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7 Deadly Processing Sins That Could Ruin Your Images

Wherever you are on your photography journey there are always new things to learn. But something else you want to consider is what things you want to avoid doing. Which mistakes have others made previously, that you can learn from and dodge? In this article, we're going to look at photo editing and seven processing sins that you want to avoid.

Seven processing sins to avoid are:

  1. Using a vignette that is too heavy-handed and obvious.
  2. Over sharpening (using both sharpness and clarity).
  3. Over saturation.
  4. Pulling the shadows up too much (no blacks left).
  5. Noise reduction applied to heavily.
  6. Not shooting in raw format.
  7. Not doing any processing at all.

This list is by no means exhaustive, feel free to add others in the comments below. But these are the most common ones I see made by beginners, and if you are just starting out I just want you to be aware of them. You'll notice a common thread here – over doing it.

The goal in processing your image is to enhance what is already there, not fix it, or make the editing so obvious that it becomes the subject. You want people to look at your image and say, “Wow that's a really great photo!” and not, “Wow that's really nice Photoshop work.”  Subtle is the key word.

#1 – Overly heavy edge vignette

Adding an edge darkening vignette is a good idea for many images. I have a Lightroom preset that I add to all my images upon import automatically. It adds a slight darkening vignette around the edges. This helps direct the viewer's eye inward to the subject in the image. That's a good thing.

Original image, no vignette added.
Original image, no vignette added.
With a soft edge darkening vignette applied.
With a soft edge darkening, vignette applied. If you only look at this image it's not really obvious.

But overdoing it and making the vignette really strong and obvious is not a good thing. Very rarely is this type of edge vignette desired or effective. It just looks obvious and often your eye goes to it because of the strong contrast it creates – exactly the opposite of what you want to happen.

Vignette too dark, and not gradated enough. Too obvious.
Vignette too dark, and not graduated enough. This is too obvious.
Using a Radial Filter in LR to create an off-center vignette.
Using a Radial Filter in LR to create an off-center vignette is great when your subject isn't in the center of the image. It even allows you to apply things like minus Clarity and soften the edges as well, as I'm applying here.
Result of using the post-crop vignette and the Radial Filter
Result of using the post-crop vignette and the Radial Filter

So whether you are using the post-crop vignette tool in LR or Adobe Camera Raw, the Radial Graduated filter, or a custom adjustment layer in Photoshop – moderation is the key here. Keep the edges soft and the density subtle.

#2 – Oversharpening

Oversharpening can be done a few ways: using the sharpening tool or slider, or with Clarity. I wrote about Clarity here: Clarity Versus Contrast and How to Use Them to Make Your Photos Pop.

How Sharpness and Clarity work is that they find edges in your image and add contrast to them. So where dark meets light they enhance that difference. They do not fix out of focus images or blur caused by camera shake. So if your image is blurry due to either missed focus or a slow shutter speed it's pretty much time for the delete button. So applying high levels of Sharpness will not help, it will just make the blur more obvious.

No Sharpening or Clarity applied.
No Sharpening or Clarity applied.
Clarity +50, minimal Sharpening applied.
Clarity +50, minimal Sharpening applied.
+80 Clarity, heavy sharpening applied.
+80 Clarity, heavy sharpening applied.

If you look at the three images above it's hard to tell the difference other than the first one looks a bit unsharp, and the bottom one looks pretty good, right? Nice and crisp. But let's take a closer look!

You need to view your image full size at 100% (1:1 in Lightroom) to see the level of sharpening clearly. Zoom in when applying this adjustment so you can get it right. If it's overdone you may see halos on the edges of things in your image, and the level of grain or noise can also be enhanced with too much sharpening. It's a fine dance you need to do between Sharpening and Noise Reduction (see #5 below).

Before Sharpening and Clarity applied the image is not as crisp as it could be.
Before Sharpening and Clarity applied the image is not as crisp as it could be.
With +50 Clarity and medium sharpening level applied. Notice the difference?
With +50 Clarity and medium sharpening level applied. Notice the difference? Look at the grain elevator.
oversharpening-overdone
+80 Clarity and heavy levels of Sharpening applied. Notice how the image has started to look grainy? This is viewed at 100% or 1:1 in Lightroom. (Click on the image to view it larger, and look at the clouds and the fence post closely)

Ideally, you want to add the right amount of sharpening according to the output for your image. So a large image for printing may require more sharpening than one designed for the web. This is why you'll see a sharpen option in the export dialogue for Lightroom to help you choose the right level.

#3 – Over saturation

These next two points are often part of doing the HDR process. When you start to manipulate the shadows and contrast of your image to a high degree you risk doing too far in either direction. Over saturation is a common problem.

Our eyes are used to how things look in nature. How green the grass is, how blue the sky is, how our own skin tone appears. When you start mucking with those and going to the far end of the spectrum the eyes reject it. The warning I used to give when I taught an HDR class was to NOT make neon puke, as I call it, which looks like this:

Do NOT do this!
Do NOT do this!

That's not to say you can't play with colors and make them unnatural. But use discretion and moderation, tread lightly. Flickr fans may say it's great, but if you really want to be take your photography up a level – learn to get over the over saturation fascination.

A normal amount of color saturation in a colorful subject (Montreal's Notre-Dame Basilica).
A normal amount of color saturation in a colorful subject (Montreal's Notre-Dame Basilica).
Over saturation. The yellows and blues here are almost glowing and it hurts my eyes.
Over saturation. The yellows and blues here are almost glowing and it hurts my eyes.
Same image as above, overly saturated. No grass is this green, no sky is that blue.
Same image as above overly saturated. No grass is this green, no sky is that blue. Even the old weathered fence post has started to look yellow. It wasn't!
Try a gentler approach, turn down the saturation and try a split tone even.
Try a gentler approach, turn down the saturation and try a split tone even.

In the grain elevator image above I've added a warm tone to the shadows using the Split Tone panel in Lightroom. The saturation on the image overall has been dialed down to -36 to give it a slightly faded out, antique look. I much prefer this to the overly saturated one above it. It is also more fitting to the subject matter, don't you agree?

#4 – Shadows pulled too far

This is part two of the common HDR over processing sins. Having a shadow or darkness in your image is not a bad thing! Whoever told you that needs to have their head examined. You need dark and light to have contrast and drama in your images. If you feel your images are lifeless and dull – look at the shadows, are there any?

Have a look at this article and see what I mean: 5 Tips for Using Shadows to Create Dramatic Images

HDR was created to take a scene that has too much contrast for your camera to capture enough in both the highlights and the shadows to render detail in both. It is not meant to completely obliterate all shadows from your images. Sometimes the image is all about the shadows – embrace them. Which of the two images below has the most impact and drama?

processing-sins-no-shadows-750px-02
Processed to remove most of the dark shadows. Notice the lack of contrast and how drab the image is overall?
processing-sins-no-shadows-750px-01
This is the same image processed to enhance the shadows. Notice how the color is also punchier in this one? I did NOT touch the saturation slider, contrast does this automatically.

I hear this all the time in my portrait class also, about wanting no shadows. That couldn't be further from the truth. Shadows create depth and shape in your image. They add a sense of three-dimensionality. Remove them and you've got a flat, boring mess.

Portrait of a camel, shadows brightened, contrast lowered.
Portrait of a camel, shadows brightened, contrast lowered.
Processed to embrace both light and shadow. See how much more texture the fur has and drama is in the image?
Processed to embrace both light and shadow. See how much more texture the fur has, and overall drama there is in the image now?

Some pretty amazing strides have happened with cameras in the last few years and their ability to capture a wider dynamic range (high contrast). The files from my Canon 5D Mark III were miles ahead of my 5D Classic, and even my Fuji X-T1 mirrorless beats the 5DIII in this area, and it's a cropped sensor camera! So the need to do HDR has become less and less. I rarely shoot bracketed images anymore. However, often when I do, I find that one single raw file from the Fuji, processes up nicer than 3-4 combined.

Shadows pulled up as much as possible. Just because we CAN do this, doesn't mean we should.
Shadows pulled up as much as possible. Just because we CAN do this, doesn't mean we should. This version isn't horrible but the dark tunnel shows a lot of grain/noise, which happens when you pull images too far.
See how the dark tunnel is actually more mysterious here? Adds to the storytelling of the image.
See how the dark tunnel is actually more mysterious here? Adds to the storytelling of the image. Doesn't the hallway also feel longer and farther away? That's the depth that comes from the contrasting tones.

So do me a favor please, promise not to fear shadows? Use them to help you add drama, intrigue, and depth to your images.

#5 – Noise reduction too heavy

If you shoot at a high ISO it may be necessary to apply some noise reduction to your image. But go easy, if you go too far it just blurs your image. This will really depend on the software you use and how it works, and also if you can mask it to apply to certain areas only. I use Lightroom and haven't tried many others – if you have one you like please share in the comments below.

Once again, like sharpening, you need to view your image at 100% to judge this one. Viewing at it in full on your screen it may look fine. But zoom in and see if it's going too far. It's hard to show this in a small sized web resolution image but here's one example.

ISO 12,8000, no Noise Reduction applied.
ISO 12,8000, no noise reduction applied. Even at this size, the noise is visible.
No Noise Reduction applied.
No noise reduction applied. Lots of visible noise when viewed at 100%.
ISO 12,8000, moderate Noise Reduction applied.
ISO 12,8000, moderate noise reduction applied.
The noise is clearly reduced here.
With moderate noise reduction, it is clearly reduced here but the image is still relatively sharp.
ISO 12,8000, heavy Noise Reduction applied.
ISO 12,8000, heavy noise reduction applied. Can you see the image is starting to look too smooth, almost fake?
Heavy Noise reduction applied, notice how the skin is overly smooth now?
Heavy noise reduction applied, notice how the skin is overly smooth now, and overall sharpness is less?

So noise reduction is about finding a balance between removing some of it, while still maintaining good overall image sharpness.

Sometimes I will actually embrace the noise and treat it like old time film grain, and even enhance it like this image. The old sink in a crumbled building feels more rough with the noise enhanced than removed. Do you agree?

Original image, no noise reduction or grain added.
The original image, no noise reduction or grain added.
The original image at 100%.
The original image at 100%.
With heavy noise reduction applied. It feels too perfect, too smooth to be right.
With heavy noise reduction applied. It feels too perfect, too smooth to be right.
With heavy noise reduction, at 100%.
With heavy noise reduction, at 100%.
Finally, with the noise enhanced, sharpened, and grain added.
Finally, with the noise enhanced, sharpened, and grain added. Doesn't it just feel dirtier?
The image with added grain and the noise sharpened.
The image with added grain and the noise sharpened at 100% view.

You really need to consider your image, the subject matter, and how it is going to be used and viewed when you are applying both noise reduction and sharpness.

#6 – Not shooting raw

This is an easy one. If you are doing any kind of processing at all, whether it be with Lightroom, Photoshop, Elements or your camera's dedicated software – the workflow for JPG and RAW is the same!

So, if you are shooting JPG and using Lightroom or Photoshop, you are losing out on the benefits of having all that amazing raw data at your fingertips. Read: Why shoot in RAW format… for more on this topic.

If you are shooting JPGs and using a free online photo editor, Photos, or some other software that cannot handle raw files – then keep doing what you're doing. But at some point, you may want to consider shooting raw. It just gives you so much more to work with.

#7 – Not doing any processing at all

I've had this debate many times. The purists will say it's not real photography if they process their images, and they prefer reality. Digital artists are at the other end of the spectrum. They sometimes spend hours processing one image or combining many to create a whole new piece of art. Somewhere in the middle is where most photographers fall. Sometimes you will need to process to fulfill your vision of how you saw the image in your mind's eye.

This is the original image out of the camera. But this is not what I saw when I shot this scene.
This is the original image out of the camera. But this is not what I saw when I shot this scene.
I wanted to capture the shadows and contrast between light and dark, and the stripes on the road. THIS is what I saw in my mind!
I wanted to capture the shadows and contrast between light and dark and the stripes on the road. THIS is what I saw in my mind!

In the image above I literally envisioned it in black and white, with really high contrast, and excluding the top half of all the people. While I could have shot in b/w picture style in-camera, it would not have given me the same result. This one had to be processed to fulfill my vision of this NYC street scene. I wanted to capture the hustle and bustle of all the feet.

Are you a control freak? If so, it's okay to admit it. I am, and I own it. I want to control every aspect of how my images look, I don't want the camera doing it for me. If you shoot JPG and use Picture Styles in the camera – that is exactly what is happening. But that's okay if that's where you're at and you're happy with your images and your workflow.

A day may come, though, that you want more control. You may want to be able to adjust the contrast, saturation, and sharpness later. Or perhaps you'll want to learn to do dodging and burning for tone control on your images. Then there are also other things you can't do in the camera like star trails, combining multiple images for light painting masterpieces, and black and white conversion non-destructively.

Here are some things you cannot do in-camera:

General enhancements to specific areas. In night sky images if you want the stars to stand out and for the Milky Way to look colorful and sparkly – you're going to need to process your images.

This is right out of camera with no adjustments to the raw file. You can barely see the Milky Way and it's certainly not spectacular.
This is right out of the camera, with no adjustments to the raw file. You can barely see the Milky Way and it's certainly not spectacular.
This is the same image, but with the whites pulled up to bring out the stars and the color shifted to show more blue and magenta in the Milky Way.
This is the same image, but with the whites pulled up to bring out the stars and the color shifted to show more blue and magenta in the Milky Way. You cannot do this in-camera and the image is not underexposed.

Layering images together to add car trails or light painted scenes where it takes multiple shots to get it all right.

This is a single shot capturing car trails on the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC. I could not do a longer exposure or the sky would be too bright and I didn't have an ND filter.
This is a single shot capturing car trails on the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC. I could not do a longer exposure or the sky would be too bright and I didn't have an ND filter.
I took a few shots with cars in different positions and combined them in Photoshop to make it look like there was more traffic.
I took a few shots with cars in different positions and combined them in Photoshop to make it look like there was more traffic.
This final image is a combination of about 15 shots where I lit a different part of the firetruck each time. I used the same technique to combine them in Photoshop using layers.
This final image is a combination of about 15 shots where I lit a different part of the firetruck each time. I used the same technique to combine them in Photoshop using layers.

Star trails photography requires you to shoot many images over a long period of time and put them together to make the stars seem to arch across the sky. You can do it with one really long exposure but I don't recommend it. For a full star trails tutorial go to; How to Shoot Star Trails and Sample Images for You to Practice Stacking.

I created this star trails image by using 92 images shot over a span of almost an hour, and a free program called StarStax.
I created this star trails image by using 92 images shot over a span of almost an hour, and a free program called StarStax.
I did some light painting on a separate shot to capture the totem pole and trees.
I did some light painting on a separate, single shot, to capture the totem pole and trees.
Finally I combined the stacked image and the light painted one to get this. NOTE: you need to use a tripod and don't move it to do this so everything aligns later.
Finally, I combined the stacked image and the light painted one to get this. NOTE: you need to use a tripod and don't move it to do this so everything aligns well later. You cannot do this with one shot or in the camera.

Summary

The bottom line here is that I don't want you to quit playing and experimenting with your processing. That could almost be added as #8 – Doing the same thing all the time (stuck in a rut). I hope you participated in the Get Processing challenge last month. If not you can still download my images to play around with.

One thing I actually tell my students in the classroom is you need to take things too far to find the middle. You can't understand moderation without seeing both ends of the spectrum. So take things to extreme, see what all the sliders do if you pull them all the way. Then settle somewhere back in the middle.

The other thing to take away from this is that Photoshop or Lightroom or whatever program you use is not a substitution or a fix for not getting it right in camera. Processing can't fix bad lighting, shooting at the wrong time of day, lack of clear subject in your image, or make a boring image more interesting.

Please note: if an image is boring unprocessed, adding a bunch of funky overlays or over the top processing style won't make it better – you'll just have an uninteresting photo with digital effects. Conversely, a good image can be made into a great one with the right processing. So learn the craft and skills you need to take your work to the next level.

If you want to read about other common mistakes to avoid in photography check out these articles:

Please share in the comments below any other processing sins that you have committed or that you commonly see. Please be respectful of others and people's feelings.

Cheers,

Darlene-1-250x130.png

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  • John Nicholson

    Super. In fact the images say it all and the words are illustrations ! I think one real problem with sharpening and clarity is that what is good for the earth is often bad for the sky – especially the clouds.

    • Exactly! Which is why the graduated filters and local adjustment tools are so great. You can do one thing to the ground and something different to the sky.

    • PS and us humans do many things that are bad for the earth 😉

      • John Nicholson

        Entirely agree!

  • Sona Bran

    Even though I am just above beginner status, this is very helpful. I DO shoot in JPG and use the free editing software online called Ipiccy. I did shoot in raw and found I had nothing to open it with, so never got to see what I had 🙂 I assume “light painting” means you put specific lights on a specific area to be lit. The free software has a button called “painting” which I have not quite figured out what one does with it, as there are no instructions….just play and hope for the best.

  • traveller 66

    Superb article—well laid and very easy to follow in stages. Especially agree with one of your last comments—continually experiment and try new things. Maybe they will not be the greatest solution or idea, but at the very least one has expanded the repertoire of available techniques.
    Thanks Darlene.

  • Devkumar Gupta

    Great article, Darlene! .You pointed out a lot of things that I see all the time in some other’s work. Even I notice some times in my work and I correct it right away

  • As usual you worte an excellent article Darlene.

  • CathyAnn

    Excellent article. I’m in the middle of trying to improve my processing skills. One thing I’m struggling with is over-sharpening. This article is very timely! Thank you!

  • Dr.Syed

    HI Darlene
    Thanks lot for the article, As usual a great one. lot to learn form this.
    I think there is asoftware for noice reduction which works nice and over that High pass sharpening can be added.
    the software is imagenomic noiseware professional, I dont have much experience with it but for a few times, looks cool.

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