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Photo Editing….Is It Optional?

Updated: May 20, 2019

If you enjoy photography as a serious hobby, you will encounter the philosophical question of whether we should edit photos. They refer to unedited photos as SOOC (straight out of camera).

At a camera club meeting at Lake Tahoe, someone asked this question of our professional commercial photographer quest speaker. She stated that in her opinion, 90-95% of photos you see in magazines, books, etc. have been edited/post processed to some extent. You may be like myself and wonder why not 100%, why would anyone not edit their photos?

There are photographers who advocate not editing any of their photos. I gather from reading several articles that the primary reason is to force the photographer to take the time to plan their shots. They review their compositions on the Live View screen before they press the shutter, and again afterwards. They do a careful evaluation on their photos in the field at the time they take it and decide whether to re-shoot the photo again after changing exposure, ISO, or any other changes deemed necessary. 

These SOOC photographers shoot in JPEG mode which restricts the amount of editing that could be done to a photo. Conversely, the large majority of experienced photographers shoot in RAW mode which captures all the detail of a photo and allows for extensive editing.

I have heard of camera clubs having a monthly photo contest with the topic being SOOC; all the photos submitted had to be unedited JPEGS. SOOC may just be a choice of a contrarian or eccentric photographer. Another motivation may be a desire to preserve the originality of the scene. (once you have seen a garishly oversaturated photo, you can better understand that motivation)  Whatever the reason, SOOC is acceptable because photography is an individual art form experienced differently by each photographer.   

Un-edited photo of sunset on Bandon,OR beach

Bandon OR beach at sunset. This photo was edited with some cropping, some increase in saturation/vibrance, and a change in exposure.

Editing of photographs is as old as photography. Ansel Adam manipulated his iconic landscape pictures in the darkroom to achieve the best image. They knew him to spend up to a full day processing just one photo. He used a process called push and pull to affect areas of shadows and highlights. Also, by choosing the film stock, the filters he used on the lens (red, blue, green, orange, soft focus, etc), the photographer made his darkroom edits. 

When I was in high school, many schools had photography clubs with their own dark room to teach developing of 35 mm film. Dark rooms were light-proofed, with trays of developer, fixer, wash, etc. They had a dim red light to not expose the film; they hung developing photos from clothes-lines by clips. 

The primary reason I edit my photos is the great examples of photographic art I have seen in camera club competitions. Especially those done by the master’s class of the Wasatch Camera Club in Salt Lake. I remember one photo in particular of a beautiful dark-skinned foreign woman with a colorful headscarf. When it appeared up on the screen, you could hear the gasps and wows; one person said that it could be a National Geographic cover. I knew I wanted my photos to have that same effect on people, if possible.

 Let me outline how I got started in photo editing; you may follow my example and learn in steps, or you may jump in with both feet. I will try to explain both paths. 

There are numerous photo editing programs available for purchase. DXO, Skylum Luminar, Corel Paintshop Pro, Gimp, etc. And several freeware programs. But the gold standard of photo editing programs is Adobe Photoshop, with Adobe Lightroom a close second. My laptop was not powerful enough to run these 2 premium programs and at the time I could not afford a more powerful one.

So I did my research and tried several free trials. I determined which ones my laptop could handle and with ones it couldn’t. After much practice with these, I settled upon a program called DXO. I chose this program as a “first step” learning experience for 2 main reasons; it had great reviews for noise removal, and it had presets.

Noise shows up in edited photos as a visible graininess in the sky/clouds. DXO removed this well but slowly on my computer. Presets are recipes of adjustments to parameters such as exposure, saturation, dehazing,. Rather than making individual adjustments, you can pick a preset and apply it to your photo. You will instantly see the changes. Using presets saves you much time and gives you the experience of many professional developers when you purchase their presets. You can also make your own adjustments to a photo, and when satisfied, you can make a new preset with a click of your mouse. You can then apply that preset to other similar photos you have taken.

An original un-edited photo of Redfish Lake at Stanley, Idaho

Edited photo of Redfish Lake, Stanley ID

After 3 years of using DXO, my laptop failed, so I used a portion of my tax refund and bought a new, more powerful laptop for photo editing. With this new tool, I did another trial of Adobe Lightroom Classic. Because it works so well on my new laptop, I now use Lightroom only. There is much educational information available for Lr. This made transitioning from DXO to Lr easier than I thought it would be. The experience I had gained with DXO applied to LR; the editing principles were much the same. I just had to find the new slides and buttons to make editing adjustments. And the first thing I did was purchase 135 landscape presets for about $29. Worth every penny.

So here is my impression of learning photo editing in this stepwise fashion. I liked the DXO program because I was not particularly computer savvy when I started. It was good training for me and my particular situation. But with considerable experience on Lightroom now (my photo shoot of the Oregon coast was 1300 photos) I can honestly say I should have figured out a way to start with Lightroom, or even Photoshop. 

There are a lot of educational materials available for both which makes the learning curve not so steep. Lightroom does a better job of editing than DXO in all areas.  The noise removal is very nice, in a linear fashion, and much, much faster. There are tons of presets available for Lr at reasonable prices. The changes you make to a photo in Lr do not affect the original; you are working with a virtual copy image you export back into your photography folders. 

It was intimidating at first working with Lr; I thought it would be complicated. But that proved untrue. So, if anyone is just getting started in photography/photo editing, I recommend jumping right into Adobe Lightroom, or even Photoshop if you are young and computer savvy. Photoshop has many more features; one function I would like to have in Lightroom is “layers “. 

Whichever way you get into photo editing, persevere, stick with it, practice, practice, practice, and you soon can create beautiful masterpieces of your own.

This un-edited photo of Little Redfish Lake near Stanley, Idaho appears dark and flat, to me.

This photo was helped with changes in exposure, lightening of the shadows, after a preset was used on it. You can use presets, then tweak on the photo some more if you like.