I’ve seen a lot of images recently, even some entered into competitions, that could really do with some basic editing. It’s not difficult, it’s not time consuming, and frankly, if you are entering competitions without checking these simple things, you shouldn’t expect the judges to spend much time looking at your image either.

Running through this short list of steps will ensure your image has all of the basics sorted. We will look at how to do this using Adobe Lightroom since its by far the most popular image editing tool. Nonetheless, any photo editing software worth using should allow you to apply the same settings. With Lightroom, the order you take these steps in isn’t important, but keep in mind this might not apply to other editing software.

White balance

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The first thing to do with your RAW image (because you are shooting RAW, right?) is to set the white balance. This is how the software corrects for different colour temperatures and makes whites look white. For things like product and wedding photography you’ll want to get this as accurate as possible. Start by trying the colour picker on a grey or white tone, or even use a grey card for white balancing. For landscapes you can use white balance as a creative tool, but try to keep it natural.

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Horizon

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I don’t know what primeval skill required us to spot crooked horizons. Even if it is just off by a fraction of a degree, we can tell easily, especially when viewing on social media with a lot of straight lines to measure against.

Correcting a crooked horizon in Lightroom is part of the Crop tool. You can rotate the image or use the straighten tool like a spirit level and draw across the horizon on the image, and Lightroom will rotate and automatically crop the image for you. The further off your horizon is, the more image resolution you will loose, especially if it is taken in portrait orientation. So try and be careful when shooting. Most modern cameras have spirit levels built it in that will help you judge your horizon’s straightness.

Dust spots

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It’s a fact of life that even with self cleaning sensors you’ll end up with a few dust bunnies at some point. No need to rush it off to the camera store for a clean right away, just make sure you check over each image and use these handy tools to get rid of them.

Use the Visualise Spots tool and zoom in to 100% view to check the whole image. I find sensor dust easier to spot sometimes while moving the image around.

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Make sure to double check before you print the file or enter it into a competition. At 100% view! Check the whole image!

Lens correction

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Lens correction is always worth doing, since it will fix any vignetting, distortion or chromatic aberration in the image. So what are these problems and how do we fix them? Lightroom has a database of lens information to compare your lens to. It is a really neat feature that automatically applies the right correction settings for you.

Vignetting is when the corners of the image are darker than the centre. It often happens with fast lenses, but can also affect landscapes when stopped down. Lightroom lightens the corners of the image just enough to match the rest of the frame.

Distortion is when straight lines no longer appear straight, most noticeable with horizons and buildings. Note that this setting only fixes pincushion or barrel distortion. It does not apply perspective distortions, for example when you have pointed the lens up at a building. Converging vertical lines are fixed with transform features elsewhere in Lightroom.

Chromatic Aberration appears where different wavelengths of light are not quite aligned in the same way. This usually shows as red/purple or green/blue fringing around bright subjects high in contrast (windows, trees etc). CA’s might not look like much on your screen, but zoom in or print them and they can show up quite strongly, especially after some other processing.

Colour & Contrast

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These are the most important settings when editing the look of a photo.

Tone settings

Exposure changes the whole image. It makes all parts brighter or darker, shifting the whole histogram

Contrast stretches the histogram. Adjustments to Contrast make all the whites whiter and blacks blacker.

Always make sure that you do not over- or underexpose your images by pushing them off either end of the histogram.

 
 

The following sliders adjust only sections of the histogram. Hold the mouse over the slider to show what section will be adjusted (Pro tip: hold Alt key down to see if you clip any pixels)

Highlights will adjust the brighter parts of the image but not the brightest 10% of the image. You will probably not clip white point pixels with this.

Shadows adjusts the darker pixels but not the darkest. Hard to clip the black point with this.

Whites adjusts the absolute brightest slice of pixels, use it with care because you can easily clip pixels here.

Blacks adjust only the absolute darkest areas of the image, so again use with caution.

Clipping happens when you have absolute maximum or minimum values for a pixel, with no detail showing on these pixels. Avoid clipping where possible.

Presence settings

These settings are a double edged sword. They can either make your image pop or look over-processed. Use with care!

Go easy on Clarity. Watch the edges of any areas high in contrast carefully. When you push this setting too far you, will see halos. +20 maximum.

Dehaze is a very strong effect that adds clarity, contrast and saturation. Use sparingly +/- 5 or 10.
Vibrance increases colour strength perceptually. It is a smart adjustment that increases things less colourful to a greater degree than things already colourful. In most cases it’s preferable over Saturation.
Saturation increases all colours equally. Use it carefully since it can make colours overpowering very easily.

Detail

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Lightroom provides us some handy tools to deal with image quality issues the technical limits of the cameras sensor has introduced.

Sharpening

With digital photography, we always need to add some sharpening. The capture process typically doesn’t give us absolute sharp images straight from our RAW files. Sharpening is basically drawing cartoon like black lines around detail in your photos. A little helps a lot, a lot makes it look very poor.

Sharpening is usually done in two steps, input sharpening that we apply to our images to correct the above, and output sharpening we do when we are producing a file for use (web or print).

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Here we are discussing input sharpening. It is hard to just give out values here because it depends on the subject, image and camera/lens. Generally, it is best to go lightly here. Either leave the defaults Lightroom will set for your camera, or zoom in to detailed areas and gradually adjust the amount, radius and detail levels. When you see obvious lines around your detail like above, it is time to reduce the setting.

The other end of sharpening comes when you export the image. You can choose to add additional sharpening for the format and resolution required.

Noise Reduction

Digital noise is created when the camera system is amplifying the data it gets from the sensor. This is a similar effect to a hifi system that has been turned up too much. The quality of the signal breaks down a little.

If you had to increase your ISO when shooting, a little noise reduction can help your image quality overall. Keep in mind that removing noise has a penalty since you will remove some detail. The noise reduction setting can’t tell noise from image content, so it is always a trade off between the two.

I will not go into a lot of detail here. Again, like sharpening, it is a big subject on its own. Noise tends to come in two types, differences in brightness, and differences in colour.

Zoom in to 100% view (1:1) and look at the noise, identify which of the above types it is, and then adjust the Luminance or Color sliders. You can also adjust the detail levels. Usually, for things with actual detail, you will want the detail slider higher. If there's not much detail you can reduce it for a cleaner look.

Exporting

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When you are finished with your processing, you have to use the export process to get a usable image out of Lightroom.

For web use (facebook, flickr etc) you will want to make sure the colour space is set to sRGB, otherwise the colours will look flat and dull. Usually JPEG is best, Quality somewhere between 80 and 90 will be fine. Reduce the resolution to something reasonable. I find resizing to 2048 on the longest edge gives me a decently large file to upload without being too large in file size. Remember, whatever you upload to the internet can usually be downloaded by others, so you do not want to provide files so high in resolution as to be easily printable.

Sharpen for screen with standard and review sharpness on the exported file.

For print use, talk to your printer to see what colour space they want. Often sRGB is fine, but sometimes they will make use of larger spaces like AdobeRGB or ProPhoto, so choose those if required. Don’t Resize the image at all, send the largest file you can unless they ask for something specific. In addition, choose Matte or Glossy paper for sharpening.

None of these steps take up much time, even when you have just a little experience. Each of these steps is important to provide a quality viewing experience. If you are hoping for a viewer to spend time looking at your image, then the least you can do is take a little time to make sure its presented at its best!