Why You Should Edit Your Images

May 1, 2024


I do a lot of art shows and the number one question I get at shows is "Do you edit your images?" I always respond the the strong affirmative yes. The follow-up statement I give goes something as followed

"A good photograph should be edited. Never let the camera make the final decision. You are the artist not the camera."

To this day I have never heard one person complain about this mindset.

With this post I want to dive into this idea, in particular because amongst photographers there are two camps. Camp one are usually older photographers who believe editing images is some sort of photo manipulation. Unfortunately, this camp has had a few high profile individuals who have swayed public opinion into believing that this is the "truest" sense of photography. The other camp are photographers are those who do edit. Now This camp has a two tailed bell curve with long ends of individuals who on one side only do minor tweaks for one reason or another, and another end of the curve that all edits are fair game.

Now where I land does not matter, except you need to know I believe in editing.

Why Editing Matters- Interpretation of the World

The first thing any photographer (and buyer of photography) need to understand that photography is an interpretation of the physical world by both the camera and the human. Lets start with the human. We as humans see the world through stereoscopic eyes i.e we see 3D. Beyond that, though, we all also see the world slightly different because our eyes have different numbers of rods and cones meaning we perceive light dark, cool and warm, blue yellow and red in different amounts. And there is growing evidence there are super seers, people who see more color than the rest of us because they can see further into the ultra violet range than others.

In short, we all interpret the world differently. So do cameras.

First cameras only see in 2D, or a flat word. They are not 3D and cannot perceive depth like you and I. But that is not all. When I look at images with a lot of yellow in them, I have found I am pretty good at telling the difference between a Canon and a Nikon. I have heard interviews where photographers prefer to photograph lava with Canon cameras as they like the reds better. Moral of the story Different camera manufacturers technology perceive the world different too. In the end, a camera + the photographer working in tandem create a visual representation of the world as they see it together.

Now that I have outlines the idea of interpretation of the world, lets get back to the editing side of this argument. One of the ideas I try to get across with my students is that after they take the image (with said camera), its now their turn to take that image they created and turn it into what they artistically saw and try to figure out what they want to say. Most of my students though have not found their voice so they wander still when it comes to the edit. They might do some basic edits, maybe crop a smidge, but in the end, it really looks like the camera was making the final decision.

Taylor Creek Cliffs

The Taylor Creek Cliffs are often photographed, but rarely like this. I had to wander to what turned out to be a National Park study plot looking at plants within the community for this image. Never intended to be there, but here I was seeing light dance and research at work.

Now getting from where the image looks like the cameras view of the world, to your view of the world generally takes a long time. Some photographers find their "style" quicker than others. I on the hand took a long time.

When is enough, enough?

Now the beginning of an edit is generally easy, and should not scare you. Simply start by modifying the image in some way. Tweak contrast or some other slider. Look at the results and ask your self, do I like it better or worse? If you like it better, keep moving forward. If you like it worse, fiddle some more and see what you like or don't like. These of course are basic ideas and anyone can apply them. I have generally moved on from these basics and now run by a few principles for editing.

First Principle- I edit for a print.

My goal is to print my images to sell at art shows. I don't edit for the internet and someone's computer screen. If I did that, I would have deeper shadows and more dramatic highlights. Screens present the shadows so much better than prints do, so if you plan on never printing you images, don't edit like me.

Because I edit for a print, I also look for particular things of note. I try to avoid pure white. Pure white actually is just the paper when you print. Depending on the light you can see it really clearly as the paper has a different reflective property than ink. Because of this I try to avoid pure white if I can. Do I always... No. This isn't a law, we work in art.

Second I keep my relative brightness fairly high on my images. I use to not pay attention to it, but after having some complaints from customers that my images were too dark, I really began to pay attention to what worked and what didn't for brightness values.

Salt bed with a dried stream leading the viewer into the distance revealing Telescope Peak lit up by the rising sun. The setting moon is somewhat obscured.

An image that might actually look better darker, but I know it won't translate well in the print.

Second Principle- Bring depth to your image

Your goal of your edit is to add depth. Even if the image is a telephoto image, do what you can to add depth. Humans are drawn to people who are not shallow. We like complicated characters who have emotions, intrigue and so forth. There is a reason why there is a book called "The Rules" that seems to work to get girls married. It creates intrigue for the guy. Hate on my all you want, but many woman swear by it. This same principle applies to your images. Creating depth is what you are going for.

Editing is the key for doing this.

Third Principle- Highlight your subject

What ever your subject is, edit the image so that the subject stand out. I recently graded some photo assignments where they made this mistake. The subject was not done in a way to make it stand out from background. In fact they created two subjects with equal weight. Don't do this.

Mud islands in the desert at sunset

Notice how the highlight a warm across the mud structure and the background is a big cooler and darker. This was a purposeful decision to make the mud strictures stand out and be the main subject.

Lets go back and finish that idea of when is enough enough.

The simplest answer is does the next edit make the image better. The other way to consider this is to answer principle two and three above. Does your image have depth and does your subject stand out. If they do not, keep working at the image. If they do, you are done. If you are editing for a print include that one as well. My general rule is that I try to have my mean luminance level be near or around 100 for the entire image. Do this by having your histogram tab selected, source= entire image and look at mean value. It's not perfect but gets you in the ballpark for a print.

Moral of the story, editing is a natural part of photography. If you wondered if you needed permission to edit, I give you permission. If you are reading this point and you are still in the camp that editing is evil, just note that Ansel Adams edited. It's ok, the camera can't make all the decisions for you.

If you are an art buyer and are wondering if you should be wowed by an artist who says they do not edit. Trust them as far as you can throw them. Peter Lik has said he does not edit his images, (or at least his sales agents have told others and possibly me if I remember correctly). Here is a fun video on some of his shenanigans. If the image looks flat an un-interesting that is probably your biggest indicator the artists didn't know how to edit or does not edit.

Generally speaking, don't worry to much if the image was edited, ask yourself if you love it. If you do, enjoy the image and the art for what it is.

Now when is an edit too much? Thats a story for another time.

Sand dunes as they curve and bend into the distance in Death Valley
Sierra Dunes

The soft light at the end of the day in Death Valley is a lot of fun to photograph. I didn't spend much time with it on my first sunset at the dunes, but on my second excursion into the sea of sand, I spent a bit longer after the sun set and played with the dunes.

Posted in Education and tagged editing, photos, nature, .