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Basic Photo Editing

This is for anyone who is learning to edit their digital photos

If you're ready to move past filters and presets to take more creative control over editing your images then this is for you. I created this series of videos to demystify the components of an image and give you the ability to jump into any photo editing software and start working effectively. It's not important to have lightroom or photoshop or any advanced software for that matter. You can follow along with the basic tools on your phone or a free software that's bundled with your computer.

Each of these concepts are pain points that I had myself when I was learning. I was looking for knowledge that would help me break down a photo and understand its components so I could move past filters and presets and take more creative control. Understanding these principles will empower you to edit your photos. They will also help you to make better photos at the point of capture.

Basic Photo Editing tutorial with 2.5 hours of in depth instruction

For a refresher on the mechanics of making a photo and basics of photo composition, check out the free Photography Essentials videos, and grab the free download there.

My own experience learning photography post-processing

When I decided to learn to edit my own photos, I turned to some of my favorite photographers who were offering tutorials. Naturally if you like somebody's style you want to learn how they do what they do right? Often when you learn from somebody who has already developed a strong style they have forgotten what they had to learn to get there.

Knowing how to make technical adjustments to a photo is pointless without first understanding why an image would benefit from those particular edits.Click To Tweet

What the hell are you talking about? Please explain.

I would find myself rewinding and watching someone explain a technique several times to unpack what they were trying to show me. They were teaching using terms and techniques that were several steps ahead of where my learning was. To replicate their style on my own photos was going to take considerable trial and error of my own and tons of practice. That much I knew and I had already made that commitment. But more importantly; I needed to understand some terminology and fundamentals before I could fully absorb and use what they were trying to teach me. Rinse and repeat that experience with half a dozen photographers and tutorials and this was my list of top questions:

  • Why does a photographer edit their images a certain way? 
  • Can I grab a viewer’s attention and direct their eyes to specific parts of an image?
  • Is there a recommended order to make edits to an image?
  • I can make adjustments to just part of an image? Why would I want to?
  • Can I do these adjustments in any software if I don't want to pay for photoshop or lightroom?
  • When has your edit gone too far? What does an over-processed edit look like?

Showing you how a tool works is pointless if I can’t explain the purpose of the edit. The how should follow the why. That’s a well worn cliche because it’s so true. Knowing how to make technical adjustments to a photo is pointless without understanding why an image would benefit from those particular edits.

Editing your photos to direct viewer attention with selective sharpness, brights, darks, color contrast

A good photo edit will direct viewer attention to what you want them to look at in a photo.

Why you need to learn to edit without presets and filters

After you have edited hundreds of images, you will have a favorite processing flow that you apply to most images because that's the style you like. You're happy with that look and other people are starting to recognize your signature style.

Then one day you install the latest update, and without warning some preset filters that are a key part of your editing flow have just disappeared from the software. Why; who knows? The people who write that software didn't consult with you. The nerve. Or you upgrade your computer and that software is no longer compatible. Or the company went out of business and they're no longer updating that editing software so you have to find another photo editing tool and develop your style all over again. Aaaargh! What now?

This has happened to me. I had a favorite set of actions I used in photoshop on nearly every image, (actions are like presets for photoshop). I would just run the action and go on my merry way, never bothering to learn what changes were actually happening in my image or why. It had always just worked and I was too lazy to pay attention and actually learn something. Then I updated to a new version of that plugin and those creative adjustments I liked were no longer in there.

You can learn from your photoshop layers when an action runs

You can learn from your photoshop layers when an action runs

To be fair I'm hitting on some reasons to think about future proofing the technology part of your workflow. I really am a big believer in presets and actions. When you have hundreds or thousands of images to process, you do need tools at hand that make your process efficient. You could output those presets to unique xml files or lut styles that could be imported to other editing tools. And you should definitely do that if you have presets that you reach for and rely on all the time.

At the risk of being captain obvious here - when you're only using looks that other people have crafted you are going to get frustrated and stuck. You will want to do something different, purposeful, and more creative with your photos. That cannot be accomplished with a one click edit. You may even have found this article because you're in that spot now and you're figuring out where to go next.

How these basic photo editing principles empower your creativity

Learn to break down and manipulate different parts of your image. How are blacks different from shadows? How are highlights different from whites? If I want more definition in my image should I use sharpening, clarity, dehaze, something else?  Understanding basic photo editing principles will open up new ideas. They may even shift your perspective and give you an aha moment. Does that take some effort? Sure it does; and it's well worth it.

Difference between blacks, shadows, midtones, highlights and whites in an image #intentionallylost

Difference between blacks, shadows, midtones, highlights and whites in an image

You can understand and break down any photo and any visual style

When you look at an image that won a photo competition, which reaction do you have?

  1. Wow, how did they do that? I wish I knew how to make that kind of image.
  2. I can see what they did there. That's an awesome photo. I think I could improve on it though.

If your response is #1 then these basic photo editing principles are definitely for you. If your response is #2 then you're probably already advanced past these principles. Sweet. I would love to see your work!

There is an exciting shift that happens in your head and it's hard to explain. When you really grasp the principles of a successful photo, you start to look at every image critically. I don't mean that you're criticizing the image. You're no longer just seeing a subject and composition in a photo. You're analyzing why you're either drawn to the image or why the image doesn't have any impact on you. You're thinking, "what is it that I like about that image and how can I use it in my own work?"

Then you start to eagerly consume images from other photographers.  You're now able to both identify what you like about their images and you know how to start adding those elements to your own craft. Even after you know the principles of a successful image; sometimes a photo will surprise you and expand your reality even further. Every discovery of what's possible will further expand your own abilities for growth. 

Making selective edits to an image #intentionallylost

You can take control over your creative growth

There was a time in my life when spaghetti and meatballs was the extent of "cooking" that I could do from scratch. Then one day I wanted to make a soup that I couldn't buy in a can. Next it was Vietnamese pork dumplings. So good! I won't claim that I'm a chef or even a great cook today. The ability open the fridge with no plan in mind and make something that my whole family and even my wife will enjoy, makes me happy. Sometimes that new creation even makes it into the regular dinner rotation.

Taking creative control of your photo editing is something to embrace. Every edit doesn't have to be perfect. You may "bake" an image today, come back and look at it tomorrow, and throw it in the trash. In fact that will happen if you're actually trying new things and stretching your skills. With practice; and patience with yourself, you will throw away fewer edits and you will like more of the images you work on. Your tastes in food and cooking have changed over your lifetime right? Your photo tastes will grow and change as well. The ability to keep evolving your shooting and editing style is a key to keeping your creative photography practice alive and improving. 😉

The image below of a ranch in Pillaro Ecuador is one that I use for examples in the editing videos. The first one with a warm yellow tint was the first edit I made and printed. In fact it's still hanging in my office and I think you see it in the intro video at the top of this article. The second one with the white fog and orange moss on the rocks in the foreground was a new edit I did while working on these videos. I used to apply a color toned filter over the entire image; mostly because I didn't know any better. Now I only enhance colors selectively when I think they add some impact to the image. This is an example of how my learning has changed my editing style over the years. The full photoshop file with layers is included in the tutorial for you to see my workflow on the image and to experiment with.

Hills of Pillaro Ecuador Original Edit #intentionallylostHills of Pillaro Ecuador New Edit #intentionallylost

A Note on Photo Editing Softwares

Sometimes one software is better than another at a particular task such as sharpening, denoise, enlargements, black and white conversions, creative color toning etc. Really though; photo processing softwares all do the same exact things in slightly different ways. The algorithms for adjusting pixels are pretty well established and any good editing software will be able to micro adjust whites/blacks, highlight/shadow, fix noise, sharpen, adjust curves, add masks, and on and on. When you find an editing software that gives you the results you want, and that you are comfortable using; stay with it, because moving to a new tool is just going to give you a different way of doing the same things but isn’t likely to give you more capability or “better” photo output.

However, if the editing tool you’re using isn’t making sense to you and you can’t create the images you want with it then it might be time to try something else. Also; when you “try” a new tool, invest 40 to 60 hours in learning to use that software. Try it with several different images and different types of edits on those images. You can’t evaluate the benefits of a tool if you install, open, play with it for 30 minutes and then decide never to use it again. I should know; I’ve burned a lot cash trying that route.

There is no "best photo editing software". Ultimately, the best photo editing software is the one you enjoy using.

For a refresher on the mechanics of making a photo and basics of photo composition, check out the free Photography Essentials videos, and grab the free download there.

Basic Photo Editing tutorial with 2.5 hours of in depth instruction
Basic Photo Editing


  1. Brilliant article, thanks. For my homework this weekend, I’m going to read it twice and make notes. Great stuff! ★★★★★

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