Deborah Sandidge is a travel photographer who has written books on photography, teaches advanced photo technique workshops and has been honored as a Nikon Ambassador. In short, she knows her stuff.
When she photographed the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption in Santiago de Cuba, she used all of her know-how; she scouted ahead of time, found a rooftop vantage from which to shoot and waited until the light was perfect. But the resulting photo was a flop. “I wasn’t getting the emotion,” she said.
Then she applied the “art sauce” that virtually every travel photographer uses. She used software to tweak the image, turning the color photo into a dramatic black and white. “It just didn’t feel right until I removed the color,” she said.
This is the secret of professional travel photographers. No matter how good the image they capture is, the editing makes it a little better. Sometimes, a lot better.
But it’s not just for pros. Smartphones come with built-in editing software that can transform travel photos from washed-out to wow. It takes only a minute and a few screen swipes to improve photos. Whether you are editing on a phone or with an advanced desktop digital darkroom program, the controls are similar.
“They all do pretty much the same things,” said Scott Kelby, internationally known Photoshop artist.
The first step in editing is to pick out the biggest problem with your photo. Framing often is the problem, said Rick Sammon, a photography educator. When photos include too much, the eye is not drawn to the intended subject. That can be fixed with the crop tool, which lets you recompose so the subject is placed where you want it. “Cut the clutter,” Sammon said. “Painters add to a canvas; photographers subtract.”
Because cameras can see only a portion of the range of light that the eye can see, in many photos the darks are too dark and the brights are too bright. “You want the picture to look like it does to your eyes,” Sammon said. “All of the software has shadow and highlight sliders.”
Turning the shadows brighter and highlights darker will make the photo look more like it does to your eye. If that makes the darks too gray, look for the “black point” control. It will make the blacks blacker without killing all of the detail in the shadows.
When the exposure is set, there is another critical adjustment: clarity, which is generally called something like “sharpness” or “structure.”
“Just think of this as the detail-enhancing slider,” Kelby said. “We admire the details.” However, be careful: Not every photo benefits from sharpness. “You don’t want to use it on a baby,” he said. It can accentuate skin blotchiness. “They start to look like they have been bruised in a fight.”
Pro photographers know that the best time to capture images is during the “golden hours” around dawn and dusk, when the light has a tint. But the tint is easy to add. “I will often warm up a picture, meaning I will add a little bit of red, yellow and orange,” Sammon said. Look for an option called “temperature,” “warmth” or “cast” to make this adjustment.
Some of these tools are easy to find on your phone or tablet, and some you might have to dig for. On most devices, you pick a photo, then touch edit. That should reveal an icon that looks like a menu, or a dial, which uncovers options. Often it’s one more layer down for the full set of controls. You may have to touch an arrow or an icon to get there.
Of course, you can alter your photos by just throwing a filter on them. Pro photographers aren’t necessarily against using filters, especially if you have a style that lends itself to a particular look. Kelby points to the Instagram account @cestmaria, by Marioly Vazquez, whose photos are all similarly pastel-hued and are shot specifically to use with what may be a single filter. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with that,” Kelby said.
But a filter is just someone else’s set of adjustments that are made to look good on someone else’s photo. “If you just slap a filter on every kind of photo … the filter will be what people notice,” Kelby said.
A filter, sometimes called a “preset,” can also be a good starting point. “If you choose a preset, I wouldn’t use it at 100 percent; dial it back,” Sandidge said. “Let the subject guide you. That’s what makes it yours.”
Filters are applied to your entire photo and can be done quickly. More advanced software will let you make changes to parts of a picture, such as intensifying blue tones or erasing a light pole that spoils the shot.
Sandidge uses an app called Snapseed if she wants “to put something on Instagram in real time and punch it up a little.” Snapseed has quite a few tools, which can be a bit overwhelming. But it has a tutorial, and you can cancel any changes you make to a photo without fear of ruining it. It can do the simple edits mentioned above, and it’s powerful enough to touch up skin blemishes or remove an unwanted railing from a photo.
The granddaddy of postproduction software is, of course, Photoshop. Many pro photographers lean heavily on Lightroom, a powerful but simplified version of Photoshop that costs $10 a month and will work on desktops, laptops, tablets and phones. It uses a slider system and a few tools that let you make adjustments to color and sharpness, remove blemishes, adjust lighting and much more.
The full version of Photoshop allows sophisticated editing such as repositioning people, adding clouds to a sky, changing people’s expressions and adjusting color with surgical accuracy. By itself, Photoshop costs $21 a month. But you can get Lightroom and Photoshop with limited online storage for the same $10 a month as Lightroom alone.
There are alternatives that might be less expensive in the long run, such as ON1, a powerful editing program with simplified controls. The recently released 2019 version is $100 with no subscription fee.
While postproduction editing is intended to fix problems, it can create problems of its own. Ask Kelby for the most common editing mistake people make, and he’ll tell you: “Overprocessing the photos.”
The rule of thumb is this: If people can see that the photo has been processed, you’ve overprocessed.