A Beginners Guide to Editing Photos

Why editing is important


Editing photos is an amazing thing and it’s arguably my favorite part of photography. In this post I’d like to dispel some myths about editing photos and help students reveal the incredible potential of their photos.

People often compliment my photos and say: “wow, I wish I could make photos like yours, or… (my favorite) You must have an amazing camera!” No! After a great meal, you don’t walk up to a chef and say: “That meal was amazing! You must have an amazing oven!” Cameras don’t just make amazing photos, cameras capture moments, and then photographers help make them amazing by processing them, often referred to as “editing” Think of it as such:

When building a wooden table, you start off with ordinary wood. You measure it, cut it, construct it, put all the pieces together and then it’s done right? Not quite. The table still needs the final touches like sanding and staining. This is where you add your style and finishing touches which gives the table its personality and distinct look. 

Editing photos is part of making photographs. We’re not talking about 3 hours of editing for each picture, we’re not even talking about 10 min per photo. Editing photos can take as little as 30 seconds per photo, and for those who really want to make better photos editing is an essential part of photography.


What is Editing?


So what is editing? Editing or “processing” your photo is simply one of the final steps to making a finished photograph. It’s important to think of it as an actual part of your process, like adding icing to a cupcake. (Seriously, who wants a cupcake without frosting?)

The Boston Photography Workshops wants to help new and experienced photographers make incredible photos. Using editing is a crucial step in that and we want to help make it less confusing. In this post the BPW will introduce students to some basic but fundamental editing terms and tools. These tools will be found in all editing programs, it’s likely that you’ve used them before and just weren’t aware. We’ve selected 5 programs to include in our post but please note there are many programs available which do very similar things and are very helpful.


Some popular editing programs

Left to right: Google Photos, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, Pixlr, and Apple's iPhoto

Left to right: Google Photos, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, Pixlr, and Apple's iPhoto

Adobe Lightroom is one of the most popular choices for photo-editing software and is an excellent choice for new photographers. With a simple to use interface and powerful editing tools, Lightroom also helps users start to better organize their photos. Unlike some of the other programs mentioned, LR is not free and must be purchased for $10/month. (We think it's well worth it)

Linked to your Gmail account, Google Photos is a free, browser-based, photo editor which also helps users organize your photos in the cloud. However, it is limited in editing capabilities and feels like a more advanced Instagram. A simple, fun, free program which is useful to learn with, you'll quickly outgrow Google Photos after a few months of photos.

Photoshop is the most powerful editing program available and is solely designed for editing (meaning it is not intended to help organize your photos). A very specialized and surgical-like program, Photoshop has hundreds of editing tools and components which can, (at times) be overwhelming to new photographers. A powerful program, we recommend students start with other editing programs before jumping to Photoshop. (However, Photoshop comes free with your $10/month Lightroom subscription...)

Pixlr is a free online editing program which has two browser-based options which are helpful for new and intermediate photographers. The 'Express' option is for quick fixes and filters while the 'Editor' option lets you work in layers and do more complex edits (similar to Photoshop). However, unlike other programs it cannot handle or process RAW photos. Pixlr is an inexpensive alternative to Photoshop with less features, but more flexibility. 

Apple's 'Photos' is a free, Mac only, desktop based, editing & organizing program. Similar to Adobe Lightroom, "Photos" has an easy to understand user interface which allows you to edit photos quickly. However, 'Photos' does not allow you to chose the way you organize your pictures, but rather you are dependent on its own system of organizing and cataloging. A great way to start editing your pictures, (if you have a Mac) this will serve you well for 1-2 years before you'll need to upgrade.

Editing Terms


Cropping / Straightening

Cropping is a very common edit which most people will be familiar with. Here you can trim the photo and decrease how much is seen. This is used when you want to emphasize a part of you photo and remove unnecessary elements from the picture.  In a few of the editing programs this is where you also straighten the image by rotating the image.

When to use: When you want to emphasize an important part of you photo, like a portrait or landscape.



Exposure / Brightness


Brightness and Exposure often refer to the same tool. These tools take the overall tones and values of the photo and brighten or darken them evenly across the image. All values are lifted or lowered in a linear way. 

When to use: When you have dramatically missed the proper exposure in camera (too bright or too dark).

Tip: It's always smart to slightly underexpose when making pictures. When editing those photos utilize this tool by taking your underexposed photo and increasing the exposure to the correct level.



Contrast is a very powerful tool and a helpful one to enhance the dramatic feel of a photo. Contrast is the separation between light and dark values. So, if you have a lot of contrast you have a lot of light tones and a lot of dark tones, but not many tones in between (like grey). Low contrast is when there are many tones in between light and dark.

When to use: Increase contrast with pictures taken on grey overcast days, or taken in the shade. In very sunny conditions shadows can be harsh, in these situations lower your photos contrast to show more details and lessen shadows. 

Tip: By lowering contrast you can sometimes show more detail in shadow areas.


Saturation / Vibrance

The tools: Saturation, Vibrance, and at times, Color, gives the user the ability to increase the intensity of the colors already in the image. This is related to (but not directly the same as) color filters like Instagram, which depending on your program, alter and replace colors in your image instead of using the colors already present.

When to use: when the camera failed to capture the intensity of moment, or if you want to give your photo a color-bump. 

Tip: Decrease saturation 100% to make your photo black and white, then increase contrast to make it pop.


Filters / Effects / Color

Color is a powerful thing. Depending on the program you choose, colors can be altered individually or in a ready-made color filter with just a single click (think Instagram). Essentially ready-made filters are two or three editing tools grouped into one, such as: adding contrast, de-saturating color, and adding red to the photo. Some programs like Lightroom and Photoshop do not have these readily available since their programs are aimed at photographers who want to make their own "filtered" look, using individual tools.

When to use: When you want to stylize a photo quickly. Or When you want to give a photo a "mood".

Tip: Decrease the percentage applied to a filter to lessen the "gimmicky" look that these can create. Experiment with several filters and save multiple versions. Review and carefully look at whats happening in each photo. 


Clarity / Sharpen


Clarity and sharpening do exactly as they imply. Enhancing edges and textures of your subject matter, the outcome of this tool is an image that is more pronounced-- so it feels like you just put glasses on. 

When to use: Almost all photos can be improved by modest sharpening. When an image has a lot of details or textures, using this tool can bring out or emphasize those details.

Tip: Along with any other editing processes, using too much of the sharpening / clarity tool can make an image look too grainy or intense.


Your Next Step


To some, editing can feel like a daunting or scary task to start. Truth is, it’s not. Photography is a multi-layered process which includes editing. Beginners and advanced students alike, we think all levels of photographers should give editing a try. Even if you’re a parent simply taking photos of your family or photos from vacation, editing photos will reveal the amazing potential of your photos. Our studio offers easy and fun classes for Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, or we can help learn the editing program of your choice through a private lesson. Even without taking a class we encourage students to try some of the above programs (many have free trials) and experiment with your own photos. 

Thanks so much and please leave comments or questions below!

- BPW Team