The Evolution of Your Editing Process
The 6 phases every photographer goes through as they evolve with their editing
A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article titled The Evolution Of A Photographer, and in that article, I touched briefly upon the overuse of a specific new learned technique. The over-usage is prevalent when it comes to the editing process. So in this article, I thought I go a bit more granular into the evolution of your editing style. I believe there to be 6 phases. Editing and processing is a very key component to photography. With film photography, you’re unable to see the images until the film is developed and processed. A process that is done in a dark room with the use of chemicals. This is a process I wish I knew, but I don't and so I won't talk about it. What I do know is that the terms and processes with film photography have carried over into the digital world.
With digital cameras, you’re able to see your images immediately on the LCD screen, but if you’re shooting RAW (which you should be if your camera has the capability) then your digital files need to be processed before you can share and view them. There’s an array of editing tools and software. Most companies give you editing tools to use when you purchase their cameras. Adobe which has become the standard in editing with all things digital media is in general what the majority uses and for all the right reasons. But no matter what you choose to use, your editing style will more than likely evolve through these phases.
The 6 Phases
1 — Minor adjustments
For any new photographer whether you’re looking to go professional or do photography as a hobby, the editing tool can be daunting. You’re immediately presented with unknown vocabulary and tools. You’re dumbfounded and have no idea where to start. With any basic editing/adjustment tool you’re presented with: exposure, contrast, shadows, brightness, blacks, whites, vibrance, saturation, and a cropping tool. You may have some basic understanding of what each does, but you’re definitely confused.
You don’t have a real understanding of what the difference between exposure and brightness is, or the difference between shadows and blacks. You may not even understand how to properly crop your image or if it even needs cropping.
So in the beginning stages of your editing process, you rely on minor adjustments. You stick the concepts you think you know, like, exposure and contrast. You slide the exposure tool slightly to the right or the left and call it a day. That’s it, your image is edited and ready to be shared.
2 — How did they do that?
This phase usually happens quickly. The more you indulge in photography whether, through Instagram, galleries, or various other photography websites, you start to wonder how other photographers edited their photos of subjects similar to yours. You look at an image of a person in an open field and you ask yourself, “how did they make the sky that intense blue?” “How are the clouds that defined and the grass so green?” “Why is that image so nice and warm or cool?”
You can’t help but wonder, how? You understand that you may not be advanced yet in your skill sets with the camera, but you know for sure that no one can get these images straight from the camera. There has to be some editing done to make an image that beautiful.
And so begins the research. This is the phase where you start to read articles and watch youtube videos. You may even buy Adobe Lightroom if you don’t have it already, thinking it’s the editing tool that makes these images you’ve seen amazing. Whatever kind of research you’re doing, you’re doing it because you want to be better. So this is an important phase to go through in your editing evolution.
3 — Overuse
Whoa! Look what I can do with the clarity tool! Oh, look at how moody my image is when I drop the exposure and saturation. At one point or another, every photographer has said these phrases to themselves. This part of the evolution is where you don’t know how to apply all the techniques you learned appropriately or artistically to your image. You’re just sliding the sliders left and right-thinking you’re an editing genius.
You show off your images to your non-photographer friends and receive praise left and right. We’ve all done it. It’s crucial to make these mistakes in order to evolve in your process. The quicker you can get through this phase the better. Towards the end of this phase, you start to scale back on the adjustments and understand the concept of subtlety.
4 — Workflow and Style
Now that you’ve dialed in your adjustments you can’t help but notice how some photographers have a clear look and style to their images. You scroll through various photographers on Instagram and see that each feed has a feel to it. You then look at your feed and see a mishmash of colors. So you tell yourself that you need to develop your own style. But then you realize that you don’t even edit each photo the same. You always start with a different adjustment. Sometimes you start with the exposure and other times you start with the clarity. This is the moment where you start to get a better understanding of your overall process of editing.
You start to learn your workflow. Workflow is the process of how you start and finish editing an image. Every photographer has their own personal starting point when it comes time to edit a photo. For me it varies- it depends on what I’m editing- If it’s commissioned work or personal art. For the majority of images, both commissioned and personal, I start with the crop. I like to see the end result in terms of composition. After that, I move onto the tone curve and adjust the RGB, red, green, and blues. Then I’ll move on to the basics. The exposure, contrast, and so forth. After all that is done, I’ll dissect the image and focus on editing each part of the image. If I want a certain part darker or lighter, or if I want a part with more color or less color saturation and so forth.
No matter what you decide your workflow is, with time, your workflow and style are fine-tuned. You developed a groove for when you edit. Everything is in its place and you’re operating like a well-oiled machine. For the general photographer, the evolution ends here with occasional moments of re-defining their style. For the artistic or thirsty creatives, the evolution moves on to phase 5.
5 — Patience
You’re an editing god at this point. You can take any image and make it presentable, but something is missing. You’re still haunted by other images you see on social media and can’t help but notice that there’s a personal touch to these images. Now a lot goes into taking photos and personalizing your work. That’s a whole deep article in itself. However, you’ve become a robot when it comes to editing. You’ve developed your workflow so well, that there’s no more real thought when it comes to creating your images.
This is the phase where you learn patience. Here is where you take a step back from your workflow and stare at the image before you. You visualize the end result and the vibe you want the image to be. So you reverse engineer that image in your head and apply it to the screen. This involves a lot of tweaking and resetting. In your normal workflow, you can bang out 50 edited images in an hour with the help of copy and pasting. But in this phase…you take up to an hour or more on one image.
This evolution usually happens with more so the artistic photographers as opposed to the general hobbyists. This phase happens for the person who is artistic at heart and realizes that their photographs are missing that piece from them. Your comprehension of the tools that you still don’t know how to use becomes apparent. You learn these tools because you know now how it can help you create. You start to apply all the techniques you’ve amassed and really start to create the images you’ve always envisioned.
You’re patient with yourself. You know what the image needs to look like, therefore you don’t rush the process. Sometimes along the way, that vision changes and you’ve become okay with pressing reset. You’re okay now with starting all over, you’ve developed the patience needed to really edit creatively.
6 — Reviving old work
I’m actually not sure if this is really a phase but maybe more of a piece of advice I can offer.
It always helps to revisit old photos you’ve shot to see how far you’ve come. A confidence boost is always a good thing. You should always have those proud moments. Looking back at old photographs can help with that greatly. Revisiting old photos is also a great tool to push that creativity muscle. I challenge you to take a photo you’ve edited and re-imagine it. Envision a different edit and execute it. You’d be surprised to see how much you’ve really evolved with your editing skills.
Whatever phase of the evolution you’re on, the goal is to always evolve. As I’ve said before, photography is a craft and that craft needs to be sharpened and developed.
Keep shooting. Keep editing. Keep evolving.