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  • Writer's picturePhilip Preston

How To Make Your Photos Look Better - Digital Photo Editing Basics

Digital camera technology has progressed considerably over recent years, and most, if not all, digital cameras these days are capable of producing images that are correctly exposed with good colour rendition. For knowledgeable and experienced photographers working in studios with controlled lighting equipment, this probably means photographs may need little, if any, editing as they will already look good straight out of the camera. But for landscape or travel photographers working outdoors with available light, photographs are often taken in non-ideal conditions, for example, light may be low and flat (a dark grey sky), or bright with high contrast and in the wrong place (subject in dark shade). The time of day can also effect a photographs colour, light at sunrise or sunset has different colour compared to a photograph taken midday. So even if you have a nice camera capable of producing great results, taking photographs outdoors with less than optimal light conditions could mean you get home and are disappointed when viewing your photographic endeavours. This is not always a problem, for example, you just took some snapshots and may not be bothered if your photos are less than perfect. But what if you hoped for something better?

I frequently see nice photos that people post on the internet but, IMHO, they could be even better with some fairly simple photo editing. Typical examples are sloping horizons or verticals, incorrect exposure (too dark or light) dark shadow areas, blown highlights, and colour casts, amongst other things. For people new to digital photography and photo editing, they may be unaware of such problems, we all know people who think every photograph they take is marvellous, regardless of the actual reality! Others may be aware of such problems, but unsure how to correct them with an image editor. For anyone in this latter situation, I have shown below some basic edits typical of the adjustments on my own photographs using Lightroom (version 6), although similar image editors would work equally as well.

To assist with an example, I have used a photograph (see below) of a typical European city scene taken mid morning on a bright sunny day, looking towards a view in the direction of light, that is, the sun was located behind me as seen by the street light shadow. The image on the left is an unedited photo with no adjustments, while the one on the right is an edited version of the original.

Hamburg, Germany, original unedited photo for blog post - Philip Preston photography
Original unedited photo
Hamburg, Germany, edited photo version for blog post - Philip Preston photography
Edited version of original photo

The difference between the two is subtle, but sufficiently different such that the edited version (as it appears on my monitor) is 'better' than the original photo. You might ask, how is it better? In my opinion, the edited version has:

  • converging vertical lines corrected (compare building edges on left and right sides)

  • more detail in shadow areas (compare shadows on left hand buildings)

  • adjusted colours (original image has a minor green cast)

  • more vibrant colours (compare blue sky)

  • better contrast / dynamic range (compare highlight (white) areas)

  • water brightened and tinted blue

The ability to see some of these differences, such as colour rendition, will depend of course on the quality of the monitor/device you are using to view the image. These differences are also subjective, so what I like in an edited image may be different to what another person likes. The main point is that image editing software allows us, with appropriate knowledge and skills, to make images appear as we want them to, regardless of whether it pleases just the photographer or absolutely everyone.

In the sections below, I show some of the Lightroom (version 6) tools I use to edit my photos. The information is intended for people with no or little experience of digital photo editing, rather than experienced photographers already knowledgeable about using Lightroom or similar image editors. The information does not cover all Lightroom editing tools, but is intended to raise awareness of which tools provide a useful starting point for learning about the basics of digital photo editing.

Lightroom 6 Editing options for photo blog - Philip Preston photography

Lightroom 6 Editing Options

The panel shown left lists the editing options available in my copy of Lightroom , other programs will of course look different to what is shown here. For my example photograph, I used the Histogram, Basic, Tone Curve, Color, Transform and Camera Calibration functions for editing. Split Toning can also be a useful editing tool and a separate blog post on that function is available. Other editing functions like Detail and Effects are useful, even important, but not covered in this blog post.

Lightroom histogram for photo blog - Philip Preston photography

Histogram Function

The histogram (shown left) is a visual representation of the distribution of tones within an image, with black tones to the left, white tones to the right, and all other tones (colours) in between. Simply looking at the shape and distribution of the histogram tells us quickly whether the camera's exposure settings (shutter speed and aperture) used to take a photograph are either correct, underexposed (too dark) or overexposed (too light). Typically, but not always, the shape of a histograms distribution curve is broadly bell shaped indicating low levels of absolute black and pure white in an image (shown by the extreme left and right sections of the distribution curve in the histogram), then rising higher for tones (colours) more prevalent in the image. Because the curve for our photograph reaches both the extreme left and right sections of the histogram, it indicates exposure of the original photo is pretty good, highlight detail is not blown out (overexposed) and shadow areas are not blocked (underexposed).

For comparison purposes, the histograms below show the original photo (left) and an edited version (right). The edited photo has reduced contrast compared to the original, which is indicated in the histogram by the left (black) and right (white) parts of the distribution curve not extending to the outer edges as they do in the original photo's histogram shown on the left.

Lightroom histogram for photo blog - Philip Preston photography
Original photo
Edited photo
Hamburg, Germany, photo blog post - Philip Preston photography
Hamburg, Germany photo blog post - Philip Preston photography

If you find that the distribution curve for any of your photographs falls short of the extreme left and right sections of the histogram, it may indicate you need to increase the dynamic range of your photograph. However, it should be pointed out that some photographs, for example, landscape photographs taken in overcast light or with mist/fog in the image, may not require a tonal range covering the full extent of the histogram curve. Subsequently, you will need to make your own decisions about the desired look of your edited photos, the histogram is simply a visual tool to help you make that decision. Having looked at the histogram to assess the dynamic range of our photo, lets now look at some of the Lightroom tools available for editing our photos.

Lightroom Basic panel for photo blog - Philip Preston photography

Lightroom Basic Adjustments

As its name suggests, the Basic panel is for making basic adjustments to an image such as exposure, contrast, clarity and saturation among others. Changes are made by moving the position of the control point left or right along the appropriate slider until the desired result is achieved. Some settings will not require any changes, depending on the quality of the photograph being edited.

In our example photograph, five adjustments have been made to the original photo. These are:

Tint: increased +20 to remove the slight green colour cast from the original photo.

Highlights: reduced -40 to recover some detail in highlight (white) areas of the photo.

Shadows: increased +40 to lighten and reveal further details in shadow areas.

Clarity: increased +20

Vibrance: increased +10 to boost colour

As changes are made to individual sliders, the subsequent changes and effect on the photograph being edited are shown immediately. If you are unsure what any individual slider does, simply move it left or right and see how the photo changes. If you like the subsequent change, leave the setting as required, if you don't like the change, just move the slider back to its original position.

Lightroom Transform panel for photo blog - Philip Preston photography

Lightroom Transform Tools

The transform tools are used to correct things like sloping horizons and buildings with 'converging verticals'. Examples could be landscape photos where the horizon is sloping up or down, rather than being straight, or a cityscape photo with building walls that lean inwards (converging verticals) because the camera was tilted either up or down when taking the photo.

While Lightroom, and similar image editors, have a number of different transform tools, the ones used most frequently will be the 'Vertical' and 'Rotate' functions. The former is mostly used to correct converging verticals, while the latter is mostly used to correct sloping horizons. Again, just move the control point left or right along the appropriate slider until the desired change is made. After making any of these adjustments, you will notice that some white edges appear on your photo, to crop these out just click the 'Constrain Crop' checkbox. Cropping will of course reduce the pixel size of the photo being edited, making it a little smaller than the original.

Lightroom Tone Curve panel for photo blog - Philip Preston photography

Lightroom Tone Curve

This tool allows you to adjust the highlights, shadows and mid tones in your photo. While this can also be done in the Basic panel, mentioned above, using the highlights, shadows, white and black point sliders, the Tone Curve tool allows more refined editing than can be achieved using Basic panel tools. It may be that Tone Curve adjustments are not required if you are happy with Basic panel adjustments, but no harm in giving it a try for any photographs taken in more challenging lighting conditions.

Lightroom Adjustment Tools

When editing a photograph, changes can either be made globally on the whole image (eg, the Basic, Tone Curve, or Transform Tools), or locally, effecting just part of the image. Lightroom has a number of 'brush' tools to just paint parts of the photo, so that subsequent adjustments are only applied to the brushed area(s), rather than the whole image. The panel for selecting these tools in Lightroom is shown below.

The only adjustment tool used for our example photograph was the 'Radial Filter', indicated by the white circle in the tool panel. Simply click the required tool then apply it to the relevant parts of the photo being edited

Hamburg, Germany, Lightoom panel for photo blog - Philip Preston photography

In our example photo shown left, a radial filter has been applied to the left hand side of the photo to adjust dark shadow tones where buildings were in shade. In the original photo these areas are rather dark, so applying a radial filter just to this area means exposure can be increased to reveal more detail without increasing shadow details in those parts of the photo that require no adjustment.

The shape and size of the radial filter can be adjusted by dragging the four control points as required. In the example shown left, the filter has a circle shape, but elliptical shapes are also possible. It can be seen in the applied filter that the effect (indicated by the red shaded area) is stronger in the centre and reduces as it progresses towards the filter edge. This is called 'feathering' and is adjusted where required in the lower section of the Adjustment tool panel (see above). The default setting is 100 which gives a smooth gradient starting from the centre to the edge of the filter. For my own adjustments, I always leave the feather at the default 100 setting.

Lightroom brush tool panel for photo blog - Philip Preston photography

An additional local adjustment using the radial filter was made on the water area (see below). In the original photo the water looked dark and black in colour rather than blue. After positioning the filter in the relevant place, the following local adjustments were made:

Temp: Reduced to -20 making water more blue in appearance.

Exposure: increased to +0.40 to show more details.

Clarity: reduced to -100 giving the water a slightly more softer and smoother appearance.

Hamburg, Germany, for Lightroom photo blog - Philip Preston photography

Note: Temp is an abbreviation for Temperature, which refers to colour temperature.

Although the radial filter was the only tool used for our example photo, Its worth noting that other brush tools are available which can also be very useful for photo editing, including the:

Healing tool - use to remove dust spots from your camera sensor that appear on your photos, typically in light areas such as the sky.

Gradient filter - use to apply gradients on areas that are much lighter than other parts of the photo, an example would be applying a gradient filter on the sky in landscape photos to reduce the sky's brightness.

Brush tool - use to apply irregular shaped adjustments on parts of an image, an example might be reducing exposure on bright rocks in the foreground of a landscape photo.

Its possible to use multiple brush tools for local adjustments within a single photo, this might include multiple adjustments using the same tool (our example photo has 7 radial filters within the image), or multiple adjustments using two or more tools. When editing my photos, its not unusual to use healing tool, gradient filters and radial filters all within the same photo.

Lightroom Color panel for photo blog - Philip Preston photography

Lightroom Color Adjustment Panel

In the Lightroom Basic panel (see above), its possible to make colour adjustments on photos using the Temperature, Tint, Vibrance and Saturation sliders, but sliders in the Color adjustment panel allow more refined colour editing. For example, you might have a landscape photo where the green leaves on trees look a little dark, or grass is perhaps not quite the right shade of green. Or you have a beach photo where the sand colour looks slightly off, or the blue sky looks a bit pale compared to how you remembered it.

As seen in the panel shown left, there are adjustment sliders for individual colours like red, orange, yellow, green etc, which in turn are separated into three elements related to those colours, namely hue, saturation and luminance.

Hue: concerns the shade of a colour, for example, orange can be made more red or more yellow as required.

Saturation: concerns the strength of a colour, for example, making it stronger or weaker.

Luminance: concerns the brightness of a colour, for example, making it lighter or darker.

Clearly, there are numerous options available in this panel if all were used, but generally (based on my photo editing), if a photo needs any editing at all within this panel, its more likely to be just one or two, or perhaps two or three colours that get altered. For me, orange, yellow and blue are the most frequently adjusted colours, and while I rarely change hue settings, I do adjust the saturation and luminance settings occasionally. For our example photo, you can see in the panel above that adjustments were made to the orange, yellow and aqua colours photo colours, amending just the saturation and/or luminance settings. Changes will appear in the photo as you move the sliders, so if you are not sure where to start, just try making some adjustments to see what happens and proceed accordingly.

Unless you happen to be a professional photo retoucher where colour accuracy might be critical, for example, product photography for use in advertising or marketing, these sort of adjustments are subjective and its just a case of using them as appropriate. If you are quite happy with your photo colours straight out of the camera, then there is no need to change anything. But if you think something is not quite right, the tools are available to make the required changes as you prefer them.

Lightroom Camera Calibration panel for photo blog - Philip Preston photography

Lightroom Camera Calibration

If your camera manufacturer produces camera output profiles that enable photos to have specific types of film characteristics, they will appear as options for selection in the Camera Calibration panel. Because I use Fujifilm equipment, my Lightroom panel shows Fuji related film profiles such as Provia, Velvia and Astia, among others. For our example photograph above, I used the 'Provia' profile setting, which made photos 'pop' more than the 'standard' Adobe Lightroom default option. If of interest, you could also try using some of the Shadow, Red, Green and Blue settings available in this panel if you wish to experiment further with colour adjustment when editing your photos. However, if you primary focus is learning the basics then concentrating on getting familiar with, and using, settings and adjustments within the Basic panel might be better in the early stages of your photo editing learning.

That concludes my introduction to some of the photo editing tools available within Lightroom. If you are new to photo editing, I hope the information above has been informative, and of use if you wish to try photo editing for your own photography. Clearly Lightroom and similar photo editors can do much more than indicated above, but to get the very best from your camera photos, its surprising how just a few simple amendments can often considerably improve your photos.

Finally, if you are thinking that the difference between the original and edited photo used above was insufficient to make you consider learning more about photo editing, below are a couple of examples where the before and after versions are more significant. These examples clearly show that photo editing can make a big difference to your photography.

Example 1 - Original and Edited Versions

Stockholm, Sweden, unedited photo for photo blog - Philip Preston photography
Stockholm, Sweden - Copyright Philip Preston photography
Edited photo

Example 2 - Original and Edited Versions

Godrevy, Cornwall for photo post blog - Philip Preston photography
Godrevy Lighthouse, Cornwall - copyright Philip Preston photography


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