How to learn editing photos

In my Facebook absence, I’ve started frequenting a couple of online forums, including one for people who own / fly the DJI Mavic series of drones. A sincere and interesting question was posted there a couple of days ago asking how to go about learning the process of photo editing. I spent a while typing out a response, some of which includes things I’ve thought about posting here. Here are my thoughts:

  1. Composition and good technique in camera is more important than editing, usually. I think this is even more true with a slightly less forgiving camera like the M2P (compared to modern SLR/ILCs). 
  2. Getting something perfect SOOC is nice, but it also probably means you’re leaving detail on the table, especially in the shadows. It’s always good to not have to process a shot more than your typical import preset, but if you want to get the absolute best results, some processing is probably necessary. (See also: ETTR).
  3. It’s not clear since you posted the JPG here, but always shoot in RAW, if you can. JPEGs are great for presentation purposes, but they also discard a significant amount of tonal information (even for a 12-bit signal path, the jpeg contains less than 10% of the tonal information that a RAW file does – for a 14-bit path it’s closer to 2%).
  4. At the end of the day, digital images are numbers and image processing is math. 
  5. Don’t skimp on software – it’s as important as your hardware. It blows my mind when photographers spend thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars on cameras and lenses, then grouse about paying $10/month to Adobe, as if Photoshop and Lightroom don’t provide any value to the whole process. Here’s the truth: with a few exceptions, the best photo processing software costs money. My personal opinion would be to avoid doing things halfway – in other words, spending money on programs like (but not limited to) products from ON1 and Skylum (i.e. Luminar/Aurora), which are cheaper, yes, but are also objectively not as good when it comes to the actual output they produce. If cost is really an issue, my suggestion would be to go with FLOSS packages (Darktable, RawTherapee, GIMP) that are capable of producing decent outputs and cost literally nothing. 
  6. Watch videos (YouTube) about some of the different tools in particular packages. This is where using a common package (Lightroom) really helps, because there are going to be a ton of tutorials on how to do pretty much anything you want. Some people on YouTube are great and provide a lot of insight, some are paid shills trying to sell you their presets and courses. All of them can teach you something.
  7. Along with 6: avoid presets and filters (though not profiles, if you’re using Lightroom, which are a different thing). The best way to get a distinctive look for your photos is not to use someone else’s presets, but to really learn how all the various tools work in a particular package. Start to play around with various sliders and see how they affect the image. See which ones have a bigger impact, and which ones are more subtle. 
  8. There are a lot of fads in image processing. Some of them are useful. Others less so. Almost every major package has added support for LUTs in the last year and a half, which certainly has uses – and especially has uses if you’re trying to get your still images to look like some video footage you shot. LUTs are really powerful for certain applications, but they’re not all that great as a general photo editing tool. When a new feature comes out, learn what it’s doing, learn how to use it, then evaluate whether it’s actually an improvement over your current process.
  9. Local adjustments are critical. This is a more recent thing for me, but I am increasingly likely to not touch the “main” sliders for my landscape images at all, instead using local adjustments in Lightroom to target specific areas of the image. Overall this is kind of a style / preference thing – I could also edit one area of the image (e.g. the sky) to where I wanted it using the global settings, then go back and edit the ground with local adjustments based on those settings. 
    • There are a lot of cool things you can do with advanced masking tools like luminance and color masking. Learn how to use them. 
  10. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Two great features in Lightroom: 1) the history, which shows you exactly what you’ve done to the image and lets you return there at any point, as well as save snapshots, and 2) the virtual copy features, which lets you have a variety of different looks for the same image. Processing is free, and you’ll get better at it the more that you do it.
  11. Tying in with 7, but try to understand what the actual sliders are doing, rather than just moving them around. So, for example, it’s important to know that vibrance and saturation will both affect the intensity of colors in your image, but they do so in different ways (vibrance is basically non-linear and affects the most muted colors first, where saturation is linear and affects everything evenly). But it’s also important to know that you can change the saturation for individual channels of your images (if, say, you want to bring down the saturation of the yellows). Or you could add a bit of yellow in just the highlights by using the split toning tool. In other words, knowing what tools you have available to you and what they do is tremendously helpful in assessing what you can do creatively with your images.  
  12. Reprocess your images frequently. New tools come out that have the potential to make work you shot years ago look better. Moreover, as you learn new techniques, you’ll be better at processing than you were when you first looked at the images. I typically go back once a year or so and reprocess some of the shots in my gallery that I took years before, applying new tools and techniques to those old images. Sometimes I like the result more, sometimes I don’t. But I always learn something about how to process going forward that feeds back into my workflow.

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