Photo Editing Made Easy


You can transform an ordinary image like this into an extraordinary one. And all it requires is one simple step, and that's editing.
Also, it doesn't matter what editing software you have.

In this photo editing tutorial, I'll provide some pro tips on editing and reveal all the editing steps I took to make this image look exactly like what I saw when I created it, except for one small detail I'll reveal at the end.

4 Keys to Create Amazing Images

I lay out four keys to create amazing images in my free four-hour photography class. The first is to understand your camera's limitations and how to use the available settings to help you fulfill your creative vision. You also need to master light and composition. The final key is, well, editing. Now, if you only apply three out of four keys, you'll most often end up with a mediocre image because you skipped either applying spectacular light or composing the image poorly. For example, I stopped in Kentucky at Cumberland State Park on a recent trip back from a Florida work vacation to photograph this waterfall. I applied three of the four keys for amazing images. I applied the proper camera settings and composed it for a well-composed image. However, since I was shooting in the middle of the afternoon, key number two was missing: the light was not that great. Regardless of my effort in editing, I still end up with a mediocre image. Now, being impatient and not wanting to wait several hours for the sun to set, I went about searching—I think it's called the Gaia GPS Maps for hiking and things like that—for another photo opportunity. To my surprise, another waterfall was waiting for me on the other side of the river, which is how I discovered Eagle Falls. I did everything right by applying the camera settings and composing the image to create what I had envisioned for this location. When I first got there, this is basically what I saw. However, the lighting wasn't all that great, but I was able to overcome that by applying specific editing techniques. I'm now going to share it with you. Again, it doesn't matter what editing software you use since most of them have the same editing tools.

Photo Editing Step 1

The first thing I always do is start with my global edits with the tonal value. Let's look at this virtual copy where I haven't applied my edits yet. I like to start with the auto button. Sometimes, it does a great job of giving me a good starting point. Sometimes it doesn't. In this case, it doesn't. I will review these sliders and adjust the settings based on my creative vision and editing style to create the desired image. The one thing I don't like about the auto AI button in Lightroom is that it always applies contrast, vibrance, and saturation. And I hate adding contrast with the slider. I will show you two other ways to add contrast versus the slider to give you better results. And then, oftentimes, I'll have to tone down the vibrance and saturation. In this case, I increased the saturation to plus 10. Originally, I underexposed the image to create or capture as much detail in the highlights as possible, mostly in the waterfall. I didn't want a pure white area in the waterfall, so I had to underexpose to get or capture those details. But this adjustment is now too bright so I will lower the exposure to about half of that, to around three-quarters of a stop. Now, the exposure is adjusting the mid-tones of your tonal range. These other ones target the mid-tone or different parts of the tonal range outside of the mid-tone. I will adjust these to increase the tonal value and bring out as much detail in the image as possible. Now, because the shadows were so dark, I had to increase the shadows to plus 100. I won't do that often, but for this particular image, I had to. The image is flat, even though I have adjusted the whites and blacks. If I reset them, you can see very little contrast. You can use your contrast slider here, or I like to use my whites and blacks to increase the contrast because when you apply these edits opposite of each other, that adds contrast. Now, let's look at my final edit here to see the actual settings I did. The other edits I would like to make are Clarity and Dehaze, which will also contrast your image. It'll also give the impression that your image is sharper because these edits apply them along the edges of different types of detail, adding contrast. I will copy these basic edits from my final edit here so we can see the progression of the edits from one step to the next. I'm going to select the basic edits here and synchronize. Once we get caught up here, these are my basic global edits for the tonal range. We still have a long way to go to that final edit I just showed you. The next step is to apply a little more contrast because it is still flat. I like adding a tone curve to add contrast by increasing the whites and the highlights and darkening the shadows and the blacks rather than using the slider. This is more targeted along your tonal range versus just a linear adjustment. Over here, we have our blacks and shadows. I'm going to click and drag this down. It's going to make the image darker. Our highlights and whites are over here. I will click and drag this up to make those tonal values brighter. And when you do that, again, it creates that contrast. You don't want to go too far. Otherwise, it's going to look fake. I like to create my edit so that it looks as natural as possible, or as natural as possible, to recreate what I saw at the time of capture. Next, I like to add a vignette, usually around minus 10 or so, give or take a couple of points. That will darken up the corners and the sides. That helps bring our viewers into the image, helping them see. I want to direct them to see what I want as the image's primary subject. In this case, it is the waterfall and the river. And that helps tone down those corners, so they're not as hot. Next, I targeted the color mix to increase the saturation of the yellows and the greens. Right now, the greens are too vibrant, especially in the leaves. I will lower those to around -20 and increase the yellows. That's also close to what I had in my final edit. So, that's the global edits. That's everything. But as you can see, the image is still not that great. It's flat, it's a little boring. It's not that interesting. I want to create a more dynamic, inviting, and dramatic image with much more character and draw our attention to different elements without overpowering the primary subject. Again, the waterfall and the water. And that's going to require local edits with masks. Let's jump back over to this image.

Photo Editing Step 2

I use six or seven different masks to target the image and help it come alive because it's very flat and boring without it. The first thing I wanted to target was this water. I'm going to turn each one of these off. Again, we can see the progression of each one of these masks. I targeted the water first, and if I press the letter O, that will show where I applied the overlay, which is in red here. I had to apply a brush to this area to target that area. Then, I had to apply another brush to remove the overlay in different parts of the image where I didn't want to apply those edits. In particular, you can see some boulders sticking out of the water here, and I had to remove the overlay or the mask from those areas because I didn't want the edits to target that part of the image. And I also colored outside of the line, so I had to take care of that. Regarding the edits, I wanted to create or recreate the aquamarine to turquoise colors I saw when I created this image. And I achieved that by targeting the white balance. However, it took me two to three days to finally get the right color because the first time, I tried to fix the water, the color. Anyway, I clicked on this color box and added a color tint. I was like, wow, that's amazing. That's perfect. And then I returned the next day, and I was like, wow, that's awful. What was I thinking? I removed the color by adjusting the saturation to 0%. Then, I targeted the point color here to try to fix the color of the water that way. And I was like, great, it looks good. The next day, I came back and realized it didn't. It looked horrible. I turned off the point color, reset those settings, and then went into the white balance. I was like, okay, I want a turquoise color. I adjusted the white balance to be bluer by adjusting that temperature to minus eight. And because it also had an aquamarine greenish type color to it, I added more green minus 29. And boom, I got the exact color I wanted because that's what I saw when I created it. If you edit something and don't get the desired results, step away for an hour or two or return the next day, as I did. You'll be able to see the edit with a fresh set of eyes, and you'll see your mistakes. The different edits you apply will begin to reveal the edit you want for your creative vision. Alright, so I have the water done. My next part of the editing is to target different parts of the scene. The next thing I noticed was that I was missing detail in the waterfall, especially at the bottom. It's pure white, and I don't want pure white. I wanted some of the details I saw during this photo shoot to be in there, so I targeted the waterfall with two brushes. I applied these edits: -0.18 on the exposure, slightly darker, and minus 67 on the highlights. Even though I adjusted the highlights globally, I still needed to target the waterfall to restore those details. And you can see there's more detail than there was before. And I also targeted up at the top. Let's take a look. My brush is there; you can see the before and after pure white. And now those details have been recovered. Alright, so now I'm looking at the image. What can I do to make this better? What is distracting my viewer from focusing on that primary subject? Well, to me, it was this large boulder right here, which is very bright. I had to tone down the brightness level and shape the light around it to add depth. The first step was to apply a brush to the boulder and make it darker, which I did with my exposure slider here. Yes, it's darker, but it's not as bright as it was before. It's not vying for our attention as much as before, but it's still too bright and flat. I applied a linear gradient this time, which is, where is it? There it is right there. I applied 0.3, or three-quarters of a stop darker, to my linear gradient. And anything else? Nope, that's it. Applying that linear gradient adds a little bit more depth to the boulder—actually, it just makes it a little bit darker—and helps create a little more depth in the overall image. Alright, now what do I need to do? The background is flat and boring, and it's not exactly how I remember it. Even though the sunlight wasn't shining on it directly, there was a little more directional light in the overall scene, and I needed to recreate that by brightening up the background. Again, I used a brush to target the background, and this time, I adjusted the whites or that part of the tonal range to make it brighter. I added more contrast and sharpening with clarity and the haze to make the background pop slightly. And that's exactly what I got with those adjustments. What can I do to make this image better? Is anything else drawing my eye away from the primary subject? After analyzing the image more, I realized this log-down here is bright and competing for my attention. I targeted that again with a brush and adjusted the light around the log to give it more of a 3D lighting effect. This way, it didn't look as flat because the amount of contrast was very low. I adjusted the blacks and whites to add a bit of contrast to that area, giving the log a bit more definition and making it darker. Applying these opposite each other will create a little bit of contrast. I lowered the exposure slightly, removing that bright area that was taking your eye away from the waterfall and the water and leaning over there. It's not bad, but it's better when it's darker. Now, I have these leading lines of the waterfall. Coming into the water, the leading lines of the boulder here take us to the log. Then, the log pointing in this direction brings us back through the image with this leading line. But it was still missing something I wish it had without adding it to the image because I like to edit my images based on how I saw them when I created them. However, I wanted to add more interest and make the image come alive more by adding directional sunlight, which I did with my final mask. If I turn this on and boom, there it is. It's so much more interesting to see sunlight coming through that area than not. I applied a radio gradient, which you can see right there, but then I had to subtract a little bit with a brush to remove it from the underside of the boulder because it's not in direct sunlight or direct view of sunlight. Otherwise, it looks fake, doesn't it? So, I used a brush to remove it from that area. So I prefer sunlight over not having sunlight. What do you think? Do you like it with or without? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you found this photo editing tutorial valuable, please check out this playlist next to learn more pro editing tips.
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A 30-year photography pro with a desire to help you achieve your creative vision! Facebook | Youtube

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