Happy August everyone! Emma, Angie and Jessi are asking us to share our best travel lessons as part of their travel link up this month and so I have decided to interpret the theme a bit broadly to share my picture-editing process with you all. I hope you will find this helpful!
Travel has without doubt enriched my life with amazing experiences, broadened my horizon by introducing me to other cultures and reminded me of my place in our big world, but I think the most life-changing thing that travel has done for me personally is to turn me into a photographer. I doubt that I would ever have picked up a camera if it hadn’t been for travel, but exploring our world awakened a desire in me to capture its beauty and photography just seemed to be the obvious way to do so. Traveling to interesting places also encouraged me to learn more and more about this craft and made me want to keep on improving my skills and part of that journey was figuring out how to edit my pictures.
As I have mentioned before, editing isn’t the be-all and end-all of photography. You need to understand how exposure, light, composition and subject matter work together to create a good photograph, before you can make true magic happen in post-processing and as with every other skill, it takes time and practice to improve. Editing, however, is an essential step in adding your own personal style to your pictures and therefore a skill worth picking up if you want to take your photography to the next level – and since I know from first-hand experience just how overwhelming getting started can be, I figured it might be helpful if I would share my own workflow with you all.
A Few Preliminary Notes
First of all, my weapon of choice for editing my pictures is Lightroom. Lightroom was specifically developed to suit the needs of photographers that often have to process large batches of photographs in a limited time-frame and feels much more intutive than its big brother Photoshop. I rarely use Photoshop because I a) never really bothered to learn how to properly use it and b) don’t do the kind of heavy image manipulation that Photoshop truly excels at and if you have no experience using these softwares already, you will probably find Lightroom much less intimidating when you first start out as well. (In any case, here's the link to Adobe's Creative Cloud photography package that includes both Photoshop and Lightroom)
I also always shoot in RAW. RAW is a specific file format that retains all of the information that your camera’s sensor has recorded while taking a shot and therefore gives you a lot more room while editing. JPEG files, on the other hand, are already processed by the camera which makes them smaller and more practical for immediate use, but also leads to a significant loss of data that inhibits your editing possibilities severely. If you’re interested in learning more about whether or not you should shoot in RAW or JPEG, I recommend reading this post by SLR Lounge, but suffice it to say that shooting in RAW is absolutely essential for editing.
This post is only an overview of the different techniques I typically use for editing my pictures, so please do let me know if there is anything that you would like me to write about more in depth in the future. I’m no Lightroom expert and I don’t doubt that there are many ways in which I could use Lightroom better and more efficiently, but my workflow works for my current needs and has gone a long way to improve my photographs and I hope that this will be helpful to anyone that is still trying to find their feet in editing!
Step 1: Import & Sort
After I have imported my pictures into my Lightroom catalog and have added metadata and keywords, I try to sort through my pictures as ruthlessly as possible before I even think about editing. I tend to take way more pictures than any non-professional ever needs and so I try to delete every single picture that I either don’t like or know I will never have any need for.
These include pictures that are beyond any hope of saving – usually photographs that are out of focus or very under- or overexposed - and repeat pictures of the same subject (nobody needs twenty pictures of the same castle that only slightly differentiate from each other), but sometimes also pictures that are not terrible, but also not particularly exciting, and that I will probably never show to anyone. After this first round of deleting, I proceed to flag the pictures that I want to use on Instagram and add pictures I want to edit for specific blogposts to collections.
Step 2: Apply Presets
Once I have made my selection, I add presets to all of the pictures. Presets (on the left-hand side in the Develop module) are basically filters that apply multiple edits to a picture with a single mouse-click and I find using them an invaluable time-saver in my workflow. I have created my own set of presets that include all of the basic edits I do to every single picture in varying degrees of strength (and here’s a tutorial on how to make your own presets!), but you can also buy presets online. If you want to develop your own style, though, I would refrain from buying presets until you have a good idea what your own photography aesthetic truly is, but if this is not your goal than they can be a good investment for easily taking your pictures to the next level.
In my basic preset, I increase the exposure of the image by + 0,5 making the picture lighter and lower the highlights by - 100 while raising the shadows by + 24 which brings back detail to the lighter and darker parts of the picture. I also raise the contrast by + 23, lower the blacks by – 34 and increase the whites by + 10 to add more dimension to the picture and add some clarity, vibrance and saturation. Aditionally, I enable profile corrections and remove chromatic aberrations in the lens corrections panel which usually takes care of issues like distortion and vignetting that are based on the lens.
Step 3: The Basic Panel
Applying presets already goes a long way in making my pictures look more put together, but I almost always go back to the basic panel to make some individual changes to each image. Usually, I will tinker around with the exposure some more and make the image lighter or darker depending on what I think is necessary. Sometimes, I also raise the shadows further and lower the darks and often I also add more contrast and vibrance (and occasionally saturation) to the picture. At this point, I will also make changes to the picture’s white balance to make it warmer or cooler (that is to say either adding more yellow or more blue tones to the image) if necessary.
The changes I make at this step in my workflow always depend on the picture I’m editing. In the picture above I raised the shadows to + 51 to retrieve some more detail in the shadows of the tree, but felt like this made the image appear to flat and therefore lowered the blacks to – 55 and increased the contrast to + 33 to compensate for that. This in turn made the picture a little bit too dark for my liking and so I raised the exposure to + 0,2 after taking the screenshot.
(The next few steps of my workflow are optional, meaning that I only resort to them when I think an image needs any special kind of attention. Many pictures are fine after some additional changes in the basic panel already!)
Step 4: Saturation & Vibrance
I like my images to be light and bright, but I still want the colors to be vibrant and saturated. Most of the time, raising the vibrance and saturation levels in the basic panel a little bit is sufficient to achieve that, but occasionally I find that particular colors need extra help. In the picture above, for example, I was happy with the greens, but felt like the reds in the rooftops and the blues in the sky could be a bit more intense and therefore affected them in the HSL panel as seen in the picture beneath.
It’s a subtle change, but in the end it’s details like this that make all the difference. On a side note: Vibrance and saturation differentiate from each other in the scope of their effect on the image. Increasing the saturation influences the entire image, whereas increasing the vibrance only boosts the intensity of the more muted tones of the picture giving you a less extreme result.
Step 5: Add Sharpness & Remove Noise
My presets also apply a little bit of extra sharpening in the detail panel, but I am usually very light-handed with this feature since it can quickly turn your pictures grainy. There are more effective ways to sharpen your images in post-processing, but since understanding just what makes an image sharper than others can be a difficult concept to grasp, I recommend reading this post on FStoppers – it honestly changed the way I look at editing!
If I have taken an image with a high ISO (for me, that’s typically everything from ISO 800 upwards), I almost always feel the need to remove noise from the image in the detail panel. The picture above was taken in a dark room with minimal ambient lighting where I had to increase the sensor’s light sensitivity to ISO 2500 to be able to use a shutter speed quick enough for hand-held photography. Using an ISO that high turned the picture grainy, though, which I didn’t like the look of, but this was easily fixed by adding some luminance to the image.
As is the case with sharpening, though, luminance should always be added with a light hand because smoothing out the picture too much results in a loss of sharpness. I therefore typically only increase the luminance up to a value of 24.
Step 6: Add Local Adjustments
All the changes I have made to a picture to this point are called global adjustments because they have affected the entire image. Occasionally, though, I only want to edit specific parts of the image and that is when I resort to the special tools Lightroom offers to make so-called local adjustments. There are three different types of local correnctions you can do in Lightroom that help you deal with a number of scenarios that basic editing just can’t take care of. Incorporating them into your workflow, therefore, is quite possibly one of the most impactful changes you can make to your editing routine.
The tool that I use most often to make local adjustments to my pictures is the Graduated Filter tool found in the upper right corner of the Develop Module. This tool applies a filter over a certain part of the image to allow you to edit it separately from the rest of the picture. (Here’s a helpful tutorial on how to properly use it). I find it particularly useful for landscape photography where high contrast scenes – meaning that the sky is much brighter than the foreground and therefore has to be metered differently - are the norm.
In this picture of the Palatinate Forest in Germany, the sky was overexposed and not dramatic enough for my liking. I therefore used a graduated filter to lower the exposure of the upper part of the image and to increase the contrast of the scene. I also used the dehaze tool to add a little bit of extra flair to the sky. (Talking about the Dehaze tool would go too far beyond the scope of this post, but if you take a lot of landscape shots it can become one of your best friends. Here’s a video showing you the magic it can do!)
Radial filters are another type of tool that allow you to make local corrections applying a circular shape over whichever part of the image you place them. You can use a radial filter to either apply edits to the area the filter is placed upon or to the parts of the image that are outside of it if you don't invert the mask. The latter is a great way to draw attention to a specific part of the image and is therefore especially helpful for portrait or wildlife photography. I haven’t been using this filter a lot in the last few months, but that’s mainly because it isn’t the most necessary tool for my chosen style of photography.
The third tool you can use to make local corrections in Lightroom is the Adjustment Brush. This tool literally allows you to paint over any part of the picture to apply edits and is helpful for any kind of localized editing that can't be achieved with the two filters. I especially use it for small areas or weirdly-shapen objects.
Step 7: Correcting The Perspective
The last step of my workflow is probably the most advanced editing technique I use, but also the one that has easily made the biggest impact on me as a photographer. Have you ever taken a picture of a stunning building only to later realize that the lines of the walls are crooked? This happens all the time when you work in confined places where you have to tilt the camera in order to fit something in the frame and it used to absolutely drive me insane while editing, because I just didn’t know how to fix this issue for the longest time.
A flawed perspective can be a very interesting element of composition in a photograph when used right
Using the first three sliders in the transform panel (these used to be found in the lens correction panel until a recent Lightroom update) after ticking the Constrain Crop box, I changed the vertical value to - 13 which tilted the image towards me vertically, changed the horizontal value to + 8 which did the same thing horizontally and rotated the image by + 0,6 to the right to make sure the vertical lines in the image were parallel to its edges. To be honest, the perspective of this image still isn't quite right in eyes, but it's already a lot better than before. Correcting a picture's perspective usually takes a lot of tinkering on my part which makes it a rather time-consuming part of my workflow, but it just makes a world of a difference.
So there you go – almost 2500 words on how I edit my pictures! Learning to use Lightroom and other editing softwares can be intimidating in the beginning, but the more often you edit pictures, the more easily it will come to you. It takes a while to develop your own style and aesthetic, just as it takes some time to figure out which workflow really works for you, but I find that the extra effort is well-worth it for getting pictures that truly correspond to your creative prefrences. Please let me know if there is anything that you would like me to touch upon a bit more in the future!