I strongly believe that knowing how to edit your photos to maximise their impact is as important as knowing how to take them well in the first place. It’s not a new thing, having been very common in the film days too, it’s just become more accessible and doesn’t require specialised equipment or advanced skills to get started with.
There will always be debates on how much you should edit, my personal approach currently is not to add anything that wasn’t there, and mostly keep removals to spots/artifacts, so I do 99% of my editing in Lightroom. For this reason I always shoot RAW as it allows much greater scope for adjusting exposure, white balance, etc. and helps reduce the need for some filters like graduated neutral densities.
This tutorial focuses on the photo of a small boat in Abercastle captured at sunset with a 17mm focal distance, 20s exposure, f/8.0 and ISO200 shown below, in original (just cropped and straightened) format on the left and my final edit on the right. You should see that there is nothing added or removed from the photo, but adjustments have been made to balance exposure and make the important parts of the composition stand out.
As a good starting point, always turn on the lens correction in Lightroom, this will have a profile for the lens you used (most automatically picked up, my Tamrons show up when I choose the manufacturer) which corrects for distortion and vignetting. This is also a great place to look at if you want to correct perspective, especially useful in architecture shots, jump into the manual tab and have a play with the vertical and horizontal sliders.
I’m not going to look at cropping as this is very dependent on composition, but play around with different framing and even aspect ratios, the most important things are make sure you make the image straight and leave enough resolution for whatever the image usage will be – less cropping is possible for large format prints than web use.
The Basic panel in Lightroom is always a great place to start and has some controls you’d see on any photo editing software. This is the place to make subtle but important tweaks to the entire photo, often a touch more contrast, deepen the blacks, reign in the highlights and push a bit of clarity and vibrance. Big changes here can be very obvious, if you look at the side by side below you’ll see how little this can often do, but there is more definition in the hills, more colour and the boat is starting to stand out a little more.
Tone Curves can give slightly more in depth control of the things that contrast and the next 4 sliders from basic affect. A slight ‘S’ shape here can add contrast, or you can dive into the individual colour channels to get a lomo cross processed look as shown below.
Detail should be treated fairly sparingly, too much sharpening or noise reduction will make your photo look unnatural. Keep radius fairly low and use masking to stop areas of solid colour being sharpened (hold alt while adjusting mask to view it).
The next area I’ll jump into is local adjustments, for me this is what really can make your editing stand out and give an image impact. There are three tools for this in Lightroom – Radial Filters, Brush Adjustments and Graduated Filters, the last two of which I used on this image.
Brush Adjustments are the most powerful as they let you paint in areas of the photo to treat differently with a range of controls from the other sections of Lightroom. I usually paint with a very high exposure set, so it’s obvious where I’ve painted, then once I’m happy with the area I will adjust to the settings I wanted. Rolling back over the gray circle will show the area in red and holding ‘alt’ will allow you to erase areas. In this instance I painted over the boat to lighten the shadows and push the clarity a touch, then painted the water and reduced clarity to help enhance the smoothing effect of the long exposure. This technique is great for portrait edits too, as always less is more, try to be quite subtle and it will be more effective than if the edit is obvious.
Graduated filters are one of my favourite additions for landscape editing and massively benefit from shooting RAW. I used to heavily rely on Cokin ND Grad filters to darken the sky when I was out taking the shot, but they can be quite difficult to deal with and can leave permanent mistakes on your photos. I hardly use them now as most skies can be recovered using this technique.
Draw a filter in around the horizon as shown on the image below, you can adjust the size, position and angle later so don’t worry about being too accurate – if you have a very complex horizon then brush adjustments with a large feather may be better, but with similar settings. Here I dropped the exposure slightly, brought the highlights right down and pushed the clarity and saturation, this is by far the most dramatic edit I made to this photo but you can really see how it’s picked out the clouds and brought the sunset to life. All this detail was there in the original photo just slightly overexposed as the boat was in shadow, with a JPG file you would struggle to recover this level of detail.
You’ll see there’s another filter point in the bottom, this was coming from the bottom upwards and added a bit more contrast and clarity to the pebbles.
The last box I look at is the Effects section, I very often add a slight vignette which should always be done here (post crop) rather than in lens correction (pre crop), this just had -10 vignette with the rest of the sliders at default, subtle but enough to put a bit more focus on the subject of the photo. I also tend to add a bit of grain, which should be done at 100% zoom, this can help mask sharpening and noise reduction with something a little more natural looking and pushing it a bit further can add nice effect to black and white shots.
This isn’t meant to be a Lightroom tutorial so hasn’t covered all the controls as some were unused on this photo, but hopefully gives a good overview of my workflow and an approach you can take to editing photos which would likely transfer well to other software packages.
Let me know if there are any other photos in particular you would like to see a similar walk through of, or a more in depth look at any specific parts of Lightroom.