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Photo Editing - Five free Tips

This is a fun picture to show my first point about editing. The message is:

Focus your image on your subject!

To illustrate this, have a look at the original image below.

There are some subtle changes and an obvious one, the crop. In many images of many photographers, including myself, I see this one error repeated: Not cropping the image. The reasons are rarely rational. We might fancy that something is lost, while in fact more is gained by a crop. Or we might feel the strange desire to stick with one format for all images.

Cropping the image to the subject can change the aspect ratio. For a print, you might have to find a compromise if a specific format is needed. Thus, I keep the original files to be able to juggle a bit. But for a screen, you should not fill the frame with distracting elements just to fill the screen. If you are making a video out of your image, feel free to zoom and move inside your image. You can take any format for that.

When I go through my old images, I find one image after the other where a simple crop makes the image so much stronger. Sometimes a vignette helps too. This can be done comfortably, even with a JPEG image. I had a period where I wanted 16:9 for all images because I liked to present them on our 4K TV. Portrait format had to be avoided. I soon found that to be too restrictive. 

There are some more subtle change in the edit above. The color has been changed to a more warm tone, which feels appropriate for the season. There is a vignette, helping to guide the eye even more to the center of the image. Some distractions have been cloned out. Is this forgery? My answer to this accusation is: "Who cares?". This is no documentary. It is an image with a feeling to it: "Holy Lockdown!"

There is one other problem. It has to do with social media.

Don't follow advice blindly!

Those are your images, and you decide. I can watch tons of YouTube videos and read long books about image processing. But I take all that only as a collection of suggestions. So I test them out and see if they work for me.

Typical advice for editing is to put down the lights completely and increase the shadows to "get the most out of the image". This HDR style of editing is not for me. I like contrast, deep shadows, and bright lights. Why would you want to see the texture of the grass in the image above? It won't be nicely lit anyway.

Much discussed is also the topic of noise reduction. I can tell you that some photographers just leave it in the image. Up to some point, this works very well. If you do not pixel-peep at 100%, you get the most details this way. I prefer to remove the noise carefully. It does not really matter for the normal view size, and it helps the image if it is enlarged. But you should do what is best for you. You can always revert if you keep the RAW file! Whether you look at your image at 100% or only at 50% is also up to you. Make sure it works for your output medium. 

The same applies to sharpening, color balance, sensor specks, tilted horizons, slanted buildings and so on. The Net is full of advice on how to handle these problems. Take those as a suggestion. Try out and learn yourself!

You should never follow a general advice blindly. Or as Mark Twain has put it: "All generalizations are false, including this one."

By the way, the same is true for photography in general. Tons of books are about the process of designing pictures. This is good advice. Take it as a suggestion, however, and do what works for you. Go out and take pictures, and learn from the results. Be critical! 

There are also photographic styles. Currently, it is en-vogue to buy an expensive fast lens to "isolate the subject from the background". Some leave their lens at F2.8 and below for each and every image, and insist on a fast prime and nothing else. Sometimes, it is better to get more in focus, I think. Another style is long-exposure for water, called "fine art photography". Water is mostly splashing and sprinkling. We should not convert it to silk every time. Black and White in Anselm's style is another hot topic. You might take away the subtle and fine art colors of the scene, just to follow a trend.

The next one is a problem I hesitate to mention because it involves money. But it needs to be said.

Use modern tools!

If you are like me, you hesitate buying into a subscription. But I was using an old copy of Photoshop Elements and Picasa much too long. New tools are made for making money, sure, but also to help photographers to get better results more easily.

Later, my workflow involved an old copy of Photoshop and its Bridge. The images were copied from card to computer, then edited one by one passing through Adobe RAW, and then saved from Photoshop as JPEG. If a change was needed, I did not have a copy in PSD format or TIFF since these files would amount to enormous disk space. So I had to edit all over again.

Now, I switched to Lightroom. After some initial confusion, I find this to be the perfect way for me to handle images. It copies RAW files automatically to a destination that I prefer, and never changes them. Of course, they can still be deleted or moved to a backup destination at any time. I export to JPEG at another destination I prefer. Actually, you can do all this on an external hard disk, allowing editing on a laptop and a desktop with the same database.

I am by no means a friend of Adobe. Some of their products I do not like very much. And there are alternatives. The best free alternative is probably the RAW converter that comes with your camera. Nikon has a nice one which got updated recently. Then there are numerous other packages. A special look deserves the suite by Luminar with strong AI tools. But many photographers, including myself, prefer Lightroom. It does things much faster than the free open programs, and usually in better quality.

If you are still using an old copy of Photoshop that "you got from somewhere", seriously consider spending some money on new tools. It is well worth it.

Here is one other point I keep fighting with:

Be creative!

I have a tendency to strive for perfectness. But there is more to photography than a perfectly sharp, well exposed image in pleasant light. Like many photographers, I always want to keep all those fine details that my expensive equipment took. But why not cover them to reveal something else?

The image above is a very rare case in my collection, and not even an extremely brave one. It is just overexposed to the point where the background is gone and only white remains. This unveils the fine structure in the leaves. I have some more of this kind, but should do that kind of creative editing more often.

There are cases, where the light or the photographic equipment does not allow for a "perfect" result. Stage photography comes to my mind, with its excessive contrast and harsh lights. You could try to embrace the problems and elevate the contrast to a pop look. If the light is low on an intimate stage, you might end up with a noisy file which you could develop into an interesting grained black and white image. Don't hold yourself back just because of your internal vision of perfection!

On the other hand, a word of warning is in order. It is not okay to push any image by dragging the sliders to the limits. A fine and subtle editing has its place too. It is you who decides how much is too much.

The remaining good advice for today is the following.

Have fun!


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