Have you always wondered how raw photos turn into the beautiful works of art we see in books, magazines, websites, and social media? 

Somehow the colors seem brighter, the lighting seems more even, and the whole image seems to come alive. 

That’s the power of editing. 

If you’re curious about how to be a photo editor, this article is for you. We’ll go over everything that photo editors do, how they work, how much they earn, and what you can do to start your own career in photo editing

What Is a Photo Editor?

A photo editor is responsible for reviewing photos and selecting the best takes, then using computer software to enhance them and prepare them for use in digital or print publications. 

While photographers use powerful cameras and put a lot of thought into the images they capture, raw photos are almost never used without at least a little bit of editing

Why Is Editing Photos Necessary? 

Editing allows the photos to come to life, look their absolute best, convey emotions, and tell a story. Photos used on websites, in magazines, and in promotional materials all have a specific purpose, and editing is what allows them to serve this purpose.

Editing is also often used to correct mistakes and remove elements that don’t belong in the photo. Sometimes, photographers work with a limited space or time frame, in which case editing can help create the illusion of ideal conditions. 

Finally, some photography concepts require creative editing to achieve a look that you wouldn’t find in real life. This can include adding special effects, removing backgrounds, or splicing elements together from two different photos. 

man looking at city across river
A project by Skillshare instructor Sam Morrison from his class Bigger, Better, Different: Creative Photo Editing. 

Photo Editor Job Description

So what does a photo editor do on a daily basis?

Most photo editors are also experienced photographers, so you may be responsible for shooting the photos in addition to editing them, especially if you work for a smaller company. If the company has another photographer on staff, or if you’re working as a freelance photo editor, you will likely be sent photos to edit. 

Below are a few common tasks that a job in photo editing entails:

Discussing the photos’ objectives: Before you start editing, you may need to meet with your department head, art director, or client to discuss the purpose of each photo and what you can do to help achieve it.

Selecting photos: You may be sent hundreds of photos and asked to select the best few takes. As the editor, you should be able to see a photo’s potential and predict what it can look like after editing. 

Cropping, straightening, and resizing: The first step you’ll likely take when editing photos is cropping and straightening—this helps frame the photo properly and immediately make it look more polished. You may also need to resize the photo, though this will probably be one of the last steps in the process. 

Removing or adding elements: This is where the magic of editing happens. Though this is not necessary for every photo you’ll edit, you can use software to remove mistakes, backgrounds, and people or objects in the background that distract from the main subject. You can also add creative elements like props or special effects. 

Adjusting white balance: Not all lighting conditions are the same, and some can even make your photos look a little yellow. Luckily, you can make your whites actually look white by adjusting the color temperature.

Adjusting lighting: Even if the photos were shot in ideal lighting conditions, you may still need to adjust things like exposure, contrast, shadows, and highlights to make them truly pop.

Adjusting colors: Adjusting saturation and color grading is one of the most important steps in photo editing. Here, you can enhance certain colors, tone down others, and add new colors to achieve a specific atmosphere and mood for your photo.

Final touches: Using tools like noise reduction and sharpening will make your photos look polished and professional. 

cake with icing poured on it
A before and after by Skillshare instructor Tabitha Park from her class Photo Editing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Beginner's Guide.

How to Become a Photo Editor

One of the most common pathways to becoming a professional photo editor is to start out as a photographer. There are a few key reasons for this:

  • The basic photography knowledge will give you a good understanding of how camera settings and shooting conditions affect what you can do in editing. 
  • Understanding photography principles will help you make better decisions in the editing process.
  • It can be challenging to start editing other photographers’ photos when you don’t have experience. Taking your own photos will give you the chance to practice editing and build up a portfolio. 
  • If, as an editor, you get the chance to direct the photographers you work with, having experience in photography will help you clearly articulate exactly what you’d like to see in a photo. 

Required Skills

Whether or not you decide to work as a photographer first, here are the skills you’ll need to acquire to become a photo editor:

Proficiency in photo editing software: Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Camera Raw are industry standards, so be sure to start with these. Skillshare has tons of classes aimed at complete beginners that will teach you how to use these programs step by step. A great one to start with is Photo Editing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Beginner's Guide.

Strong knowledge of photo editing techniques: A great photo editor should know how to turn a raw photo into a finished product by adjusting things like lighting and color. When receiving a photo editing request from an art director or client, all they may ask for is that the photo conveys a certain message or mood. It will be up to you to know how to achieve this desired effect.

Organization and time management skills: As a photo editor, you will often find yourself dealing with thousands of files and more than a few competing deadlines. In order to be successful, you must learn how to manage your time and work as efficiently as possible. 

A creative eye: Skilled photo editors have a deep appreciation for photographs that are beautifully captured and edited. They have great attention to detail and are consistently motivated to deliver high-quality, visually appealing photos. 

Desire to keep learning: Trends and best practices in photo editing are constantly shifting. That’s why the best photo editors regularly expose themselves to other people’s work and continue to educate themselves. 

Education Requirements

Post-secondary education is not a strict requirement for photo editors. However, most employers prefer to hire candidates who have at least a bachelor's degree in a relevant field, such as photography, digital media, or visual arts.  

These programs will give you an opportunity to take specialized classes in photography and photo editing. 

If you’d like to make yourself stand out even further, you could pursue a master’s photography degree. 

Experience in Place of Degree

Many successful photo editors have no formal education and are entirely self-taught. If you choose to go this route, start by watching online classes that will teach you the fundamentals of photo editing. At the same time, get your hands on a photo editing software like Lightroom, take your own photographs, and start practicing editing. 

As you get better and better, see if you can edit other photographers’ photos (you can ask a friend or find free photos online). You can also try to find a professional photo editor who’ll let you shadow them, so you can see their process and workflow. 

Without formal education, your first paid job likely won’t be with a large company. That being said, you can slowly start to get more and more paid work on a freelance basis and eventually use your experience to get a full-time job. 

Portfolio of Work

Whether you’d like to work as a freelancer or full-time photo editor, you’ll need a portfolio that will demonstrate your experience and skills. 

If you pursue post-secondary education, your portfolio can include some of your favorite school projects. If you’re building it from scratch, you can offer the first few editing projects for your clients for free in exchange for permission to include them in your portfolio. 

underwater photo half edited
A before and after by Skillshare instructor JP Danko from his class Edit Like a Pro: Photoshop for Photographers

Photo Editor Salary

By now, you’re probably wondering, “How much does a photo editor make?”

In 2021, the average photo editor in the United States made close to $60,000, but of course, your actual salary will depend on many factors. 

For one, your level of experience should be taken into consideration. Especially if you work as an in-house editor for a media company, your salary will increase with every additional year of experience you have. 

Your income will also vary if you work as a freelancer and set your own photo editing rates. Freelance photo editing rates can be as low as minimum wage and as high as a few hundred dollars per hour. As with any freelance job, your rates will depend on your level of experience, your skills, the clients you work with, and their needs. 

The great thing about freelancing is that your income is flexible and increases with every new client you take on. Even if you’re charging an hourly rate that’s on the lower end of the spectrum, it can still add up to a decent annual income. 

Photo Editor Jobs

Most photo editors work as either full-time in-house editors or freelancers. Let’s take a look at both options in more detail. 

In-house Photo Editor

If you’re looking for full-time work, you can work as a photo editor for print or digital magazines, media websites, large corporations, marketing agencies, or any other organization that publishes visual media.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about being an in-house photo editor:

  • You’ll have better chances of getting a job if you have a bachelor’s degree
  • The job market is quite competitive
  • You’ll have set hours and a constant stream of work
  • You’ll have a reliable, but fixed, income
  • You’ll likely receive employee benefits
  • You’ll likely have to work in an office, though some companies may have remote work options 
  • You’ll likely spend a lot of time working on very similar projects 

Freelance Photo Editor

If you don’t pursue post-secondary education, you’ll likely start out as a freelance editor. That being said, it’s by no means a stepping stone to an in-house position—many in-house editors actually make the switch to freelancing because it better fits their lifestyle. 

Freelance editors can be hired by smaller organizations and companies that don’t have the budget or the need for in-house editors. These can be small businesses, publications, or marketing agencies. Even photographers will often hire freelance photo editors if they don’t have the bandwidth to make the edits themselves. 

Here’s how being a freelance photo editor differs from working in-house:

  • You can set your own hours and rates and decide how many clients you want to take on
  • You will likely work on a wide variety of projects
  • You can work remotely from anywhere in the world
  • You won’t have a stable income or employee benefits, but there’s also no limit to how much you can earn
  • You’ll need to market yourself and essentially run your own business
  • Getting clients can be challenging at first, especially when you don’t have a lot of experience

Start Editing Photos Today

Even if you’re not sure if a career as a photo editor is right for you, knowing how to edit photos is a great life skill. You can practice it as a creative hobby, delight your friends and family with impressive edits, or perfect your Instagram feed with a cohesive theme. 

Whatever your reason for wanting to learn photo editing, get started today and see what you can create!

Everything You Need to Know to Start Editing Photos

Fundamentals of Photo Editing

Written By
Sayana Lam

Sayana Lam

Sayana is a musician, writer and graphic designer based in Toronto, Canada.

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