Second edits with Photoshop

By now, you have tackled the science behind photography and understand the importance of editing your output. What an intentional and effective photographer you are! What was your response to the question, "What do you think your images project as your message of reality from a recent trip?" As you peruse this lesson, ask yourself how this question relates to your second process of editing to effectively paint light.

Understanding the eye

imageIf you recall from the first session on photography, this medium involves writing or painting light. Not only is this the way in which the medium works, but it is also the way in which your photographic message is perceived by the viewer's eye.

I will show you what I mean with a little activity.

Grab a piece of paper, or use any drawing app on your iPad. You are going to track your own eye's experience of some images below. As you browse these images, use the first few seconds of viewing each one to doodle a line with your finger on paper (or the iPad) of where you are looking within the frame.

The frame is the confines of the image that you see and is usually a rectangle of a certain standard aspect ratio. Either use your iPad screen as the frame and start with a fresh screen each time, or draw rectangles on your paper to be individual frames for each image.

Select an album or collection of images to peruse. Do this activity along with other people, and you will soon realize how shared and similar the viewing experience of one image can be.

What did you notice about your eye's movement? Can you identify any common elements between the focal points of different images? What was your eye attracted to? How did your eye move around an image, and when did it linger for a long time vs. getting bored easily?

Did you notice an attraction to lighter areas? Did your eye follow lines? Thought so. Soooo typical, that eye of yours.

If you understand the way in which a viewer experiences your images and the flow of that eye movement, you can better understand how your image tells a very quick but possibly powerful story. After all, this is all about storytelling and the user experience, and just as an oral storyteller uses different devices and proper order to engage their audience, so you must use your photographic tools to engage viewers and tell a story.

Is effective storytelling through photography subject to how the images looks straight out of the camera? No, we have plenty of post-processing tools to finesse images for impact.

Second edits/post-processing

After identifying your most effective images during the first editing process, spend some time tracking your eye's movement. How does your eye travel around the image? What is the focal point of the image? Does this image have a double moment? Are you using all the tools you have available to help the viewer read your message or sense the intended tone?

There are many things a photographer can do in order to craft an intentional experience. Here are two things I recommend considering for all your images in post-processing, as they represent two classic techniques from the darkroom.

Since we work in digital, your darkroom is Photoshop.


imageIs there a finger in your frame? Hope not! If so, you can cut it out. If there is a rogue flower that distracts or a photobombing dog that attracts, you can cut those out, too, if you feel they don't contribute to the reality you are depicting.

Even if there are no obtrustive objects in the corners of your image, cropping your image could lend to an increase in clarity in your message and benefit the overall aesthetic of your image. It's amazing how cropping can affect an image and what it says.

Apply your understanding of good composition to frame your image in a manner that displays the story you would like to tell. As you know there are guidelines for composition, ones that usually apply because of aesthetic reasons. There are also exceptions to every rule, but you must break these rules with intention rather than just for funsies.

The crop tool allows you to re-frame your photograph in Photoshop (keyboard shortcut "C"), and holding down the Shift button while repositioning a corner will maintain the aspect ratio of the original size. You can also rotate the image if need be. Try it.

Dodging and burning

You might have realized while eye-tracking that the eye migrates to brighter moments in an image, and if your subject isn't attracting enough attention, consider brightening it up. Make sure that the subject is properly exposed, and then guide the eye to it with light.


During the darkroom step of enlarging a negative onto photosensitive paper, a photographer must determine the correct "shutter speed" for exposing the paper below. They do this often by using test strips, or ripping a sliver of photo paper and covering it up bit by bit to notice the change in exposure on paper once developed.

imageIn that process, it can be realized that different parts of the image beg for different exposure times. If you have dramatic clouds next to an adult posing, you need to determine the correct exposure for the adult's face and then apply additional time to the clouds to reach their optimal exposure. In order to not change the exposure of the adult, you must dodge and burn.

In the darkroom, dodge means to cover a portion of an image from the source light, while burn means to let the light hit the paper for more time, increasing the change from the photo-chemical process.

In Photoshop, dodging a part of an image makes it lighter, and burning makes a part darker. After pressing keyboard shortcut "O" you can change the size and weight of the brush tool for applying these two effects by right-clicking on the image. Try both of these effects to call attention to your subject or the flow with which the viewer should follow with their eye.

Other tools that are great to apply (in layers) during the post-processing phase with Photoshop are:

  • Curves (start by anchoring a center point on the graph)
  • B/W (adjust colors to create richer tones)
  • Color Balance (ease the scales to the left and right in order to make any whites in your image look white, which will achieve the proper white balance)

Don't get crazy with Photoshop, though. This isn't pixel painting.

Finishing images

Once you have opened an image in Photoshop and edited it in layers as a .psd file, save the image as the highest quality jpeg or as a TIFF if you have lots of storage space. Keep in mind that jpegs are compressed files that lose resolution with every save. I believe that with our nomadic nature, available digital storage space, and the number of images we are working with in a short time frame, jpegs are more realistic to work with than TIFFs, but you make your own call.

If you are ready to get absolutely serious about photography and invest in your craft, then you should consider shooting in RAW and saving your files as TIFFs (though you will need to get a huge hard drive that travels well).

It looks like you have mastered the science, practice, and art of painting light and can call yourself a trained and savvy photographer! Be sure to share your images with the world and continue to find your photographic style through shooting and post-processing.