July 15, 2020 | 10699 Views | By Dylan Kotecki

How to Edit Photos: The Foundational Photo Editing Basics

Photo editing has many parts, and there are different workflows for every type of image and photography. Learning how to edit photos may appear intimidating at first glance, but when the foundational pieces are broken down into familiar terminology, it becomes much easier to understand and learn. Here are common terms and photo editing basics that every photographer should know.

In this article:

  1. Basic Photo Editing Tips to Know

  2. Put These Photo Editing Tips to the Test

Basic Photo Editing Tips to Know

The Difference Between RAW & JPEG

In photo editing and DSLR photography in general, a common question is “what is the difference between a RAW photograph and a JPEG photograph?”. The answer reveals itself through the power of editing. RAW image files hold more information about the scene; this allows for more control when modifying various tones in photographs. The editing benefits become especially apparent when adjusting highlights and shadows on overexposed, underexposed shots. JPEG image files are processed in-camera, meaning the camera has done the basic editing already.

When a camera captures a RAW image, the camera’s sensor captures all of the information seen through the lens and saves it into a file. Since the camera stores all of the information available to it, the image holds a more dynamic range when being edited and processed in Photo RAW.

Initially, when a RAW image file is opened in RAW processing engines like Photo RAW, the image will appear flat and dull. RAW images appear very unprocessed when opened in RAW processors; this is because the camera doesn’t compress them, which is an excellent thing for edits that need a lot of fine-tuning or advanced modification. With RAW files, the sliders in Photo RAW are more powerful when adjusting tone and color; they are much easier to recover, darken, and manipulate.

Modifying a RAW image, darker and brighter tones are much easier to recover.
Tips for Editing Photos

Capturing RAW photos is also crucial for changing the white balance in post. It is possible with JPEG files, but it’s a lot more complicated. If the white balance is hugely off in-camera, it may be impossible to recover the colors’ true integrity. JPEG files are excellent for quick modifications such as presets or basic editing with sliders and Filters.

When a camera captures a JPEG image, it processes the information that it sees through the lens and compresses it into a smaller file. JPEGs are appealing because they load in-camera very quickly when shooting, and they are much more accessible than RAW image files. RAW images require specific software to be viewed and modified; Photo RAW is a “RAW processor,” meaning it can handle RAW image files. This makes Photo RAW an idea raw photo editor for your images. JPEG files are one of the most commonly used file types globally and are accessible via nearly any device or computer without having to use any software. JPEGs also load much faster than RAW images because of their compressed size, making them a practical choice for any photographer who captures hundreds of images an hour and edits in batches with presets styles or custom looks.

If smaller files and group edits are more appealing, JPEG files are the perfect option. The sliders aren’t quite as strong when adjusting tone and color, but amazing looks are more than possible with compressed JPEG files.

The Tone & Color Sliders Everyone Should Know

Sliders are to photo editing what camera dials are to photography. Knowing your sliders is a basic photo editing skill you need to have in your tool belt. The Sliders in Photo RAW give photographers the ability to modify specific tones, colors, effects, and many other controls by merely dragging a point to the left and right. Here is an overview of most of the sliders in the Develop Tab:

Contrast – Contrast, when pulled to the right, incorporates more white and black into a photograph; this applies detail and makes things “pop.” Contrast can also reveal shadowy dark tones in an image if it’s pulled to the left. If a photograph is underexposed, pull the Contrast slider to the left to relieve the image of darker tones and expose shadows. If the image looks flat after this, use the Blacks Slider and Whites Slider (talked about more extensively down the list) to control the lack of detail or “flatness.” Contrast is a powerful slider that can make an image seem unbalanced fast. When applying Contrast, apply a little at a time to ensure that the image stays natural.

Shadows – The Shadows Slider will help brighten or darken the shadow tones (the darker areas) within an image. When editing an underexposed image, use the Shadow slider to reveal details in the photograph’s less exposed areas.

Midtones – The Midtones Slider will brighten or darken the middle grey tones in a photograph (think skin tones).

Whites & Blacks Sliders – These sliders will brighten or darken their assigned tone accordingly. The Whites slider is a great tool for pushing bright tones and white colors into an image. Use it with nighttime images to make bright areas pop. The Blacks Slider is excellent for adding dark tones and black color into an image, using it to apply a more intense look of contrast.

Highlights – The Highlights Slider is going to dim down bright areas on photos. Use it to tame blown-out regions in an image.

Exposure – Exposure will brighten and darken the overall look of an image without regard to any specific tone or color. By darkening the exposure (pulling to the left), details in bright background elements such as clouds and skies can quickly be recovered. Remember that when decreasing exposure, the other tones, and colors, such as Midtones, Contrast, etc., will be adjusted. Combat any dullness and unwanted color saturation by pulling up on the sliders that cater to those specific areas. For example, if skin tones need to be brightened, pull up on the Midtones slider. If the darker areas need help, pull up on the Shadow Slider.

Structure – Structure will boost the detail and micro-contrast in an image, making it appear “sharper” and more defined. If the slider is pulled to the left, the opposite occurs, and the image will lose detail. The structure will help make an image “pop” with detail; try it with heavily textured images like mountains or food.

Haze – The Haze Slider reduces the look of haze or fog within a photograph; it removes highlights and incorporates some contrast.

Temperature – Controls the overall look of color within a photo and is used to correct white balance. The left of the slider cools down photos and incorporates blue color. The right slider warms images up and applies yellows, oranges, reds, and greens.

Saturation – Controls the overall amount of color in a photograph and is used to make an image appear more colorful or boost color tones.

Quick Tips for Editing Photos with Color

When photographing and editing in color, it is important to pay attention to the temperature and saturation. Color is vital to a photo’s character; it provides the glue between the contrast and textures. If an image is “warm”, it will have more red, yellow, and orange color tones. If an image is “cool”, it will have more blue. Use the Temperature Slider to fix an image’s white balance by modifying the point, remember that if an image is too warm, the left area of the slider will cool it down. If an image is covered in blue color casts and has too many cool tones, move the slider to the right. The color dropper tool near the Temperature Slider is also a quick way to set a photo’s white balance. Click on the color dropper tool and select an area on the photograph that should be grey, and it will automatically establish white balance. Upon setting an image’s Temperature, saturating or desaturating the colors is another important step in setting the overall foundational look.

Photo Editing Basics

The Saturation Slider is another powerful slider inside Photo RAW; use it sparingly. One way to tell how much color saturation is needed is to pull the Saturation Slider all the way to the left to desaturate completely and then slowly, incrementally pull it to the right, watching to see which saturation point is best. Some photographs don’t need as much color in them. Others could benefit from a hefty dose of saturation. It all depends on the subject of the image.

Basics of Photo Editing

Cropping to Create New Compositions and Framing

In digital photography, cropping is one of the most common post-processing techniques there is. Cropping allows photographers to achieve unique compositions and remove unwanted elements of a photograph. This makes cropping one of the crucial basics of photo editing. Grab the Cropping Tool via the “Tool Well” on the left side of Photo RAW or by pressing “C” on a keyboard. Dragging in on the corners will modify the cropping. The top tool modifier bar at the top of Photo RAW also provides additional modifiers that can be used to adjust crop ratio and rotation.

When Cropping, it’s a good thing to think about the overall vision of the image first. How should the scene be represented visually on the screen? Depending on the photograph, the crop could play a vital role in describing a subject or scene’s mood. At first, it’s smart to play it safe and use the appropriate ones; a horizontal 3:2 cropping for landscape and vertical or (portrait) cropping (4:5, 5:7, etc.) for images with people in them. Try using horizontal cropping for a vertically shot portrait, maybe a 16:9; this will provide a cinematic feel to the image, sort of like a close-up. It becomes a bit more complicated with landscapes, especially since the subjects tend to become much more substantial in a scene.

Cropping Tips for Photo Editing

With landscapes, cropping is just as significant. Landscape photographers use cropping to level images, remove trees and shrubs from corners of images, and create compression by “zooming” into an area. Cropping is also a useful tool for helping viewers understand the “intent” of images. If a subject or particular part of a photograph is cropped in on, it feels more prominent and important. Doing this can help define subjects in more extensive landscape scenes that have many different parts of interest.

Basic Photo Editing Cropping Tips

Histogram in Photography

The histogram is a sophisticated visual tool in photography used to view the tonal values in an image. The histogram is a fantastic way to see if a photograph is exposed correctly; it shows a graphical representation of all of the photo’s tones and colors. To the left of the histogram are the Shadow tones, and to the histogram’s right are the Highlight tones. In the middle are the image’s Midtones or middle greys. In a “perfectly” exposed photograph, the histogram would show a small mound rising in the middle and falling off as it went to the left and right. Since achieving a perfectly exposed photograph is nearly impossible, this idea is used as a guide to reference when editing.

The bump and spikes of white in the histogram represent the overall exposure of tonalities. If the peaks and bumps occur on the histogram’s left, shadow tones cover the majority of the image. If the histogram is spiking near the middle, mid tones are the main tone of the photograph. Typically, when mid tones are the principal tonality with bumps and spikes, the image is exposed correctly. If the histogram spikes to the far right, the highlights are peaking, and this means the image may be overexposed. The color bumps and spikes show where those specific colors lie within distinct tones in our photograph. For example, if the histogram shows yellow and it’s spiking in the left, there are yellow color tones within the shadow tones of the picture.

Photo Editing Basics: How to Use the Histogram

In our example below, most of the image is covered in dark, shadow tones; this is shown in the white spike near the left side of the histogram. These tones hold a lot of blue colors, which is shown in the blue peaks on the histogram’s right. The mid tones have a small amount of white peaking, which explains the slightly exposed area near the bottom of the photograph where the last bit of sun is touching the sky. There isn’t any highlight peaking happening at all, however, because there are little to no highlight tones within the shot. The image is too dark right now from all of the shadow tones.

How to Edit Photos with the Histogram

In this example, notice how the left side of the histogram has far less white peaking. The white spikes and bumps now cover most of the right side, where the mid tones and highlights are, meaning these tones cover most of the photograph. There is also a lot of red spiking near the right side of the histogram by the highlights; this is because there is a lot of warm, red color inside the mid tones and highlights. The previous example’s image didn’t have any highlights at all, while this image has an abundance, shown by the peaking of white in the histogram’s right. Now, this isn’t a better exposure; it’s merely a more even exposure than the previous example.

Basic Photo Editing

If these seem basic, check out our article on Becoming an Advanced Editor.

Put These Photo Editing Tips to the Test

ON1 offers a variety of photo editing software for every type of photographer. From beginner to professional, our lineup features options for everyone. From Photoshop and Lightroom plugins to our own raw photo editing software Photo RAW, we can meet you wherever you want to edit your photos.

4 comments on “How to Edit Photos: The Foundational Photo Editing Basics”

  1. On July 15, 2020 at 11:41 am Colin Lawrence wrote:

    Colin Lawrence

    You guys are simply the best! Congratulations on your 15 year anniversary!

  2. On July 20, 2020 at 12:21 pm Todd Prior wrote:

    Todd Prior

    Is the histogram in ON1 the raw histogram or the output of the processing pipeline or other?? Thanks

    1. On July 21, 2020 at 12:42 am Chris Newham replied:

      Chris Newham

      Hi, good question, given the histogram changes as you move the sliders I would say its on the output if it was on the RAW then I wouldn’t expect the histogram to change as the sliders are moved as your never changing the RAW.

      Lets see if the OnOne engineers give us an answer.

  3. On July 20, 2020 at 3:58 pm Eugene Dopheide wrote:

    Eugene Dopheide

    thank you for the article and advice, should help my editing; instead of fumbling with many sliders in an attempt to get a desired result, will try this!

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