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In this photo, after basic edits, I chose to make this an period piece. Thus, I used Silver Effects Pro to change this to a sepia look, with a coffee filter, and used some effects from Analog Effects to age the photo.

If there is a major difference between an amateur photographer and a professional photographer, it indeed lies in the area of knowledge. Far too many photographers these days think that buying a expensive camera makes them a professional photographer, when nothing could be further from the truth. The difference between a professional photographer and an amateur is knowledge; the kind of knowledge I am about to share with you today.

Today we are going to discuss basic editing. Now I realize this might not be as inspiring or action-packed as your mental attitude, or the way you perceive and examine your subject matter. But, it is far more important that you gain the proper knowledge than have the correct mindset when shooting. A bad picture can be edited into something useful, while a great picture can be ruined without the correct knowledge of how to develop a photo with software.

When a photo is taken and then uploaded to a computer, it is known as a digital negative. In saying this, I am referring to the RAW file, not the jpeg. We as creative photographers want to have as much flexibility with our photos as possible, and the RAW file is where that flexibility lies. Sadly, film photographers don’t have quite as much flexibility, but that is not really the point of using film, now is it?

In this photo I nearly removed the background, with many darkening filters and adjustments, to keep focus on the flower and leaves. I was very careful to not overly emphasize details. This way, the flower retained its natural beauty.

So now we have our digital negative (RAW file) from our photoshoot and we have placed it onto our computer. What’s next? I am going to give a list of the things I do, that I consider basic editing. After that, I will give a brief explanation of why I do each thing on the list. We must learn to do the basic stuff, so that we have the best possible photo available to us when we then venture into the creative realm. (The next chapter will consist of advanced/creative editing.) So let’s get up that list, so that we can examine it.

  1. Apply lens corrections and remove RAW defaults
  2. Export to Dfine 2.0 to remove digital noise
  3. In Lightroom reduce luminance and color noise, remove distracting objects if needed.
  4. Adjust contrast
  5. Adjust white and black balance
  6. Adjust highlights and shadows
  7. Adjust clarity
  8. Adjust vibrance
  9. Export to Output Pro Sharpener for print, crop photo if desired.
  10. In Lightroom add vignette

I know this seems like a lot of basic processing, but I can assure you that each step is necessary and must be done to have a print-ready photo. The order of these has a purpose too and once you have practiced doing this, it can be done in an hour. However, it should be noted that there are extra steps involved when shooting living things, as opposed to inanimate objects. Those will be explained in the next section.

After bumping up the details, without sharpening, I adjusted camera calibration settings to increase the reds and greens without saturation. The dark foreground to lighter background adds dimension to the photo.

The order in which I do these things are dictated by my workflow. I use Adobe Lightroom for all of my basic editing. If there are special circumstances such as people, animals, flowers or distracting elements to be removed, then additional steps are required before we can enter into advanced/creative editing. We must have a good foundation to work from before getting creative. So let’s discuss this basic foundation, or basic editing, in full.

  1. Lens corrections must be done early because they often unwarp a picture. There is usually barrel or pincushion distortion that is created by the lens of the camera. These lens corrections can only be applied to the original photo (RAW file). When we export in the next step, the opportunity is lost because the file format is changed in the process. By default, the Lightroom Raw processor adds sharpening and a color boost. Since we want to have total control over both of these elements later in processing, these defaults must be removed. Just slide any Raw processing sliders to zero.
  2. Exporting the photo to Dfine is a logical next step when we are editing. We do not need or want to edit noise. Dfine 2.0 is part of the Nik Collection and is completely free software that works with both Photoshop and Lightroom. I cannot recommend this software enough. Whether you are editing a scanned photo or a RAW file, this FREE software will help you to take your photos to the next level. Dfine analyzes the photo and removes the most prominent digital noise that is present in all photos. This is why we do this so early in the editing process. Once you have run this program and clicked save, it will then open back up in Lightroom as a Tiff file. In Photoshop it just adds a layer.
  3. Reducing luminance noise and color noise is the next step, because as per the last step, we don’t want or need to edit noise. After reducing/removing both of these kinds of noise, we should then add in details. Reducing noise can make for a softer picture overall. Unless that is the look you are wanting, add back in details. Here it should be noted that if you are doing a person or animal, the next step is to go over the largest details of the face with a clarity brush to bring the facial features detail back. It also needs to be said that if there are objects that distract from the subject such as poles, telephone lines, fences, people, etc. now is a good time to remove them from the photo. I do this by exporting to Affinity Photo. Once inside that program, I use In-Painting to remove the unwanted objects. This can also be done in Photoshop as well.
  4. The next step is the contrast. RAW files, especially, will lack contrast. While with film you might want to keep that look, it’s best to add some contrast to each digital photo. I generally add more contrast to darker photos and less contrast to lighter photos. It seems counterintuitive but it works for me. If after adding contrast you find the photo too light or dark, you can adjust the exposure here in this step. Contrast will boost up both the shadows and the highlights.
  5. Adjusting the white and black balance is an extremely important step. If the white balance is not set correctly, it will show up in the print as portions of the photo without ink. Obviously this is not a good thing! When a photo is printed, we want ink on every portion of it. So when setting the white balance we must examine the histogram and make sure no whites have peeked out. This can further be adjusted with the highlights setting if needed. This is usually only found in backlit subjects. The black level can be go beyond peeking level because it will not change anything in print. However, it can make photos appear better on lit monitors (computer screens). Adjust this to taste.
  6. One of the great benefits of working with a RAW file is the ability to pull details from shadows and that is exactly what this next edit is about. In this next step, we want to pull out details that are important in the shadow areas and reduce any highlights that are too bright or distracting.
  7. Adjusting clarity is akin to sharpening. You should keep in mind that is not exactly the same. The clarity slider wants to bring out details in the picture and it will change lighting to do so. To further complicate the adjustment, it can easily bring out too much detail in living things, making them look unreal and plastic. Therefore, be careful with this slider and only use as much as is needed. In advanced editing, we can do more with this type of adjustment. Remember, we are trying to get a good, solid foundation first.
  8. I always adjust Vibrance, rather than Saturation. The reason for this is simple. Saturation boosts all colors in the photo, while Vibrance adjusts the less saturated colors first. Experience has shown me that every different make of camera tends to boost certain colors and hues more, by default. Thus, in no photo are the colors evenly distributed. Using Vibrance rather than Saturation helps to avoid over-saturation in any portion of your photo.
  9. We have waited this long to finally add in sharpening for so many reasons. We don’t want to sharpen anything in our photos that is not needed. Sharpening things that are not needed is the equivalent to adding in distraction. We never want to distract from the subject. If a photo does not have a point of interest, how is anyone going to find interest in it? I use the Output Pro Sharpener 3.0 (also found in Nik Collection) because it analyzes the photo and based upon photo dimensions, it determines optimal viewing distance. It can be customized to reflect what kind of printer and DPI setting will be used to further refine its output. I have mine set to 300 DPI and constant flow because most customers of mine will either be printing their photos at home or from the lab printer my website uses. Adjust this to fit your customers’ needs. This piece of software saves you a lot of guesswork and the photos produced are never too sharp. When we have finished the sharpening, then we can crop the photo, if needed. One of our goals is to create as large of an image as possible. Thus, waiting to crop later serves this point. We may also find that things we found distracting earlier on might be a great addition to the photo. I only crop earlier if I know for certain there is something I absolutely will never want in the photo.
  10. I always add a vignette to photos. Sometimes it will be one imperceptible to the naked eye and when trying to go for a more creative look it will be very evident. The reason I do this is because with every photo, even a realistic one, we want to make sure the focus is on our subject. The vignette accomplishes this by making the subject the brightest thing in the photo and the human eye always falls upon the brightest object in ANY photo. In a photo you are wanting to keep realistic, you will use barely any vignette. It should not be obvious it is there. When going for the more creative look, we want this vignette to be obvious. We do this last because the Output sharpener will lighten the vignette in its analysis of what to sharpen.

When we have completed these steps, then we simply export to whatever size and format we want. It should be noted, never export to a larger size. It will ruin all the work we just did. Always export to the image size or smaller.

In the HSL panel of Lightroom, I played around with the luminance settings to achieve the almost surreal painting look. This photo really came into being out of a desire to see just how far I could push a photo inside of Lightroom alone.

Now you have the golden pathway to creating a good photo for export or for further creative editing. So go edit some of those photos you have taken.

One final special note. If you are shooting with film and have scanned it into your computer to edit, be very careful with it. The goal in this case is to improve the photo, not to lose all of the light falloff and dreaminess that comes from this kind of photo. I usually will add only a slight amount of clarity and Vibrance to these scanned photos. I want to make that analog look better, not force it to look digital. The main benefit from shooting in film is you have creativity built-in. Let’s not lose that due to over editing. As for any cell phone users out there, Adobe does make a Lightroom mobile app and I mentioned a few other apps in the previous software chapter. While you will find that most of the apps available for phones have the ability to make most of these adjustments, there is nothing that I am aware of that optimizes these photos for print like the Output Pro Sharpener by Nik Collection. So if you want to be able to provide professional photos for printing, you will have to import the photos from your cell phone and process that part from your computer. Sorry, but that is the nature of cell phone photography.

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In the next chapter, we will finally be ready to move on to advanced creative editing. Certainly this chapter will be a page you’ll save for many years. Come join me as I reveal some of my biggest secrets for creating art out of your photos.

Until next time…

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 6

Chapter 7