In today’s digital photography world, taking a photo is only half of the photo-making process. The other half is digitally enhancing the photo in a photo editing program. As Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” So if your photos look different from the ones you see on your favorite creators’ photography website, they might just need some post-processing love.
Almost every professional photo you see online has been digitally altered in some way. Sometimes the photos are completely changed to create a unique world. But mostly the photos are tweaked to fix errors or make them more visually appealing.
Here’s an example. I took the original photo in Venice. The photo is a bit dark and the colors are faded. My image after post-processing is quite different. It’s much more dramatic and colorful.
In this article, I’ll show you how to edit your photos like a pro in 10 steps. In fact, you may only need to do a few of these steps to get your photos looking professional.
How to edit photos
01. Develop a personal style
There is no “right” way of editing photos like a professional. Professional photographers vary widely in how they edit their photos. Some photographers like to play with the vibrance and saturation of the colors while others prefer black and white photography. Some like high key photos (lots of light and whites), others like their photos low key (dark and moody).
To start defining your style, look through social media and other photography portfolios to see what catches your eye. Try to identify what you like about the images. Is it the composition or is it something about the look of the photo? If it’s the latter, this style has been created in post-processing.
If you’re just starting out in post-processing, you may not know exactly how to achieve the desired look. But the first step is finding out what you like.
When I edit a photo, I ask myself what I want. For example:
I wish the photo was a bit brighter.
I wish the photo wasn’t tilted.
I wish the photo had more color.
Once I know what I want, I find a way of making it happen using a photo editing program.
02. Choose a photo editing program
Editing digital photos has never been easier, as there are now many photo editing programs to choose from. Some are simple and allow for basic tweaks, while others are more advanced and let you change everything about an image, whether its JPEG, PNG or GIF.
Most professional photographers use programs like Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, or Capture One Pro. You can try out these programs for free and if you like the results, you can buy the program. Adobe products are available as a subscription service, with the photography bundle including both Lightroom and Photoshop.
I use Lightroom for most of my photo editing. In addition to its editing capabilities, it also helps me keep my files organized. Below you’ll find a screenshot of the Lightroom workspace. The editing tools are in the Develop module in the right-hand window.
However, you don’t necessarily have to use an advanced photo editing program to get professional results. Wix’s media features include a powerful free photo editing program called Photo Studio.
There are also many free photo editing software programs available. Your computer and phone likely came with built-in photo editing and photography apps. Macs include photo editing tools as part of the Photos app. The equivalent for Windows is Microsoft Photos. These programs include most of the standard photo editing tools. Last, but not least, social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook also include photo editing tools to tweak your images before posting.
03. Use filters and presets
Many photo editing and social media programs include filters. Also known as presets, filters are like photo editing recipes that mix up a combination of settings to give your photos a certain look.
Open a photo in Wix or Lightroom and click through the different built-in filters. Notice how your photo changes automatically and see which filters you like the best.
While Lightroom comes with presets, you’ll find hundreds more online. Many professional photographers offer free presets or preset packages for sale. Look at how this sunflower photo changes depending on the preset.
Filters can make your photos look more professional without needing to have too much technical knowledge. If you want to be a bit more hands on with your editing, move to the next step.
04. Take advantage of automatic modes
As photo editing programs improve, so do their algorithms for automatically post-processing images. These allow the program to analyze an image and make suggested changes. And you might be surprised at the results. The auto option is usually marked with a symbol that looks like a magic wand. In the Wix Photo Studio, this option is called Enhance.
Most professional photographers by-pass the auto tool on their photo editing programs. But a few admit to letting programs like Lightroom do the heavy lifting. If you don’t like the results, you can always undo the changes as Lightroom is a non-destructive editing program - meaning that the original photo is never really changed and you can always go back to it.
05. Crop the scene
Cropping is removing the unwanted edges of an image, making the image smaller and allowing the main subject of your photo to take a larger portion of the frame. This practice is one of the most valued photography tips for beginners, as amateurs tend to leave too much space around their main subject.
Luckily, it’s really easy to crop a photo using a photo editing program. To crop the image above in the Wix Photo Studio, I clicked on the corners and pulled in the top, the bottom, and both sides of my frame. I cropped in close. Then I cropped in a little closer. I removed the distracting light post on the left and the person’s arm on the right. I took out the sky and a lot of the pavement. I wanted my subject to be the main focus of the image.
Cropping is especially important when posting to social media, as many people look at images on small phone screens. You want your subject to fill the screen.
Don’t worry about standard aspect ratios (like 4:3). While they are important for printing, digital images can be any size you want. Even Instagram now allows you to vary your images from a 1:1 ratio. However, standardizing the size and shape of your images can help achieve a cohesive look on your website.
06. Straighten lines
Straightening lines in post-processing is incredibly simple, but is often overlooked. Failing to take care of this will affect the photography balance of your image.
If you have many lines in an image, choose one as your primary and make that line straight. The most common line that needs straightening is the horizon. In Lightroom, open the crop tool and grab a corner. Drag the image clockwise or counterclockwise until the horizon line is straight. There is also an auto option. If Lightroom can detect a horizon, it will automatically straighten it.
More advanced programs include other tools that help straighten lines or adjust distortion. Lightroom’s Transform tool is helpful when straightening lines in architecture photography. Because of lens optics, lines in buildings may skew or keystone (appear to converge). Lightroom allows me to straighten these lines.
07. Bring colors to life
Some photographers like a lot of bright colors, while others prefer a more muted color scheme. Regardless of your style, adjusting colors will make your photos look more professional.
There are many tools for doing this. Contrast, saturation and vibrance can normally be adjusted in photo editing programs. Contrast visually alters colors, as it determines the relative difference between lights and darks in your image. If you’re shooting in a RAW format on your camera, your images will look flat. Adding contrast is the first step to adding dimension.
Lightroom also includes a tool called HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance). This tool allows you to selectively adjust colors.
08. Adjust the white balance
Professional photographers often consider the white balance of their images, which determines how warm or cool the light is. Warmer light has a yellow, or sunny look, while cooler light results in blue tones.
In most photo editing programs, white balance is edited with a tool called temperature. Move the temperature slider right for warmer tones or left for cooler tones. Lightroom includes an auto white balance button and some white balance presets that adjust for common lighting conditions such as fluorescent lights.
09. Remove spots and clutter
Paying close attention to the details of an image is a must in any type of photography. In order to ensure your image is perfect, you might need to remove certain spots or background clutter.
Spots are easy to remove in most photo editing programs like Lightroom and Photoshop. I often use spot removal tools to clean up background clutter or remove an errant branch. In Lightroom, I point at the spot I want to remove and the program selects another part of the photo to place there instead. Lightroom is usually good about selecting a replacement area, but you can also select it manually.
Many photographers move into Adobe Photoshop to clean their images, as it allows for very advanced changes. For instance, you can remove people from a crowded square or alter entire buildings.
10. Add some finishing touches
There are many more features included in photo editing programs, but I’ll end with a few finishing touches:
Wix Photo Studio allows you to change backgrounds or add overlays. These can bring a professional finishing touch to your photos. Have fun! There are many effects to explore.
In Lightroom, finishing tools are found either in the Detail or Effects window. These include adding a vignette, grain, or sharpening my image.
Vignettes slightly darken or lighten the edges of the frame, which serves to keep the viewer’s eyes in the center. In most cases, the change is so slight you may not even notice that the edges have been altered.
Photographers have the choice of removing or adding grain to their images. Grain is the photography term describing the visual distortion caused by shooting at high ISOs in dim lighting conditions. While most usually want to clean this up, some choose to add it as part of their photography style to give their photos a film photography look.
If you’re posting your photos online, add a bit of sharpening to the images. This helps define edges and makes the photos look clearer when viewed on a computer or phone screen.
There is no one right way of editing photos. Professionals use all the tools they can find to make their images unique and memorable, as well as to fix image issues such as non-straight lines and unwanted spots. Editing your images also makes them look more professional and gives them a unique style, which makes your website and social media visually cohesive.
Don’t worry about messing up an image in post-processing, as most programs allow you to undo any changes or even start over if you want. If you’re worried, practice on a copy of the file. Editing like a professional means finding a look that you like and using a photo editing program to achieve that style.
What to think about before you begin editing photos
Here are some things to think about before you begin editing photos:
What is your goal? Are you trying to:
Improve the overall look of the photo?
Fix technical problems like exposure or white balance?
Remove unwanted elements from the photo?
Create a more creative or artistic image?
Once you know what you want to achieve, you can start to choose the editing software and techniques that will help you reach your goal.
What is your audience? Are you editing photos for social media, a website or print?
Different audiences have different expectations for how photos should look. For example, photos for social media may be smaller and more compressed, while photos for print may need to be larger and higher resolution.
What is the style you want to achieve?
There are many different styles of photo editing, from natural and realistic to more creative and stylized. Consider what kind of feeling you want the photo to convey and choose a style that matches that feeling.
What are your technical skills?
If you're new to photo editing, start with simple techniques and gradually work your way up to more complex ones. There are also many great resources available online and in libraries that can help you learn how to edit photos.
What is your budget?
There are many different photo editing software programs available, ranging from free to very expensive. Choose a program that is within your budget and that has the features you need.
Once you have considered all of these factors, you can start to experiment with different editing techniques and styles.
All images in the article belong to Jennifer Mishra.