How to get started with image editing (post processing)

EDIT

Prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.

Choose material for (a film or radio or television programme) and arrange it to form a coherent whole.

Remove unnecessary or inappropriate material from a text, film, or radio or television programme.

All of these definitions also apply to image post processing. But in this post, I will be looking primarily into the “form a coherent whole” part of the editing process. I’ll explain why.

Correction is so subjective. It can mean totally different things to different photographers, based on their style, end goal and audience. If you are a photographer whose style is muted/desaturated colours, then for you, “correction” for would mean taking the RAW image towards that specific goal. If you are the kind that prefers organic and natural feel to your scenes, you would likely prefer a feather touch with the editing tools. To you altering colours or erasing may even feel “wrong“. Of course there is really no right or wrong in editing. It all totally depends on your style and preference besides what your client or project expects and needs.

So for my use, I’ll redefine image editing in this way:

Post-processing or editing is the process of modifying various aspects and overall mood of your image so it matches your style, preference and intended use.

If you are in the earlier stages of your photographic journey, it’s possible that you are still struggling to find your style/preference. Your ideas are likely dictated by popular trends and/or your favourite photographers. That’s okay. You may be having a hard time figuring out what kind of editing style would work best for your project or subject. That’s okay too. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to get you started. By no means are these going to give you all the answers you need, but at least this exercise will give you a set of goals to which you can align your editing process.

Who is the client for this image? (yourself? an agent? a paying client?)

I usually start here because it informs me of the level of creative freedom I have and the approach I need to take for the post processing of any image. If the image is for personal use, I would think further on whether it is for a fun personal project or for a formal portfolio representing my work. If it is just for fun, then sky is the limit. Do whatever floats your boat. Have fun and learn a lot with it. Make multiple copies, edit each copy differently, compare and contrast. This is a great way to learn and keep in touch with tech/tools and also to review how you’ve changed over time. (Don’t be surprised if you totally surprise yourself with that last one!)

If the image is for a portfolio, then I’d recommend you first take a look at what’s already on your portfolio. Then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does my portfolio accurately reflect and represent my current experience/preference/style and photography skills? If not, what can I do to close the gaps?
  2. What is the overall tone of the portfolio gallery? What sort of images do I not see in the gallery? What might I like to include?
  3. What kind of audience/client am I interested in attracting? Are my current images likely to be of interest to them?

And if it is for a paying client, then obviously their preference and the overall requirement of the project will determine the type of editing you have to do.

In the above Venn diagram, at the intersection of three key considerations lies the clue to the creative choices you need to make while editing. As you can see, there is more to editing than just twiddling a few sliders in Lightroom to adjust the contrast, sharpness or hue.

What are the no-go areas for this image?

Once there is some general idea on how to manage the edit, it’s useful to set some limits or constraints. Some constraints may already be imposed by the project/client (orientation, cropping, mood etc.,) and some may be self-imposed driven by your own style and preference (high-contrast/low-contrast, vibrant/muted, soft/sharp and so on). Setting these limits will help determine what your framework for editing would be.

You could even get started with those constraints first – so you don’t forget about them. Once you have a boundary for further edits, it’s easier to play around with the tools and fine tune the adjustments to achieve the best look and feel possible for your image.

What is the vision for this image?

What does vision even mean in practical terms? This was the question that stumped me for very long in the earlier stages of my journey. I think it is the most intangible and changeable aspect of creative learning. But to make it less vague and offer a more practical way get you started, I’ll write down some questions here that help me clarify my “vision” for my own work. Remember that these terms are just what I use for my own clarity of purpose and may not necessarily be “industry standard” classifications of images.

  1. What is the overall feel I want in this image? (clean/crisp, organic/natural, fine art, surreal, stylized and so on)
  2. What is the overall intent of this image? (illustrative, journalistic/narrative, stand-alone art, brand, social media, advertising, snapshot, portraiture and so on)
  3. What is the overall mood/emotion I want to achieve in this image? (Dark/sombre, bright/cheery, thought-provoking, fantasy, and so on)

As you can see, after you answer these questions, you can think about your tool-specific choices more easily and naturally.

It’s funny how we tend to do the opposite in the early stages of our creative journey. In the beginning we tend to jump into the editing software and start tweaking any and every value without thinking of the image as a “whole”. It’s important to realize that the software can only help us achieve our vision if we have one in the first place. Otherwise it will be a whole bunch of inconsistent edits which won’t take our image to its maximum impact potential.

I hope to write more on my experience with each adjustment tool and what specific effect each of them has on the overall vision for an image – hopefully really soon. But for now, I’ll leave you with a fun screen capture of my own editing process for one of my images. I hope it gives you some idea about the many little iterations of adjustments that go into post processing an image to achieve the desired look and feel. And if you’d like to share your own process or add to this discussion, feel free to email me via the simple contact form here.


A brand new workshop here at Boiledbeanstudio!

“Edit-with-me!”

By Boiledbeanstudio

Photographer, writer, creative coach, mentor