Don’t be a Photo Editing Junkie!

I got this question from a member of my photography meetup group, “The Chicagoland Digital Photography Meetup Group.” Are you a <insert name of photo editing program here> junkie? Do you spend hours and hours fixing your photos? Here is a member with the same addiction and my suggestions to help escape the post-procesing blues.

Question: “Hi – I’m fairly new to this group. I’m an amateur photographer, but I do some architectural photography as part of my profession. Anyway, I’ve been wondering about something. I edit pretty much all of my photographs, both personal and professional, to make them look their best. Because I do this, I am of course behind when it comes to editing my personal pics.

Am I being neurotic, caring so much about cropping, lighting, etc., or am I possibly using my editing software to compensate for a lack of knowledge for taking great p&s pics? I haven’t really had much training in photography.”

My Response:
Ah, another post-processing junkie. Yes, many of us have been there (or are still there). The fix is simple: the best way to decrease your post-processing time is to take better photos. I have found over the years, in teaching hundreds of photographers, that the “lure of photo perfection” is often a cover-up for lack of skill behind the viewfinder. Now, I honestly do not intend for that to sound mean or insulting. In fact, it’s advice that I had to take years ago when I moved from film to digital.

When I shot film, I had to be very selective and deliberate about taking photos. Every shot cost me money so I had to try my best to make every one count. There was no Photoshop to fix photos back then.

With digital photography, I was in heaven. No more film! It was easy to shoot and shoot and shoot then deal with the consequences later. That also meant sorting though hundreds of frames and then spending hours of editing time on photos. I spent more time in front of a monitor than behind a lens. I think every photographer who shoots digital and then slaves on their photos afterwards is guilty of this.

My best advice for anyone who wants to “make” better photos, Is to”take” better photos. Make every shot count (or nearly every shot). This means honing your in–camera skills rather than relying on fixing all those photos afterwards. The better the photos are when taken in-camera, the less likely they will need a lot of editing later. Simple logic, eh? Not so simple to achieve, I know. Try this…

First, break the habit of taking dozens (if not hundreds) of photos of the same scene. Instead, whittle it down to taking only a few deliberate photos (say, no more than 5). SLOW DOWN! Be mindful when setting-up your photos in the viewfinder before you click the shutter. Use the visual skills you learned in post-processing, but within your camera: cropping, framing, lighting, shadows, etc. When you look in the viewfinder(or at the LCD screen), see the image as if it were the finished photo. Move around as necessary and frame it well, before you click the shutter.

Second, learn how your camera responds to light by honing your photography knowledge and skills. Learn the fundamentals of aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure, lighting, composition, etc. You also must know your camera and all its controls and functions very well. The better you know your camera, the better you can control the photos it takes.

Finally, as you go through all your photos after a shoot, be selective about the ones you want to keep. Train your eye to see the imperfections in any one photo. Those imperfections take time to fix. Instead, find those images that are closer to a finished product and may need little or no tweaking.

Getting to the point where 80-90% (or more) of your photos are “keepers” takes time, of course, and you won’t get to that stage overnight. However, it will never happen if you do not make the commitment NOW to start taking better photographs in your camera.

This means experimenting with your camera and, ironically, taking lots of bad photos, but this time, using the”mistakes” as learning tools. Instead of trying to fix them in post, try to fix them in-camera by changing your perspective and/or the camera settings. Then, the next time you go out and shoot, use what your last photo session taught you. Over time, you will become a much better photographer. You will find yourself taking fewer and fewer photos, and still have great shots to work with later.

The way I started doing this was to take my camera and just start shooting photos around the house and yard. I would play with the camera settings and see what they did to the photograph. I adjusted aperture & shutter speed, tried the different priority modes, tried all the special functions of the camera, etc., all so I could learn how to control the outcome of my photos. Take notes if you can’t commit all that to memory. Reproducibility is the hallmark of a great photographer.

Of course, there are times when taking dozens of photos is necessary so you don’t miss a shot, such as sporting events and once-in-a-lifetime special occasions. You don’t want to miss a moment of your kid shooting the winning goal at a hockey game, your one-year-old blowing out his first candle, or your daughter being given her high school diploma.

I’m referring to those special shots when the artistry behind the image IS the image. Whether it be landscapes, still life, or portraits, those are the shots where you can take your time to frame the shot and set the best exposure before capture.

If you would like to speed-up this process, take some classes in photography to help you learn the fundamentals through guided instruction instead of trial-and-error. We will be offering introductory classes this summer so keep an eye on our calendar.