Picture This: Photo Editing

Every now and then I need a break from taking photos so instead I spend a little time fixing them up. When people ask me how I take such good photos, I always tell them it all comes down to three things: composition, light, and editing. We’ve already talked a bit about composition, later we’ll talk about light, and today we’re going to talk about the many software tools at your disposal to help you churn out great photos.

Before we begin though, we need to talk about what kind of software you are going to use. There are a few free options out there that can help you get the look you want for your photos. The first one is Picnik. Picnik is an online photo editor that partners with websites like Google+ and Flickr to help people quickly apply basic editing tools to their photos in an easy to understand format.* Here you can resize, crop, adjust contrast and brightness, apply filters (or effects as they call it), edit the sharpness, add text, frames, stickers–the works! What I love about Picnik is that it’s super easy to use for utter noobs.

Screenshot from Picnik photo editing website.

Another free photo editing software is Picasa. Picasa is partnered with Google and offers a few more options for the advancing photo editor. It offers you all the basics like exposure, levels, and saturation, but it also allows users to edit photos side by side and it’s greatest advantage is Picasa’s photo sharing and web sync options. In our first column I encouraged you to use Google’s Picasa albums as a way to store your photos. Well, now when you edit your photos in Picasa’s photo editing software, you elect for it to also automatically update your albums! (Unfortunately Picasa is not available for my operating system (Linux) so I’m sorry there’s not screenshot for you.)

And the last free photo editing software is a biggie: GIMP. I think I should make a disclaimer here that while GIMP is arguably the most comprehensive free software out there, it is also a bitch to use. This is not in any stretch of the word an “intuitive” program and I have been known to swear loudly with gusto while using it. That being said, if you can’t afford to buy a copy of Photoshop, you are an advanced photo editor, and you have oodles of patience (or determination), then this might you go-to software. GIMP allows users to do pretty much all the same things as Photoshop like editing and mixing channels and layers in addition to the basic stuff like cropping, resizing, saturation, adding noise, exposure, and balancing levels.

GIMP Photo Editing Software Screenshot

So now that we know what kind of software to use, we can start talking about what to do with it. I’m going to share with you three basic tools that you can use to make your photos better: exposure, contrast and brightness, and sharpening (and I’m going to do it in Picnik for the noobs out there).

Sunset over Seattle with Mount Rainier illuminated in the distance.
This photo is a little dark and could use more contrast and perhaps a lighter exposure to bring out the colors and definition of the sky and mountain.

Exposure is the overall brightness of your photo. In a camera, this means the sensitivity of your sensor to light. When you adjust this up or down, all levels (shadows, midtones, and highlights) remain relative to the exposure level you’ve selected and will darken or lighten as you move the sliding scale. This tool is very helpful when your photo has come out too dark or too bright and you need to increase or decease the exposure to bring out more contrast or content. However, be careful when using this tool because too light and you will have lots of grain in your phone (grain = speckles, also known as noise).**

A brighter version of the same photo of Seattle.
Here I've adjusted the exposure and brightened the photo but as you can see, I've lost a lot of detail. To fix this, I'm going to adjust the contrast.

Contrast and brightness is another tool every photo editor should be using. Adjusting the contrast will allow you to really bring out the definition in colors and edges while sharpening your tonal range (in other words: adjust the contrast for more vibrant colors but if you take this too far, it will be so sharp that the photo will look like a pop-art print!). Adjusting the brightness will increase the overall lightness of your photo and really brighten the highlights or white parts. If you adjust brightness alone, however, you will lose a lot of definition and your photo will likely look very flat so always adjust this setting with the contrast setting to keep your images sharp. (Note: usually either exposure or brightness will do the trick and you will rarely need to use both to edit your photos.)

And finally, sharpening. This is usually necessary when your photo has not come out in the best of focus or when the light is very low and you want the image to look more detailed. Essentially, sharpening your photo enlarges the pixels (those little tiny, tiny boxes of color that make up a photo) making them more defined and your image appear to be in focus. However, too much sharpening will make it look pixelated (like a mosaic). Sharpening often goes hand in hand with a clarity tool which either blurs or brightens edges. This is useful when editing a soft light source but if you go too far, objects will start to glow in your photos! I’ve seen a lot of photographers apply this tool in excess to their photos and ruin very beautiful scenery with glowing plants and buildings. Make sure you use this tool sparingly!

So how did my photo turn out? I adjusted the exposure, the contrast and the shadows in Picnik to make it brighter with more defined buildings while still maintaining color and definition on Mount Rainier in the background.

A further edition of the photo over Seattle with an illuminated Mount Rainier in the background and a sharp city landscape in the foreground.
All finished!

So here’s your assignment: I want you to choose a photo from your personal archives and play around with it in one of these photo editing software programs, then I want you to come back and post your before and afters! You can also do this assignment with photos from your phone! There are lots of photo editing apps out there including a free Photoshop Express app for Android.

As a reminder, you’re welcome to come and go and participate as you like with this group and please ask questions or share your ideas for future posts! If you haven’t posted your photos from last week’s photo walk, there’s still time! And don’t forget to join our group where you can share ideas, tips and suggestions with each other!

*Picnik is closing its doors on April 18th and will become (from what I can tell) a new program integrated into Google+, so use it while you can! The shutdown will also include removing plugins in Flickr and Picasa web albums.

**Picnik doesn’t have a brightness and contrast control but rather highlights, shadows, and contrast. These basically do the same thing. Many programs have different names and functions so if you don’t see your favorite tool, it’s probably still there just under a new name! Play around with all of them until you find the one you’re looking for!

***To post photos in the comments, you can use the photo uploader or copy and paste images into the comment section.  What you may not know is that when you create an account with Google, you are also creating an account with Picasa Web Albums. To access it, click “photos” on the bar at the top of your screen while in Gmail or if you’re not a Gmail user, go to Google, click on the more tab at the top, select “Photos” and create an account (or just click on the link above). Follow the instructions to upload a photo. When you are done, open the photo and right click to copy it. Then come back to the comments and paste it. Easy-peasy. Let me know if you have trouble with this and I’ll help. Send me a personal message.

By Thelma

Thelma is a photographer and traveler currently residing in Sydney, Australia. In her free time she can be found with her nose behind a camera or obsessing over koalas.

24 replies on “Picture This: Photo Editing”

Grouchier, eh? You could try putting it in black and white, really cranking up the contrast, adding some noise and applying a vignette (usually found lumped in with lighting tools). I think it looks nice though! You’re probably right about it being to bright to begin with. Also, I find that dense trees are just really hard to work with full stop. Too many lines, so little definition! I think I’ve only succeeded twice at capturing that dark, scary woods look (many, many failed attempts!). What Would Ansel Do?

The Sims first inspired me to try my hand at photo manipulation tools, so I thought I’d use one of the screenshots from the game I have on my hard drive.



In addition to adjusting the brightness/contrast and sharpening slightly (too much sharp in a Sims picture makes the edges look wonky) I upped the saturation slightly to bring out the wall color and the wood tones.

I may do more of these, because I love this part of photography.

Nice virtual-house! At first I thought it was real until I read “Sims.” haha! Good job using the tools! It looks so bright inside, you could edit real estate photos for a living! (I only say this because I’ve been apartment hunting all week and nothing looks as good and bright in real life as it does in the agency’s photos!) And pretty cool that you used a virtual game for your photo–I think there is a real market for this kind of photography or photo art (especially in building planning) and it’s good to see a little of it here!

Preview can be useful for the very basic changes: look under the tools menu to see fonts and make adjustments.

If you want something a mite similar to MS Paint, Pinta is good (and it is free too). Then, there’s Photospace, which comes recommended by a couple of friends. Otherwise, GIMP is the only free option I can think of, off the top of my head.

But i agree, iPhoto is absurdly unweildy. The only reason I keep it around is so I can change wallpapers easily.

I have no experience personally with iPhoto but these Qob and Chocolate Clusters made some great suggestions. If you haven’t tried the online photo editing tools yet, you might find it’s not too bad. I found that editing my fairly large photo in Picnik with an absurdly slow wireless connection (as in 1 bar out of 5) was still pretty responsive. Good luck!

If you’re a Windows user, there’s also paint.NET, which I’ve found a little more easy-to-use than Gimp – though I’ll be honest most of the higher-level stuff it can do is beyond me at the moment.

Also, if anyone knows a good standalone program for compositing photos for HDR, let me know… haven’t managed to find one that’s ‘just right’ and works yet.

Yeah, HDR… I have tried so many programs and haven’t found one that actually works either. Photoshop is supposed to have a new plugin that does it for you but I haven’t tried it yet. My new camera has an HDR setting on it but I haven’t figured out how to use it either and not make every photo come out looking like a screenshot from Mortal Combat.

I was trying to put together snowy landscape photos that I’d taken using AEB but they would never line up quite right in the standalone programs I found… and I couldn’t figure out how to do it on paint.NET even with perusing the forums to death.

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