This post will give you everything you need to know to edit photos like a pro. Even if you’re a beginner, this guide is designed to be beginner-friendly.
Here’s what you should keep in mind:
Taking a good photo is only a small part of becoming a better photographer. It’s becoming increasingly important to learn how to edit photos like a professional.
Learning how to edit photos takes time because there’s no one right way to do it. However, by taking actionable steps today, you can improve faster than others.
1. Create your style
Creating your own photo-editing style is more important than you might think. With millions of photographers worldwide, it’s nigh impossible to stand out.
Therefore, you want your photos to be recognizable at the first glance. For example, think of Vincent van Gogh. There’s no way you look at his painting not say, “Oh, that’s a van Gogh!”.
And that’s what you want to achieve with your photos.
Now, if you’re a beginner you might not even know many techniques that can help you stand out. While it’s your job to develop your style, here are a few ideas that you can combine to create a unique style:
- Orton Effect – It’s an increasingly popular photo editing technique introduced by Michael Orton. By applying the Orton Effect, your photo gets a soft, silky look that conveys a mysterious, mystical, and even romantical mood.
- Colour Calibration – Color Calibration is a Lightroom tool that allows you to adjust the hue and saturation of the three main colours: red, green, and blue. By doing so, you can achieve various colour palettes, from the popular orange and teal to moody green. Naturally, several other photo editing programs have similar tools under different names.
- Airy vs moody – Airy and moody shots are the two opposites. Airy photos are very bright, low saturation with warm tones (red, orange, yellow), whereas moody photos are characterized by dark and cold tones (green, blue), high contrast, and low exposure.
- Faded – Fading a photo means crushing whites or blacks. This means that the darkest tones aren’t black but rather some dark shade of grey, and white tones aren’t white but rather a light shade of grey. By doing that you achieve a washed-out look that resembles older photos.
Now, it’s up to you to try all of these and find a unique style.
2. Pick a photo editor
If you want to edit photos like a professional, you need a professional photo editing program. Period.
With dozens of available photo editing programs, it’s difficult to choose the best one. The best photo editor for you is the one that provides the tools you need to edit photos in your style.
Based on my experience, I recommend the following photo editors:
- Lightroom (from $9.99/month) – It is hands down the overall best photo editing program you can get. It has all the basic and advanced tools that you need to achieve almost any look you want. In addition, it has a powerful library tool that allows you to organize, sort, and store your photos. A lot of Lightroom’s power comes from the presets, which are collections of edits that you can apply to new photos in a click.
You can get a 7-day free trial or learn how to get it for the lowest price.
- Luminar AI ($64 one time) – Luminar AI is a relatively new photo editor released in Dec 2020 that has superseded Luminar 4. It’s based around Templates, which are kind of like AI-powered presets, meaning that Luminar AI applies the best possible edits on its own by analyzing your photo. Luminar AI is also simpler to use than Lightroom thanks to the AI tools, but it has worse library tool and masking options.
Get a Luminar AI free trial.
- Photoshop (from $9.99/month) – Photoshop is the most widely-known photo editing tool available. Compared to Lightroom, it has a lot more tools, but it’s also more difficult to use. When it comes to photo editing, I recommend Lightroom rather than Photoshop.
You can get a 7-day free trial or compare it to Lightroom.
- GIMP (free) – It’s a free and powerful alternative to Photoshop. Its tools are somewhat worse than Photoshop’s, but it has an active community that publishes numerous plugins.
To be fair, it doesn’t matter that much which photo editor you choose because everyone is capable of delivering awesome results. It’s up to you to pick the best one for your needs.
3. Shoot in raw
Although this tutorial is about how to edit photos, you need to understand to maximize your success with photo editing, you have to shoot in RAW.
Unlike JPG format, RAW formats don’t compress photos, thus retaining the full quality. You might not notice the difference between JPG and a RAW at a glance. But when it comes to photo editing, the difference between the two is enormous.
To shoot in RAW, go to your camera’s menu and find the setting for image formats. You can usually choose between saving in JPG only, RAW only, or JPG + RAW. If you cannot find the menu, refer to your camera’s manual.
In short, we edit photos in raw to preserve as much detail as possible. Compressed formats, such as JPG, cannot be efficiently edited because they lost a lot of pixel information during the compression.
4. Try HDR photography
HDR photography is a technique of combining three or more different exposures of the same scene to achieve a great dynamic range. This is especially useful in high-contrast situations, such as shooting towards the sun or light source and shooting during midday.
To take photos that you can merge into an HDR photograph, you need to take at least three exposures of the same scene also called “bracketing”. To do that perfectly, you ideally use a tripod to avoid any camera shake. Then, for example, take one photo at -2 exposure, one at 0, and one at +2.
When you have at least 3 photos, you need to merge them to create an HDR image. You don’t do that manually but with photo editing software.
These are the best photo editors for HDR photography:
- Lightroom: Yep, Lightroom can do that as well.
- ON1: It’s a great alternative to Lightroom and Luminar AI. Besides HDR, it can do advanced photo editing.
- Aurora HDR: Software specifically developed by Skylum (Luminar AI developer) for HDR photography.
Now comes the difficult part – actually editing the HDR photo. Just because you can bump the shadows all the way up and highlights all the way down without losing detail, it doesn’t mean you should do it.
How many times have you seen photos that looked unrealistic as if they were drawn? My best guess is that you don’t know that.
Here’s my recommendation: Use HDR as a technique to achieve real-life results as you saw with your eyes when your camera can’t cover the dynamic range in a single shot.
5. Remove chromatic aberration
Chromatic aberration (CA) is a common nuisance present in all optics, and that includes photography. CA is produced when light passes through a lens and unevenly breaks on the glass. You can recognize this effect as a purple and green colour fringing around dark corners in high-contrast scenes, usually most noticeable around the edges of an image. CA is accentuated by the low-quality glass, meaning that the cheaper your lens, the more CA you can expect.
Chromatic aberration is usually very easy to correct with all photo editors with just one button click.
Sometimes CA still won’t go away, and you’ll have to do it manually with a few sliders. However, not every photo editor has this option, but I know for sure that Lightroom has it. And that’s why I always use it to remove CA and lens distortion.
Every lens distorts an image to some degree, an effect that is most noticeable with wide-angle spherical lenses. A distorted image looks the same way as if you looked through a glass ball, although this effect is sometimes minimal and cannot be noticed with a naked eye.
Nevertheless, virtually every photo editing software has a tool that fixes any distortion created by the lens.
6. Adjust white balance
Colour temperature refers to how warm (red or yellow) or cool (blue) light appears. Usually, the camera automatically guesses the colour temperature right but, when it doesn’t, you can use several presets, such as daylight, tungsten light, and cloudy, to tell your camera in what conditions you’re shooting. For even more fine-tuning, most cameras allow for manual setting of colour temperature, usually ranging between 2500K and 6500K.
For professionally edited photos you must get these settings right in the camera but, when you fail to do so, this usually happens in low light conditions, photo editing software will help you fix the colour temperature.
7. Adjust contrast
If you’ve taken my advice #1 and shot in RAW, you’ll be able to transform your photo with basic adjustments. Basic adjustments usually consist of exposure (or brightness), contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks, and saturation.
What values you assign to these settings depends on the image you took and the final result you’re aiming to achieve. However, there are some general pointers I can give you to maximize your success at creating an awesome image.
Unless you’re aiming for a specific style, and your primary goal is to edit a realistic image, you’ll want to increase the “dynamic range” of the photo.
To do so, you’ll want to decrease highlights, increase shadows, set whites and blacks to white and black points, respectively. White and black points are when white (bright) tones become completely white and black (dark) tones become completely black.
In Lightroom, you can do this by clicking on sliders + pressing the Alt button, and then moving the slider until you see blue or red spots. By doing so, you will maximize the dynamic range available to you and create a more appealing image that will be closer to what you saw with your own eyes.
Lastly, you need to change the saturation of your image – this means how much colour is in it. Since a lot of beginners overdo the saturation and create Disney-looking oversaturated landscapes, I must warn you to take it cautiously. It’s usually okay to improve the saturation by 10 points (or 10%) but, more often than not, I decrease saturation as I found it to produce a more natural-looking and pleasing image.
8. Make colours pop
Sometimes colours of your photos look washed out. This usually happens when you photograph in unfavourable light conditions, so the sun doesn’t have a chance to accentuate colours.
Colour vividness is called saturation and vibrance in photo editing. However, there’s a crucial distinction between these two.
While the saturation slider improves all colours in a photo, vibrance only improves the saturation of dull colours. Therefore, professionals often increase the vibrance slider and decrease the saturation slider.
But be careful!
In some cases, you don’t want to increase the saturation of the dull colours. This is true for the scenes where the dull colours are meant to be desaturated and saturating them would result in weird-looking photos.
9. Crop & straighten your photos
Cropping photos is analogous to finding a composition when you’re photographing – we do it to fix or improve composition that we got wrong when we were on the terrain. However, cropping should be your last resort to get the composition right, because it’s a lot more limited. I recommend you always get the composition right in the first place and use cropping to fine-tune it.
If you’re a relative beginner, sticking by the rule of thirds will be the easiest way to improve your composition. The rule of thirds is a photography guideline where you imagine a 3×3 grid and then arrange the objects and leading lines according to the gridlines and their intersections. Most of the cameras have a built-in gridline overlay that you can use to compose your shots.
10. Sharpen the photos
I don’t care what kind of camera and supportive equipment you’re using you should sharpen every image in post-production. Every optical system has errors that affect the sharpness of an image. Of course, there’s a lot you can do to take the sharpest possible photos and make your work with photo editing easier. Check my complete list of all factors that affect image sharpness.
Sharpening photos in post-production is a real game-changer, so I always use Lightroom to sharpen my images as it does an excellent job.
No matter which software you’re using, sharpening tools generally consists of four sliders or settings: the amount of sharpening, radius, detail, and masking. To know what these sliders do, you must understand what sharpening is; in the most simple terms, sharpening is improving local contrast at the edges.
As you increase the amount, you control how much contrast should be applied. As a general rule of thumb, you should set the amount at the maximum possible setting before you start seeing a halo around the edges. Radius is usually best left untouched at 1px, but you can lower or increase it by a margin if you have a good reason to do so. Be careful with the detail slider, though, as it quickly introduces a lot of noise to your images. Masking is where you refine the sharpening. As you increase the masking value, only the stronger edges are left sharpened.
11. Remove clutter
Learning how to simplify in photography is a sure-fire way to great photos. But what do you do if you missed an object when you were on the scene or you couldn’t avoid it?
Your last resort, besides going back to redo the shot, is to use a photo editing technique of removing objects. It’s a pretty easy task if you have the right tool and if the object you want to remove is not too large.
You can use the following tools:
- Spot removal in Lightroom (paid)
- Healing brush/Patch tool/Content-Aware Move tool in Photoshop (paid)
- Object Removal tool at PicsArt (freemium)
- Object Removal in Inpaint (free)
- Clone Effect in Fotor (freemium)
12. Add a vignette
Technically speaking, a vignette is a decrease in brightness around the edges of an image, usually applied in a circular shape. We use vignettes to lead the viewer’s eyes into the image effectively helping the human mind understand the image better.
Photo editors all have a tool that adds a vignette for you; however, sometimes you might want to add a custom vignette. To add a custom vignette, choose a circular local adjustment (or a filter) and decrease the brightness of a certain area.
Why should you choose a custom vignette over an automatic one? Firstly, in some case the main subject is not in the centre of an image; thus, adding a centred vignette would be unwise. Secondly, it gives you way more options – you can add several vignettes, change their shape, radius, or even change the colours.
13. Utilize local adjustments
Everything I’ve talked about until now is related to global edits – these are the adjustments that apply to the entire image. In contrast, local adjustments affect only a certain part of an image. This way, you get more control over the editing process so you can create personalized or unique images.
14. Get creative
To achieve truly professional-looking photo edits, you need to get creative, develop your own style, and show the world something new.
However, as a relative beginner, you don’t know where to start and how to develop your own style, I understand that. I have found that the easiest way to find your style is to start by copying other, already-established, photographers. Do the same as they do, and then find a way to introduce a twist to the edits that will be only yours.
As your first challenge, you can start by creating an orange and teal photo.
15. Try presets
Although it might sound unintuitive, professionals actually use presets a lot! But not because they wouldn’t know how to edit photos…
Presets are an excellent way to both speed up your workflow and try a lot of edits in a couple of seconds.
For example, if you wanted to try several different edits on your photo manually, it would take you a lot of time to readjust for every edit. In contrast, by using presets, you literally just hover over each for a second and you can immediately see the result.
But how do you get the precious presets?
- Sign up for the Photutorial newsletter and you’ll receive 32 totally free Lightroom presets to your inbox.
- Create them yourself.
- Purchase them. Numerous sites that sell Lightroom presets. For example, I really like 123Presets.
Why do we edit photos?
Photos that come straight out of a camera, especially RAW photos, often lack contrast, saturation, are incorrectly exposed (too bright or too dark) or need to be cropped.
We edit photos to overcome the shortcomings of camera sensors and to fix any mistakes we did while taking photos. In addition, some photographers like to add their own touch (style) to the photos, so they are instantly recognized. Other times, we are not satisfied with the colours or contrast of our photos.
Importantly, photo editing also allows us to remove lens distortion and chromatic aberration, which are otherwise virtually unavoidable, and to sharpen the photos.
In the end, we also crop and straighten the photos, and add a vignette.
How to edit photos without losing quality?
There are several steps you need to make to avoid losing photo quality when editing:
1. Don’t use compressed formats
While compressed formats such as JPG and PNG look fine, when you start to edit them, you quickly notice emerging patterns and posterization. For that reason, we NEVER edit compressed formats.
2. Use non-destructive photo editing software
Virtually every modern photo editor is non-destructive, meaning it doesn’t change the photo while editing it. However, before you choose one, make sure that it is indeed non-destructive. All the photo editors from 2. tip are great.
3. Don’t add noise
Noise is the main cause of low-quality photos right after blur. If you don’t know what noise is, it’s the thing that makes your photos look grainy.
Noise can be introduced to photos in various ways, starting with high ISO settings in the camera. Besides sensor noise (from ISO), you can add noise to photos via photo editing.
The most obvious one is to add it with the noise or grain tool. However, there are also several other indirect ways of adding noise with photo editing. These are the next three on the list.
4. Avoid sharpening too much
Every time you sharpen photos you introduce some noise to them. The key is to sharpen enough to get sharp photos, but not so much to add unnecessary noise.
Lightroom has an amazing tool that allows you to minimize noise during sharpening. In the Detail panel, you can find the “Masking” slider. By dragging it to the right you decrease the area of a photo that gets sharpened. The trick is to set to the value so only the edges in your photo are sharp.
Hint: while dragging the slider, press “Alt” on Windows or “Options” on Mac. You’ll see what happens. 😉
5. Add structure/texture sparingly
Adding texture or structure to images is just a fancy way of saying “sharpening large edges”. And as you learnt in the previous tip, sharpening introduces noise.
What is more, texture tools add noise in a lot more obvious and disturbing way.
6. Don’t overexpose
By increasing the exposure of your photos, you make everything brighter, including shadows and blacks. When you overexpose the dark tones, you introduce noise to the image. This happens because you accentuate the lack of detail in the dark areas, which could not be captured with your camera.
What do professional photographers use to edit photos?
Lightroom is extremely popular among all photographers mostly due to its powerful library tool. Recently, Adobe added a live tethering feature to Lightroom, making it a great alternative to Capture One, which is widely popular among portrait photographers.
ON1 is also a very popular photo editor that in addition to basic and advanced photo editing does also HDR, panorama stitching, and focus stacking.
For beginners, I recommend Luminar AI that is intuitive and easy to use thanks to AI tools.
Another option is Photoshop, which can do virtually everything that Lightroom does and a lot more. Due to its complexity, I don’t recommend Photoshop for beginners.
Where can I edit my photos like professionals for free?
If you want to edit photos like a professional you need professional photo editing software, which is usually paid. You can use Lightroom and Photoshop for free for 7 days.
Alternatively, you can use free photo editors, such as GIMP and Inpaint.
How do you edit a photo perfectly?
The most important rule to remember is not to overdo edits. It’s always better to edit less than too much. Therefore, to edit a photo perfectly always take a couple of days and don’t rush it.
On the first day, edit a photo as you see fit. Then, take a couple of days off and analyze it again. More often than not you’ll notice that you’ve overdone the edits on the first try. And that’s how you edit a photo perfectly.
How to edit photos that are blurry?
When you edit blurry photos, you must first identify whether it’s too blurry to be salvaged, and whether or not the blur is intentional, aka “long-exposure” shot.
To sharpen a blurry photo, go to Lightroom > Details > and move the sharpen slider until your start seeing some halo around the edges. Press Alt + Masking slider and drag it all the way up until you see only the main edges.
Read more in my Sharpening in Lightroom blogpost.
How to edit on iPhone?
If you want to edit photos with the default iPhone photo editor, follow these steps:
1. Open the “Photos” app.
2. Tap a photo you want to edit.
3. Tap “Edit”.
4. Use swiping motion to switch between editing tools.
5. Tap a button, and drag the slider to adjust the edit.
6. Tap the “effect button” to switch between before and after.
For more information, refer to this Apple guide.
How to edit photos on Android?
To edit photos on Android, follow these steps:
1. Open the “Gallery” app.
2. Tap a photo you want to edit.
3. Tap “Edit”.
4. Swipe the bottom bar to switch between editing tools.
5. Tap the tool icon to adjust it.
6. Move the slider to adjust the edits.
7. Press the save icon to save the changes.
How to edit photos for Instagram?
Viral Instagram photos tend to be a lot more colourful than average. To edit photos for Instagram, I recommend taking HDR photos and editing them by bumping up vibrance and saturation. This way you’ll increase the vividness of the colours in your Instagram photos.
How to edit photos to look vintage?
Vintage photos have washed out colours, low contrast, a strong vignette, a lot of noise, and characteristic tints (blue, green, and yellow).
To make the photo look vintage, decrease colour saturation and contrast, increase the exposure, add some noise, and fade the blacks and whites.
How to edit photos to look like golden hour?
To make photos look like they were taken during the golden hour increase the contrast, add orange tones to highlights and blue tones to shadows, and shift the white balance towards warm colours.
You won’t learn how to edit photos like a professional overnight, but if you keep practising and consider the guidelines on this list, you will progress faster than others.
Learning to enjoy editing, as it’s part of photography, and it can make your photos look a lot better.
Did you learn something new today? Let me know which was your favourite.
About your guide
Matic Broz is a multifaceted creative professional, with experience as a photographer, graphic designer, and business owner. He has a decade of experience in helping other creatives improve their craft and start their own businesses. His writing and research have been featured in notable publications such as The Guardian, PetaPixel, and USA Today. Additionally, his scientific research has been recognized with a cover feature in the prestigious MDPI-owned journal. In his leisure time, he enjoys photography, hiking, and spending time with dogs. Read more
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