These are six of the most common mistakes I see photographers make in their editing regardless of skill level. This part will cover white balance, getting caught up in your histogram, and not spending enough time cropping.
I highly recommended part one of this article, where I cover gentle editing techniques, saturation control, and how to prevent haloing. If you’re short on time, the main takeaway is to edit with a lighter hand in everything you do. There’s nothing more rewarding than having friends, family, or peers say “wow” when they see something you’ve created. We tend to fall into patterns of “more is better” to accomplish this, yet it leaves our work looking a bit too punchy or extreme because we are trying to run before we learn to walk.
I’ll repeat what I said in part one: everything here is my personal opinion. Don’t stop yourself from editing in the style and manner you find enjoyable. These are just the practices I see most often that stand out to me as being poor editing.
Don’t get stuck worrying about white balance. As long as you are shooting in raw, which you should be as a landscape photographer, then it’s not something you need to think about out in the field. There’s so much to learn in photography that the less you have to worry about, the better, especially when you are just starting out. That isn’t to say white balance isn’t important, but unlike any other setting made in camera, you can alter it later without any degradation to your image when you’re shooting in raw.
I wrote an entire article on white balance in landscape photography that I highly recommend if you want a deep dive into the topic. White balance should be a tool you use when you’re editing, not necessarily something that needs to be accurate or correct. Of course, there are soft guidelines or general rules of thumb when choosing a white balance. If your photo contains subjects that you know should be a certain color such as snow, grass, or trees, just make sure not to push those colors outside their believable range. Are the trees being hit by light? Is the snow in shadow? What was the scene like when you were there?
These are questions you can ask yourself to decide how you want your image to appear. Unlike many forms of photography, landscape photography doesn’t require a perfect white balance. Take the above image as a prime example. I’ve shifted the white balance by a large margin (values are in scale because this was converted from raw), yet both images look accurate depending on what mood or vibe I want to represent.
Abstract images like the one above can be pushed to the extreme to create whatever style you want. The absence of any recognizable objects means you can shift the colors to whatever you want without much second thought. The big takeaway here is to use white balance as a tool, not a restriction. It can enhance your images in many ways, especially when you start using local adjustments to apply different levels of white balance.
I often see people get too caught up in trying to make sure their histogram is where it’s “supposed to be.” A lot of educators, especially in the landscape photography space, talk about making sure to not clip your highlights or crush your blacks. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, all it really means is to not overexpose or underexpose your image so that you retain as much detail as possible. This is important to follow, but sometimes, I see people restricting themselves because of it, myself included.
The histogram is the best tool to measure exposure and to make sure we are capturing all the details we want in our images regardless of how adjusted our eyes might be or what our exposure meter is reporting. However, it’s just a tool, much the same as white balance. Use the above image as an example. On the left is the image I prefer. The shadow detail is nonexistent, and that area appears in the darkness. The histogram reflects these choices and shows the majority of my image weighted in shadow. If I bring the details up, giving a more pleasing histogram such as the right image, even though I end up recovering the shadow detail like I should so that I’m not crushing my black levels, the image loses its impact.
The key here is to use the histogram to help keep your eyes honest, but don’t get too caught up in making sure you’re keeping perfect detail in your images or that your histogram needs to look like a bell curve.
Out of the six editing mistakes, I believe this is the area where you could improve your work the most. I don’t think people spend enough time in the crop tool making decisions about their images presentation. Yes, some photos are straightforward and the crop ends up being obvious, but I’m just referring to those images that you can’t quite figure out, the ones that sit in your catalog, staring at you, waiting to come alive, but aren’t there yet because you haven’t figured out how they’re supposed to be cropped.
I could write an entire article on how to go about cropping your images, but the main three questions you should ask yourself are:
- How does the crop help the viewer’s eye find the subject or subjects of the photo?
- What is or isn’t important in the image?
- Does cropping remove a distraction or dead space?
The takeaway here is to crop with intention. Experiment with space, movement, and what you want the story of your image to be. I’ve gotten some absolutely beautiful images submitted to me for critique that simply lacked direction and intention in their crop. Speaking of, if you’re interested in potentially having your own images edited by me, make sure to watch the video portion in this article. This is something I constantly try to improve myself and willfully admit that sometimes, it’s the hardest part of an image, so don’t get discouraged. I’ve spent literal hours mulling over a cropping decision. It’s worth it in the end because it can push some images to the next tier; it just takes patience.
I hope this two-part series was helpful, and I’d love to know your thoughts below. Are there areas you’re struggling with? What common mistakes do you find in your work or the work of others?