Photo editing is something we could all be better at. Beyond the realm of special effects and editing out arm and waist flab, not many people use photo editing software as it was intended, and this is a shame. It’s a shame because when it’s not just doing stupid stuff like adding an extra eye to your forehead, photo editing can actually make your good pictures great and your bad pictures better. It’s a life skill for the 21st Century.
In this article we talk about how to get started in real photo editing and how to make your photos as good as they can be. We will be using the free online photo editor Pixlr.
Basic Photo Editing
Now brace yourself, as what we are about to discuss may sound a bit dry and boring, but the difference you can make to a mediocre photo with a bit of basic balancing is amazing.
Whatever photo editing program you use, you should “balance” the levels in a shot. Most photography right off the memory card is sometimes a little underexposed (or exposed for the wrong bit of the frame), and it needs to be balanced. This results in very bland or flat photos. You can balance it with the levels or histogram panels, and most software has some equivalent.
Take this shot for example. It’s not too bad but is lacking in contrast and definition.
You could adjust brightness and contrast, but that’s not the professional way to get the most out of a shot. It has to first be balanced to make it really “pop.” In Pixlr, for example, we can adjust the levels by selecting “Adjustments -> Levels.”
The levels palette features a slider for the black levels, the mid levels and the white levels. To adjust the picture to correct it for poor exposure, simply drag the black and white sliders till they touch the lower and upper parts of the histogram curve, like so.
Now in addition to it being a bit flat, it also had a slightly blue cast over the whole frame as you can see from the sky, so we need to remove that. The simplest way is to choose “Adjustments -> Curves” and choose the white balance dropper to click on an area which should be white.
The sky is now white and the rest of the colours move around to compensate, resulting in a much more natural look.
Now while the image is much better, we could also use upping the contrast just a small amount. We can add a tiny bit more contrast with the contrast adjustment tool. Yes, we did say you shouldn’t do that, but it’s okay to use contrast as a special effect after the image is balanced but not before. The rule is “contrast is a special effect, not an adjustment tool.”
Choose “Adjustments -> Brightness & Contrast” and slide the contrast gently up to 32.
Now the image is many times better than it was in its original state. Now it really pops. Compare the image below with the one we started with, and you’ll see it’s much better.
There are more things you can do to improve an image, but these are the basic things you should do to EVERY photo before you show or print it.
The RAW deal
Bear in mind that the adjustments you can make with a JPEG image are quite minor before the image starts to break up and degrade in quality. For ultimate quality in photography, you should consider shooting in the RAW format if your camera supports it, and most good quality DSLRs do.
You see, you can’t create image detail (in shadows and highlights especially) where there is none in the image. You can’t push a JPEG indefinitely and raise and lower the levels, brightness, contrast and saturation and expect it to just “go there” without ending up looking awful. JPEGs break really easily if you push them too far.
So why do we use JPEGs at all if they are so awful?
Well, cameras fit more images onto a card if they shoot JPEG because they are smaller. There is this format we just mentioned which holds more detail called RAW, but RAW photos are huge files. The reason JPEG are smaller than RAW is that any detail not visible in a JPEG is literally not there in the file. A RAW however contains ALL the raw data captured by the sensor, even detail which is effectively invisible in the finished shot.
Obviously, knowing this there will come a point with a JPEG when its restricted amount detail is just not there to pull out … and the picture starts to look like (for want of a better word) crap. This is unavoidable. If you intend to manipulate and push the lighting levels a lot, then you must shoot raw, as all professionals do.
Basic techniques of photo editing can really improve your photography. Obviously you can also crop or re-frame the pictures for better composition, but that’s another subject for another time.
We hope you have enjoyed this little romp into professional digital photo editing. If you have any questions, please share them in the comments below.