Photo editing has two goals: to bring out the best of a composition and to embrace the photographer’s style. Ultimately, the editing process allows photographers to take a scene that they witnessed and make it their own. Because so many photo editing programs are now available to photographers, this guide won’t focus on the technicalities of editing in one single program. Instead, it will cover feats that photographers can accomplish by using almost any editing software. From cropping to mobile editing, this guide will feature key tips from professional photographers about how they edit their work.

Basic Tips to Get You Started

To edit a photograph well, you’ll need both technical skills and artistic sensibilities—a combination that can make the process seem daunting. And programs like Lightroom, Photoshop, and GIMP offer so many different tools and functions that it can be difficult to decide where to start. With these first three tips, we’ll dive into the basics.

Student project by Joao Mendes
Student project by Joao Mendes

Tip #1: Begin with the auto button.

Regardless of what photo editing application you choose, you’ll likely have the option of “auto”-correcting the image. “Auto is pretty much the program’s intelligent response to manmade imperfections of the photo,” says Jamal Burger, a photographer and Skillshare teacher who uses AdobeLightroom. In the Skillshare Original course Photo Editing in Lightroom: Make Your Cityscapes Stand Out, he recommends checking to see what the auto button can accomplish before moving on to customized edits. This process will clean up problems that are minor yet critical, such as a photograph being off-center, or straight lines appearing curved and distorted. 

Use Lightroom to Enhance Cityscapes

Jamal Burger shares tips on using contrast, color, cropping, and other common editing features.

Tip #2: Start by looking at lights and darks.

To see the tone value of your photograph, start by looking at it in monochrome. By looking at the value in black, white, and various shades of gray, you can ask yourself important questions: What parts of the photograph stand out, and what key details fade into shadow? Do any sections appear too bright, and are there bright or dark spots in inappropriate places? 

“Before I touch the highlights, the shadows, the whites, or the blacks,” says Burger, “I think, ‘Okay, what do I want to be brighter and what do I want to be darker?’” Once you identify areas you want to brighten, Burger suggests using radial filters, which add brightness to your image from the center of an object that’s expanding outward, and feathering, which softens the edges of the edited area. Without feathering, you’ll get a sharp line between the place where you added brightness and your original photograph. Feathering makes this transition smoother, so the photo barely even looks like you touched it.

Knowing your lights and darks from the start will set you up for success as you tackle the hue, saturation, and many other editing effects. Isolating a photograph’s tone value early on, and you can set the scene for all future edits. 

Tip #3: Remember that cropping matters.

When you take a photo, you’re already paying attention to the framing and composition. Still, it can be hard to remain fully aware of every corner of the frame as you try to capture a prime moment, 

“Cropping can almost be just as important as the photo you’re taking,” says photographer Stephen Vanasco, whose Skillshare Original Visual Appeal: The Art of Model Photography touches on the basics of portrait retouching. Vanasco suggests cropping a photograph in several different ways, experimenting until you land on the best look—you can always undo the edits you don’t like, so there’s no need to worry about experimenting.

A good crop involves careful consideration of the straight lines that naturally exist in a photograph. Most editing software will superimpose a grid over the image you’re cropping, and the lines from that grid should match the straight lines in your photograph. For example, if you’re taking a picture of someone walking, their feet should align with a horizontal line in the grid. Meanwhile, a vertical line in the grid might match the length of a wall.

Cropping can add symmetry and balance to your creative photography: If there’s more empty space at the top of a frame than at the bottom, you might try cropping out some of the space at the top. Cropping an image can also eliminate unwanted details. For instance, perhaps you’ve taken a photograph of someone posing outside, but there’s a trashcan at the edge of the frame. Cropping the image can easily cut out the visual blemish.

Model Photography and Editing

Learn more about model photography—and how to edit your results in Camera Raw—with photographer Stephen Vanasco.

Outdoor Photography vs Indoor Photography

Photographers use different tactics depending on whether they’re shooting outside or inside and whether it’s daytime or nighttime. Similarly, such photos require different approaches to editing. The next two photo enhancing tips address techniques that are best considered in different types of lighting.

Tip #4: Pay attention to skyscapes.

Ignoring this sky means missing out on an opportunity to add more color and vibrance to your photograph, whether it’s a daytime sky or a dark, nighttime expanse. 

When photographer Chris Burkard of Surfer magazine edits his daytime skies in Lightroom, he uses a graduated mask. Masking allows you to apply a set of edits to one specific area in your photograph without altering the rest of the image, and it can be an especially crucial touch for a landscape photographer. Burkard uses masking to tone down highlights in daytime skies and show cloud depth, which in turn adds depth to his overall photograph. He also looks at the saturation and often adjusts the vibrance in his photos. “Vibrance is basically smart saturation,” says Burkard in the Skillshare Original Outdoor Photography: Shooting at Sunset, Sunrise, and Night. Vibrance offers more control over the color than saturation does. “It’s a way of getting color out of your individual palettes of your scene, rather than just taking an overall brush and bringing out as much as you can.” 

When it comes to nighttime skies, increasing the exposure can help bring out the moonlight, while adding a blue tint will often provide an ethereal quality or emphasize the nighttime mood. In addition to the moon, ambient light and light pollution can also influence the look of a night sky. “If artificial light contributes to the brightness of the sky you captured at night, then there’s no need to try and make it look 100% ‘natural’ in post-processing,” says Burkard. Remember what the sky looked like at the time you took the picture and channel that hue, tint, and saturation as you edit.

Natural Light Photography

Make the most of your outdoor photography whether you’re scouting out the shooting location or editing the results.

Tip #5: Consider exchanging detail for drama.

When we think of dramatic photographs, often we’re thinking of contrast. Picture a bright, vivid face emerging from a shadowy hallway: This kind of image provokes questions and adds mystery to an otherwise straightforward portrait. When editing dramatic portraiture, fashion photographer Justin Bridges explains that sometimes enhancing contrast is worth sacrificing smaller features in an image. “I want to increase the difference between my highlights and my shadows, and I’m okay if I lose detail in the shirt [as a result],” he says in the Skillshare Original Fundamentals of Portrait Photography: Using Natural Light to Create Drama. “Just to get an idea of what’s happening, you can use the preset tone curve they have for you: linear, medium contrast, and strong contrast. You’ll see how that automatically brings the lights and the darks and more of a sharp juxtaposition.”

Student project by Colin Swift
Student project by Colin Swift

In indoor photography, editors tend to more acutely feel this compromise because indoor light sources have a more direct trajectory. Instead of posing subjects around the sun’s position in the sky, indoor photographers set artificial lights close to models or portrait sitters to illuminate specific parts of their bodies or faces. The natural light that comes in through a window can supply a similar effect. Indoors, it’s easy to highlight one part of a scene while simultaneously darkening another.

To create a dramatic effect indoors, amplify that difference in lighting, and don’t be too precious about certain details. “If a deep shadow covers a model’s one-of-a-kind tattoo but helps the bright parts of the photograph brilliantly pop, then it’s worth adjusting your photograph’s contrast to cover that tattoo,” says Bridges.

Editing Shortcuts

Post-processing can feel redundant, especially if you’re editing numerous photos in a row. To save time, the next tip will cover shortcuts that your editing software can offer.

Tip #6: Quickly apply one photograph’s edits to another.

Photographers regularly have to create a cohesive collection of photographs. For example, a wedding photographer will want each photograph from the reception to look like it was taken at the same party, so she’s not going to opt for a bluish tint and lots of contrast in one picture when the rest of the images capture the yellow glow of a candle-filled room and the detail in revelers’ smiling faces.

Although most photographers take care of each photograph individually during post-processing, the baseline edits that work well for one photo often apply to others that are captured in similar visual circumstances. Each editing program has its own shortcuts, so take the time to learn the ones that are included in your software. Learning shortcuts, adjusting your preferences, or creating custom-made presets can make your edits appear more uniform throughout a set of photographs and can generally help you edit more efficiently. 

Learn Photo Editing Shortcuts

Learn the shortcuts that will make your photo editing more efficient—and keep your files more organized—with photographer Lotus Carroll.

Colors

Colors can make or break a photograph. The ability to pick up on hidden hues and choose the right tint can separate the good photographers from the great ones. But to wisely use color in your photographs, you have to develop an eye.

Tip #7: Constantly study colors.

As kids, we used a brown crayon to draw a tree trunk, then picked up the green when it was time to add leaves. The sun was yellow, and the sky was blue. But in reality, a tree’s bark contains shades of yellow, orange, pink, green, and purple. A sidewalk that appears gray to the may actually be a washed-out blue, especially under the right lighting. Training your eye to see the hidden colors that you encounter every day will allow you to incorporate them into your photographs.

Consider the image below, in which Burger captures a man walking down a New York City sidewalk. At first glance, it looks like a sea of gray—the sidewalk, the street, the building, the benches, and the man’s dark coat.

Image by Jamal Burger
Image by Jamal Burger

But Burger was able to find blue lurking in the shadows and orange tint in the highlights. Colors that sit at opposite ends of the color wheel, such as blue and orange, often work well as shadows and highlights, and by adjusting the saturation and hue settings, Burger was able to land on a more colorful take on the original shot.

Image by Jamal Burger
Image by Jamal Burger

Editing for Instagram

Even the most serious photographers use Instagram to showcase their work. It’s a great way to reach new audiences and engage with other like-minded creatives. In this final tip, we’ll touch on how to post the best photo possible—without a desktop computer. 

Tip #8: Before you post on Instagram, edit your photos elsewhere.

Instagram filters can make for beautiful skies and flattering selfies, but they can also overwhelm your work. If you’re using the platform to showcase your photography, you’ll want to consider more advanced editing software than Instagram has to offer. 

Tyson Wheatley, the professional Instagram photographer behind Skillshare Original Mobile Photography Basics for Instagram Success, suggests using editing apps such as SKRWT, Photoshop Express, TouchRetouch, and Afterlight. SKRWT offers a detailed grid, which is essential for straightening an image. Photoshop Express can eliminate the grainy look that often appears in photos taken on phones or in low light. TouchRetouch allows photo editors to easily purge unwanted visuals, and Afterlight works best for precise cropping.

Get Started Today

Skillshare courses provide tips from professional photographers for all kinds of photography, whether you’re shooting portraits and headshots with models or capturing vast landscapes. Remember, you’re not trying to make a photo look perfect. Rather, you’re infusing it with your personal style.  With the right tips and teachings, you’ll be able to edit your photos right away and immediately take advantage of the tools at your fingertips. Get started today.