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5 Fundamental Photo Editing Tools to Get to Know

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:MediumLanguages:
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

When it comes to photo editing, there's no right way to go about it, or even one tool or another that is essential to use each time. There are, however, some fundamental tools that can improve how a photo looks and correct minor mistakes with elements like exposure, colour and composition. Today, we’re going to talk about these fundamental tools and the order they should be applied in.

Before We Begin

Before editing, it’s always essential to back up your original images. If the editing software that you use allows for the addition of layers, it’s also wise to apply edits to a layer that can be removed altogether later on if need be. 

A final piece of general editing advice is to keep it simple. What constitutes a good-looking image will always be subjective, but it is important to show the craft or product as it really is, especially for products that are intended for sale and aspirational or DIY projects.

Here's the original and unedited image that we're starting with:

Original image of baby clothes on pink striped background

You might agree that it doesn't need much attention in the editing room, but we'll walk through five basic tools that can improve it. 

The following screenshots were created in iPhoto for Mac at Edit > Quick Fixes or Adjust (as shown in the tabs on the top right). You can use different photo editing software, of course, such as the new Photos app that's recently replaced iPhoto for Mac, or similar programs for Windows. The principles we're covering in this tutorial are not dependent on using any particular piece of software.

Here's how the above image looks in Edit > Quick Fixes:

Image in Quick Fixes

Tip: Like iPhoto, many photo editors have a copy-and-paste adjustments feature. (In iPhoto, right-click on an image to ‘copy adjustments’ and then ‘paste adjustments’.) This feature saves time if you’re applying the same edits at once to a large batch of images that were taken with the same settings in the same light conditions. 

1. Rotate, Straighten and/or Crop 

Photos that have been rotated, straightened and/or cropped tend not to stand out. On the other hand, however, those that needed rotating, straightening and/or cropping do stand out. This is because the effect these tools have is subtle but very effective.

Rotating

Rotating an image from sideways or upside-down to right-way-up may sound like an obvious step before publishing an image online, but it is surprising how often it’s left undone. Even if you don’t use a dedicated photo editor, rotating is even available as a feature of basic image preview software, like ‘Preview’ for Mac and ‘Photo Viewer’ for Windows.

Rotated image

Straightening

Straightening, whilst not essential, is a handy tool to quickly tidy up an image, especially those that feature lines, level objects and a horizon. The straightening tool isn't restricted to keeping order, though—it can also be used to create a more pleasing angle, which can come in handy if you're working with a model and eyelines. 

Straightened image

Cropping

Cropping can make a huge impact on an image. Use it to remove distractions and get closer to your craft. Try to allow enough space around the object to act somewhat as a frame. Cropping is also useful to remove mistakes, such as the edges of backgrounds or unnecessary behind-the-scenes information, and even the tips of fingers that have made it in front of the lens and into the photo. 

When cropping, keep in mind the desired aspect ratio (i.e. width:height) and apply the constraint, for example, 2:3 or 4:5, just as you would if you were cropping an image to fit in a particular size frame. For example, Etsy sellers will know that the image that forms the headline or thumbnail for each product listing on the homepage is currently set to 5:4. Here are some examples:

Aspect Ratio 1:1

1 to 1 aspect ratio crop

Aspect Ratio 4:5

4 to 5 aspect ratio crop

To Enhance or Isolate a Feature (Aspect Ratio 2:3)

2 to 3 aspect ratio crop on particular feature

2. Exposure 

Use this tool in post-production if your image was over- or under-exposed and you need to create balance. If you can’t quite tell by looking at the image whether it’s over- or under-exposed, you can use the graph, or histogram, as a guide (although if you can’t tell, it’s probably pretty well exposed.) 

The histogram is a graphical representation of the exposure, showing the distribution of lights and darks in the photo. Lights are shown on the right-hand side of the graph, darks shown on the left-hand side, and colours or midtones in between. 

The aim is to have a balanced histogram, with minimal ‘spikes’ on either end, as this means that the detail in the lights or darks have ‘blown out’ to pure white or pure black. However, if your image contains more lights than darks, it will naturally appear heavy on the right-hand side of the histogram, and vice versa. 

Take a look below at the histogram for the image that we're working with. It's right-weighted (due to the bright white onesie taking up half the frame), low on colour detail (there's only red and a small amount of green) throughout the middle, and doesn't feature any black. Here, the background and white could be lifted slightly, and it was only necessary to increase exposure (by 0.15).

Photo showing histogram

If the editing software you use doesn't provide a histogram, gauge exposure by eye and use a light touch. Make sure the room in which you're working and the display monitor aren't too bright, and compare the changes with a copy of the unedited version. 

3. Colour 

In iPhoto or similar editing software, colour is adjusted by using the temperature and tint sliders. Colour adjustment can also be called white balance, or simply colour. 

Some editors offer a selection of preset white balance settings, such as daylight, shade, tungsten, and so on, and a small thumbnail preview may appear of what the image will look like with each preset applied. Others use a ‘dropper’ that is designed to sample white or grey. Many editors use a combination of all three. Ultimately, these methods are trying to determine what is white. When white is displayed accurately, other colours follow. 

The main factors that affect colour display in an image are the level of light or balance of exposure, the light source that was used, and certain camera settings. In low light, the camera may have difficulty determining which light source is being used and hence the corresponding white balance setting. If you adjust the white balance setting on your camera to ‘automatic’, the camera will take its best guess, or you can help it out and manually select the correct white balance setting. 

It’s easy to know when the white balance is wrong because the colours aren’t accurate. For example, they’re too warm/orange or cold/blue, and this is known as the temperature. Use the colour tools to correct the temperature accordingly. The tint feature is also important to get the balance right and make the image look clear and crisp. 

A good tip is to select the most accurate preset, such as daylight, and, if it’s still not quite right, make gradual adjustments of temperature and tint. In the following example, the colour only needed a couple of tweaks, making the image slightly warmer and levelling the tint to zero to make it clearer:

Tint and temperature adjustments

4. Contrast 

Contrast is the difference between light and dark in the photo. A gradual difference between light and dark (or different colour tones) is called low contrast or low key. A more stark or abrupt change in colour tones is called high contrast or high key. Adjusting the contrast of an image can change its mood by making the colours stand out, or, alternatively, blend into one another. 

Black-and-white images tolerate higher levels of contrast, but colour images can easily look over-processed and unnatural with too much contrast adjustment. As such, it's always best to be gentle with contrast adjustment. In this example, I’ve increased the contrast only slightly, by 5, and that’s plenty: 

Contrast increased slightly

5. Sharpen 

Sharpening is another non-essential tool that’s good to know. As the name suggests, sharpening can make an image look sharper or clearer. Sharpening attempts to enhance the edges of objects in the photo and make them more defined. This helps objects in the photograph appear separate from the background.

It’s important to note that sharpening can not recover an out-of-focus image. It can only work with what’s already there, that is, the thousands of tiny pixels that make up the overall image. 

Like most other editing tools, too much sharpening can make an image look unnatural. Not all images require sharpening, and not all images are improved by sharpening. If your image is in focus, give it a try and see what you think. (If your image is out of focus, delete it and reshoot.) It helps to zoom in before you apply any sharpening, so that you can see the changes up close.

Sharpened image

The End Result

I've applied minor changes, but when we compare the edited version with the unedited version (I've kept only the crop and rotate adjustments to make the comparison easier) a few things stand out: the colours are warmer and more accurate, straightening makes everything look neater, and the overall image is more clear and appealing. 

Edited

Unedited

Now, Start Editing!

Do you feel more confident to try any of these editing tools? Do you have a favourite 'never leave the house without' editing tool? Tell us your thoughts in the comments field. 

Hand-Printed Linocut Christmas Tree Baby Onesie by Betsy Dorman Kane

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