Basic Techniques In Photo Editing

My computer clients often ask me how to get started in editing their digital photos

There are many photo editing programs available, ranging from excellent free programs to Adobe Photoshop costing many hundreds of pounds. In this blog I am not interested in specific programs. What I would like to do instead is give you an idea of some of the basic functions that you will find in all image editing programs (even Mac programs!) and which, between them, can go a long way to improve your photos. Editing photos can be a satisfying and creative way to spend time. It’s not a “task” to be fitted in between checking your email and updating the family budget spreadsheet. Personally, I get more satisfaction from editing photos than from taking them. I would recommend thinking of time set aside to edit photos as being “quality time”: time spent doing something that can give real satisfaction.

So, let us look at a few of the techniques available in all the different software packages. If you apply each of these techniques (where relevant, of course) to each photo you wish to improve, then you will almost certainly be surprised and pleased by the results. I am going to list these in the order that I use them when editing my own photos.

1) Straightening the picture

You can turn the photo so as to straighten it. Since this process means that some parts of the photo will be lost, I do this first as there’s no point in creating a satisfying picture using other techniques, only to have the image look different after part of it has been lost in the straightening process.

Crooked Horizon
The lopsided horizon spoils this image, taken on the North Kent coast
Horizon Straightened
With the horizon straightened, the attention is drawn instead to the beach huts. They look as if they are staring out to sea.

2) Cropping the picture

Cropping an image consists of cutting away parts that are not wanted. I don’t mean removing details from WITHIN the image. Cropping is like taking a pair of scissors and just cutting off as much of the edge of any of the four sides as desired. This is a much more creative process than it might, at first, seem. The entire balance, focus, and mood of a picture can be greatly changed by the way that the image is cropped. I crop the image early on as there’s no point in doing any of the later detailed work on parts of the image that are going to be removed.

Uncropped Image
With large areas of boring background, this image is not very interesting
Cropped Image
After cropping, the reflections in the instruments make a far better focus for the image.

3) Adjusting the levels

An image, as taken, may have no areas that are very light and/or no areas that are very dark. This can make an image look “muddy”. Adjusting the levels means making the darker areas nearer to (or completely) black and making the lighter areas nearer to (or completely) white. This is a far better way to increase the difference between the lighter and darker areas than adjusting the contrast (although this can also be done. I tend to gently “tweak” the contrast at the end of the editing process just to give an image a bit more punch).

Unadjusted Levels
With the levels unadjusted, the best place for this image is the recycle bin.
Levels Adjusted
This image has been rescued by adjusting the levels (OK, I agree, it’s still boring)

4) Removing red-eye

Red-eye is the phenomenon of light from the flash of your camera bouncing off the back of the subject’s eyeball, resulting in red eyes in the photograph. Most image editing programs have options that can automatically detect and remove red-eye. It can also be done manually.

Unadjusted red-eye
Red-eye can completely ruin a portrait
Adjusted Red-eye
Removing the red-eye can make all the difference

5) Cloning

After applying the above techniques to more-or-less all photos, the next thing it’s definitely worth getting to grips with is the process of “cloning”. This is where the real magic of photo editing starts. Cloning is the process whereby you select a piece of the image and you copy that part of the image to somewhere else on the image. This, effectively, makes what had previously been on the copied area disappear. You can see it in the illustrations of the “skull sculpture” ( “Very Hungry God” (2006) by Sudobh Gupta as displayed in the Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park). The first image shows the actual reality that I photographed. The second has been “doctored” by me using the cloning tool to remove the legs of the sculpture by replacing them with copies of nearby content (ie greenery). The result is quite spooky: the skull (spooky in itself) seems to float in mid-air.

The “real” image with the legs (as the sculptor intended!)
Parts of the background greenery have been cloned over the legs, making them disappear

This is just a taster of what can be done in photo editing. I’ve lost track of the number of my clients who have said “I must get round to doing something with my photos”. Well, these steps are some of the basic and easy ones, but be warned – it’s surprising how much time can just disappear as you become totally absorbed in the process. And apart from enjoying the process, the results are definitely worth it. You can make a real difference to how your photographs look and derive real satisfaction from doing it.

I would be delighted to provide training to help you down the road of getting some real fun and satisfaction from your computer through photo editing

(Last updated 08/09/2023)