How to make your photos stand out? Learn the photo editing techniques in 3 "simple" steps.

Updated: May 7

The beauty of Photo Editing:

Disclaimer: Photo editing is, and at the same time, isn't a rocket science. The truth is, most of us do it, by using simple, yet great Instagram filters. And we are happy with the results. Anyone can do it. So why waste so much time learning how to use these complex headscratching photo editing tricks and tools, you might ask. Well, I prefer to make my own style. I feel, as if I am creating the photo by editing it. And when I am done, it's as if I've taken the same photo, but twice. Photo editing makes your photos unique. If everyone uses the same Instagram filter, it makes your edits stand out even more. Now this guide, might seem counterintuitive then. I am telling you how to edit by using my own style as an example. It should then all make my photos no longer unique after all, right? but who cares? And, just like with any form of art expression, your results will be absolutely different than mine. You'll create your own style as you learn and progress. I am here writing this to help you, if I can do it, you can do it! And who knows, maybe you'll be telling others how to edit very soon. Good luck!

SO WHAT MAKES A PHOTO STAND OUT?

A great model I'd say. Like the one here. Can't get a great model? Go to a banger location. Can't get that either? Well, get a puppy then! Let me guess, you can't get that either, eh...?


But worry not! you can get away with all that. In my experience, it's what that happens in the editing software that makes the photo stand out. The edit. So let's find out! Oh, and I'll be using a great model and a banger location, sorry.

Final version of the photo after editing
Original Photo Before Editing

I choose to use Adobe Lightroom as the editing tool of my preference. However all the editing functions remain more or less the same throughout all of the Software available out there. Try to look for meaning behind the changing setting values and you will be able to apply the techniques explained here on any editing app.


So let's get to it, here are the three steps based on area of editing they cover.

  1. Light

  2. Color

  3. Effects

STEP 1 - LIGHT

I start the edit by correctly adjusting the exposure, or light. I am using the word light instead of exposure, as "exposure" it's just a fancy word for light. But it did cause me headaches when I started, so here I'll use just Light. In technical terms, it relates to how much light reaches the sensor of the camera. How much of light that makes a photo. But, what is important, is to remember, that it simply defines whether the picture is dark - underexposed or too bright - overexposed.

Before and After Light Adjustments

Editing Light in Lightroom is very easy, it's like elementary school of photo editing. You move the points to either left or right. Either to increase or decrease the amount of light in different areas of the photo. So for this photo, I did the following adjustments:

Exposure +0.10 Exposure increases the photo's exposure/ light/ brightness. Every area of the photo is affected. This photo however, was well "exposed" so no radical change is needed.


Contrast -15 Contrast makes dark areas darker and bright areas brighter. It increases the contrast of all areas of the photo and allows very little control. I prefer to create contrast by adjusting blacks and highlights instead of a contrast slider. Default value is 0 But I decrease it to -15 to give me more freedom for my own contrast adjustments later on.


Highlights -100 As the name suggests, Highlights affect only highlight areas of the photo. In this case the clouds and the sky. I decrease Highlights very often to extreme values as I'd like to have more visible sky. Or in other words I use it to recover lost information in the sky. As a result, the photo also appears to have higher dynamic range.


Shadows +95 In the same fashion as highlights, I use shadows setting to recover hidden information in shadow areas of the photo. In this case however, I increase the value of Shadows to reveal more details of the darker areas on the photo. Here it's the climber, and the climber's equipment, the rope, shoes as well as the face.


Whites -10 According to Lightroom, Whites setting define what is the "whitest" point of the photo. As this photo is well exposed, we can see that the whitest point is clouds. They are clearly white as they should be. It means the photo is well exposed. There isn't much to be done here. But if the photo was extremely overexposed, and the clouds would appear grey, we would have to increase the white to match our desired whitest point of the photo. I suggest you first do white adjustments and then apply highlights adjustments. Remember though, Whites affect the photo globally, not just a specific are, like highlights do.


Blacks - 75 This is the ideal slider to counter our shadows adjustment to create pleasing contrast. Increasing shadows makes the photo "Hazy" as if some grey filter was applied. Decreasing the Blacks minimizes this, plus also creates a better looking contrast then the contrast slider. It does this by preserving the details that we brought up with Shadows adjustment.

Before and After Light Edit

Notice, that even though I only edited the Light with intention to reveal hidden information and detail, I ended up with an increase in color saturation as well. I will have to address this later in Step 2 - Color.


Lights/exposure adjustments are sometimes more than enough. I could stop right there, it's a solid edit. It's what happens, when you click on auto edit on iPhone for example. But I always want to add more. The next step is to edit Point Curves.


Tip : Remember! I can only do such strong adjustments to Light (shadows, highlights, etc.) because I shot this photo in RAW format. This allows me to do these adjustments without the photo falling apart into artefacts and noise. Adjust your edits to your photo formats. If you shot JPEG, don't overdo the edit. If possible, always shot RAW. Once you see the noise creeping in, stop.


Tip: I tend to underexpose my photos. I do this to save the photo's highlight areas. Highlights are for example the sky, the clouds or the sun. Remember the "-100 Highlights" adjustment? I know I can always increase the light/ exposure in the shadows later in the post processing, but what I can't do, is saving the sky or clouds if it was overexposed. No matter what I do in post, the clouds will most likely stay just white with no detail. I do this by setting the EV setting of my camera in minus values, from -0.3 to - 1.3 and shoot RAW.

Overexposed Highlights / Sky vs Correctly exposed Highlights Sky

CURVES

What makes point curve tool truly amazing, is that these little adjustments, actually create your "style"! But if editing shadows and highlights is elementary school, then editing curves is a PhD diploma. You have to accept that it will take time to master this, but once you do, you'll develop an instinctive feeling to it. And yeah, your life will never be the same!


But if you feel like this is too much to grasp now, skip this part and go ahead to part Color. I will create a separate post dedicated to Curves only.



Tip: I can't stress this enough. Always do minimal adjustments. Be very slow and mindful with the curve. Even a tiny movement of the points on the curve can have a huge impact on the photo.


S Curve

What you can see on the .gif above and the picture, is the adjustment of the point curve to a very common S shaped Curve. It's a powerful tool for multiple adjustments ranging from Light to Color Adjustments. Unlike many other tools, Point Curve's adjustments can be applied globally as well as locally.


I personally use the Point Curve adjustments to achieve:


1. Better Contrast - With more control then just a contrast slider. I can chose, which part of the image should be affected more, whereas contrast slider affects every part of photo.

2. Haze - I can add a natural Haze to a photo by removing absolute blacks. Although this is a personal preference. I don't think we ever should see something pitch dark black.

3. Hard to replicate look - By it's nature, it's a curve and a very hard one to replicate.

Without Point Curve vs. With Point Curve

I did this very basic "explanation" illustration for you, o better understand the Point Curve mechanics.

  1. Moving any point "x" of the curve UP, will

  2. make that part of the image (dark, shadow or highlight tones) BRIGHTER.

or

  1. Moving any point "x" of the curve DOWN, will

  2. make that part of the image (dark, shadow or highlight tones) DARKER.

Point Curve Explanation - Simplified

These are the adjustments to the RGB light tones of the photo. But wait! There's more.

A point curve for each individual color spectrum of RGB, that is Red, Green and Blue. This is also the point in the editing where you directly start to edit colors. Color Point curve, just like RGB Point Curve, changes colors locally as well as globally.


Color Point Curves work in the same sense as the RGB Light curve, but instead of making the photo brighter or darker, it changes the colors into opposite direction. Adobe Lightroom makes this very simple by showing you exactly which colors in the chart itself. It's handy to remember the factsheet:

  • Red is the opposite of cyan.

  • Green is the opposite of magenta.

  • Blue is the opposite of yellow.

So for the RED point curve:

  1. Moving any point "x" of the curve UP, will

  2. make that part of the image (dark, shadow or highlight) more RED.

or the opposite direction

  1. Moving any point "x" of the curve DOWN, will

  2. make that part of the image (dark, shadow or highlight) more CYAN.

The same follows for the remaining two colors with their respective opposite color. Again remember to be gentle with these adjustments. Treat it to locally change only a part of the photo, or move the Curve to apply the effect globally.


Example: If I want to add a cooler, colder feeling to the photo, then I move up the Blue Point Curve in the highlight section. Or the other way, do I feel I need to create even more powerful sunset cliché photo? Then I just move the Blue point curve down for both shadows and highlights. Of course it's a bit more complicated then that, as you have to be very careful with these adjustments, but once you get the feeling of it, you'll use it all the time. I'll dedicate an entire post to point curve later.


I tend to add Cyan, Magenta and Yellow to Darks and bit to Shadows, whereas to Highlights I blue and a small tint of green. I do this but adjusting the Red Point Curve and by adding Slight S Curves to both Green and Blue Point Curves.

Color Point Curves adjusted
Before and after Point Curve Adjustments

Tip: Color Point Curve adjustments are probably the most subjective part of editing. A matter of taste. It's a never ending process of getting it "right" without having any "right" to begin with. Feel free to experiment, don't be scared, but always remember that less is more. Especially here.


STEP 2 - COLOR

A good practice for the right color correction is to first start with a vision. Take a look at a photo and think about what could be done here. What look / style do I want to achieve. What color is dominant. What is the dominant area of the photo?


When I look at this photo I see the trees and woods in the background take up a large part of the photo. They appear as a dominant element of the image. I don't like that very much. I did not care much for trees when I took this photo. It's a climber's portrait in Dolomites after all, it's about her and the tall towers of Cinque Torre. sure the trees make up the scenery as well, but They need to be subtle. They need to go with the rest of the tones here. Also a starting point here, are the trousers . They're a muted yellow. If only I could tweak the trees' color in that direction, that would be great.


See where I am going with this? Again this is my personal interpretation. Back to the edit.


As you might have already noticed, every Light / Exposure adjustment, be it simple shadows or mind bending Point Curves, affects the color as well. That is why I chose to do the Color edit as a Step 2, after the Light edit. I just hated seeing all my color tweaks and corrections be again changed with every light adjustments.

Saturation -38 Previous Light/Exposure adjustments increased the saturation. And not just by a bit, but a lot. I always lower the saturation as the first step of color adjustments. Remember that Saturation settings increases the saturation of every single pixel. Every single one. Increasing saturation is just one big NO. It works flawlessly as a tool to decrease the saturation though. I usually lower it anywhere between -30 and -40. This way, already subtle adjustment to any color is noticeable. Slight increase of yellow will go a long way with the lowered overall saturation. And remember, I want the trees, the dominant green color to shift towards yellow to match the trousers.

Vibrance +10 Vibrance on the other hand increases the saturation of only muted colors. However it does this globally, just like Saturation. If for example I wish to increase the saturation of the face or the red rope, I'd rather do it manually, because vibrance will also increase the saturation of trees. In this case I increase it by +10 and proceed to change individual colors manually.


TIP: As for the other adjustments I rarely adjust White Balance as I rely on the cameras capabilities to set the white balance. BUT, If in doubt, or impression that your colors have a weird offset, I recommend using the Lightroom setting for each environment settings. The range is similar to the camera setting from cloudy to sunny just like the camera. The same goes for Tint.

Before and After Saturation adjustment

The decrease in saturation looks for some, well, just meh. Not exceptional. It's muted and no color stands out. That's because Saturation and Vibrance is again, a global adjustment. But I prefer these adjustments. I don't find the modern trendy oversaturated photos pleasing. High saturated photos combined with the fact, that most today's panels, from phones to TVs, are by default increased in Saturation, are nothing but a shortcut to make our eyes bleed. It's just too much color.


Also, I am now closer to my initial goal. The trees have lost some of its saturated colors and they no longer draw that much attention. I have two options now. Either I proceed with Color Mixer and tweak Hue, Saturation and Luminance of every color, or I pick color profile that changes colors globally.

Lightroom offers a metric shit ton of great profiles that you can choose from. From the very experimental ones from "Artistic" to more subtle from "Modern" or muted in "Vintage". I suggest you play around and see which one fits.


I am looking for the one that will shift the greens towards yellow. I found the Color profile "Modern 08" to do just that for me in this case. I leave the amount at the default value 100.


If the effect is too strong, especially on skin tones, consider decreasing the value.


It’s also possible to create your own customized color profiles using Lightroom. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.


Tip: Remember that color profiles affect every color in various amount. Again it is recommended to do this in the beginning or at least before the Color Mixer.


Let's see the difference between the Modern and Standard.


Color Profile: Adobe Standard vs. Modern 08

Now it's looking very good. The trees are no longing drawing my attention. I focus on the climber and the steep mountains in the background. However There are still some limitations I need to address. These are color specific, such as the washed out sky, or desaturated skin colors. For that I'll use the Color Mixer and its Hue, Saturation and Luminance adjustments.

Do you see it? The value numbers on sliders have changed so there has to be something! You know there is a difference, but's hard to identify what has changed at the first glance, right?


Lets go from the top, notice the sky. Lowering the Luminance, or in other words brightness of blue and increasing its saturation brings more colors and details in the sky. I also changed the hue of the sky towards cyan.


The blurred mountains in the back have a green tint. To eliminate that I increased the saturation of purple and magenta, the green's opposite and decrease their respective luminance. I also decreased green saturation just slightly. I left the rest of the green untouched as the woods are already covered by the "Modern 08" profile.


Now the climber. She is missing some natural saturated color on her face and the trousers are too washed out. I decreased the luminance of orange and yellow and increased the red's saturation considerably to make her more life-like. Careful not to affect the rest of the image too much.


Let's compare the colors with the original now.

Color Point Curves vs. Color Profile vs. Color Mixer

I leave the interpretation to you. Colors are, after all very subjective. No such nonsense as color science.


STEP 3 - EFFECTS

Effects are a tricky one and in this guide are the final step for a reason. These adjustments appear to be a very easy trick to make photos instantly better. But careful, what happens is more often the opposite.


Effects were created to correct photo's certain physical shortcoming. For example, if the lens used to take the photo was not the sharpest one, you would use "sharpening" to somehow correct it and still appear sharp. Or when the camera has few megapixels and the photo does have enough detail, you would use to "texture" to counter it. Or the other way around, when the photos are so perfect, that you would use grain, just to give it an older feeling look. Of course, all the scenarios are simplified.