Sunday, July 7, 2013

Editing As Part Of The Learning Process

Ah, the editing process. Many photographers dislike the process of editing. Maybe it’s because they shoot too many photographs and it takes so long to sort through them all. Or maybe it’s because they prefer spending their time shooting. Or perhaps they dislike it because it’s "truth time." Are those images that you worked so hard to get really all you had hoped they would be?

But then there are those photographers that love the editing process. The sorting, editing, and enhancing process is enjoyable to them. They use the time not only to edit their photos and add to their archive of great images, but to also to critique their work and analyze what exactly went right in the good images and what went wrong in the bad images.

I admit to being a bit of both types of photographer when it comes to the editing process. I take a lot of photos and choosing between similar captures can be a bit daunting. As I do try to get my images as close to "perfect" at the time of capture, the enhancement part of the process doesn’t usually actually take that long. If I find myself having to spend too much time fixing problems in a particular day’s shoot, I’ll stop and ask myself if the images are worth the effort. That’s part of "truth time" and also the first step in learning through editing.

When I first started taking photos I shot with film cameras and it was a lot harder to learn through the editing process. The photos were processed by a third party, and while going through a stack of prints I was not only judging my work as a photographer but also the processing work of whatever lab technician worked on my prints. Sorting through slides wasn’t much better either. Viewing 35mm slides through a loop wasn’t much fun and didn’t allow me to see much of the fine details that I had tried to capture. A slide viewing machine that projected images onto an 8x10 screen fixed that problem to a degree, but still was not an experience comparable to what can be seen on a computer monitor.

When I went digital I found that the editing process could be a great teacher. Unlike some film shooters that printed their own photographs, I had never before had any real control over how my printed images looked. After going digital I was the one solely responsible for the quality of my photographs. I could now change the color balance, clone out distractions, brighten, add contrast, or whatever else I wanted to do limited only by my imagination, software, computer power, and skill.

At first the whole process was daunting. There were, and still are, so many photos to sort through. And so many photos had flaws. What to do? Should I waste hours of computer time to try to fix them? Save myself the time and mass delete them? Sell off my equipment and give up on photography?

I did a bit of the first two options, and never seriously considered the third. But as I edited those early photos, I started to notice photography mistakes that I would make repeatedly while out in the field. It was then that I realized that I could use my editing sessions as opportunities to learn how to better my photography.

Each year my photography improves, and it is in great part because I use my editing sessions as a learning opportunity. Here are some tips on how to learn from your editing sessions:

RAW editing while this flower was still in full
bloom insured me that I would have a high
number of creative shots that I would be happy
with even after all the flowers have died off.
Raw edit ASAP

I find that I learn the most from my RAW editing sessions when I process my photos as soon as I can after taking them. That is because the memory of the actual scenes are still fresh in my mind making it easier for me to judge issues such as color balance and to observe how different lighting conditions actually end up being recorded on my digital sensor. I find my RAW editing sessions to often be a relaxing and educational experience.

If you shoot JPEGs, you don’t need to be denied the learning experience that RAW shooters enjoy. If you shoot JPEGs, you can view your images in the computer via either your operating system’s photo viewer or using your favorite photo organizing/viewer program such as Photoshop’s Organizer. You don’t need to use this time to give yourself a lengthy critique of each image, but rather just make a quick observation of any photographic errors that you may have made, such as improper white balance or exposure. You can also use this time to delete any obviously useless shots, such as completely out of focus images.

Learn Even More During Your JPEG/TIFF Editing Session

After editing your RAW images (or doing the quick JPEG edited as outlined above,) you may decide to further edit your images in Photoshop or some other image editing program depending on your workflow. I discuss workflow in "Go With The Flow." Some of the things that I have learned during this stage of editing are:

Experience through past shooting and editing
sessions made it relatively easy for me to
compose an image such as this one where the
background color was purposefully placed
behind my floral subject.


I used to find myself cropping a lot of images in the computer. After noticing that fact during my editing sessions, I taught myself to be more observant in the field and take the time to compose better images in camera. Yes, I still decide to crop in the computer from time to time. But not nearly as much as I used to.

Depth Of Field

Past experience was again helfpul in recording
this image. I chose a wide aperture to blur the
distracting trees in the background so that the
viewer's attention would be focused on the glowing
leaves and tree trunk silhouettes since they were
what initially attracted me to the scene.
While I was no stranger to photography and the subject of depth of field when I first started using a digital SLR, I was finding it more challenging to achieve soft, out of focus backgrounds with my new equipment. Actually, I wasn’t even thinking about the real importance of achieving shallow depth of field in my images until I noticed how many of my photos could be better if only the background wasn’t so distracting. After noticing that problem, I started to recognize which situations could benefit from shallow dept of field and taught myself how to render prefect depth of field using my equipment. For me, shallow depth of field is more than just a tool to help my subject pop off a cluttered background, but also part of my style. You may also notice the opposite may be true in your photos, with deep focus being more to your liking and part of your own personal style.

Typically when I record flower closeups such
as this one, I fire off a few captures to make sure
that one of them will be focused to my liking.
Later during the editing process I choose which
one is the sharpest.


Being able to zoom in on the details in an image make it relatively easy to judge image sharpness. I usually zoom to 100% in Photoshop to judge sharpness in the important areas of my image. Early checks for sharpness taught me that I needed to improve my shooting technique in order to capture sharper images. This is something I could never do while viewing my slides on that 8x10 viewer that I had mentioned earlier.

Through past computer editing sessions, I learned
to check my backgrounds before pushing the shutter
button. Here I moved my camera around until I
was satisfied with the conpositional placement of
the flower and the out of focus highlights in the

Background Checks

When I found myself cloning and spotting a lot of my images, I realized that I needed to be paying more attention to my backgrounds. Paying attention to composition to avoid background distractions helped me to fix that problem. Shallow depth of field isn’t the only answer, and sometimes not even the most desirable one. And while background distractions do still occasionally happen, at least now it’s more often because of necessity rather than because of sloppy shooting technique.

While it not always possible, I try to photograph
the best looking specimen I can so that I can
save myself some computer retouching time later.
Ready For Her Closeup?

Backgrounds aren’t the only thing that that frequently need to be cloned or spotted. I admit that I am still a notorious cloner. I often spot out flaws on my flower and nature closeups. When I first started exploring closeups, I had to clone out spots that I didn’t notice at the time of capture. I learned to be more observant of a subject’s cosmetic beauty. But sometimes flaws still do get overlooked at the time, or sometimes I see them and photograph the subject anyway. If it’s a small flaw and the subject is worthwhile to me, I know I can fix the small flaws relatively easy later on. Not so many spotty surprises for me nowadays.

Camera Technique

In the computer, you have access to a photograph’s metadata, which contains such valuable information such as F stop, shutter speed, ISO, lens and focal length, and more. You can use this information to learn what settings are working for you, and which are not working out so well.

And Even More

While reviewing and editing your photos you can observe many different details, both good and bad. You can learn what things are working for you and what things aren’t. Through those observations, you can adapt your future shooting techniques to increase your odds of capturing the best photographs. In addition to the things I just mentioned here, you can also learn to improve your lighting, posing of human subjects, timing of sports or action photography and much more.

So the next time you are editing your photos, don’t just treat it as a necessary chore but rather use that time as an opportunity to learn how to improve your photography. You’ll improve your photography and may even start to look forward to those editing sessions. Enjoy!

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