I have been serious about photography for almost a year. I am, for all intents and purpose, a novice photographer. That being said, I have quickly developed my own style and I have a look that I prefer. If you were to go to my Instagram account and scroll through my photos, you’ll see common visual theme. I like a strong contrast pop with deep shadows and high-clarity. This blog explains how I achieve that look.
My editing preference and photographic style may change with more experience, but as of right now, I really love how my photos come out and I’m going to show you how I give my photos their finished look.
Before I go into my editing techniques, I wanted to bring up presets. Presets are great for workflow. When I first started, I purchased a couple of presets from photographers I follow and downloaded plenty of free presets from photography blogs and sites.
At this point, however, I barely use any of those presets (if at all) and I almost wish I saved my money because I always changed their settings. I’m not advocating against buying another photographer’s preset pack, though. If you want to support a photographer you enjoy by buying their preset pack, feel free. My point is that once I developed my own style, I didn’t want my photos to look like they were edited by someone else. I also created 2 or 3 presets of my own for specific situations, most notably, for some photos I took while scuba diving in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in terrible water conditions. The water color in the unedited photos were a shade of slime-green and the fish looked devoid of detail. There are a few basic settings in underwater photography that can be applied to many photos, depending on the depth the photo was taken, so I saved my settings and created a dive preset.
The bottom line is, if you are a hobbyist and want a quick solution to making your photos look professional, don’t feel a need to develop a personal, uniformed, style, or want to support your favorite photographer, then feel free to do so and buy preset packs.
Step 1: Import to Lightroom
After I transfer the raw image files from my SD card to my hard drive, I import them to Adobe Lightroom. I use Adobe Lightroom Classic CC. I look through them and use Lightroom’s star rating system to pick out my favorites. I give those a 5-star. Then, I go through them again and see If there are any shots that I passed on at first glance because maybe they were under exposed but the composition looks like it could be pretty good. I give and example of this in the before and after below.
Step 2: Crop, Tone, and Presence
Once I pick the photo I want to edit, the first thing I do is scroll down to Lens Corrections and click “Enable Profile Corrections. I do this before I crop an image because sometimes it can flatten out the subject and affect the focus of your cropped image. If prefer the way it looks with the correction enabled, I keep it. If I don’t, I disable it and move on.
After lens correction I apply the crop. I’ll adjust the aspect ratio to 16x9, if I’m posting to Facebook, you can change it to 1:1 for a square image Instagram, but I enter a custom aspect ratio of 5x4, which fills the entire screen on a mobile device, when I post to Instagram. If the image isn’t going to social media, I adjust the aspect ratio as desired.
I’ll adjust the crop to how I want it to look, make sure the angle of the photo is straight (there is nothing worse than a great photo with a crooked horizon). Then I’ll give the photo my “look.”
In tone, the first thing I do is hit “auto.” Yes. I know. But stay with me. Adobe spent a lot of money to get this program to understand what makes a photo properly exposed. Why would you not start with Adobe’s idea of a great image?
I adjust the white balance at this point. If I don’t like how I adjust it, I’ll hit undo and leave it as shot. The next thing I do is hit the letter “J” to see the clipping, or over-exposed/under-exposed areas of the image. The next thing I do is adjust the clipping as best I can (if there’s any). The next thing I do is drop the whites and highlights and lift the blacks and shadows.
My next step is to increase the contrast. Remember that living contrast also adds saturation.
Now, I move to Presence and adjust the Clarity. I bring it up to 100 and slowly scroll back until I see the detail I like. Lifting clarity also drops saturation, so depending on how much I increased the Contrast, I may have to lift saturation as well. If the image needs it, I may bump up the vibrance a touch as well. Finally, I see if the image could benefit from lifting or lowering the Dehaze setting.
Step 3: The Tone Curve
Learned how I liked my photos to look by manipulating the curve through trial and error. I learned that I like the way it looks when I approximate an “S” shape. The shape isn’t always exactly the same, but it’s essentially similar with all of my photos.
Sometimes an edit takes a lot more work to get the image right. The steps above are not the only things I’ll do, sometimes, a clone stamp is needed, sometimes I apply graduated filters or radial filters. Sometimes, I use the paint tool and paint in some light. It’s hard to explain those steps and I wanted to write a more simplified blog on how I get my photos to look the way I want at the most basic level.
So here are a few before and after examples using the above steps and no filters or masks.