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From Click to Creation: A Photo Editing Primer

From Camera to Canvas

This post is the third in my Basic Pho­tog­ra­phy Series. If you have not done so already, I encour­age you to read my pre­vi­ous posts on cam­eras and basic pho­to­graph­ic tech­niques. This third post will focus on anoth­er aspect of image cre­ation: post-pro­cess­ing. Often referred to as pho­to-edit­ing”, how you process an image can have pro­found effects on how your view­ers per­ceive it. Before we get into some basic edit­ing tips, let’s take a moment to dis­cuss post-pro­cess­ing conceptually. 

Regard­less of what type of device you are using to cap­ture an image, you will be depen­dent on an image sen­sor. The sen­sor (with its col­or fil­ter) has an array of pix­els that (in the sim­plest sense) are mea­sur­ing the vol­ume and col­or of the light that is enter­ing the lens when you press the shut­ter but­ton. The result is data that inter­po­lates the real world. So let’s start with this: The image that is cap­tured is an inter­po­la­tion and is affect­ed by a num­ber of fac­tors, includ­ing the deci­sions that the pho­tog­ra­ph­er makes relat­ed to expo­sure (aper­ture, sen­si­tiv­i­ty, and shut­ter speed). Inci­den­tal­ly, your eyes fol­low a very sim­i­lar process as they pro­vide input to your own neur­al-pro­cess­ing cen­ter. And we all know from expe­ri­ence that our eyes can be tricked. The bot­tom line is that edit­ing a pho­to is a nat­ur­al exten­sion of cap­tur­ing the image. Don’t let any­one tell you that edit­ing an image is cheat­ing. Be cre­ative. Have fun.

Anoth­er con­cept that is use­ful to under­stand is file for­mat”. Tra­di­tion­al­ly, dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phers have an impor­tant deci­sion to make when they take a pho­to. They have to decide if they want the cam­era to store the image as raw data”, known typ­i­cal­ly as a RAW file. The oth­er option is to store the cap­tured image as a JPEG file. JPEG files are processed inside the cam­era. Most mobile devices auto­mat­i­cal­ly store images in JPEG. This is a very impor­tant dis­tinc­tion. I can’t even count the num­ber of peo­ple that come to me and ask me why their cell phone is tak­ing bet­ter pho­tos than their $1200 cam­era. The rea­son is that the JPEG proces­sor in your device is pret­ty smart. It is essen­tial­ly doing much of the edit­ing for you, and these processers are get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter over time. The JPEG pro­cess­ing engine in your phone looks at the scene you have cap­tured. If it sees a blue sky, it says, Hmm. This looks like a blue sky. I’d bet the per­son who took this pho­to would like me to make it even bluer!”. This nor­mal­ly results in out­put that is pleas­ing to us. On the oth­er hand, a RAW image may appear bland. Most seri­ous pho­tog­ra­phers will choose RAW because they do not want the device to make edit­ing choic­es for them. If they want a bluer sky, for exam­ple, they pre­fer to deep­en the col­or them­selves. A RAW image con­tains sig­nif­i­cant­ly more data and can be more effec­tive­ly manip­u­lat­ed by the pho­tog­ra­ph­er in post-processing. 

Where do I fall on the RAW vs JPEG debate? It is becom­ing less and less impor­tant. Many devices (cer­tain­ly ded­i­cat­ed cam­eras) can be set to cap­ture both RAW and JPEG. Fur­ther­more, new file for­mats are emerg­ing that chal­lenge the choic­es we have had to make in the past. The emerg­ing HEIF for­mat is an exam­ple of this trend. I tend to shoot JPEG, espe­cial­ly when trav­el­ing. The files are lighter and with the type of edit­ing that I do, I do not feel con­strained by the flex­i­bil­i­ty of the files. Occa­sion­al­ly, if I am faced by a scene with a wide dynam­ic range (areas of deep shad­ows and bright high­lights in the same frame), I will switch to RAW to give myself addi­tion­al lee­way. For most of us, how­ev­er, JPEG gets the job done, and it may be your only option if you are shoot­ing with a mobile device. 

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(Lisbon) Edited in Snapseed Mobile App Using the Grunge Filter

A Few Quick Tips to Get you Started

Fur­ther down, I will dis­cuss how to choose the right pho­to edi­tor. In the mean, time, let’s look at a few set­tings that will be com­mon to all edi­tors. These set­tings (tools) are usu­al­ly pre­sent­ed as slid­ers. There are many oth­er tools avail­able, but these are some of the most fundamental. 


Here’s a secret. If your sub­ject is in focus, then its prob­a­bly sharp enough. Most mod­ern sensor/​lens com­bi­na­tions don’t require a lot of sharp­en­ing. In fact, a lot of stock pho­tog­ra­phy sites won’t even accept images that are over sharp­ened. Razor edge sharp­ness is usu­al­ly unnec­es­sary. So go easy! Like many set­tings, dis­cre­tion can be the bet­ter part of valor. 


This can be a tricky sub­ject. In the sim­plest sense, the expo­sure slid­er (some­times labeled as the bright­ness slid­er) will make your image lighter or dark­er. That’s good. Typ­i­cal­ly, I find that begin­ning pho­tog­ra­phers over­ex­pose images. This is because they are nor­mal­ly shoot­ing in auto mode, and the cam­era (mak­ing its own choic­es) believes that the pho­tog­ra­ph­er prefers a brighter image. The prob­lem here is that touch­ing that expo­sure slid­er will have con­se­quences. You will have dark and light por­tions of your image. If you want to bright­en the lighter areas, then the expo­sure slid­er can be a good solu­tion. On oth­er hand, you should exer­cise cau­tion if you are attempt­ing to light­en the dark­er areas, since the glob­al changes that will result may over-bright­en the high­lights. Does this make sense? (By the way, your edi­tor may have a his­togram that can help you with this.) When you want to bright­en dark­er areas while edit­ing, try the shad­ows” slid­er instead of the expo­sure slid­er. This will allow you to light­en those dark areas with­out blow­ing out” the areas that are already bright. Dark­en­ing an image with the expo­sure slid­er may also require you to use the shad­ows slid­er sub­se­quent­ly in order to res­cue your under­ex­posed areas. All of this makes sense when you start to play with it. Anoth­er tip: Keep in mind that your pri­or­i­ty for all of your edits is your sub­ject. Is it a per­son? A horse? A moun­tain? When deter­min­ing how bright or dark an image should be, let the effect on the sub­ject of the pho­to be your guide. If oth­er parts of the image are less per­fect, then its usu­al­ly some­thing we can live with. 

NOTE: I feel com­pelled to say this, even if it is more relat­ed to pho­tog­ra­phy than edit­ing: If I must err, then I pre­fer the sin of under­ex­pos­ing then over­ex­pos­ing an image. Images can be bright­ened with edit­ing tools. How­ev­er, over­ex­posed areas (those areas that are bright to the point of being white), can sel­dom be recovered. 


Unlike expo­sure, this one is sim­ple. Please make sure you have a straight hori­zon. Most pho­tos that we take on the run” will suf­fer a slight angle. There is noth­ing worse than a beau­ti­ful­ly exposed sun­set pho­to at the beach with a tilt­ed hori­zon. If you do not see a lev­el­ing slid­er in your appli­ca­tion’s inter­face, then go into the crop­ping tool. It may be hid­den there. 


I know I am sup­posed to try to get it right when I take the pho­to, but I usu­al­ly crop over half of my images as part of my edit­ing work­flow. Remem­ber back in my last post on pho­tog­ra­phy, I dis­cussed the rule of thirds and how your sub­ject should be prop­er­ly posi­tioned with­in your frame. Well, if you didn’t get it right in cam­era, crop­ping (re-fram­ing) gives you a sec­ond chance. If my dog is the sub­ject and he end­ed up in the cen­ter of the frame, I will typ­i­cal­ly make crop­ping choic­es that move him to the right or left in com­pli­ance with the rules of com­po­si­tion. Also, I may make a change to aspect ratio. Most cameras/​phones pro­duce 3:2 ratio images by default (and I rec­om­mend that you nor­mal­ly stick to the default in order to max­i­mize res­o­lu­tion). How­ev­er, I some­times change to 16:9 for land­scapes in order to pro­vide a more sweep­ing visu­al­iza­tion. You should have access to these aspect ratios as pre­sets in your crop­ping tool. My pri­ma­ry warn­ing to you when crop­ping is not to over-crop. By this, I mean that you should not rad­i­cal­ly reduce the size of your orig­i­nal image. Doing so will often reduce the res­o­lu­tion (num­ber of pix­els) to the point that your final image appears pix­i­lat­ed.


Most edit­ing soft­ware offers a vari­ety of fil­ter effects that you can exper­i­ment with. These fil­ters do every­thing from adding tex­ture to adjust­ing col­or sat­u­ra­tion. Fur­ther­more, if you choose to apply a fil­ter, you can nor­mal­ly con­trol the inten­si­ty of the giv­en effect. Some of my favorite fil­ters (in the Snapseed Edit­ing App) are Grunge, Retrolux, and Black & White. Typ­i­cal­ly, more expe­ri­enced pho­tog­ra­phers will not use these pre-designed fil­ters, pre­fer­ring to achieve the desired effects on their own with oth­er tools. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

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(Washington State) Composite Image in 16:9 Aspect Ratio (Originally Captured in 3:2)

Choosing A Photo Editor

Let’s talk about edit­ing software/​applications. One of the most impor­tant deci­sions you have to make as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er is where you want to edit your images. Pro­fes­sion­als and seri­ous hob­by­ists will typ­i­cal­ly edit on a com­put­er (PC or Mac). This approach allows them to lever­age more sophis­ti­cat­ed soft­ware, and to have more screen space to make changes. It also allows them to inter­face more effi­cient­ly with their long-term stor­age solu­tions, both inter­nal and remote. If you want to get seri­ous about pho­tog­ra­phy, it would be wise to explore this method. Although there are many edit­ing options (typ­i­cal­ly appli­ca­tions that you pay for and down­load), Adobe Light­room remains the indus­try stan­dard. Although con­ser­v­a­tive in its approach, Lightroom’s tools are well imple­ment­ed and effec­tive. Anoth­er advan­tage is that Light­room edits non-destruc­tive­ly. In oth­er words, you will always have access to your orig­i­nal image. Fur­ther­more, using Light­room will force you to con­sid­er and imple­ment your own long-term stor­age (cat­a­loging) strat­e­gy. So for com­put­er-based edit­ing and orga­niz­ing, start­ing with Light­room makes sense.

But what about the rest of us? We just want to share some great trav­el pho­tos and move on to the next thing. Well, don’t wor­ry. There’s an app for that. As I’m sure you know, your cur­rent mobile device cam­era has a num­ber of edit­ing fea­tures baked in, allow­ing you to edit your pho­tos right out of the box. How­ev­er, I would encour­age you to explore some third-par­ty apps as well. Check out a real­ly good list of rec­om­mend­ed solu­tions here. I agree thor­ough­ly with their top choice, Snapseed. Snapseed is a free app, designed and main­tained by the good folks at Google. It is sur­pris­ing­ly robust and allows you to grow with it. Like Light­room (which is also avail­able in mobile ver­sions), it is ubiq­ui­tous, with a pletho­ra of free instruc­tion­al videos and arti­cles across the inter­net. It sup­ports iOS and Android (both phones and tablets). 

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Snapseed's Editing Toolset

Here is my typ­i­cal Snapseed work­flow for trav­el photography:

  • I get home from my trip and remove my SD card from my cam­era. I load the SD card into a read­er com­pat­i­ble with my iPad. I load all the pho­tos into my Apple Pho­tos App. (See that process here.)
  • I then review them, select­ing (favorit­ing) about 15% for edit­ing. (That’s right, not every pho­to is worth edit­ing and shar­ing. Be selective.)
  • Then I open the Snapseed app, press the import but­ton, and load a pho­to into Snapseed. Once I com­plete the edit, Snapseed will cre­ate its own fold­er in the Apple Pho­tos App, so after you have edit­ed your shots, you can go back to share them or store them in a loca­tion of your choice. 

Now of course, if I had not used a cam­era with an SD card, and just tak­en the pho­tos with my excel­lent iPhone cam­era, then I could have skipped direct­ly to Step 2 above. As I men­tioned, there are a huge amount of Snapseed tuto­ri­als out there. You might like this one to get started. 

I know this was a long post. If you are unclear on today’s con­tent or need advice, don’t hes­i­tate to reach out to me here. I love talk­ing about pho­tog­ra­phy, about Spain, or of course about pho­tog­ra­phy IN Spain.