I begin with a caveat: my taste in photographs runs to dark, contrasty images. If you’ve ever taken a stone, immersed it in water, and seen colors and detail spring to life in it, well, that’s about what I like to do with images. In the following structured advice for editing a photo, however, you can choose to follow my inclinations or not at each step: but the process of editing, and the reasoning behind each step, are the same.
I would be ashamed to claim that my puttering about is in any way comparable to the excellent work done by professionals. What I offer here is a small tutorial that would have helped me consistently put acceptable, attractive images in my posts—and in Facebook albums, and in any other social media where images are posted, for that matter.
There’s nothing here for users of Photoshop or Affinity’s Photo, which I also use. If you use those, you’re ahead of this post. Instead, I’ll assume you have access to Apple’s Photos software, which is remarkably good while being remarkably simple in that Apple way.
Given my eyesight, I’m lucky in that I have a pretty good monitor attached to my laptop so I can work at a desk, and I am going to assume you’re using a desktop or laptop machine here. However, you can do most of the things I will recommend here on the iOS or iPadOS versions of Photos, as long as you are willing to work with controls adapted to a touchscreen.
But if you avoid editing your photos because you’re intimidated by little eyedroppers and histograms, I think I can get you past that. They were a hurdle for me, at any rate.
Figure 1 is a jpeg Photos created from a file exported by my camera to Photos. In practice, it doesn’t matter what kind of file you are using, or what kind of camera you used: I assume you’ve got the image in Photos and have not yet tinkered with it beyond importing it.
I chose figure 1 at random. It’s an oak leaf cluster I saw on the ground after a thunderstorm while escorting my wife to work at Marywood University this morning. It was cloudy but not dark, so the light was diffuse and there were no pronounced shadows. Figure 1 is in full resolution if you want to download it and work alongside me; download it and drag and drop it into Photos.
So, let’s have at figure 1 and see if we can tease something a little better out of it. Click edit in Photos and let’s begin.
Rotate. Clicking on the crop button, rotate the image to get it into either the artsy orientation you want or to get the ground lines horizontal. In my figure 1 it hardly matters, but photos with visibly off-axis ground lines are disorienting to many viewers. Of course, if there are no true horizontals, you’ll have to eyeball it.
As you rotate your image you will immediately start to lose pixels around the edges, losing more the more you rotate it. This is why you should rotate before cropping. If you use iOS or iPadOS the automatic straightening function will often not only rotate the image but also compensate for distortion caused by the lens, something the desktop version of Photos unaccountably fails to do. No excuse not to have those verticals true verticals. In any event, I rotated my image clockwise (a little over 20 degrees) to get a zippy diagonal in the frame (figure 2). Drag on the little compass wheel at the right to do this.
See how much smaller the image is! You can over-rotate yourself into trouble, but it’s possible to reverse course: just haul the little compass wheel round the other way.
Crop. After rotating, then crop. Don’t crop gratuitously, but ask yourself does this part of my image help me tell my story? And if you plan to frame something, recall that you’ll likely lose a bit around the edges: don’t crop so that something you care about is right out at the edge.
So, I’m happy with where the leaves end on the left and top sides, and I like the little scaly green acorn cap on the right, but that stuff at the far right is sort of a needless distraction (figure 2). Let’s crop by click dragging the (right) frame side toward the left enough to eliminate them (figure 3).
If I’d not been in a rush this morning, I’d have plucked that soggy thing just northeast of the leaves out—go the extra mile in prepping a shot if you can. What captivated me were the droplets of water still visible from last night’s storm. I would not have photographed the undersides of the leaves as my first choice, but had I turned them over, I’d have lost the droplets. I did like the asphalt with dirt in it because it offers a matte background and crinkly texture that contrasts with the leaves and other organic matter.
But looking closer, I see that the green acorn cap on the right sticks a bit above the focal plane and is out of focus: so I’ll crop just a bit further and get it out.
At this point, the resolution after cropping away all that material is only really good enough for (stretching it) an 8 x 10, and with really fine printing at 300 dpi, I’d keep it well under that. On the web, of course, the resolution is just fine. I could, if I wanted, adjust the crop to offer an image in typical printing proportions like 3:4 or 4:5; Photos does that with the ‘aspect’ icon under crop.
OK, since I’m now satisfied, let’s lock in the rotation and crops by clicking on the ‘adjust’ button at the top. If you look at the asphalt in figure 4, you may, as I do, think the asphalt needs to be darker and the leaves more colorful. If I could make the droplets stand out better, that would increase the visual interest of the image. The little acorn bits might be more interesting if they were darker or more colorful.
Adjust Levels. Now, in cropping out parts of the image, what’s left does not reflect the totality of what the camera used to calculate its exposure, etc. So you should let the editor have a whack at rebalancing things by adjusting the ‘Levels,’ under the ‘Luminance’ sub-setting. This recalculates the brightness and in my experience this either does nothing, works like magic, or creates a disaster. You can change the levels manually, but for now, let’s use the auto function by clicking on the auto button to the right of “Levels.”
See between figure 5 and figure 6 how the dots below the histogram have scrunched in at the edges. That’s good and means you’re now making good use of the dynamic range of your image. Put another way, when levels adjusts luminance, it alters the light levels in an image, not the color.
The proof is in the pudding: see what the image looks like now (figure 7):
This is much better—to me—than the cropped photo in figure 4. Light levels have been reduced: the picture is darker. See how that has the effect of making the colors pop more. Darkening a color is really an alter ego of increasing its saturation, i.e., its intensity. But there’s a practical limit to how dark you can profitably make an image. Too dark and you’ll force the viewer to squint at it before rapidly clicking away.
In this picture (figure 7) we have mostly light greens, browns, and charcoal greys. Let’s see what we can do with them. We’re not going to use the shotgun blast effect of the color adjustment panel (though it has its uses!), but we’re going to be a bit more nuanced in selecting which colors we want to fiddle with and how. So we’ll jump down the the “Selective Color” palette (figure 8).
This set of tools looks intimidatingly complex at first, but their function is in fact pretty basic once you have the concepts in your head. First of all, you’re unlikely to need to tinker with hue, so let’s leave that alone. You see that there are separate channels (for lack of a better term) in red, yellow, green, cyan, blue, and magenta. Printers tend to use CMYK colors to get the whole spectrum (or as much of it as they provide: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (K)). Displays, on the other hand, use the RGB system, red, green, and blue, with black understood as the absence of all three.
Now if you look at figure 7, you’ll see that the green of the leaf is sort of a silvery olive color, not much at all like the canonical, ‘middle of the road’ green channel in the default menu. So the question is, do we want to be precise in our tinkering with the green in our image, or do we—for example, if we had a wide range of greens—want to be broader with our adjustments and catch all those greens, or a good many of them in our net?
Using that last analogy, the size of the mesh in our net—the precision with which we work with an exact hue of green in the channel—is set by the range slider. The middle, default setting of 1.0 will catch a reasonably wide range of greens, and if you want to catch subtler greens around the edges—the ones that hide in oranges and browns, for example—you want to slide that bar to the right. If, on the other hand, you wanted to work precisely with the shade of green at the center of the band in figure 8, you’d want to slide the range to the left. Taking it all the way left will be counterproductive, because there is a certain amount of variation between two points of color in a photo even if your eye tells you they’re the same. I go maybe down to 1/4 of the way (the default is 1/2 way) for colors that exhibit a fair amount of variation while all being reasonably similar, and I’ll go down further if I really want to work with ONE PARTICULAR COLOR. But in figure 7, for example, the color of the lower leaf varies in places and varies from that of the top leaf in being darker and reading as a different hue. So to catch all the greens in the leaves while not going much further afield, I’ll use a fairly restrictive range at the 1/4 level.
But that midrange hue of green that is offered by default in the tool will have a hard time picking up the real greens of the leaves with my restrictive range, so I’ll change the center point of my adjustment colors by using the eyedropper tool to actually sample the real color on the leaf. First pick the green channel by clicking on the little green square. You’ve got it when it becomes surrounded by blue. Then click on the little eyedropper icon in figure 8 and the cursor will become a little eyedropper once you move it out over the image. Move the tippy tip of the eyedropper to the point you want to sample and click once: you’ll see that color in the little square that was formerly that mid-range green. I’ll sample the lower leaf in the middle between its lighter and darker color areas.
Now (figure 9) the channel is set to adjust greens like the ones I actually have in my image. If I’d had three predominant types of green and only wanted to work with one, I’d have done the same thing. Let’s move the range down so that we don’t mess too much with the other greens that may be lurking in the browns. Figure 10 shows the range slider down to about 1/4 (or 0.50 as the readout says). Is 0.50 right? Who knows? Play with it and see if a better range can be found, if your results are unsatisfactory. There’s no right or wrong here, only better and worse as your eye sees things, and trial and error is the name of the game.
Be wary of the saturation control. Sliding it left will bleach the colors within range toward grey, and sliding it right will make them cartoon-y intense. A very little goes a long way here. But do slide them all the way up and down to see the results. The luminance slider, by contrast (“contrast,” get it?), adjusts the light level, but only for colors within the range you’ve selected. Decreasing it has the net effect of making the color more intense (as though you’d increased the saturation a little) and bringing out details. That’s mostly how I use it in photographs from nature. Start with the luminance slider, since it will also give you a little of the effect of the saturation slider and you don’t want to overdo it.
Figures 11 and 12, besides showing you the luminance adjustment, also make the point that you can blow up the image to see the effect of the adjustments in detail. I generally look in detail and at the whole, in that order. I found that a luminance of -70 brought out the veins in the leaves and did not produce cartoonish effects, so I’ll go with that (normally 70 in either direction would be severe overkill). I saw no benefit from increasing the saturation, so I left it alone. See the results in figure 13.
Now let’s see about those browns. Brown is a mixture of green and yellow, with some red in the rustier browns. You can use any channel you’ve not adjusted already to select a color, so I’ll use the cyan channel and re-brand it brown, sampling the little acorn cap in the upper right, which is a sort of mid-intensity brown (figure 14). There are many browns, including the veins in the leaves, so I’m going to leave the range a little more open than I did with the greens. Remember, those choices were seat-of-the-pants ones, and maybe I can improve my choice after seeing how good (or not) my results are.
I like the nuttier, richer brown tones that a boost in saturation offers, so I took that route (figure 15). Taking down the luminance saturates the color more and brings out some detail.
Looking, there is actually a fair amount of red in those browns and I like the rust color too, so let’s see how those respond to adjustment (figure 16).
The image in figure 16 is pretty much to my taste, though I would not be offended by a little more contrast and I should probably compensate for taking the light levels down again and again in my adjustments.
By the way, don’t try to adjust blacks, whites, or greys in the selective color palette. The asphalt is beyond the reach of color adjustment. But for the asphalt and to remedy the darkening of the image in general, I could try adjustments within the light palette at the top (figure 17).
The contrast control will darken the darks and lighten the lights. It separates things to make them more easily visible to, or readable by the eye. Let’s try adjusting the contrast first (figure 18). Sliding it back and forth shows that diminishing contrast (in effect, taking brightness out of the bright leaves while taking darkness out of the dark asphalt) has the lovely effect of emphasizing the droplets, the veining of the leaves, and other aspects of their texture while turning the asphalt a blah dark-bluey gray (figure 18). So I like the darker leaves, but don’t at all like the lighter asphalt.
So I backed off the contrast, resetting it to zero, and worked with the highlights and shadows settings. Now whereas contrast is equal opportunity and spreads lighter and darker elements apart by emphasizing them, highlights only work with the (wait for it) highlights, or brighter portions of the image, and shadows only adjust the darker bits. They’re subtler instruments than contrast. In any event, based upon what we learned in fiddling with the contrast, let’s darken those bright leaves by lowering highlights and maybe darken the asphalt a bit by lowering shadows, too, if it will work out (figure 19). I bear in mind that I’m darkening everything yet again and should compensate at the end.
Yes, by judiciously avoiding extremes, I was able to get the best of the contrast effects without washing out the asphalt. Yay. Now I’m going to brighten up the image, but I’m going to throw the dice with an Apple trick first. It will either be great or a disaster, and that is to let the automatic dybbuks adjust what Apple calls Definition, which is right below the Levels palette. Definition is like a more intelligent contrast enhancement that always darkens the image more, but—when it works—has a quite pleasing effect. It turned out that there was an almost negligible effect in applying automatic Definition, which means only that my natural inclinations move in the same direction as the programming set up by the Apple engineers. So I left Definition off.
Having done that, let’s see if brightening the entire image helps at all. I like it dark, but maybe it’s a little too dark (I warned you about me!).
Returning to the Light palette, let’s adjust the Brightness setting (figure 20). Brightness lightens everything, but it leaves intact the relative tinkering we did with contrast, etc. Brilliance, on the other hand, is another of those miraculous Apple tools that selectively adjusts brightness and contrast simultaneously, and when it works, IT WORKS! and when it doesn’t, well, feh. I’m not going to go for brilliance adjustment here, just brightness. Exposure is for remedying images that came out of the camera too light or too dark for whatever reason, and there’s only so much you can do in those situations.
Brightening is a double-edged sword, as it will tend to undo some of your contrast adjustments and desaturate the colors. Yet in figure 20, I have given a little brightness adjustment, with the effect that it brings out the reflection in the water on the asphalt and generally counters the darkening my other adjustments caused. Remember, I liked the image dark, but I’m also happy with the image in figure 20.
Two more rolls of the die, and we’re about done. First, in looking at the details in (e.g.) figures 11 and 12, it was clear that my shaky hand, added to the telephoto lens, bested the focusing, exposure speed, and stability programming in my Nikon. So, the leaves are a little fuzzy when you get close. Now, it’s possible to adjust for “sharpness,” but note that it’s sort of an illusory effect, inasmuch as you can’t really increase the sharpness of an image. What you do do with a sharpness adjustment is to increase some properties of the image and to decrease others, especially where the program detects edges of objects in your image. The result is an image that hopefully, by a psychological quirk of the human eye and perception mechanisms, looks pleasingly crisper, with a tradeoff in other properties people don’t talk about in polite company. Sharpness is terrible when you have a lot of dense, fine detail in your image, like a tree full of foliage with light shining between the leaves. That’ll look terrible sharpened. It’s hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it. Anyway, rolling the dice, and looking at the edges of one of the leaves, sharpening on the automatic setting offers no great improvement while slightly pixellating the edges. So, not worth sharpening.
That leaves (leaves! I slay me) one final roll of the dice, which is to see if a vignette is helpful or attractive. That’s the final palette in the adjustment menu. Basically, a vignette is a circular band of (usually) darkened pixels centered on the center of a picture. It can dim a bright sky when you really want to focus on the area just below the sky, for example, or throw edge elements that some lenses at some magnifications will leave a bit out of focus into shade, if not obliterating them, at least diminishing their ability to distract us. But mostly a vignette, especially when used subtly, has a psychological effect of zeroing in the concentration of the viewer onto the central elements of an image, even when the viewer doesn’t notice the vignette as such. Of course, if you have a pronounced rectangularity to your image, you’re going to end up with two darkened ends of the rectangle, and no vignetting in the middle of the long sides. This is not too bad for me when I photograph tombstones that are naturally vertical, and that I crop to frame vertically, but want to de-emphasize the bright sky above the tombstone. There are better ways of doing this, but that’s for an Affinity Photo tutorial. SO: vignette? Well, my image does have a central focus, and is reasonably square, so let’s see (figure 21):
Well, yay, the effect is rather nice, tending to darken the asphalt. It’s a keeper, I guess.
One last thing. When you have contrasty images (I mean out of the camera like this one) with interesting textures (crinkly asphalt, smooth leaves), try throwing the image into black and white. There’re a whole ‘nother set of principles needed to adjust B/W images, and this is not the place to go into them. But it is worth checking to see how well an image takes to a conversion to B/W. In the case of this image, reasonably well (figure 22), though better had I eliminated the scraps of acorns and just had the leaves and the asphalt. To do the basic conversion, go to the Black & White palette and just click on the auto button. Press the little undo arrow next to it to (wait for it) undo it.
And now you have a serviceable photo that’s attractive and ready to post. See the comparison of the original and final images, figure 1 and figure 23, in the gallery below. Both are in full available resolution: the original at 6000 x 4000, the final at 3301 x 2780.
The editor in photos can do a lot more, and is quite good. But with the basics I’ve gone through here, you can take almost any photo that isn’t a hopeless disaster (I gotta file full of those) and make it quite presentable.
A few further tips.
Blue skies with clouds. Deluminesce the blue and cloud details will pop. Don’t go crazy, but you’ll be surprised.
Cloudy days. If there’s any variation in the clouds at all, you can try to pull it out by lowering the shadows adjustment. Contrast can help, but you probably don’t want the bright spots brighter.
Flowers. De-luminesce the main color areas to emphasize textures and veining in petals. Oversaturate the colors at your own risk (but know that I’ll probably applaud you). If you can select the background colors so that they won’t interfere with the colors of the flower, desaturate those to let the flower pop. So, for example, a white and red flower against a bunch of green leaves and grass can benefit from dulling the green a bit, especially if the greens are not in sharp focus. DON’T turn everything but the flower grey. That’s a cheap trick (though a good practice exercise).
Greens can often be desaturated a bit whereas reds and blues can take a bit of saturation. YMMV, and don’t go crazy, but just sayin.’
Lastly, editing will train your eye to what works and what does not in terms of composition (i.e., in making your photographs), and in a virtuous cycle, your composing and creating of photographs will make you think about how to edit them. Do both every day. Play with the various controls and see what happens.