Why You Should Edit Your Photos

In photography, the word “edit” has – unfortunately – two meanings. The first is the post-production work you do on a photo: cropping, adjusting white balance, changing exposure, contrast, brightness, and so on. You may or may not do this with your photos before you show them to other people; in fact, most people don’t.

And this is a shame. It’s not that hard to learn how to do simple editing, even in an app like Apple’s Photos. You don’t need Lightroom and Photoshop, like all the “serious” photographers; simple apps, even on a smartphone, can make changes to photos.

For many people, this isn’t an issue. They’ve shot some pictures on a vacation, and want to show them to friends or family, or share them on Facebook, Instagram, or other social media services. They don’t care how they look, they just want to show where they’ve been, or who they’ve been with. Though editing photos a bit can make you look better, make your trip look more envious, or make your meal look fancier.

Here’s an example. Someone I know took a trip to Italy recently, and he has allowed me to use some of his photos for a book I’m working on about editing photos. What I want to show people is how easy it is to make an average photo look great; it only takes a minute or two. Below are two photos: the original, then my edited version.

San marino before

I would probably want the edited photo to be a bit softer; the sky looks a bit like those over-contrasted HDR skies you see these days. But the original was shot on an iPhone, and I don’t have a raw file, which would have allowed more subtle adjustments. And I only spent about one minute working on the file, just to show this person what is possible. Nevertheless, the edited photo is arguably much better than the original.

The second meaning of the word “edit” is very different: it’s about editing a body of work. Let’s say you’ve taken a trip to a tropical island, and shot 500 photos. If you want to show them to friends, it’s a good idea to cull them, because no one – and I mean no one – will want to sit through all your pictures. An easy way to do that in Apple Photos, or on an iPhone or iPad, just to just click or tap the heart button to add them to your favorites. It’s then a lot easier to scroll through 50 of your best photos to show to your friends than it is to sift through ten times that many.

The same is the case for people sharing photos on sites like Instagram. Earlier today, I linked to an article asking Is Street Photography Killing Itself?. A lot of people are into street photography because it’s cool. And they end up sharing dross, diluting the quality of any good photos they may have taken. As the author of this article says:

“street photography has become the social media of photography: an avalanche of banal, shallow and unreflective nothing that hasn’t the time to consider its own context.”

People who shoot street photography tend to spray their photos onto social media without really querying whether they say anything, whether they are clichéd, or whether they’re even very good.

Imagine if you were told that you could keep no more than one photo each day? You could shoot as many as you want, but only keep one. You’d quickly end up shooting less, taking more time composing and setting exposure, because it would be easier to choose from ten photos than from a hundred.

Maybe we should all take pictures with that in mind; that every day, you have to do your best to shoot one great photo. Ignore all the rest, if you happen to get a dozen good shots, then you’re a winner, but if you have a hundred shots that are mediocre, what’s the point?

I’ve been working on training my eye by studying photos from those photographers recognized as great. If you browse the Photo category of this site, you’ll see reviews of some of these books (and there are more to come), along with tips on editing photos (meaning #1), and using the cameras I work with. I think buying a few photo books is a good investment. You can look at photos on the web, but there’s nothing like a well-printed photo book of great pictures to take my breath away. (For example: William Eggleston’s Los Alamos Revisited.)

Rather than buy a new lens, or some other gadget, buy a few photo books. Look at great photos. Learn how to see.

1 thought on “Why You Should Edit Your Photos

  1. Kirk, strongly agree.

    A few years ago, I had a debate with a guy who felt he had great photos and when I looked at them, they were all unedited and looked dull as if covered by a haze. I suggested that he edit his photos to make them sharper, etc. But he felt that he wanted to present his photos “as shot.” I don’t think he understood that the camera itself edits the photos to create an average photo. In the end, I had to say, “I can’t help you…” as he was stuck on his belief.

    Re your comments on street photography, I wonder if “digital” itself is helping destroy the art of photography. Like you, I started in photography back in the 80s during the film age. When you have a role of 24 frames in your camera and had to pay to develop them (either yourself or Kodak doing it), you really had to think about your shots. Today, it costs nothing to just shoot off shots without much thought about what the photo means.

    Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. On one of my recent vacations, I took over 2k photos during a two week period. I think today, many photos are taken to supplement our memories and few photos are taken for art.

    I’m not a professional photographer by any measure and it only takes a few minutes browsing through 500px to be impressed by the artistic capabilities of people with photography well and above my skills. There will always be few talented individuals who take amazing photos and photo compositions (or whatever the phrase is for highly modified photos). The goal, though, is that those individuals aren’t lost in the deluge of snapshots by everyone else.

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