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:
- Using a vignette that is too heavy-handed and obvious.
- Over sharpening (using both sharpness and clarity).
- Over saturation.
- Pulling the shadows up too much (no blacks left).
- Noise reduction applied to heavily.
- Not shooting in raw format.
- 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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Top 14 People Photography Mistakes to Avoid
- 5 Mistakes Beginners Make Using a Wide-Angle Lens and How to Avoid Them
- 6 Tips For Overcoming Common Photography Mistakes
- Video: 15 Photography Mistakes and How to Correct or Avoid Them
- Avoid These 9 Beginner Photography Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Images
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.