Before photography became a serious hobby for me, I kind of thought that editing photos was just for the pros and mostly meant “photoshopping”: removing birthmarks and making models look unrealistically slim and smooth, etc.

When I took photos, I got whatever came out of the camera.

At some point I started using Picasa to organize my photos. Picasa makes basic touch-ups very easy: adding some fill light, fixing wonky white balance issues (when people look yellow in the face, or the snow is purple). So I did that. I still had no idea how much editing can go into making a normal photo look good.

Learning more about photography pulls me in two directions at once. On the one hand, the more I learn about taking photos, the better results I get straight out of camera, so there is less need for editing. On the other hand, the more I learn about editing, the more editing I do, because I see more possibilities – and also because I now notice issues that I would not even have seen before.

For a photo that just goes into my archives, not to the blog or any other kind of public place, I just fix the basics to a “good enough” level. Often I do this in batch mode, fixing several photos at a time. This basic fixing generally includes:

  • White balance. I make sure that whites look white and skin look skin-coloured. This is one of the things that I can no longer unsee: when I look at a photo and the white balance is off, it really bothers me.
  • Exposure. Despite all my practice I often still underexpose a bit, meaning my photos are a bit too dark. But one good thing about having a “big camera” is that moderate underexposure is easy to fix.
  • Straighten. Another thing that my eyes just cannot ignore: tilted horizons and slanting lamp posts. It turns out that the human eye is amazingly sensitive to this: a line that is 1° off vertical is glaringly wrong; even as little as 0.2° is visible.

For the more important photos in the archive, or for a photo I intend to publish, I definitely add:

  • Cropping. After taking that composition workshop, this is another thing I just have to give some thought to. Sometimes I crop a lot; sometimes I am happy with what I have; sometimes I realize that I should have composed differently when taking the photo and there is no way to fix it now.

Finally there are the extras that I only do for photos I really care about, whether it’s for the blog or for a workshop assignment. These steps are fiddly and non-routine, and can easily take me 15 minutes or more per photo: I don’t do it often enough to have an efficient workflow. This might include any of the following:

  • Adjusting contrast or saturation
  • Selectively brightening or darkening parts of the photo
  • Fixing colour casts in specific parts of the photo
  • Editing out small stuff that bothers me – some small bright spot, or a speck of dust in the sky

All this might for example let me take this photo:

… and turn it into this:

And then there are the tools that I don’t yet have a good grip on and therefore mostly ignore… sharpening is one that I really want to learn about, and good black and white conversions is another.

For photos that end up here on the blog, I finish off the process by resizing the photo. Because I have a retina display on my MacBook Pro, I resize the photo to twice its intended final size and then scale it down using CSS.