When you get back home you plug your camera into your computer, download your images and declare victory. Maybe you print a few to hang on the wall and the rest you share with your friends on Facebook.
Nothing to it right?
Well, you can leave it at that, but if you take just a little bit of time, you can make those vacation photos really stand out.
I wish I could tell you how often I see bland photos which people take on their trips which could be made much better with just a few tweaks. I’ve seen this happen on Facebook as well as on popular travel blogs. Ugly photos which could be made respectable with less than 60 seconds worth of attention.
The one single thing which any amateur photographer can do to improve their photography is to take the time to edit their photos. It isn’t complicated and many of the tools are available for free online.
The Truth About Your CameraThere is no camera which is as good as a human eye. You have probably noticed this if you have ever taken a photo with a high dynamic range (dark shadows and bright lights). If you are indoors on a sunny day, you can look out a window and clearly see what is outside as well was what is inside. If you tried to take a photo of the same scene, it will either the window will be blown out and white, or the inside will be too dark. It can’t do both.
Most people think that when they take a photo, they are capturing reality, or “the truth”. You are not. There are any number of settings on a camera, and what settings you choose will determine what the photo will look like. The sensor, the lens and any other things all factor in to the final image. Even on a point-and-shoot camera where you can’t change the settings there are still decisions being made, they just aren’t being made by you.
When you realize that the image you are capturing is dependent on a whole host of factors which could be changed, you can realize that you aren’t capturing “the truth”, but rather a version of “the truth.” Change the settings, hardware or lighting and you’ll get a totally different outcome.
Isn’t Editing Photos Cheating?
Many casual photographers I talk to about photo editing think is it cheating, or even doing something unethical. Most of this comes from news reports of fashion magazines who edit photos to make models look thinner. Joseph Stalin was famous for editing people out of photos to make them disappear from history.
Those things very well might be unethical, but that isn’t the sort of editing I’m talking about.
Most of the edits which travel photos require are issues of sharpening, cropping, color correction and exposure. They are the EXACT same things which were done in the darkroom by photographers in the days of film. The only difference is that instead of darkrooms, today we have computers.
Travel photos, by their very nature, are shot outside of a studio where you have no control over lighting. Odds are you will not have ideal conditions wherever you happen to be when you take your photo.
The purpose of editing should be to make the photo look more like what you originally saw with your eyes, not less. Underexposed, overexposed and flat images are not what we see with the naked eye.
The act of capturing a scene with your camera should be seen as the first step in creating an image, not the last.
What Should I Edit?
Photo editing is undoubtedly more complicated than actually taking a photo. There are entire courses offered on post production (another term for editing) and it can take years to just master a tool such as Photoshop.
That being said, basic editing can be very simple. Here are some things that can be easily corrected in many photos:
Overexposure/Underexposure You might have seen photos you’ve taken which were either too dark or too bright. Simply adjusting the exposure on an image can usually correct for these sort of problems.
Cropping If your camera can’t zoom properly, you might have too much photo surrounding what is supposed to be the photo’s subject. A simple crop can often find the great image which is inside of a good image.
Contrast Ever take a photo that just looked washed out? It was probably an issue with the contrast in the image. Adjusting the contrast can often bring to life a photo which is very dull and flat.
What Software Should I Use?
For basic photo editing, there are a number of tools you can use and they will all be able to do the basics.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 This is what I and many other professional photographers use. It will do any of the basic editing functions which I mentioned above and a whole lot more. I am able to use Lightroom for 98% of the editing I need to do. Available on both Mac and Windows.
Apple Aperture 3 Aperture and Lightroom are sort of like the Coke and Pepsi of the photo world. I haven’t used it personally, but many people do and it is very similar in features to Lightroom. Available only on Mac.
Apple iPhoto If you own a Mac you probably have this installed. It is designed for amateur photographers. Simpler to use than Aperture and Lightroom but doesn’t have as many features.
Adobe Photoshop CS6 You can pretty much do anything with Photoshop, but it is expensive and there is a steep learning curve. It also isn’t designed to process many images, whereas Lightroom is. You will also probably never use 95% of the features in Photoshop if you are just doing basic editing.
PicMonkey There are several sites that will allow you to do basic online photo editing for free. I mention PicMonkey just because it is what Smugmug uses for its online photo editing. Online photo editing means you can’t use installing software or cost as an excuse for not editing your photos.
Processing photos in the digital darkroom is just as much a part of digital photography as the darkroom was with film. If you aren’t taking the time to do some minor editing, your photos may only be half done.
Taking the time to edit your photos might be the single easiest thing you can do to improve your photography.