Photography Week: Post-processing

Welcome to Photography Week where we’re covering all things photography! So far we’ve discussed the basics to capturing a good photo, manual settings for a DSLR camera, and other tips for improving your photos. Today we’re going to discuss how to improve your photos after you’ve taken them. Thanks for stopping by (or bearing with me if you’re not into photography!).

Some people swear against it, and some people swear by it – but the truth is that post-processing is becoming a standard practice for all levels of photographers these days. Post-processing refers to the editing of photos using computer software. Some popular programs include Photoshop CS, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, Aperture, iPhoto and many others. I use Photoshop Elements, which is a more affordable version of Photoshop CS. I’ve heard really great things about Lightroom as well, which is also pretty affordable, and maybe slightly more user friendly than Photoshop. I don’t have much experience with the other programs. If you’re shopping around, I’d recommend reading user reviews and doing your research before settling on a certain software.  Also, a free online website you can use is – very limited capabilities, but I used it for months before I got Photoshop!

Just like all the other photography subjects I’ve touched on this week, post-processing can be totally daunting when you first start, especially when you get a new program.  I’ll go through some basics here today, but I highly recommend you take a class or two on your specific program, even if only for the sake of knowing more of its full capabilities.  I opened my PS Elements, took one look and said, “Nope, no way” – then didn’t touch it for four months until Aleksandra gave me a quick one on one tutorial that changed everything.

Sometimes I feel guilty that my photos don’t come straight out of the camera perfect so I have to alter them afterwards, and right now I feel like I’m confessing to cheating by explaining this all to you. But the truth is that most, if not all, professional photographers do some sort of tweaking and editing of their photos on the computer, so I try not to feel too bad about it. Plus, it makes my photos end up so much better!

The way I’ll do this is use one photo and explain each step of editing that I generally do to my pictures. Unfortunately, because I use PS Elements, that is the only way I can describe some of the things I do. Hopefully they will translate at least a little bit to other programs!  Because Aleks is the one who helped me navigate the world of post-processing, I’ll use one of the photos I took of Chickerdoodle while we were in Austin.


First things first, I crop the photo. I don’t need to crop this one too much, but I’ll take off a bit of unnecessary empty space on the top and right side.  Because the subject (the two dogs) take up most of the frame, I won’t worry too much about the rule of thirds. I could crop it a bit tighter on the left, but I want to leave in as much of Chick’s paw as I can. Also, because there is that awkward bit of light on the right side, I tried to crop inside of that so it didn’t interrupt my right edge in a distracting way.


Then, I adjust some of the colors. A lot of this is just your own preference for how you want your photos to look. This picture is a little dull, which I’ll address later with lighting – but for now I do want to bring out some specific colors. In PS Elements, you can adjust the saturation level of colors separately.  I’m going to bump up the saturation of the reds a little bit to brighten Dude and the spots on Chick, and I’m also going to take back the yellows a bit to make Chick look a little more white.


It’s subtle, but the color change does make a difference. Next, I work on lighting. I try to get rid of the film-like cover on this photo and make it seem more glossy. You can do this a few ways, and one of those ways is adjusting the brightness and contrast. The way I do it in Photoshop (and this won’t make sense to you unless you know a little bit about PS) is by creating two layers above the one I’m working with (which is one above the original) and making one of them a soft light layer, and one a screen layer.

The soft light layer increases contrast in your photo, and you can adjust the opacity of it to what you think looks best in combination with the screen layer. The soft light layer can accentuate an under-exposed photo, which is why it’s good to have the screen layer as well. The screen layer brightens up the whites of your photo. The perfect opacity combination of the two can make your photo look ten times better.

This is what setting the layers looks like in Photoshop:

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 7.34.39 PM

And here is the altered photo, at about 30% soft light and 80 % screen. Since the photo was already sort of dark, I didn’t need to use soft light all that much to darken it, but I used it to keep a nice contrast when I apply the screen. The 80% screen really brightened up the photo and helped get rid of that film-ish layer.


Next I will do other minor touch ups using just my burn (darken) and dodge (brighten) tools. I’ll often brighten up someones face, or a black dog’s body using the dodge tool, pictured here at the lower left. I don’t need to brighten anything on this photo, except maybe Doodlebug’s eyes a bit, just to make them stand out more.

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 8.16.00 PM

My final step for many of my photos is vignetting.  This means darkening the edges of your photo to emphasize your subject. Vignetting is a big preference thing as well. Some people significantly blacken the edges, and some don’t do it at all (like Kate with a Camera mentions in a lens review post).  I like to darken the edges enough so it does emphasize the subject, but so that without looking for it you wouldn’t really notice it.

When I first decided I wanted to vignette my photos, I tried to look up how to do it in PS and found a hundred different ways, but none of them seemed to work for/make sense to me (mostly the second one).  Aleks finally clued me into using my burn tool, the same tool I mentioned before.  The burn tool darkens your photo, so instead of coloring black over top of your photo, it just darkens the existing colors. It achieves the same effect, but in a slightly more subtle way.

An important thing here is that I set the opacity of my burn tool to only 13% to help keep it subtle. I usually go over the edges of my photo multiple times to whatever level of darkness I think looks the best. I’m sure there are some rules out there for where you’re supposed to vignette your photos (as opposed to around the entire perimeter) but I haven’t found them yet so I don’t follow them. That’s up to your discretion!  You just want to make sure you don’t vignette over one of your subjects.

This is the photo with vignetting, meaning it’s the final product:


Here are the before and afters next to each other.


Now I think when I attempted to put these two photos together in Photoshop (something I’ve never done before) I messed up the quality, in case you’re thinking the second one looks less clear than the first. Not sure why that is, which shows how many millions of things I still need to learn about Photoshop and editing. Hell, I don’t even know how to put text on my pictures, let alone create a watermark, which is one of the most basic things a photographer can do.  Everyone’s got something to learn!

I’m sorry if this post made absolutely no sense to you or you couldn’t relate to it at all because you don’t have post-processing software. But if it makes you feel any better, that’s about as far as my PS comfort zone/knowledge extends, and I’ve been using it for about eight months now (if I didn’t make that clear in the last paragraph).  I need to follow my own advice and go take a class – which, actually, I would absolutely love to do. The more you know, the better your photos become!

Who else has some post-processing tips they swear by? I would so love to hear!

16 thoughts on “Photography Week: Post-processing

  1. I’ve had PS elements for months and I still haven’t taken it out of the box, I really need to get on that… I have Lightroom 3 (still haven’t upgraded to LR4) and I really really like it. There’s very little that I can’t do with it (which I guess is one of the reasons I haven’t opened PS elements yet…). Very cool to see how you use PS Elements and make it work for you. I’m really loving your photography posts this week!

  2. Niki & our beloved pibble Zeus

    Thanks for all of the photo posts this week! I know nothing about photography & I’ve been trying to learn all of the features on my DSRL. After having it a year I just signed up to take a photo class. They offer a software bundle which I wasn’t going to get but after reading this post & seeing how it really does make a difference I think I’m going to get it.

    • Well, theoretically your photos shouldn’t need it, haha. But since I’m not the best photographer yet, I still rely on post-processing to “fix” some of my mistakes I make when shooting. You will learn a ton in your photo class, I’m sure, and then you’ll be able to decide which class you want to take next! Enjoy!

  3. pitlandiapooch

    Once again, this is an excellent post! When I first got my DSLR I immediately downloaded a 30 day trial of Lightroom 4 and Photoshop Elements. I tried using both of them and just found that for me, Lightroom was much easier to work with and understand. So, after 30 days I bought LR4 and have been using it ever since. I will definitely be looking up some LR tutorials on how to do vignetting because I really like that you did that in the photo above.

    Something that I always do to my photos before posting them to the blog is sharpen them with the sharpening tool in LR. I also will use the noise reduction tool if I feel that my photo is too grainy and it does seem to help a bit. There are so many tools in LR that I still don’t know how to use though, so I’m sure there’s tons of stuff I’m not doing to my photos that I should be!

    Everything I learned about LR came from the internet…mostly tutorials that I found on Pinterest. I also watched every single tutorial video for LR on the adobe website and they were extremely helpful. I guess I should sign up for a class like you suggested =)

  4. Kristin

    This isn’t entirely a post-processing question but seeing as you use a Mac, what photo organizing software do you use? Do you use the organizer in PSE or the standard iPhoto that came with your Mac or something else entirely? I’m super slowly changing over from a lifetime of PC use and photos is my biggest challenge because they do not save at all like they do a PC and I’m afraid to take the leap! (not to mention how long and tedious it will be to convert them over – if you have tips on this too, please share) :o) Thanks for your help and for this series. I love hearing what works for others.

    • Honestly all I have been doing is downloading the photos directly to my computer into a new folder. I haven’t messed with the PSE organizer much at all. I’ve done a *little* bit with iPhoto, but only for iPhone pictures. It confuses me. My hard drive folders have worked well enough, but it would probably make my life easier to use one of the programs you mentioned. Let me know which way you like best! Sorry I couldn’t be more help – good luck!

  5. Will and Eko

    Really enjoyed following your posts this week. I’m a total neophyte when it comes to photography/editing, so it’s been great to get some perspective from your posts. I recently started using lightroom to achieve a lot of similar effects, but I can’t seem to figure out what the major differences are between LR and elements. Also, are your photos all shot in raw image format?

    • So funny you should ask that – I literally just discovered RAW last weekend and took a poll on my Facebook page about which way people liked better. The overwhelming consensus was that RAW was significantly better than JPG. I switched to RAW for the photos I’ve taken over the last two days, and I can really see a big difference. It takes up SO much space on my memory card and takes forever to download to my computer though, so I’ll probably only use it for stuff that I want to be really high quality. Also, I’ve heard LR is basically just more user friendly for the type of stuff we’re doing (lighting, small adjustments, etc.). So glad you’ve liked the posts!

  6. This was such a helpful post. I have PS Elements and did exactly what you did…opened it and said ohh no way. I only use it to crop things. But now I am eager to try some of the things you outlined in your post. Thanks!!

  7. Thanks for the vignette suggestion. I didn’t think to do it that way and the black edges make me crazy. I love the soft light/screen combo. I’ve been using PSE for a couple years with an old version (8) and get very frustrated trying to put photos together side by side or in a collage. There has to be a way – how did you do it? I usually give up and do it in picmonkey which is awesome but you can’t save it to make changes later (without re-doing the whole thing).

  8. I love your tips on editing pictures. I used to use PS, but then I couldn’t get it to do what I wanted and it sucked up RAM like crazy so I used until they closed and used another web based program for a little while.. I haven’t edited pictures in a long time and I’m not sure if I can do it anymore.

    But thanks so much for the tips and I wanted to let you know that I’ve nominated you for 3 blog awards.. please visit my blog to claim them. Thanks.

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