When I meet with potential clients for the first time, they often ask me how I edit my images. After much procrastination, I’ve finally produced what I’ve wanted all along: a visual guide to the editing process. Editing is a multi-step (and time-consuming) process. Once the memory cards have been downloaded, and the files backed up, I load the full shoot into Lightroom, my one can’t-live-without piece of software. In Lightroom, I look through each image, selecting the keepers. This is the first cut (or initial cull).
During the first cut, I reject any images that are poor. Poor images may be technically poor (missed focus, bad exposure) or aesthetically poor (unattractive expression, closed eyes) The keepers are generally well-composed, well-lit, and depict interesting moments and/or expressions. For a wedding, there may be 600 or so keepers; for a portrait session around forty or more. I don’t have a limit to the number of keepers; any image which is good will make the cut, with the exception of sequences – in this case I usually select the strongest image or two.
Once I have my keepers, I go back to the beginning of the set and start the editing, or RAW processing. Every single image is corrected for color and exposure, and sometimes cropped to enhance the composition or to remove distracting elements. Occasionally I will also take an image into Photoshop for further enhancing, but I try to ensure that the images look great in-camera and need only a little extra help in post-production to really shine.
The first editing task is cropping. Although I carefully frame my images in-camera, there is always a little extra around the edges that doesn’t show in the viewfinder when I’m taking the photo, and sometimes a distracting artifact can creep in – this is my main reason for cropping. I’m also a stickler for a straight horizon, so I also use the crop tool to straighten any slightly tilted images. Sometimes, I’ll crop for artistic reasons; a tighter crop can highlight the focal point of an image, for example in the image below:
The original photo is fine – but cropping in a little tighter on the right and top sides brings the viewer’s eyes straight to the baby’s eyes.
The biggest editing task for me is color correction. With weddings, especially, the color of light is changing so rapidly that if I were to custom white-balance for each environment, I’d miss important moments – so I use the auto white balance setting on my Nikon D3S. It does a pretty good job, but it’s rarely perfect – and when it comes to color I’m a perfectionist! I spend considerable time tweaking each image individually to ensure the best possible color temperature. Here are some examples:
The original image is actually not bad at all, but I felt that Courtney’s skin looked a touch too green – the after version is much more pleasing to the eye (and more flattering to Courtney’s beautiful freckled skin!)
The original image of Alyssa and Aaron dancing is a bit too blue (this often happens with photos taken in the shade); warming it up makes it both more true to life and much more pleasing to look at.
Often times, the difference between the original and the color-corrected image is very small – but to me even a tiny tweak can make a difference:
This engagement photo (below) of Nipa and Jordan in Central Park benefits hugely from a little more warmth – not only are their skin tones more pleasing, but the fall colors look so much richer in the after version.
At the same time as color correcting, I’m looking out for any problems with exposure. Shooting RAW means I have a little more leeway with exposure, and I can rescue partially-blown highlights or bump up the midtones in post-production.
This lovely photo of Steph and Phil above benefits from a little brightening, especially in the mid-tones.
Similarly, I much prefer this beach engagement photo of Patty and Nate after some brightening and color correction (the after photo feels so much more summery with its warmer tones and brightness). One last photo demonstrating color correction, this time indoors. Off-camera flash and mixed ambient light color resulted in a somewhat odd color – the after version is a much more appealing image of Courtney and her father walking down the aisle:
Sometimes, I feel an image might benefit from a few additional touches. Still in Lightroom, I might add a little vignette, or vibrance. Here, a photo from Erica and Jay’s first look – as well as correcting for color and exposure, I added a light vignette (darkening of the edges of the photograph) to help bring your eyes directly to the moment happening between them:
In this next photo from Patty and Nate’s engagement session, the original is gorgeous; but by adding a little vibrance, the color of the sky really pops:
The following photo from Nipa and Jordan’s engagement session in NYC also benefited from some added vibrance:
This next photo from Phil and Steph’s engagement underwent some additional treatment. Although I liked the original, I felt that it would be stronger if the couple was fully silhouetted against the sky. I did this by adjusting the shadow range. I also added some color pop with the vibrancy slider, to make the blue of the sky really pop:
Of course, I can’t talk about editing without mentioning black and white. I love black and white photos, and although I shoot everything in color on my D-SLR, I often know which images will be turned into black and white versions while I’m taking them.
I knew when I was taking this photo of Alyssa that I’d prefer the black and white version – so I focused on getting the best possible exposure for her skin tones rather than worry about saving the highlight on her dress (black and white tends to be much more forgiving of overexposure than color).
This background of this photo of Jay and Erica’s first dance looks a little cluttered. Converting to black and white somewhat minimizes the background distractions so that the eye is drawn more quickly to the moment being shared.
In this fun baby “detail” shot, I chose black and white to enhance the strong graphics. It also helps to push the focus onto Marion’s tiny feet.
The photo above was a misfire. The exposure was way off, the couple is slightly out of focus … and yet there was something about it that made me pause. Once converted into black and white, I felt the image had a funky, dreamy quality which turned a mistake into a keeper.
Finally, I often talk to couples I meet with about my style – how it is modern yet timeless, without crazy actions and effects that will likely look dated in twenty years (remember the spot-coloring craze in the eighties?) The vast majority of the work I present is very true-to-life, but just occasionally I play a little bit with the toning and I’ve developed a vintage tint which I apply to an odd photo or two, just to add a little interest and variety to the collection (I have the regular version available too of course). Here is one such photo, from Phil and Steph’s engagement session in Portsmouth, NH:
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post – did you learn anything new here, did it help you to understand my editing process better? Would you like to see similar posts in the future? Maybe you have questions – please ask away in the comments section below!
I so adore your editing style 🙂 Such a perfect way of explaining it all!
I’m so excited for you to shoot our wedding 🙂
I did not know that adjusting the vibrance in lightroom made that much of a difference, so seeing that difference and how much it made the pictures come to life was definitely helpful to see! I wouldn’t mind seeing more posts like this.
Love this post, Kate! You’re gracious — clearly, there’s a lot of work and time that goes into creating those perfect shots. Thank you for sharing how and why you make your editing choices! How enlightening. I’m all for reading more posts w/your tips and tricks 🙂
Thank you all! Chrissy, I am so excited to shoot your wedding too!
LOVED IT & learned so much from it! I appreciate all the details you go through to make a shot perfect and seeing how it’s done makes me even more in awe of your talents! It makes it even more exciting for me to look forward for the day when I get to work with you!
i haven’t been a client, but have been following your photos for a long time (i was a member of seattle flickrites and first saw your photos there). i love your style, and was very curious about the editing process. this post actually taught me a lot. the examples are great and the explanations are so clear, specifically, why you thought the pic needed editing. please keep posting similar entries.
Wow, Kate, I really enjoyed this post! It is absolutely amazing to see the before and after photos. I wish I understood what you were talking about, but I really appreciated seeing the process of how you make such beautiful images. The photos, as usual, are gorgeous!!!
Great post! I’m a big fan of your work. I love working in LR but I’m not very familiar with adjusting midtones. I love the effect it gave to the skin in the engagement shot. Maybe I’ll Google it. 🙂