Ever come home with some street photography images that just aren’t quite what you wanted? If so, then continue reading for tips to edit and fix your street photos.
Street photography is a fickle genre. No matter how hard you try, or how experienced you become, it will give you good photographs when it wants and will take them away other times.
It is difficult and takes time to get a keeper. A lot of things need to come together and go right, both in the moment and in your capturing of it.
This means you end up coming back with such a variety of photographs. The moments will vary significantly and the technical qualities of each image will each be so different depending on the scene, the lighting, your camera settings, and how well you were able to take the shot quickly under tough circumstances.
All this makes editing a challenge, especially for those quick and tough-to-capture moments. There are so many photos where the technical qualities will not be perfect or even great, but the moment was so special that you need to do whatever you can do to make it work.
Here are some editing tips and ideas that I consider when editing these troublesome street photographs.
Embrace the imperfection
Before I get into any of the tips below, it’s important to understand that street photography is not supposed to be perfect.
You are capturing special moments that happen in an instant.
There’s just no expectation that these moments have to be perfectly composed or perfectly shot. In most cases that is impossible.
What matters is that the scene is special and that the photo is still appealing. If you capture a photo that is interesting enough, the imperfections will not matter one bit. In fact, they may even make the photo that much better by showing the viewer that this was an unplanned, real moment.
Embrace skewed horizons, cut off body parts, objects getting in the way, and blur. Often these elements will mess up your street photographs, but when the shot is right, they won’t matter as much.
Do tone control adjustments
One of the toughest technical aspects of street photography is lighting.
No matter how tuned in you are to the lighting or how perfect the light is forming in the direction that you are looking, the reality is that the best photo of your life could suddenly occur right behind you in a spot that has terrible lighting.
Your subjects could be in deep shadow while the rest of the scene is in bright light or vice versa.
You don’t have any control, but the photo is still interesting enough to capture. So, you take the shot and hope you can fix the lighting later.
This is where your Shadows, Highlights, Blacks and Whites levels become so important.
First you will want to fix the overall exposure.
But when a subject is too dark compared to the rest of the scene (usually when they’re in the shadows but a majority of the scene is in the sun), the main way to bring them out is to work on the Shadows and Blacks levels.
The Shadows adjustment will alter only the darker tones in the scene, while the Black levels will alter only the darkest (pure black) tones in the scene. This can bring some important details back into the shadows. Just make sure not to overdo it or the scene will look too fake.
On the other hand, if the main subject is too bright compared to the rest of the scene, lowering the highlights and white levels can help even them out in comparison.
Fix the Noise and Grain
I love grain in street photographs.
It helps the photos feel real and unplanned and newer digital cameras (and of course film) usually have a great look to their grain/noise unless you go past their usable limit.
That being said, sometimes you have to raise your ISO overly high to capture a shot, or brighten an image that already has a very high ISO, thus enhancing the noise in an unpleasing way.
A great trick is to use the Noise Reduction slider in Lightroom (under Detail), which will do a fantastic job of lessening the noise (but please use restraint here).
This is only the first part of the trick, and keep in mind that the Noise Reduction slider will reduce some of the sharpness of the image as well.
I will next find the Grain slider (under Effects) and add grain back into the image. The look of Lightroom’s grain is much more pleasing and closer to film grain than digital noise, so it will help to bring back some of the details that you took out with the noise reduction slider and mask the digital look of the noise in your photograph.
But please keep in mind that I only use this trick for very extreme photos. Most of the time I simply embrace the camera grain or noise.
Add a subtle vignette
Viewers’ eyes naturally will want to move out of an image. It’s just an innate aspect of looking at a photo.
This is why adding elements to the edges of your images can have a strong effect on the overall feel and composition. It pushes the eyes back to the center and keeps them looking around the scene.
I frequently use a vignette on my photos but often you wouldn’t even be able to tell it’s there.
The effect can be done in a subtle way that completely fixes the photo but isn’t too noticeable. Although in other cases, a noticeable vignette can be a great thing.
Some photographers use strong and noticeable vignettes in most or all of their photographs. It’s part of their look and is a very effective technique.
Clarity is a great way of adding some local contrast and sharpness without affecting the scene too much. I use this in photos with bad lighting or low contrast images where I need to up the punchiness.
But like everything on this list, please be careful of overdoing it.
A common beginner editing mistake is when photographers overdo the clarity and sharpness in their photos. This should be used for specific troublesome photos and certainly not all.
Crop, but not too much!
There are the purists out there who think you should never crop a street photo, but I personally don’t see why. You go ahead and do what you have to do, in order to get the best final image.
Just be careful about cropping too much.
With the noise and imperfections that happen frequently with street photos, cropping too much can really enhance those flaws to an unpleasant level.
But use your best judgment, obviously.
Keep in mind that you don’t always have to make your crops perfect.
Sometimes an imperfect crop in camera is what makes the shot work and feel real, as we spoke about earlier. Sometimes, I will even look at a photograph that I took and think the in-camera crop was too perfect, so I’ll skew it a little in processing. Don’t tell anyone about that one!
Note from Darlene: Learn how to not only use, but master Lightroom in my brand new Lightroom for Photographers course. You’ll learn how to vignette properly, crop effectively, fix noise and grain in your photos and so much more. While designed for beginners to Lightroom, seasoned editors have said they too learned so much they hadn’t know before. Check it out.
Sometimes if there is too much that needs to be done to fix a photo, consider that perhaps it’s just not the right shot.
As photographers, we often get too tied up in the excitement of the moment when we captured the photograph and thought we had a keeper. But this clouds our judgment as to how the photo actually turned out.
Tough editing (culling) is such an important skill in street photography.
We’re only as good as the worst photographs we show. The excitement of the moment mixed with the difficulty of getting good street photographs makes it really easy for us to want to try hard to save photographs that aren’t really that good, and just aren’t worth the effort.
If you’re having too much trouble with a photograph, take a step back and think about whether it’s really a keeper. If not, get rid of it and move on to the next one!
In summary, try to get the best image you can in the camera at the time you take the shot. But don’t be afraid to use photo editing to enhance or fix your images if they didn’t quite capture what you intended for a given scene.
For street photography, you can get away with a bit more than in other genres of photography, like say for example portraiture. So, push it a little and get the finished image you envisioned.
Please share one of your own favorite street photos that you’ve taken in the comment area below and be sure to register for the upcoming street photography webinar on March 18th (details below).