It’s time for another Behind The Screen post and as promised it’s the second part to my commentary on photography. You can have a good old read of my first post about taking photos and in this one I’ll share with you how I edit them. Along with lighting it’s probably one of the things I get asked the most. As I’ve said before these posts aren’t meant to be prescriptive and I’m already aware there are quicker ways of editing photos but I’m letting you into how I do it so you can take or leave what you want and maybe learn some tricks along the way.
There’s something I really enjoy about editing my photos. It has a semi therapeutic quality, not to mention I love opening up my images, full screen and seeing them in their full glory for the first time. Occasionally there’s a disappointment but usually it’s an exciting moment of truth and I’m ready to get going on a few tweaks to really make them pop!
Just a little note to say that editing is part of taking photos these days, unless you’re one of those cool kids who just shoot old school film and make it your ‘thang’ like my brother in law (massive respect), wherever you look today you’ll see edited photos. We all know that’s the case on Instagram but it’s also true for brand campaigns, magazine, travel promotion, posters or wall art. Sorry to burst your bubble if you’re clinging to the idea of ‘natural’ but that doesn’t really exist in our world. I think the real skill is reigning the post production process in so that you are just making a few adjustments to make your images stand out or even accommodate for tough conditions that have tainted an otherwise great photograph. A bit of editing can take your images from looking fine to looking much more professional but over editing can create a surreal look that’s overdone and just plain bad. Let’s go through some of the steps I take.
WHAT TO USE
As I’ve previously said, I use a DSLR camera for shooting and I shoot all my images in RAW format to make sure I get the best quality originals. When you insert the SD card into your laptop and double click on an image in the finder, a Camera Raw window will appear. This is set to immediately open in Photoshop, which is what I use to process my photos. Controversial, I know and I almost feel sheepish saying I don’t use Lightroom and never really have. I think it’s partly because Photoshop is my happy place. I feel comfy there and so much of my design work needs to be manipulated there anyway that I kind of just keep everything in the same place. If you edit large batches of similar photos on a regular basis then I would suggest Lightroom as you can apply the same edits to a number of photos. I however like to treat each image individually and have a bit more control.
GET YOUR TWEAK ON!
The Camera Raw window allows you to make minor edits and correct some of the issues you might have. In case you’re confused by this big ol’ panel of spectrums I’ll just give you a run through of the ones I usually make use of.
WHITE BALANCE : This is a really handy one if you forgot to set it on your camera. If you’re moving quickly between indoor and outdoor particularly, you may forget to keep adjusting your white balance. This is the process of removing unrealistic colour casts that make your whites either look too yellow or too blue depending on the light source. Indoor lighting can often create a horrible orangey, yellow tinge and sometimes natural light outside can make whites look very cold and blue. The aim is to get it closest to what we see by eye. Often the auto setting does the job but sometimes it’s off so run through and see which looks most realistic in the drop down menu. Temperature and tint help you control the general tones too although I rarely use them.
EXPOSURE: This is great if you’ve managed to over or under expose and image. Hopefully you would have taken enough frames of an image at different exposures to pick the one that’s correct but if not then never fear as this tool will swoop in and save the day if you’re not too far off. My advice is don’t go crazy with exposure. If you want a really bright image then you can get closer to that here but don’t totally wash out the photo! Definition is important.
HIGHLIGHTS & SHADOWS: I sometimes use these if my highlights are overpoweringly bright to the point where detail is lost or more often if I feel the shadows are too intense. Both of these problems usually come from light not being diffused properly which can’t always be avoided if you’re out and about, snapping on the move. It’s handy to have the option but once again I would only tweak these controls very slightly.
CLARITY: Hopefully you’ll pay close attention to focusing properly when you take a frame but this can be handy to sharpen up a particular vocal point in your image. Sometimes the focal point of an image can look clear on your camera screen but you realise it’s not 100% pin sharp when you open it on your computer. This is a good tool to correct that final 1% and reveal a bit more detail, for the lurking perfectionist in you. It really is just good for a slight tweak and doesn’t work miracles on a blurry image. Technology these days is pretty nifty but that’s not a jump that it can accommodate for yet people!
I’ve picked an example image for you to follow my edits. I settled on this one as it probably required the maximum amount of editing I would ever apply to a photo. This way I can cover them all but often many of these steps aren’t necessary. As I said I take it case by case. Having the perspective on point is really important and helps make the whole image easy on the eyes. We all want that right? I usually try as best I can to use the grid on my camera to get this right in the first place but some times you snap in a rush and other times the lines of walls and furniture aren’t completely straight. To mend this I use the perspective tool.
Layer – Duplicate layer
Edit – Transform – Perspective
From here you can play with the corner and middle points, pulling and pinching to correct angles where applicable. In this instance I straightened up the skirting board at the bottom of the image so the line runs parallel with the bottom of the image.
When you’re happy you can flatten the image.
Layer – Flatten
If you still want your image brighter I would turn to the levels edit. There’s more freedom to adjust either way in this application than using the brightness and contrast or exposure settings.
Image – Adjustments – Levels
I usually pull the middle marker down slight to keep contrast and pull the right marker up slightly to brighten the image. Once again don’t go wild! There’s more brightness to come.
This is my favourite part and I never edit without this stage. You’ll need to begin by duplicating the background layer again.
Layer – Duplicate Layer
Now head to the layer options in the layer panel (see below for exactly what I’m talking about) pick the Soft Light option. Hello instant makeover! You can use the opacity marker to adjust the contrast (mine is at 20%) but my next step always softens things up ever so slightly too. When I’m happy I flatten the image.
Gone are our obsession with highly saturated, retro style instagram filters that look more than a little unrealistic. Even when I use a filter on Instagram these days I tone it right down until it’s barely there. For my blog images I use this special filter I created years ago, originally made using Photoshop actions compiled into a folder. I’ve opened the folder up in the image below for you to see but I’m not going to take you through it all as that’s my little baby and I can’t even remember how I made it to be honest. You can get various free actions for Photoshop or even use the VSCO Photoshop ones to sit over your image but my advice would be to keep it subtle. Turn down the opacity so it just enhances your photo. As you can see my opacity is right down and this way it just brightens and adds a subtle softness, removing any harsh shadows. Magic!
Hue & Saturation
You may want to make the colours pop but more often than not you don’t just want to do that as a blanket edit on the whole photo. Instead I select particular colours to tweak.
Image – Adjustments – Hue & Saturation
Within the box you can pick a colour you want to select from the drop down menu and change the colouring, saturate or desaturate and darken or lighten. Here I did that with the green in the cacti and the red on the stool. If it’s a very small area you want to saturate you can use the sponge tool shown below. Apply this to the area, adjusting the flow (how strong) at the top. Changing to ‘desaturate’ can be helpful for orangey glows that you might find when lighting situations that are out of your control such as restaurants, shops or exhibitions.
Occasionally I’ll notice an obvious difference in brightness between the top and bottom of a photo. This usually bothers me on a product shot (mostly DIY projects) but isn’t something I’m so fussed about on outdoor or more natural shots. When I’m being really anal I’ll add a white layer to even things out.
To do this you’ll need to create a new layer
Layer – New Layer
Now Select the brush tool and adjust the brush to an option with soft edges. Make sure you’ve selected white.
Apply this over the problem area and then select Soft Light in the layer options again. Adjust the Opacity to get the desired effect.
This final step is simple but effective. It’s always best to try to think about the layout of your frame when you’re originally taking the photo but sometimes there might be something you haven’t noticed creeping in. Cropping can also enhance the focus of an image too. I didn’t actually crop this particular image but felt it was an important one to mention.
Voila!!! As I said I don’t always do of these steps on every single image. The images below show before and after examples of photos with far fewer edits to give you some balance. I mostly just use the levels, layer options and filter but I make up my mind when I see each individual image. I like to think of it as a bespoke process (snigger). I’m sure you’ll agree that those subtle edits can transform a photo and leave you with a fresher and more professional look. Obviously you could be aiming for a different aesthetic to mine and therefore a different process would be more suitable but I hope it answers some of the many questions I get on this topic and goes a little way to making your photos pop. In my opinion you can’t use post production to make a bad photo good but you can take your photos to a whole new, sparky level.
There a million other things you can do in Photoshop but these are my ‘go to’ steps and they have been for a while now. As I process my photos in a very similar way each time it also creates brand continuity all the way through, whether you’re using them for a blog, an album, a brand campaign or product shots. When it comes to branding, continuity is always a good thing!
Let me know if there’s anything I haven’t answered or you don’t understand. I’ve included copious screenshots but I know it’s not always straightforward when you aren’t watching someone demo.
Until next time….