Five Basic Rules of Post-Processing Your Photos

Post-processing is something many photographers struggle with. Here are some simple rules to keep in mind.

Many beginner and intermediate-level photographers struggle with post-processing their images, especially once they switch from shooting JPEG to RAW. Images initially look bland, and once the experimentation phase kicks in, they can start getting their “overdone” look. An experienced photographer can easily tell if an image is not post-processed well and if it can be improved by some image manipulation. That’s because seasoned photographers have done it enough to understand how to make images look good both for their own and the public’s viewing pleasure. In this article, I will share five basic rules of post-processing with our readers, which will hopefully make it easier to understand how to properly post-process images.

Many beginner and intermediate-level photographers struggle with post-processing their images, especially once they switch from shooting JPEG to RAW. Images initially look bland, and once the experimentation phase kicks in, they can start getting their “overdone” look. An experienced photographer can easily tell if an image is not post-processed well and if it can be improved by some image manipulation. That’s because seasoned photographers have done it enough to understand how to make images look good both for their own and the public’s viewing pleasure. In this article, I will share five basic rules of post-processing with our readers, which will hopefully make it easier to understand how to properly post-process images.

Please note that the below “rules” are similar to other photography rules. Meaning that they only serve the purpose of guiding beginner photographers, nothing more than that. There are many exceptions to each one of these rules, especially once you get a bit of experience working on your photos.

1. Start with a Solid Image

One of the biggest mistakes many beginner photographers make, is assume that a bad photo can be salvaged in post-processing. If you start with a poorly executed photograph, you will have a poorly executed final image, no matter how much time you spend working on it. Even if you are a Photoshop wizard who can replace skies and subjects in photographs, you cannot take a bad photo and make it look glorious.

The number one rule of successful post-processing is to start with a successful or at least partially successful image that you can make look better. First, spend more time getting to know what truly matters in photography, such as light, subject, emotion, mood and composition. From there, apply your photography knowledge to the image capture process, with the goal of yielding solid photographs. Your end goal should be to try to get as comfortable with the pre-visualization process as possible, since you will know what to look for.

Once you have a bunch of images to go through, you can apply the same knowledge to pick the right candidates for post-processing. That’s right, even picking the right image to post-process takes some skill!

This means that your goal should be to make yourself be as picky as possible during the image culling process. If you pick the right candidate for post-processing, getting a good end result is relatively easy.

2. Visualize the End Result

Once you have a solid candidate to work on, the next step is to understand what you want out of it. This is one area many beginner photographers struggle with, because they often have very little idea about what they want their image to look like. This leads to the dangers of post-processing experimentation, where photographers try different post-processing methods and tools to make their images look better. While experimentation is a very natural cycle of learning, if you find yourself stuck in that phase, it is time to dig yourself out of it sooner than later.

How? My recommendation would be to study art and your favorite photographs. What makes a given painting or a photograph look appealing to you? Don’t think about light, subject and composition, since those are a given, but pay attention to how the image is presented in terms of its overall brightness, contrast, and colors.

Also pay attention to how the primary subject of the scene is highlighted. Sometimes basic exposure tweaks and dodge and burn techniques can help in guiding the eye and show the essence of the subject in a photograph.

Once you know what type of “look” you enjoy the most in your favorite works, you can apply the same concepts to your photographs. This would be a great start for you. With time, you will learn how to stop replicating other people’s work and you will be able to apply your own style to your photographs.

If you learn to visualize the end result while culling through your images, you will be able to pick better candidates for post-processing. It is OK if you end up choosing one or two photos from a batch of thousands. I have been shooting for many years now and I can tell you that I still take a boatload of bad images that I will never touch. It is the ones that I choose to post-process that actually matter.

3. Aim to Provoke Emotion

A good photograph is one that can provoke viewer emotion. If you are able to do that, you have a successful photograph, period. But triggering someone’s emotion with an image is not easy, especially when dealing with mundane subjects, or photographing something that is known not to directly connect with people’s feelings. If you have a photograph of a crying refugee child in a dark setting, triggering emotion is relatively easy when compared to a photograph of a bird in flight, or even a pretty landscape.

However, there is one thing you can do to your images, which is to communicate your emotion at the time you edited a photograph. How do you do that? I would argue that it is the way you post-process your images.

As artists, we can choose what to show to our viewers. If you struggle with depression and feel like you want to communicate that with your viewer, you can intentionally make your images dark and gloomy. If you feel happy, you can also do that by making your image bright and happy, maybe even colorful. Some photographers are skilled enough to do something in-between, while others intentionally choose to communicate the opposite of their feelings. Others detach their feelings from their images completely, sometimes by choice.

When you look at my images, you can probably tell that I enjoy bright and colorful far more than dark and gloomy. I think it has to do with the state of my mind when I edit my photographs. I often choose to do it when I am in good post-processing mood. In addition, I could even say that I like the “bright and happy” look to cheer my viewers and it has become my style over the years.

However, it does not mean that I want to keep it this way – I know that I want to be able to express a range of emotions through my photographs, something I still have to learn how to do. For example, I love black and white photography and I want to get better at it. I recognize that black and white photography communicates on a completely different level with the viewer when compared to color photography.

In contrast, Spencer has a very different post-processing style. His images can sometimes look dark and gloomy, and sometimes he intentionally chooses to make them look bright and happy. He clearly has a wider range of different looks he chooses for his photographs. I do not know if his style of post-processing is impacted by his mood at the time of editing. I will leave that up to you to analyze.

The point here is that both Spencer and I intentionally choose a particular “look” to our images. We even pick candidates for editing very differently! I am sure if both Spencer and I sat down on the same computer to do the image culling process, we would end up with different candidates.

And that’s really what makes every photograph so unique. Knowing that a photographer intentionally picked that photo, to make it look that particular way already tells us a lot!

What is the takeaway then? Pick an emotion and tie it to your photograph. If you don’t know where to start, my recommendation would be to start with Bright and Happy. It is an easier look to achieve and it is something most viewers will connect with.

Once you have a good candidate and you chose to tie the “bright and happy” emotion to it, there are some simple steps you can take in post-processing to quickly give it a solid look. Keep in mind that most bright and happy images have plenty of brightness and contrast in them, to make the overall image “pop”. This means that the two most critical factors to pay attention to (aside from highlighting your primary subject) are brightness and contrast.

First, pick the camera profile that gets you a good start. In Lightroom, you can pick a corresponding camera “Profile” to do that. Depending on the camera you shot the image with, you should be able to go through a range of different options such as “Camera Portrait”, “Camera Standard” or “Camera Landscapes”. Each one of these is already set to give a certain “look” to your images with different brightness, color and contrast levels. I personally choose “Camera Standard” as my default for most cameras, but it can be a bit too much for some photographs, so it really depends. If your post-processing tool does not give you a choice of different camera profiles, then just move on to the next step.

The next step is to assess the overall brightness of the photograph and identify different zones of brightness. If you have an image that has a very wide range of brights and darks, you will need to potentially work with such sliders as “Highlights” and “Shadows” to recover some details. Since your aim is to get a bright photograph, you want to be careful about how you adjust the highlights and shadows of your photograph. For example, do not recover shadows too much, since it does not look natural and you will end up with a flat-looking photograph.

Third, adjust the Exposure slider to make the image as bright as possible without blowing anything out. The latter part is important, because you do not want to end up with overly bright parts of the photo that you cannot recover. This is where you might need to go back and forth between the Highlights and the Exposure sliders to figure out the best combination.

Now you are ready to boost the contrast of the image. In Lightroom, you can do that in several ways, but the three most common ways are to use the “Contrast” slider, the “Whites” and “Blacks” sliders together, and the “Tone Curve”. Personally, I rarely use the “Contrast” slider, because I do not like to adjust contrast with a single setting. This is why my personal preference is to start out with the “Whites” and “Blacks” sliders.

The idea is to push Whites as far as possible to brighten the bright parts of the image, then push Blacks down to increase overall contrast. Once you do that, you will notice that the overall image got significantly brighter, potentially making it way too bright, especially at higher Whites settings. In some cases, you might need to go back and re-adjust your Exposure slider and tone it down.

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