How to edit photos like a pro?

by Matic Broz

Editing photos like a professional is not easy, and it’s not something you’re going to learn overnight, but with this tutorial, you will significantly speed up the process.

The most difficult part of image editing is adjusting the process to each image, no matter what you photographed in what light.

Shoot in RAW

Although this tutorial is about how to edit photos, you need to understand that to maximize your success with photo editing you have to shoot in RAW.

Unlike JPG format, RAW formats don’t compress photos and don’t reduce the quality. You might not notice the difference between JPG and a RAW at a glance, but when it comes to editing, the RAW format is extremely important because it makes a big difference in the amount of detail it preserves.

To shoot in RAW, go to your camera’s menu and find the setting for image formats. You can usually choose between saving in JPG only, RAW only, or JPG + RAW. If you cannot find the said menu, refer to your camera’s manual.

Pick a photo editing software

Some sort of photo editor is crucial for photo editing, duh. Just by doing a quick Google search, you’ll find out that there are tens if not hundreds of both free and premium photo editors.

If you don’t have a photo editing software, yet, I encourage you to check my list of carefully curated photo editors.

You might be wondering whether it’s worth paying for a photo editing software or not. While there’s a ton of good free photo editors, they are seldom as capable as the premium. They usually lack certain features and are not updated as often. Moreover, over the years of experimenting with various photo editors, I’ve got a feeling that their tools don’t work as well as the same tools on premium photo editors, such as Lightroom, for example.

Even if you don’t have the budget to purchase a photo editor yet, I encourage you to at least give Lightroom a try – you can use its 7-day free trial. If you decide that you don’t like it, you can cancel the trial anytime and not pay a dime, plus, you’ll get a frame of reference for other photo editors.

Related reading: Best photo editors

Remove chromatic aberration & fix lens distortion

Chromatic aberration (CA) is a common nuisance present in all optics, and that includes photography. CA is produced when light passes through a lens and unevenly breaks on the glass. You can recognize this effect as a purple and green colour fringing around dark corners in high-contrast scenes, usually most noticeable around the edges of an image. CA is accentuated by the low-quality glass, meaning that the cheaper your lens, the more CA you can expect.

Chromatic aberration is usually very easy to correct with all photo editors with just one button click. Sometimes CA still won’t go away, and you’ll have to do it manually with a few sliders. However, not every photo editor has this option, but I know for sure that Lightroom has it, the tool I always use to remove chromatic aberration and lens distortion.

Remove chromatic aberration in Lightroom

Every lens distorts an image to some degree, an effect that is most noticeable with wide-angle spherical lenses. A distorted image looks the same way as if you looked through a glass ball, although this effect is sometimes minimal and cannot be noticed with a naked eye.

Nevertheless, virtually every photo editing software has a tool that fixes any distortion created by the lens.

Related reading: What is Chromatic Aberration?

Crop your photos

Cropping photos is analogous to finding a composition when you’re photographing – we do it to fix or improve composition that we got wrong when we were on the terrain. However, cropping should be your last resort to get the composition right, because it’s a lot more limited. I recommend you always get the composition right in the first place and use cropping to fine-tune it.

Cropping in Lightroom

If you’re a relative beginner, sticking by the rule of thirds will be the easiest way to improve your composition. The rule of thirds is a photography guideline where you imagine a 3×3 grid and then arrange the objects and leading lines according to the gridlines and their intersections. Most of the cameras have a built-in gridline overlay that you can use to compose your shots.

Related reading: Rule of thirds

Understand colour temperature

Colour temperature refers to how warm (red or yellow) or cool (blue) light appears. Usually, the camera automatically guesses the colour temperature right but, when it doesn’t, you can use several presets, such as daylighttungsten light, and cloudy, to tell your camera in what conditions you’re shooting. For even more fine-tuning, most cameras allow for manual setting of colour temperature, usually ranging between 2500K and 6500K.

For professionally edited photos you must get these settings right in the camera but, when you fail to do so, this usually happens in low light conditions, photo editing software will help you fix the colour temperature. 

Master the basic adjustments

If you’ve taken my advice #1 and shot in RAW, you’ll be able to transform your photo with basic adjustments. Basic adjustments usually consist of exposure (or brightness), contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks, and saturation.

Basic Panel in Lightroom
Basic panel in Lightroom. Notice that I decreased Highlights and Blacks, and increased Shadows and Whites.

What values you assign to these settings depends on the image you took and the final result you’re aiming to achieve. However, there are some general pointers I can give you to maximize your success at creating an awesome image.

Unless you’re aiming for a specific style, and your primary goal is to edit a realistic image, you’ll want to increase the “dynamic range” of the photo.

To do so, you’ll want to decrease highlights, increase shadows, set whites and blacks to white and black points, respectively. White and black points are when white (bright) tones become completely white and black (dark) tones become completely black.

In Lightroom, you can do this by clicking on sliders + pressing Alt button, and then moving the slider until you see blue or red spots. By doing so, you will maximize the dynamic range available to you and create a more appealing image that will be closer to what you saw with your own eyes.

Lastly, you need to change the saturation of your image – this means how much colour is in it. Since a lot of beginners overdo the saturation and create Disney-looking oversaturated landscapes, I must warn you to take it cautiously. It’s usually okay to improve the saturation by 10 points (or 10%) but, more often than not, I decrease saturation as I found it to produce a more natural-looking and pleasing image.

Sharpen your photos

I don’t care what kind of camera and supportive equipment you’re using you should sharpen every image in post-production. Every optical system has errors that affect the sharpness of an image. Of course, there’s a lot you can do to take the sharpest possible photos and make your work with photo editing easier. Check my complete list of all factors that affect image sharpness

Sharpening photos in post-production is a real game-changer, so I always use Lightroom to sharpen my images as it does an excellent job.

No matter which software you’re using, sharpening tool generally consists of four sliders or settings: the amount of sharpening, radiusdetail, and masking. To know what these sliders do, you must understand what sharpening is; in the most simple terms, sharpening is improving local contrast at the edges.

Lightroom Detail panel
Lightroom Detail panel

As you increase the amount, you control how much contrast should be applied. As a general rule of thumb, you should set the amount at the maximum possible setting before you start seeing a halo around the edges. Radius is usually best left untouched at 1px, but you can lower or increase it by a margin if you have a good reason to do so. Be careful with the detail slider, though, as it quickly introduces a lot of noise to your images. Masking is where you refine the sharpening. As you increase the masking value, only the stronger edges are left sharpened.

Related reading: Sharpening in Lightroom

Try HDR photography

HDR photography starts on terrain with a camera, but the majority of the work is done in post-process. To learn everything about HDR photography, check my full HDR tutorial.

HDR Photography in Lightroom
HDR photo merging in Lightroom

HDR photography is a technique behind outstanding landscape photos that you can find online. The high dynamic range that results from HDR offers landscape photographers a way to photograph in difficult light conditions like sunrise or sunset, but it can also be a trap. In the hands of a beginner, HDR photography quickly results in unnatural-looking results that lack depth.

Related reading: HDR photography

Get creative with your edits

To achieve truly professional-looking photo edits, you need to get creative, develop your own style, and show the world something new.

However, as a relative beginner, you don’t know where to start and how to develop your own style, I understand that. I have found that the easiest way to find your style is to start by copying other, already-established, photographers. Do the same as they do, and then find a way to introduce a twist to the edits that will be only yours.

As your first challenge, you can start by creating an orange and teal photo. You can find the full tutorial here.

Orange and Teal Golden Hour
An example of an orange and teal image

Additionally, how creative you can get depends on a photo editor you choose. For basic adjustments, I recommend Lightroom, but for more creative edits, I highly recommend Luminar AI, Luminar 4, ON1, or even Photoshop.

Luminar AI is an artificial intelligence-powered photo editor that makes photo editing stupidly easy – I recently reviewed the software, and I am 100% sure you will be able to pick it up within the first couple of minutes. 

Utilize local adjustments

Episode 2 Gradual filters
Red overlay represent local adjustments (Graduated filter)

Everything I’ve talked about until now is related to global edits – these are the adjustments that apply to the entire image. In contrast, local adjustments affect only a certain part of an image. This way, you get more control over the editing process so you can create personalized or unique images.

Add a vignette

Technically speaking, a vignette is a decrease in brightness around the edges of an image, usually applied in a circular shape. We use vignettes to lead the viewer’s eyes into the image effectively helping the human mind understand the image better.

Photo editors all have a tool that adds a vignette for you; however, sometime you might want to add a custom vignette. To add a custom vignette, choose a circular local adjustment (or a filter) and decrease the brightness of a certain area.

Why should you choose custom vignette over an automatic one? Firstly, in some case the main subject is not in the centre of an image; thus, adding a centred vignette would be unwise. Secondly, it gives you way more options – you can add several vignettes, change its shape, radius, or even change the colours.

Conclusion

You won’t learn how to edit photos like a professional overnight, but if you keep practising and consider the guidelines on this list, you will progress faster than others.

Learning to enjoy editing, as it’s part of photography, and it can make your photos look a lot better.

Did you learn something new today? Let me know which was your favourite 😊

Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and are based on my experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. This post may contain affiliate links.

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