Getting to a Final Image - some words on editing photos for a new photographer

January 03, 2013  •  6 Comments


Thai Tractor

The typical way to get into editing is mechanical. People learn some photo-editing techniques or tricks and then they want to use them - soon and often. When all you have is a new hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Witness the typical output of photographers new to editing doing selective color or heavy vignettes. That attitude unfortunately goes along with considering the taking of pictures as a mechanical procedure with some tiny bit of artistry spread or just sprinkled on top.

Sometimes, people new to the editing process think the solution is to find and use a 'workflow' as if having a recipe will guide them in post-processing. That's like thinking that developing a project plan to build a building is the same thing as designing it.

The first thing that must be learned about post-processing is not the 'how' but the 'what.' And deciding what to do is the difficult part, learning to look at images and understand what issues stand between as the image is currently and what it could be.

Once those issues of what to do to the image are identified then those changes can be fit into a workflow to bring the image to its potential.

The most difficult thing about editing one's own image is to be objective about it. After all, the maker identified the image as having something interesting, worth capturing and rendering and thus is tied to the image as it is in his/her mind's eye.

How can the maker, especially someone relatively new to this, somehow step back and un-see the image, detach themselves emotionally and look at it with a cold, critical eye in order to identify weaknesses?

I suggest this.


First, allow a day or so between your first viewing and the final editing to allow that first rush of enthusiasm to fade. Forget about it a little, allow time to break a little bit of the bond that formed between you and the mental image so you can look at the actual image afresh.

Now, when your blood has cooled, look at again.

Does the picture have close to the impact you want, is the content all there, is there enough detail, is there enough exposure so that you can work with it? If so, or even if just possibly so, then break down your assessment of the image into small measurable chunks, where you look at specific items and decide whether items that seem 'wrong' should be or can be changed. You need specifics here to keep you on task and away from falling in love with the image in your mind again. Deal with the image on your screen.

Sometimes, you actually may have to start some of the post-processing to decide whether it is worthwhile to go on. For example, if there is considerable perspective distortion, correcting this may remove too much of the structures being photographed to allow a satisfactory result. Or when a shadow must be lightened a bit, the resultant color noise may be too much to be tolerated. There is no harm in taking a step or two just to evaluate the situation.

These are some of the questions I ask myself when I look at a picture to decide what items need to be considered in a post-processing workflow.

  • Are there obviously horizontal or vertical lines that are off their true direction without any artistic reason? (horizon, trees, etc.)
  • Are there bright areas of light or color that draw a viewer's eye from the real object of interest? 
  • Are there one or more obvious centers of visual interest where a viewer's can settle? 
  • Is(are) the center(s) of interest - the main subject(s) - well placed within the frame and does the placement relate well to the rest of the content so that any viewer's eye is drawn to, rather than away? 
  • Is there excess space that pulls the eye away and drains any tension or drama from the picture?
  • Is there space that gives some weight to an important part of an image? 
  • Is there enough space so that nothing feels cramped or cut off? 
  • If the subject is a person or a face and his/her placement in the frame is asymmetric, does the asymmetry make sense to the eye?
  • Are there geometric issues? e.g. are the horizontals and verticals correct, and is that important or as you want them?
  • Is the skin color 'natural' to the subject?
  • Are there little off-tints in the skin? (look at the sides of the nose and under the chin where these lurk.)
  • Is there a bluish tint to the skin or the whites of the eyes? (Even with a custom white balance, this is all too common in portraits taken outdoors. Try adding a warming photo filter and see how this looks.)
  • Is the color or tonality appropriate for the content? Saturation or lack of it? Correct hues, white balance? 
  • Does the color make the point that you want?
  • Is the sharpness or lack of sharpness appropriate? 
  • Is everything that should be in focus and sharp, actually so? 
  • In the reverse, is there so much depth of field, so much in focus that attention is drawn away from the real object of interest?
  • Are there individual small defects -points of motion, dirt on the lens/sensor, out-of-focus spots that hurt the image, unduly bright areas that draw the eye?

After doing this kind of image evaluation for a while, one doesn't need to dwell specifically on questions and the evaluation will become unscripted and automatic.

Nothing is wrong per se if it creates the impression that you want to make.
Something is wrong if it gets between the viewer and her/his appreciation of the image.


My workflow for corrections follows fairly closely the structure of a Lightroom Development module with some minor deviations.

First I look at global issues that might cause me to reject the image out of hand.

As much as possible I correct any perspective distortion and deviation from horizontals/verticals to be certain I can get the horizontals and verticals to look the way I want them and then I crop it to the desired framing. There is no sense going any further if the viewer will always be disturbed by basic framing issues that detract from the impact. If it can't be made to look good here, I just abandon the effort.

Then I make global changes in exposure, white balance, tint and contrast so that I can be certain the detail and tone will be there in the final image. Another point at which I could abandon the image.

I usually do these early global corrections in Lightroom but rarely do non-global edits here because I like the flexibility and power of Photoshop.

After exporting to PS and doing a global noise reduction, I work on area specific changes in exposure and sharpness, enhancing areas that I want to be seen and diminishing the impact of areas that don't contribute and I don't want to impact the viewer but are included in the frame. Virtually every one of these steps is done on separate named layers.

When I get to a 'final', I save the file, layers intact, and leave it for day or so to marinate and for me to get some distance. Eventually I come back to it and fiddle around with it again. When I am happy with the final, I collapse as many layers as I can and save the Photoshop file.


Note that all of these decisions require the maker have an idea of the endpoint that she/he wants to reach.  

There are no rules, there are only ideas and opinions - and to be a photographer, to do your post-processing, you must have opinions about what is good and ideas about what you want to achieve. 

Once you have a goal, then the path is easily found.




Kathie MacPhee(non-registered)
I'm saving this article and will refer to it until it's memorized :) - thanks!
Lew Lorton Photography
Note the two bullet points above that.
Any color skin can have an off-tint.
"Is there a bluish tint to the skin or the whites of the eyes?"

Mmm, does this assume a Caucasian person? If not I'd be worried about making sure the skin looked white!
Maybe this hint should just refer to the eyes of the subject, then it seems very reasonable Lew.
ratssass (paul)(non-registered)
thank you for pointing me to this particular blog.As you said,regarding the digest/rest,return analogy,this blog will be returned to.
Thanks for referring me to this. "When all you have is a new hammer, everything looks like a nail." Made me laugh a bit. Defiantly how I feel starting out. Excellent guide. I will give this a shot in my next project.
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