10 of The Most Common Photo Editing Mistakes

top 10 photo mistakes-diyphotography2

I just got an email confirming my press registration for this week’s Photoshop World Conference and Expo, and I’m actually fascinated by the notion of an annual convention built around a computer program. On the other hand, I suppose I shouldn’t really be all that surprised. While there are other editing options available, Photoshop and Lightroom have pretty much become the standard by which all others are judged. And let’s face it– to a certain extent we’re all a bunch of geeks. We obsess about our cameras, lights, and other gear, so why not that important final link in the chain– the software that puts the finishing touches on our vision? In fairness, all of this quasi-philosophical rambling comes on the heels of a busy weekend of shooting, combined with an extraordinarily short turnaround time on the editing. Three days of shooting ended at 8:00 last night and the images were delivered to the client at 6:00 this morning. If shown as a mathematical equation, my current state would be probably be something like:

(Creative Overload + Sleep Deprivation) ÷ Caffeine Intake = Stuff I Wonder About

There’s nothing quite like a total lack of sleep to get my mind going in weird directions. In light of my upcoming immersion in three days of Photoshop education, I thought I’d share my list of what I feel are the most common photo editing mistakes. These are intended only to educate and illustrate, not offend. I’m sure some people will disagree with some or all of these. Photo editing can be extremely subjective. So, in no particular order…

Editing the Original File

Obviously, this is a moot point if you’re being smart and backing up your images before you start editing. You’d be surprised, though, at how many photographers tell me that they don’t back up their images until after the edits are done. Personally, this shocks me. Considering how quick and easy it is to copy the images to a second location when you dump the memory card, why would anyone run the risk of either (1) losing the only copy they have of an image, or (2) performing edits that can’t be undone once saved? Our knowledge of editing– and talent– evolves over time. Editing the originals prevents you from going back and revisiting older work and making it better. Of more immediate concern, however, is the real chance of not being able to go back and fix mistakes in the present.

Over-Editing the Eyes

This is by far one of the most common portrait editing mistakes. Remember that the whites of a person’s eyes are not actually true white. If you finish editing a portrait and your subject looks like a glowing-eyed alien, you might have gone too far. As with everything else I’ve listed so far, there’s most likely nothing wrong with the process– just how far people push it. This video does a really great job of walking you through cleaning up and enhancing eyes in Photoshop. Even better, though, is learning to nail your lighting and getting gorgeous eyes in camera.

Sharpening to Correct Focus

I see this one come up a lot. And I will even confess to trying it myself once or twice in a moment of quiet desperation. The simple truth, however, is that not only will sharpening NOT fix an out-of-focus image, it might even make it worse. Unless you are very good at knowing how and when to best sharpen an image, chances are extremely high that you run the real risk of pushing it too far, resulting in halos, artifacts, and a lot of unwanted noise. If you are having focus problems with any sort of regularity, it’s time to go back to basics– checking camera settings, or even how you are holding your camera.

HDR

Personally, I’m not a fan. Never have been. Remember what I said a minute ago about pushing the sharpening too far? The same applies to HDR. I’ve only seen a handful of photographers who do this well. For me, the test of whether HDR– or any other type of editing– has gone too far is when I look at the photo and say, “Nice editing,” before I say, “Nice image.” I’m hoping to see the HDR fad begin to recede.

Too Much Contrast

Not to be melodramatic, but learning how to use Curves in Photoshop changed my life. Okay…I guess that it is a bit melodramatic. The point is, though, that learning to enhance and control the contrast in your images is a huge step to making them pop. The down side to too much contrast, however, are the blowouts at both ends of the tonal spectrum. Blacks are too black and whites are too white– a recipe for visual disaster. It doesn’t matter if you are losing details in the shadows or the highlights. Either way it’s a loss of detail that detracts from the final edit. A firm grasp of curves gives you what you need in order to apply contrast adjustments selectively instead of globally. Avoid the sliders. Learn to work the details. Check out this great explanation of Curves and Levels.

Faking Bokeh

Bokeh is beautiful, right? Of course it is. Faking it in Photoshop, though, just looks…fake. Nobody loves that soft, dreamy background more than I do. What makes it so great, though, is the natural separation it creates between the subject and the background. Simply blurring out the background, however, does nothing more than create a partially blurry photo. This is one of those aspects of what we do as photographers where getting it right in the camera is essential.

Relying Too Heavily on Actions

Actions are awesome. They help create great effects without having to reinvent the wheel every time. The flip side, though, is that some photographers rely too heavily on them without really understanding how they work or why they are achieving their results. Many actions affect the entire image, despite the fact that you may only need them in a particular part of the frame. Having a good understanding of layers and layer masks can help achieve much better results with your actions.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Do Selective Color

The evolution of “Something New” to “Overdone Fad” to “Tired Cliche” can happen in the blink of an eye. If you are trying something new with your editing because it’s popular, consider yourself late to the party. The whole selective color thing probably blew photographers and clients away when it first started getting popular, but I’m shocked that anyone is still committing this cardinal editing sin. Color or B&W. Pick one and rock it. If you are going to selectively color an image, make sure there is also a vintage couch in the middle of a wheat field…alongside some railroad tracks…with some lens flare. And kittens.

selective-color-diyphotography-editing-mistakes

Over-Cropping

This one is kind of an extension of the warning against editing the original. Not every crop is the right crop. Your artistic vision may not coincide with your client’s. Or they may have very specific plans that don’t mesh with what you think is the best crop. I can tell you that in my own experience I’ve printed photos one size, only to change my mind later. Going crazy with the cropping would have prevented me from choosing a different aspect ratio when I chose a new location for displaying the image. The best cropping advice I can give is to not crop at all until you know how the image will be displayed.

Too Much Skin Smoothing

I realize that many of the entries in this article caution against doing too much of something. Sometimes the difference between getting it right and going too far is as simple as a click or two. Overdoing it on the skin is another example. Skin has texture. It has color. It has shadow. Sometimes it even has blemishes. Don’t be so zealous about “fixing” it. You want skin– not plastic. I’m currently working on a tutorial for one of my favorite methods for skin smoothing. Stay tuned for that.

Wrap-Up

Like I mentioned, so much bad editing can be avoided by simply dialing things back a little bit. People new to Photoshop and Lightroom– or any of the many alternatives– will always be excited about the far-reaching possibilities of these powerful programs. I was that way, and I’m sure that many of you were as well. It’s important to recognize the initial excitement for what it is. Once that excitement wears off, though, it’s important to learn how to avoid fads and gimmicks, while embracing and achieving editing goals  that will stand the test of time.

Got an editing pet peeve? Share it with us in the comments.

  • stewart norton

    You forgot Vignetting ! Nothing like a nice heavy vignette to really finish off a image and give it that “pro” look ;-)

    • Kasia Kubicka

      Or white vignettes – they are almost always like a nightmare.

      • Jeffrey Guyer

        I’m sorry….did you say “almost?” :)

      • Andrea Tani

        White vignettes on portraits… very good on graveyard photo printed on ceramic badges, glued to marble slabs

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Technically, I didn’t forget. The list was just getting too long! You are right, though– there’s nothing quite like the heavy-handed vignette.

  • Brian

    Overly contrived photo composites …. They are ok on deviantART but not in a photograllery trying to pass off as PHOTOGRAPHS

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Great point, Brian.

  • https://www.facebook.com/matt.needham.ks Matt Needham

    #11: Too heavy on the Clarity slider.

  • Dušan Smolnikar

    #11 Misspelling an article’s cover image ;)

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Ouch! Yes, that’s what I get for rushing through it at the end. Thanks for the heads-up. Corrected.

  • Banan Tarr

    haha can’t believe there isn’t a “too much saturation/vibrance” – that’s just basic stuff. No more neon landscapes!

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      I thought that one fell into the too much contrast entry. Great point, though.

  • James

    Im pretty sure you mean “Processing mistakes”. Editing in photography is not the same a processing an image. Obvi who cares, not a big deal but I wish we could all keep the terms correct and stop teaching people false meaning of terms.

    • http://allenmowery.com/ Allen Mowery

      Her father called her daughter, my children call her Mom, and, in the end, she’s my wife. Within photography, is there a hard-and-fast set of terminology that must be used? Is there such a thing as “teaching people [a] false meaning of terms?” Has photography become an elitist country club where we all must wear the same jacket and toss around the same jargon to be allowed through the door? As I see it, processing and editing are interchangeable with no real confusion to be had, and, in either case, misjudgments (i.e. mistakes, errors…whatever you want to call them) can be made.

  • Mansgame

    No mention of HDR? There is no such thing as good HDR other than that native dyanmic range built into the sensor and even though it should be used realistically.

  • Wes Jones

    HDR done with a subtle hand can be quite beautiful. The photo from Bermuda in this blog post is nicely done http://beforethecoffee.com/photomatix-tutorial/

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      You’re right, Wes. The key word being “subtle.” Unfortunately, most HDR is anything but.

  • doctor sid

    if photography is an art form, who is to say that your guidelines are the rules to go by? I don’t care for abstracts, does that mean I can say abstracts are wrong? If the image pleases the artist and if a client is involved and it pleases them, isnt that what really matters.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      I guess it partially depends on what the photographer wants to be known for. Personally, I’d rather be known for classic, creative images that will stand the test of time, as opposed to whatever the latest fad happens to be.

  • Renato Murakami

    While I agree with the overall tone of the article – which is mostly not overprocessing or using tools in the wrong way – there are personal stances there that I won’t stand for.
    Particular ones that relates to creative processes. HDR and selective color, for instance. If the photographer feels it’s right for him/her, there’s no problem in making selective colors or HDR over processing. The author might be tired of those, but that’s a personal opinnion, not a “common editing mistake”.
    They are things that the photographer should be careful around with clients though, I’ll agree with that.
    But often times, what we photographers see as overdone fad or tired cliché does not represent what clients might feel about it. Of course we are tired of seeing those. We’ve seen tutorials, we’ve seen the rise to fame of photographers who started the trend, we see it in coleagues portolios, we did it. That’s only our particular world though.
    With that said, I should add:
    #11 – Be careful with assumptions, sweeping generalizations and confusion between the point of view of a photographer and a client. You don’t want to impose or criticize too much what you see as a trend, fad or cliché on clients because they might not see it that way.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      It’s a mostly valid point, Renato, but there are certain things I just won’t do– regardless of whether the client wants them. Selective color and any other flash-in-the-pan fad or cliche rise immediately to the very top of the list. I’m not an ass about it– I explain to them why it’s not a good idea– but ultimately I’m not going to do it.

      • Renato Murakami

        Oh, as a personal stand I totally understand and think photographers should position themselves, just to be clear.
        But you know, as a general rule, I’m not so shure. But anyways, anyone reading the list is free to agree or disagree with points anyways… so thanks for the write up! :D

  • redjelly39

    Ansel Adams would spend hours/weeks/months editing his images. “Only the print contains the artist’s meaning and message”. – Ansel Adams Most photoshop tools came from film processes including HDR. Its nice that we have options and have the ability to edit images how we wish to. “Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.” – Peter Adams I always try to get the exposure, composition & focus correct at capture and getting that perfect image that only requires converting from raw to tif/jpg is nice but I also like having options of using filters & effects to tell a different story with the image if I choose to. “A photograph can be an instant of life captured for eternity that will never cease looking back at you”. – Brigitte Bardot

  • Didrik Etholm

    i agree with most here. and the hdr “look” it just processing mistakes. No one would say no to more dynamic range. Which is what HDR is supposed to accomplish I’ve been editing in 32 bit HDR within lightroom. No halo’s and none of that HDR “look” but the amount of info in a merged 32 bit photo is mind blowing

  • Chris Madra

    Thanks for the information.. helpful to enhance my photo editing skills..http://www.outsourceimage.com/photoediting.html

  • DiveMaster Shawn

    I will do whatever the client wants. This does not reflect my style of shooting or editing. If the client wants to pay for a fad, so be it. There are some photos that should not be done in HDR. It is how the artist photographs and edits that makes it his or her style. It is the artist way of expressing his or her uniqueness.
    Do not try and tell me or anyone that their way of editing is wrong. It’s only your opinion that your way is right. Who comes out on top here when I get paid for doing what the client wants? You or myself?

    That being said. I disagree with the new rules of not being able to down vote a comment. How are you to know when everyone disagrees with you? Is this the new liberal Obama way? “Everyones a winner” mentality? Are you worried about getting your feelings hurt by being critiqued?

  • Mark Berry

    I’m not convinced about the “no selective colour” rule (or by association HDR, through I have less of an opinion on that one).

    Yes, I’m bored to tears with “classic” selective colour; red London buses crossing black and white bridges, purple bows on B&W little girls, etc, BUT, I see them all the time in art shops and on photographer’s stands in markets. I assume that they must sell, or they wouldn’t be there, so maybe it’s just those of us who see them all the time that have become bored?

    Plus, IMHO, selective colour doesn’t have to be all or nothing anyway. I’ve done a few where I’ve toned down but not completely desaturated the image, and selectively fully saturated a particular subject, and I think they work very well. At the massive risk of being ridiculed (but then who cares; I don’t do this commercially, and I like it regardless), one example is here: https://flic.kr/p/ehHvXB. I think if anything, the selective colouring enhances the toned down colours; I notice the blue sky and the colours in the wall in this edit far more than I do in the original.

    I think if a technique has become a cliche, maybe it’s time to try a different approach to that technique, not necessarily time to drop it completely?

  • Auto Motive

    One more to list. My friends are die hard car guys and taking pictures of their cars can be challenging. The most important thing to them is color. Never ever change the color on their vehicles. I learned a valued lesson when it comes to editing their cars. Print the original image.

  • Russel Ray Photos

    However, Edgar Degas said a hundred years ago about art: “Art is not what you see but what you make others see.” Now replace “art” with “photography”, or even combine them to create Photographic Art, which is my specialty and which makes a very good California living for me.

    And as my wise old grandmother said in 1966 while sitting at the dining room table cropping her photos, merging them with other photos, creating photo collages: “What comes out of the camera is just the basics to start with.”