I think it’s fairly safe to say that most photographers are pretty rubbish at editing in their first years. Like anything, you will look back on old work and wince a little bit, wondering how and why on earth any body let you put that on the internet. It’s good - it means you’re improving.
You can edit like any photographer that you admire (although I would recommend developing a style that is your own so that people can recognise you for you, rather than “a rip-off Leibovitz”. Nobody touches Leibovitz.
I edit all my photos in Adobe Lightroom, and I’m very pro-preset. Everybody should use presets. Start with bought or borrowed presets that have been developed by other photographers or companies, (I used VSCO and a few free trial presets to begin with), and tweak them until you can eventually find a style that you would like to replicate over and over and make presets of your own! If you would like an entire blog post on presets, let me know here.
I have developed six presets that I like using for different sessions, and I change them up depending on the light conditions. Generally speaking, you won’t be able to use the same preset on a shoot that was in a late afternoon overcast area, and an early morning golden hour session because the settings often won’t be versatile enough. That’s okay! The idea is to give yourself a starting point from which you can alter - not all your photographs need to look identical, they should just run in a general “theme” so that your work is recognisable.
Where to start.
I’m going to be editing a small engagement session that was shot in the late afternoon, in overcast and slightly rainy conditions. Here is the original.
I have my presets saved in my favourites. I tried a few of my presets, and the one that I found worked best is Nutmeg.
This has made the photograph extremely warm, which is not accurate or very pleasing to the eye. But, like I said, it is a starting point and nothing else. What I can see from this preset is that it will make the skin tones creamy and hold detail in the shadows. The light is fairly even, but I like to make sure that even with an overedited preset, there is enough detail in both the highlights and the shadows to play with.
The first thing I’m going to do here is decrease the exposure slightly. I do this to most of my images, simply because it creates a moody story rather than a soft, light fairy-floss one. Like I said before, every style will be different, and no style is right or wrong, it should simply be consistent.
Secondly, I will decrease the temperature slightly. There is nothing natural about the skin tones in the photo after the preset has been applied, and decreasing the temperature will not only make my subjects look a little more passable as human beings, but also set the mood for the photograph. This was not a sunny day, there is no need to try convincing my audience that it was one.
Thirdly, I play with the tint. I try to avoid overly red skin tones, as it makes subjects look extremely artificial. Too green is not helpful either, but if you can find something that gives the a creamy, almond impression, you’re on the right track.
Keep and eye on your sliders, during these processes. These give you a little more control over your colours, and keep certain tones in check. As you can see on the “saturation” slider, the green has been pulled right down. There is a little bit of green in the background of this image that is being lost by that dropped saturation, so I would probably tweak that slightly.
Next, I desaturate the yellow and red colours slightly, too, hopefully taking any artificial skin tones out of the mix completely.
Finally, check the Tone Curve tab. A huge gamechanger for taking images to bland and oat-milky to something that pops. The general rule of thumb is to keep the white line in an “S” curve, meaning that the shadows will be lightened slightly while holding onto heavy blacks, and the highlights will do the opposite, saving under- and over-exposed elements of an image.
And that’s it! Easy. You’ll notice that the skin tones are light and creamy, rather than the red in the original, and the bride’s hair has gone from a slight orange tint to golden blonde. The shadows have dipped, not so much that detail is lost, while making every highlight pop in comparison.