t do much to change it after the photo is taken, so try to get it right before you shoot. If you’re using RAW, then the color temperature makes no difference, you can change it later. But always good to stay on top of it. More on this in another article.
  5. Saturation – this is simply the saturation of the colors. More saturation means more color. Less saturation = less color. Zero saturation is black and white. This is another slider that should be used judiciously. Don’t go nuts, or your photo will look really weird.
  6. Sharpness / clarity – two slightly different things, but we’ll bunch then together because they are related. When photo editing, these sliders will affect the edges of stuff in your photo. Clarity tends to go for the big thick edges, sharpness attacks edges on a pixel level. Used sparingly both of these can give your photo a bit of a dynamic, edgy look. Overdone and both of these things will ruin your photo and show you up as an amateur. Almost everyone who discovers Adobe Lightroom goes through a brief clarity-crazy phase, where they totally overcook it! Don’t worry, you’ll get over it quickly enough! Just go easy, you might think it looks awesome, but it won’t last.

They’re the big headings for photo editing. If you end up getting really into your photo editing you’ll grow out of this list pretty fast. You’ll move on to tone curves, masking and Photoshop layers and custom brushes… but start here. Things can get pretty complicated pretty quickly further down the line.

Capturing a moment

The essence of photography is the capturing of a moment. Hence the infamous quoted phrase from Henri Cartier-Bresson about the “decisive moment”.

What this all means is that a photograph captures a single moment. Nothing before and nothing after. Just that 1/500 of a second.

Realistically the chances of you both capturing that perfect moment and getting every single other element of the photograph absolutely immaculately perfect is pretty low. That’s why photography has been subject to editing since the dawn of the technology.

But surely those early photographers didn’t have all this digital photo editing software available to them?? They weren’t able to edit their photographs.

Don’t kid yourself. They didn’t have Photoshop, but they sure as hell edited their photos.

Dodging and Burning

Just like a RAW file, a roll of film, or a film plate, is no use to anyone in its original form. If you take a photo on a film camera and then pull the film out, you won’t see a photograph. You won’t even see a negative. You’ll just see a roll of completely featureless black film. And you will also have ruined all of your photos too, so you won’t ever see a photo out of that film!

Film photography involves many stages of work after the image is burned onto that light-sensitive film.

First you have to develop the film – turn it into a roll of negative images. Then you have to project that negative image into light sensitive paper and enlarge it.

At every stage of this process there is the opportunity to tweak, change, improve that photograph, and every photographer since the beginning of photography has taken that chance to make things better.

There is no shame in editing your photographs. Far from it. You are missing a great opportunity. Cartier-Bresson edited. Ansel Adams edited. Richard Avedon edited. Leibowitz, Bailey, Lanting, McCullen, Rankin, Geddes… they all edit!

You should be editing your photographs.

General improvements

It really is a rare occasion when a photograph cannot be improved with editing. Like maybe I’ve encountered it once or twice in six years as a pro photographer. And in that time I would estimate I have taken more than 200,000 photographs. So we’re looking at a ratio of perhaps 1 in 50,000 photographs can’t be improved with editing. In my view. Those are pretty crazy numbers.

The scope for improvement – the number of factors that you can change, makes it almost impossible that there is nothing you can do to improve a photo.

Is that photo really perfect? Take it into Lightroom now, start playing and I guarantee you will not be leaving without making at least one or two small tweaks.

Fixing mistakes

Not only is the editing process an opportunity to tweak things to make the image better, it’s a chance to fix things that didn’t quite go right.

The easiest and best example of this is being able to change the color temperature in a RAW file.

We have all taken photos on our phones, or on some small camera, where it looks orange. So orange. So very very orange. The problem is that your camera or phone was set up to interpret colors as if in daylight, but what it was presented with was indoor light maybe. Or vice versa.

It’s a mistake. But, if you’re shooting RAW, it’s the easiest fix in the world! You just shimmy the color temperature slider along and your photo is fixed! Suddenly that precious moment which you thought you had ruined, is saved. And you photo remains forever perfect.

Modern photo editing software packages also have ever more powerful spot-fixing tools. Lightroom is not as powerful as photoshop, but it’s quick and easy. An unsightly spot on the face of your portrait subject is no longer a problem. You can reassure your subject that you’ll take it out in post!

And it literally is as simple as two clicks – one to switch on the tool and then another click on the pimple. And it’s gone. Crazy. What will they think of next??

What comes out of the camera

Generally what is recorded to the memory card in the camera, and therefore what comes out of the camera, is one of two things – either RAW or JPEG. See below for which one is best for you.

If you are early in your career as a photographer, and you don’t currently do any photo editing, then you are using JPEGs. The reason I know this for certain is that you can’t use RAW images without editing. RAWs are essentially just data files direct from the camera sensor, and you can’t actually view them. They aren’t an image. RAWs have to be interpreted by the camera, or by your computer, in order to make them into a visible photograph.

JPEG is a very clever and ubiquitous format for photo presentation. It’s everywhere on the internet, everywhere on every computer and phone screen in the world. There are other photo and image display formats, but JEPG is the commonly accepted standard.

Things to note about JPEG:

  • It’s easy… usable straight out of the camera without any other work done to it
  • JPEGs are everywhere… no worries about compatibility issues, everything accepts JPEG
  • They’re small… even the biggest JPEGs don’t take up much space
  • JPEGs are optimizable… you can crunch down a JPEG to take up even less space with little loss
  • They’re compressed… the moment you turn your image into a JPEG it gets squashed and you lose some resolution and quality
  • JPEGs are permanent… once you’ve created a JPEG there’s no going back, the information that would let you make significant changes is gone and you’re stuck with what you’ve got

Other photo formats

Here’s a quick explanation of photo formats, what they stand for and what they’re used for:

JPEG – stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, the group who came up with the format. JPEGS are the world standard in photo formatting, and this has been the mainstay of the industry for ten years or so. There are newer formats coming out now that are improving on JPEGs, but it will be a long long time before anything supersedes JPEG as the standard.

PNG – something of an alternative to the JPEG, PNG stands for Portable Network Graphics. PNG, unlike JPEG, is a “lossless” format, which basically means that it doesn’t lose information when the image is compressed into this format. But that of course means that file sizes are bigger. And PNG is less widely accepted and translated than JPEG. Bear in mind that no images can be sent over the internet, everything has to broken down into pieces of code, pieces of information. PNG explains images to your computer in a slightly different way to JPEG.

GIF – stands for Graphics Interchange Format. GIFs are more well know these days as a format for low-size, short animation clips, bit GIF was originally designed as an image compression format. The difference between PNG, GIF and JPEG is that GIF allows you to store several images inside a single package, hence offering that moving image capability. GIF is a format that is still owned by Unisys, and whilst it is free for everyone to use and is widely distributed and included on computers and phones, actual fiddling with the programming behind the GIF is not allowed without permission from Unisys.

TIFF – this stands for Tagged Image File Format, and like PNG is it lossless. It is also HUGE. And I mean massive. I have exported multi-layered images from Photoshop that were 40MB RAWs going in, and after some tweaking and messing about they come out as 300MB TIFFs! This is a popular file transfer format between photographers, graphic artists, publishers etc. It essentially allows you to transfer an image that has already been edited (unlike a RAW) and send it without compression, to someone else. Which basically means that they can carry on editing without totally destroying the image. TIFFs cannot be displayed on the internet and need to be changed into JPEG, PNG of GIF to be used by the end consumer.

DNG – stands for Digital Negative. This is basically the same as RAW, except that RAW files are proprietary – each camera manufacturer will have their own unique wrapper. DNG is a universal RAW format. Once again, it is a lossless format, so no compression, but it can’t be read over the internet. It can only be used in photo editing packages.

RAW – a catch all term which actually refers to lots of different things. RAW doesn’t actually stand for anything, but it is shown in capitals because otherwise it would look weird next to all the other acronyms. RAW itself doesn’t actually exist, each camera manufacturer has their own way of expressing these files. But it is basically raw data straight from the camera sensor. Here’s what each manufacturer calls their RAW files – IIQ (Phase One), 3FR (Hasselblad), DCR, K25, KDC (Kodak), CRW CR2 CR3 (Canon), ERF (Epson), MEF (Mamiya), MOS (Leaf), NEF (Nikon), ORF (Olympus), PEF (Pentax), RW2 (Panasonic) and ARW, SRF, SR2 (Sony).

Inside your camera

Now we have established that raw files are basically encoded text documents, which need to be interpreted via software into a visible image…. Your brain should be thinking “I shoot in RAW, but how do I see an image on the camera screen?”

Smart thinking… good question. The answer is, your camera converts that RAW into JPEG temporarily in order to display it on screen.

Pretty much all cameras that shoot RAW will record a JPEG preview within the RAW file, for exactly that purpose. Otherwise it would be impossible to see what each image was without opening it in editing software. But what you are seeing IS a JPEG.

That’s also the reason that when you view an image on the back of your camera you’ll see the picture profile changes you’ve made in the menus. So if you have set your camera to shoot black and white, you’ll see black and white on the camera screen. But you won’t see black and white in the RAW image. It won’t display like that when you import it into edit software. That’s because the RAW image doesn’t carry the picture profile information. It’s only the RAW data.

Of course, if you have set your camera to record RAW+JPEG, then the JPEG file will carry the picture profile information, but the RAW won’t. That’s what we meant earlier when we said that JPEG is burnt in.

What software to use?

The world is literally your oyster, but the most widely used package is the Adobe suite of programs. For photographers this is basically Photoshop and Lightroom.

These are the packages that I use, and I have never found myself wanting any more. Photoshop is insane. Literally insane. 15 years of development have created an application which literally does whatever you want it to do.

I’m not on the payroll. I just love it. It’s cheap enough to sign up, you pay a monthly fee.

Start working in Lightroom first, it’s really easy to use and get the hang of, and you will literally be blown away with the difference you can make to your photos.


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Love and hugs, the BudgetProPhoto team x

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