Every photograph is unique and each image will require different enhancements to make the photograph look its best. However, there are common criteria to use when evaluating your image to determine what enhancements should be made.

Many of these decisions are subjective and the choices you make should reflect your creative vision of how the image should look. Some enhancements, such as noise reduction and sharpening, are less subjective as there are established standards of technical quality to be considered. For example: in most cases people would agree that digital noise is undesirable. Also, most people would agree that the main subject of the photo should have sharp, crisp edges. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and the creative decisions you make should be guided by your personal preferences.

When evaluating your image and making creative decisions, start with the biggest changes first and work your way to the smaller “fine-tuning” adjustments. Global edits are changes made to the entire image; Local (or selective) edits are changes made only to specific areas of the image.

Think about the editing to be done and make a plan before starting work. Keep in mind that every step of the workflow affects–and is affected by–every other step. For example, sharpening the image may increase noise; adjusting color may affect apparent contrast, etc. So it may be necessary to go back and forth between steps to perfect the image.

1. Cropping
The most dramatic change you can make to an image is to crop it because this changes the composition. Carefully consider whether the image could be made stronger by cropping it differently. Are there distracting elements along the edges or in the corners? Are there large areas of empty space that detract from the main subject? If the photo was shot in landscape orientation (horizontal), would a portrait (vertical) crop make it better?

See if the image looks “straight” – especially if there is a horizon line or a strong edge that should appear straight. You may need to rotate the image slightly, which requires cropping.

Alternatively, would the photograph be more interesting if it was rotated even more?

2. Tone and Contrast
Tone refers to the range of dark to light shades in the image, without regard to color. An image with very bright whites transitioning to very dark blacks is said to have a wide tonal range (also called dynamic range). Of course, some photographs will inherently have a narrow tonal range, depending on the subject. But most properly exposed photographs–especially landscapes and portraits–can be expected to have a wide range of tones.

The tonal range is dependent on the accuracy of the exposure. Is the photograph underexposed, or overexposed? Too dark or too light overall?

Contrast refers to the relationships of dark tones to light ones. Does the image “pop”? Or does it look flat and dull? High contrast images contain a strong variation of light to dark tones whereas in low contrast images the tones are compressed to a narrow range.

In general, you should adjust tone and contrast before moving on to color. The exception may be cases where there is a strong color cast that affects the perception of tone and contrast (see step 3 below). In this case, you may choose to fix the color cast before adjusting tone.

Use the Levels command in Photoshop to adjust tone and contrast. To increase contrast, move the black point (the black triangle at the left) to the right (toward the middle), and move the white point (the white triangle at the right) in to the left.

3. Color
Are the colors accurate in the image? Is there a color cast present? A color cast is a noticeable tint affecting the entire image. For example, a digital capture made using the incorrect white balance setting will introduce a color cast to the photo. You’ve certainly seen photos made indoors under tungsten light (regular light bulbs) that appear very yellow. This is because the film or digital white balance used was intended for daylight, which has a much cooler color. (Yellows and oranges are warm colors; blues and purples are cool colors.)

Assess the colors in the image to determine if there is a color cast. It will be most noticeable in areas you know should be white or neutral gray. (Neutral means a gray that should not have a color tint to it.) Adjust the global color to remove any apparent color cast. In Photoshop, you can use the Levels command to eliminate color casts.

Alternatively, you can decide to creatively warm or cool the image for effect.

After adjusting global color for accuracy, consider whether you want to increase or decrease saturation. Saturation refers to how vivid and pure a color is as opposed to neutral gray. A photo that appears very bright and colorful is highly saturated. Some images benefit from increasing the saturation; others may look better with decreased saturation. Again, a creative choice. Use the Hue/Saturation command in Photoshop.

4. Sharpness
Is the image in focus? If not, you might choose to work with another capture. Although the appearance of sharpness can be enhanced in most images, a photograph that was shot out of focus will present major difficulties for sharpening and ultimately may not be fixable. You need to zoom into the image to check for sharpness.

Due to the nature of digital capture, even an image that is in focus can benefit from some sharpening. You can increase the sharpness using sharpening tools and filters in Photoshop such as the Unsharp Mask filter or third-party solutions such as PhotoKit Sharpener.

Also consider whether some areas of the image need more sharpening than others; it is possible to apply different levels of sharpness to local areas of the image.

A trick – one way to make an area of an image appear sharper is to slightly blur other areas.

5. Noise
Digital noise appears as small speckles or colored blobs in the image. Like sharpness, you need to zoom into the image to check for noise.

Noise is generally introduced during long exposures, exposures made in low light or captures that are underexposed. A little noise will not always present a problem; the main issue is whether the noise will be visible when printed. There are a number of methods and tools for removing noise in Photoshop, among them the Remove Noise filter.

For creative effect, you may choose to increase the noise or add a digital simulation of film grain.

6. Dodge & Burn
The terms Dodge and Burn originated in the traditional darkroom. Dodging means lightening specific (local) areas of the image and Burning is darkening local areas. Consider whether the image could benefit from localized darkening or lightening.

Dodge and burn can be used to reduce the effect of distracting elements in the image or to enhance the perception of depth and dimension. For example: to eliminate distractions, such as a spot of light tone surrounded by a dark field, you could burn the dark area so it blends in with the surroundings. Or to enhance the appearance of depth, dodge light areas and burn dark areas to increase contrast.

Ansel Adams was quoted as saying “A photograph is never finished until I burn the corners”. He was referring to the technique of darkening the corners of an image to contain the viewer’s eye within the frame. Consider whether the composition of your image allows the eye to travel “out of the frame” and use dodging or burning to maintain the visual flow within the picture.

There are several very effective methods for dodging and burning in Photoshop…. but the Dodge and Burn tools are not among them. Instead of using the Dodge and Burn tools, use adjustment layers with masks or pixel layers with the painting tools.

7. Retouching
After completing all the other steps, it’s time to assess the need for retouching. I recommend doing retouching at or near the end of the workflow because many of the other steps may introduce or increase the appearance of elements that should be retouched.

Common retouching tasks include removing dust spots, smoothing or removing wrinkles or blemishes from skin and generally removing distracting or unwanted elements from the composition.

In Photoshop, use the Healing Brush to retouch smooth areas. Use the Clone Stamp to retouch areas containing texture or patterns.

Whenever possible, perform your retouching on a separate layer. This is accomplished by selecting the “Sample All Layers” checkbox in the tool options bar.

Before beginning an editing session, go through this checklist and make your plan for editing. Repeatedly following the same sequence of steps will help you work more efficiently and with greater creative freedom.

All these edits should be performed on your Master file – either PSD (Photoshop document) or TIFF file format. When you are finished editing your Master file, you can save derivative files for printing and sharing with others. And always remember to make backups!

©2007 Nathaniel D. Coalson. All Rights Reserved. No reproduction or distribution without permission.