It’s very rare that a shot is perfect straight out of camera, and almost every image benefits from a little editing here and there. It’s a vital part of photography. Cards on the table: I edit every single image I use or share that I’ve taken with my DSLR. That’s because I always shoot RAW, and photos never look their best as untouched RAW files; they’re flat and lifeless. Even fairly mundane images I will edit if they’re to be viewed by someone else, and that’s because as a professional photographer I’m only as good as my work, and so I feel the need to apply some post-processing to the shot. It’s a bit like a chef wanting to add some garnish and control the presentation of the dish before it leaves the kitchen, rather than chucking it on a plate and hoping the customer doesn’t complain. Editing is where images often come alive and become more impactful on the viewer. It’s when editing goes too far, and strays way beyond what we would consider looks natural that you run into problems. Over editing will ruin your shots.
When you’re processing your images, the best way you can add impact is by keeping the editing relatively subtle. Try to make it so it’s not immediately obvious what tweaking and adjustments have taken place, as if the viewer notices then it’s definitely distracting and detrimental to your frame. Keeping it natural doesn’t have to mean just the bare bones of processing, you can still transform the scene quite significantly from the original capture, but it needs to look life-like. And that doesn’t mean you can’t add in effects like some split toning or even some gentle cross processing. While these steps alter the colours of a shot, the image has more of a film feel and isn’t as distracting as heavy digital editing. After all, contemporary photography is an extension of traditional film photography, and so the effects that emulate film aren’t considered an unnatural as say a glowing HDR.
But how do you know when you’ve gone too far? It’s true that art is subjective and personal tastes and opinions differ, but there’s a few tell tale signs you might be over processing your shots and doing your work a disservice. Images begin to look unnatural when you push any one of the editing controls too far – and especially when done in combination – it’s a sure fire way to make the shot look cheap. I understand it can be tempting to try and stand out from the crowd by pushing the processing further than usual, but the truth is the image is eye catching for all the wrong reasons.
But making mistakes is all part of the journey, and almost every photographer has been guilty of thinking that by boosting contrast, saturation and sharpening to the upper limits will make the image more engaging. It’s an enjoyable and necessary journey to go on, but if you want to elevate your work to the next level then you need to process like a pro, not just shoot like one.
You’re making progress when you realise that adding too much contrast doesn’t make the picture more punchy, but results in a loss of detail in the highlights and shadows. A lack of tonal detail means there’s fewer points of interest in a shot that will keep the viewer engaged for longer. By all means add punch to the tones in a shot, but not at the expense of the detail. Most of us will have gone through a phase of over sharpening our photos; this adds an unnatural halo effect to edges of details, and increases distracting image artefacts. It’s definitely beneficial to sharpen shots, but the Masking slider in Lightroom or Photoshop is the most important when it comes to detail as it lets you control where the sharpening is applied. Boosting the saturation too far does make colours stand out, but it looks gaudy and will be the first thing the viewer notices, rather than the subject of the shot.
Other effects end up looking quite tacky. A gentle vignette can help enclose a scene, but adding a heavy border effect hardly ever looks good. The same goes for intense HDR processing: it looks way too fake. A softer HDR approach can be great and adds lots more detail to a scene with a high dynamic range, but applying it be default and pushing it so it glows starts to tire. And you won’t find many professionals using selective colouring – where the image is desaturated apart from one colour or object – to make their images stand out. It looks amateurish. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying exploring these effects – it’s always great to learn and they do have their place in photography – using them in the hope they’ll elevate your images won’t make you a better photographer.
The key is learning to hold back, when to utilise certain effects and how to keep the processing looking natural so it enhances and doesn’t distract. It’s also good to know when certain shots can’t be saved, no matter how much manipulation you can apply. It’s better to accept it, move on and shoot something better; over processing an under par shot is the definition of flogging a dead horse. And if you rely less on dramatic editing to make your images stand out from the crowd you’ll become a better photographer. That’s because you’ll know that over the top effects won’t save you, and your images become more considered, with a stronger composition and careful exposure settings. Combine this with the less-is-more approach to editing, and you’ll be on to a winner.