In this article, you’ll learn how to define a vision for your photographs, examine tools and techniques you can use to edit your photos to achieve your vision, and see an example edited from start to finish using Lightroom.
Photographs are more than just a click of the shutter. They tell a story of moments in time you found interesting. Whether you take a photo for yourself, to share on social media, or to print for your home photo editing is a key element to sharing the story you captured.
Photography is about vision
Discovering your WHY and capturing it in-camera
Let me start by saying there are good photos and bad photos.
Good photos capture and convey what you thought was important. Bad photos don’t and no amount of photo editing will help.
In my experience, capturing a good image starts before you even bring the camera up to your eye. The process begins when you see something you find interesting, beautiful, etc.
At that moment you create a vision of how you see what is happening in front of you. When you take that photo, you have an idea of how you want it to look when you show it to other people.
Maybe you’ve never thought about taking photos like this before, but trust me there is a reason why you’ve taken every single photo you’ve ever snapped. This reason is also the driving force for everything that you do to capture that moment.
From choosing a lens to arranging the composition, and editing it’s all driven by one question . . .
Starting with the why will help you understand how to more successfully capture the moment with your camera.
Take a look at the following list to see how starting with your why drives the creative process for capturing a photo.
1 – What is your why?
Why did you take out your camera in the first place? What drew your attention? This is your subject.
Read this to start defining your why: How To Take Better Photos; No Money Required
2 – Composition
How do you compose the scene to draw attention to your subject? That includes the use of light and whether the subject is clear or not to the viewer.
Read the following or help with composition:
- How to Take Better Photos; No Money Required – Part II
- 7 Composition Techniques for Better Landscape Photos
- How to Improve Your Composition by Adding a Focal Point
- How to Build Stronger Compositions Using Shape
3 – Know your gear
Knowing your photography gear inside out and how to use it can make the difference between a successful photo and a snapshot. Do you know what all the buttons do, what all the menu options mean and how to quickly change settings to get the look you want?
Ask yourself the following question . . .
What equipment do I have and how can I best use it to create an image that is well-exposed and in sharp focus?
When you start to put these components together you are more likely to be successful in capturing a photograph that achieves your vision.
Achieving your vision through photo editing
Okay so you’ve captured a cool photo, now what? Well, before we dive into editing let’s do a little housekeeping. We’ll begin by discussing editing equipment, revisit the why, and discuss a few practices that I find helpful when editing my own photos.
Preparing to edit – start with the gear
Depending on your goal having the right equipment makes a big difference.
What I mean by that is are you planning to print your photos to display in your home, a gallery, etc., or are you taking a selfie with a silly face to send to your friends?
These goals would likely involve very different gear. For the sake of this article, I’m going to approach gear from my perspective, which is I edit my photos to be printed in large formats. So if you intend to print any of your images, follow these steps.
Calibrate your monitor regularly
If you have ever had photos printed at a lab that didn’t come out looking the same as they did on your screen, congratulations, you just experienced an error in monitor calibration.
Not all printers reproduce colors the same way and your screen is adjustable for brightness and hue.
So in order to have your images print as you see them on your screen, you need to know the color space of the printer (RGB, sRGB, etc.) and have your screen calibrated properly ( for color and brightness).
Color calibration is the process of setting your display to a standard color profile. You will need a hardware device (like the one above) to perform this operation and it is recommended that you run it about once a month.
There are some technical reasons for doing so, but that is a subject for another time. Long story short, you place the device in the middle of your screen and it evaluates the brightness, colors, and contrast your monitor can display then adjusts these values based on some predetermined profiles.
The end result is that when you have edited a photograph on a calibrated monitor and sent them to a photo lab that displays colors in the same way, your prints will look exactly as they do on your screen. Pretty cool, right?
Since I print a lot of my work, a color calibration tool is essential to my workflow. I use the X-rite i1 Pro that Darlene mentioned in a previous article. It’s simple to use and does a great job.
Darlene’s Note: I cover monitor calibration in more depth in my Photoshop for Photographers course and the importance of correct color before sending your photos to the lab in my Lightroom for Photographers course. I also cover tools such as tablets as seen below.
Tools to speed you along – graphics tablet and a stylus
I know this portion of the article sounds like shameless product plugs, but having a good set of tools can make your editing a lot more enjoyable. Think of it as trying to pound in a nail with a screwdriver handle. A hammer would be much quicker and more effective.
If you spend a lot of time editing your photos you know that the mouse can be a bit cumbersome. In my workflow, I have replaced the mouse with a graphic tablet (touchpad) and stylus. I didn’t know if I would like using it or not, so I bought the cheapest Wacom tablet available.
For me, it was a game-changer because editing became like drawing. The tablet and stylus provide more of an intuitive experience and for less than $80 it was money well spent. If you are interested, check out the link (Insert Wacom tablet link).
Note from Darlene: When you first start to use a tablet you’ll likely be frustrated and struggle with it in the beginning. I wanted to smash it and throw it out the window. But it’s like any new thing, once you get the hang of it you’ll likely never go back!
I think that we’ve talked about gear long enough for this article. Let’s move on to the next step in the process.
Start with your vision – why did you take this photo?
Remember earlier when I said that starting with your why would drive your shooting process? It applies here as well.
Just as you used your WHY to create a vision and capture your in-camera, the same applies when you start to think about how you want to edit the photo. Therefore, before you touch any button or slider I’d encourage you to ask yourself the following questions.
- What is your subject? Is that clear in the image?
- Why did you take the photo in the first place?
- What story do you want to tell?
- How do you want to get the message to people that view this image?
Write the answers down or sketch them out. Over time you’ll do this in your head, but the practice of putting it on paper will help you cement the process.
Tips to get started photo editing
Congratulations! You’ve now discovered your why, created a vision for your photograph, captured it in the camera, and revisited both while looking at the image on the screen. Now you’re going to start flipping switches, moving sliders, and editing your photo to bring it to life.
But, before we jump into the sliders, I have a few last suggestions for your digital workflow.
- Start with many any big changes first, working your way to smaller and smaller refinements.
- Be mindful of the necessity of having to go back and tweak previous changes due to downstream alterations (changing whites can blowout highlights, etc.).
- When you’re ready, consider using presets to speed your workflow.
- Crop your photo after you’ve made all of your edits (If you plan to crop).
I don’t remember who gave me these tips, but they have helped me get faster at editing my photos. I hope you find them just as useful.
Photo editing example
I find photo editing to be a very personal process. The final result of an edited photo has more to do with the vision you have for the final image than it does on the software you use.
Granted there are some things you can do in one piece of software but not another, but for this part of the article, I’ll walk you through how I approach photo editing in Lightroom. We’ll walk through editing two different images from start to finish, and in the process, we’ll encounter many of the terms you were introduced to in last week’s article and video by Darlene.
Mesa Arch – process from start to finish
Why did I take the photo in the first place?
While researching the area around Moab in preparation for a road trip in 2015, I read about this unique feature called Mesa Arch that glowed a brilliant mix of orange, red, and gold in the moments just after sunrise. After a little more research I marked it as a spot to visit because the pictures made it look incredible.
One tip that was repeated in my research was to arrive early because Mesa Arch was a very popular spot. Arriving at 3 AM is usually a recipe for some alone time, but not there. For the next couple of hours more and more people arrived.
When the sky started to change color to announce the beginning of another day everyone went to work. The coolness of blue hour slowly gave way to golden hour. With each passing moment, the arch and surrounding landscape came alive with one of the most beautiful displays of color I’ve ever seen. The mixture of the land with a light dusting of snow mixed with the deep reds, oranges, and golds had me in awe.
As I clicked the shutter over and over my goal was to capture as much of the colors as I could and highlight the unique landscape before my eyes.
What story do I want to tell?
I wanted to tell the story of the incredible sunrise at Mesa Arch. The important features were the unique arch, the distant valley, and the incredibly vibrant and warm colors.
I wanted anyone who looked at that photo to feel as though they were standing in the same spot on a cold morning witnessing the amazing display.
How do I tell the story?
There are a few elements that I chose to include. The first is the snow on the ground. The light dusting on the rocks in the foreground conveys that despite the vibrance of the landscape it was actually a cold morning.
The second is Mesa Arch itself. The way it hangs over the edge of a cliff and glows by the light of the early morning is the reason I went there in the first place. Also, I chose to use it as a natural frame for the canyon in the background. It almost looks like an eye.
Finally, the distant valley and interesting rock formations that were glowing gold draw your eye through the scene.
In order to draw viewers into the image, I added more contrast overall. You’ll notice the foreground in the final image is a little darker than the original and the background a little brighter. Our eyes are drawn to bright portions of images, therefore I wanted to portray the depth of the scene by carrying viewers through the arch and into the canyon beyond.
Additionally, I increased the saturation of the reds and oranges to really make those colors come alive.
Working through the edit
In the original unedited image above, you’ll notice that the composition is very similar to the final image and the exposure is pretty good, but it is rather flat by comparison. Also, because I took this photo with a wide-angle lens there is some vignetting and lens distortion that I’ll also address.
I actually started this edit by adding a lens correction. Think of this function as flattening out a piece of paper that has been rolled up for a while. The colors in the corners generally brighten as the vignetting is removed.
Here are the settings and resulting image. This isn’t the first place I start most of my photo edits, but when shooting really wide it is a good place to start.
I favor contrast in my photographs, so I next chose to adjust the tone curve. I like contrast in my landscape photography because it helps to separate bright and dark areas in a scene. The result is a sense of depth that otherwise wouldn’t be as noticeable.
After years of editing, I made a preset that darkens the shadows and brightens the highlights by 15%. This is a setting that works well for me. After exposure adjustments, the tone curve is usually my next adjustment as part of my workflow. See the curve and the resulting image below.
From the tone curve, I turned my attention to the highlights and shadows sliders in the Basic Adjustments panel. By bringing down the slider for the highlights my goal is to show more detail in the bright areas of the scene. The same holds true for raising the shadows slider.
For this image, I chose to lower the highlights by 100 and raise the shadows by 100 to bring in more detail (as shown below).
Now you are probably asking yourself why I used a curve to lower the shadows and brighten highlights only to do the opposite in the next step. That’s a good question.
The answer is that by adjusting the tone curve I change the slope of the transition between the darkest and brightest areas of the photograph. I find that increasing the slope between these two points makes the mid-tone area of the photograph have more contrast and stand out more in the scene.
Then, when I reduced the highlight and shadow details using the sliders, I kept the dramatic transition that I established using the curve while maintaining details in those areas. Note, most of the time I’m not reducing highlights and raising shadows by 100, but in this instance, I did because of the big difference between the bright and dark areas.
Next up is adjusting the Dehaze slider to deal with the atmospheric haze in the scene. Take a look at the result.
Now to refine some details using clarity and texture. There are a lot of details in this photograph. From the delicate crystals of the snow to the textures of the rocks and distant canyon there is much to appreciate about this moment.
The Texture slider is a newer feature added to Lightroom, but clarity is an old friend. For me, there is a limit to the clarity I apply to my work. The value of +30 here in this photo is on the upper end of my limit. Notice how some of the finer details start to pop.
After working through the steps above to define the elements of exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, and clarity I like to move to color.
First I adjusted the vibrance of the overall image. This starts to bring out the colors that I wanted to highlight about this moment.
From here, I moved to the HSL/Color panel to fine-tune the reds and oranges dominating the scene. You’ll see that with just a small amount of adjustment the colors in the photograph stand out even more.
Now we are nearing the final set of edits. Sharpening and noise reduction to finalize the details.
Under the Detail panel, I changed the sharpening value from 40 to 100, Detail from 25 to 41. This sharpens the edges of the rocks, etc. Then a bit of noise reduction to raise Luminance from 0 to 20 to soften any stray pixels.
Finally, with all of the above changes complete I cropped the image to remove a bit of stray sky in the top right of the photo. The result is the final image below that matched my vision from the day I stood in the cold to witness this moment.
I hope you enjoyed this look at achieving your vision through photo editing.
My goal is to encourage you to think about why you take your photos and how to use that why to guide your process from taking photos to editing the final image.
If you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out in the comment area below. Until next time, see you on the trail.