Photo editing can be pretty daunting. Open up any post-processing program, and you’ll be confronted by a slew of sliders, tools, and options (it’s enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed!).
Fortunately, basic photography editing isn’t nearly as hard as it seems. There are a few simple steps you can take to get great results right off the bat, which I share in this article.
Specifically, I offer a series of basic principles that you can use when editing any image. They’re quick, they’re easy, and they’ll remain useful, even as you level up your editing skills and dive into more advanced applications.
So if you’re ready to get started with photo editing for beginners, then let’s dive right in!
Note: My instructions below reference Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom Classic, but you can achieve the same results with any editing software, including Lightroom CC, ON1 Photo RAW, Capture One, and more.
1. Make sure you shoot in RAW
Technically, this guideline is about photographing, not editing – but it’s so important that I feel obligated to include it.
You see, cameras offer two main file formats: RAW and JPEG.
And while the JPEG format is nice for quick snapshots, if you want to do serious photo editing, then you need to be using RAW. It’ll give you far more flexibility; with a RAW file, you can dramatically alter exposure, white balance, color, and more. Whereas JPEG files only allow limited changes (and if you edit a JPEG file too heavily, you’ll end up with various unwanted artifacts, like banding).
One RAW drawback: It’s not an easily displayable format. Before you can send a RAW photo to friends, post it on social media, or post it on your website, you’ll need to use a RAW editor to convert it to a JPEG. Fortunately, programs like Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom are designed specifically for RAW editing, so they make the conversion process quick and painless.
By the way, you can set the file format in your camera’s menu – and if you’re struggling, check your camera’s manual. These days, pretty much every camera offers a RAW file format (even smartphones!).
2. Start by correcting your exposure
When you bring up a RAW file in your editing program, you may find yourself wondering:
Where do I begin?
And while you can technically go in a hundred different directions, I’d really recommend you first look at your exposure, which is simply the overall brightness of your image.
You should see a simple Exposure slider in your post-processing program of choice:
But before you adjust it, ask yourself:
How does my photo look? Is it too bright? Is it too dark? Is it just right?
Generally, you want at least some details in the image shadows and some details in the image highlights. Here, a helpful tool is the histogram, which looks like this:
The histogram shows the distribution of tones in your image. Peaks toward the middle of the histogram represent midtones, whereas peaks toward the left represent shadows and peaks toward the right represent highlights. Note that peaks pressing up against either side of the histogram indicate clipped details, which you should generally avoid (so if you do see these clipped areas, it’s a sign that adjusting your exposure is probably necessary).
After looking at your image and analyzing the histogram, simply move your Exposure slider until you get the result that you want.
(If you’re not sure how to proceed, I’d recommend simply pushing the Exposure slider back and forth while watching your image. You’ll quickly get a sense of what looks good and what doesn’t!)
Note that basic photography editing programs offer additional exposure sliders, and these allow for precise adjustments. For instance, the Highlights slider lets you adjust only the bright areas of the image, the Shadows slider lets you adjust only the dark areas of the image, and so on. Feel free to experiment with these sliders, though always keep your eye on the histogram as you make changes!
3. Select the right white balance
White balance is designed to counteract any unwanted color casts in your photos, and once you’ve adjusted your exposure, it’s the next beginner photo editing step I’d recommend.
Now, your camera will have already applied a white balance of some sort, but it often needs adjustment. A perfect white balance shows the whites in your images exactly as they look in real life (though you can always tweak this later for artistic reasons). Compare the two photos below, one with a too-cool white balance and one with a too-warm white balance:
Do you see the difference? Neither of the photos is properly white balanced, which is where your photo editing WB adjustment comes in handy.
Simply look for the white balance section in your post-processing program:
Select the eyedropper tool, then click on an area of your image that should be a true white color. Your editor will automatically adjust the image for a perfect result (and if you don’t like the effect, or you simply want to adjust the white balance further for creative reasons, you can always move the Temp and Tint sliders until you get a nice look).
4. Boost the contrast (usually)
Contrast simply refers to the difference between the darks and lights in a photo, where intense darks and intense lights create high contrast, and softer darks and softer lights create low contrast.
RAW files tend to suffer from limited contrast, so it often makes sense to find your Contrast slider and increase it until you get a nice result:
Though you should always be careful not to take the contrast too far; otherwise, you’ll end up creating a garish, nightmarish effect.
By the way, if you’re after a softer, more ethereal look, you may want to decrease the Contrast slider. That’s what photographers often do when shooting in foggy conditions, where a low-contrast look enhances the mood.
(You also have the option to fine-tune the contrast with the Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks sliders. Have fun experimenting with different effects!)
5. Check the saturation
Saturation refers to the intensity of the colors in your image, which you can adjust via – you guessed it! – the Saturation slider:
By boosting the saturation, you can add pop to your image, and so I do often recommend you add a bit of saturation – but carefully, like seasoning to a meal. It’s easy to go too far, and then you’ll end up with an unpleasant result.
Some post-processing programs offer an alternative, called vibrance. This is like saturation, but tends to be more subtle. If saturation isn’t giving you the look you’re after, go ahead and try vibrance instead. Or start by trying vibrance, then move on to saturation. The order isn’t important; it’s all about experimenting to achieve the effect you want!
On occasion, you should even decrease the vibrance and/or saturation. For instance, if you want a moody image but the colors are just too bright and powerful, try reducing the saturation. Here, a little change can go a long way, and by subtly dropping the saturation, you can get an interesting cinematic effect.
6. Reduce noise and increase sharpening
Here’s the final step in this basic photo editing workflow.
Find the portion of your post-processing program that deals with detail:
And adjust both the sharpness levels and the noise levels.
Now, most RAW photos can do with a bit of sharpening. So go ahead and boost the sharpening amount (be sure to zoom in to 100% while you do this; that way, you can see the effects up close). If your image includes certain areas that you don’t want sharpened – a person’s face, for instance – consider boosting the Masking slider, which will ensure the sharpening only targets the more detailed areas of the shot.
Finally, while every image doesn’t need noise reduction, if you zoom to 100% and see little speckles, you’ll probably want to reduce both luminance noise and color noise. Note that too much noise reduction will decrease sharpness and look all-around bad, so don’t go overboard! Instead, boost the Luminance slider slightly, check the result, and then fine-tune. Do the same to the Color slider.
And you’re done! At this point, you can always dive into more advanced photo editing applications (e.g., adjust specific colors or work with the tone curve). Or you can export your image as a JPEG for sharing and viewing!
Photo editing for beginners: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to do basic photo editing – and you’re ready to start enhancing your images!
Of course, I’ve only offered a starting point, but it really will take you far. And once you’ve mastered the basics, the sky is the limit!
Now over to you:
What part of photo editing do you struggle with? Do you have any basic photo editing tips of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!