10 of The Most Common Photo Editing Mistakes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class three years ago, where rumor has it he learns more from the kids than they learn from him. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter, or check out his work at Guyer Photography.