The Beginner’s Guide to Photo Editing

August 11, 2017

Calle Fortaleza, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

My boyfriend Alex is still learning how to take photos that will meet my (admittedly often too lofty) standards, but thanks to some guileful photo editing, I’ve managed turn some of his subpar shots into like-worthy material for this blog and my Instagram account! Of course, I’m no professional myself, often guilty of relying on the “Automatic” mode on my Sony RX100 II when I feel like I don’t have the time to fuss with manual settings. The results may vary, with some shots warranting more post-processing than others, but the common thread between all my photos is that they have all been edited to some degree.

Photo editing can really elevate a photo you thought wasn’t even worth displaying to one you’re proud enough to print out, frame, and add to your mantelpiece (a rare thought in this day and age!).

Before you take the photo

Think of editing as akin to tailoring: the better a garment fits initially, the less work there is in making it fit properly. Similarly, the foundation for the perfect “after” photo is a well-taken “before” shot. It only follows that just as it’s nearly impossible to tailor clothing that’s already too small to begin with, there are some shots that even editing can’t salvage. All this is to say that you shouldn’t rely on editing alone for good photos. Instead, aim to set up good composition, lighting, and depth in your viewfinder before you even press the shutter button.

If you’d like to know how I set up my shots, be on the lookout for a future post on how I do this.

Apps for photo editing

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (for desktop and mobile!)

Lightroom differs from Photoshop in that the former is better for cropping and color correcting photos while the latter is better for retouching, adding text, and more advanced manipulation. Lightroom even allows you to save your favorite combinations of settings as presets for more consistent editing. (Can you tell what my go-to preset involves?)

I do most of my photo editing on Lightroom via my MacBook but occasionally defer to the mobile app on my iPhone if I have to make an emergency Instagram post (ha!). You can download a free 7-day trial of the full version of Lightroom here. After that, it’s as little as $9.99 a month for a subscription. If you don’t care for the monthly fee, Lightroom is available completely free as an app on both iOS and Android but lacks some more advanced functionalities available on the desktop version (none of which I even described in this post).


A free advanced online photo editor (recommended by my friend Caroline!) that allows you to add layers, effects, and overlays.

The classics
  • Instagram allows you to color correct and overlay filters over your photos.
  • Apple Photos is great for basic photo editing and has an easy-to-use retouch tool to eliminate blemishes.

I use this to make photo collages such as the side-by-side of the brewery and Goldendoodle found in this post. (If you’re confused about that juxtaposition, just read the post!)


Nexus 5X, El Yunque, Puerto Rico

Photo editing jargon for the beginner

ExposureHow light or dark an image appears overall. It’s possible for a photo to be under- or overexposed, leading to the loss of detail on either end of the spectrum. If a photo is overexposed, it’ll be too bright and wash out the detail, for example. Some over- or underexposure is deliberate depending on a photographer’s style, so if the effect your photo creates pleases you, embrace it!

Saturation. The intensity of colors overall. Changing this will uniformly affect all colors in a shot. Oversaturation can lead to loss of detail and lend an orange look to skin tones (great for the fake tan look without the fake tan). Not to be confused with Vibrance.

Vibrance. This is an effect available on Adobe Lightroom. The intensity of more muted colors within a shot. Bumping this up will increase the intensity of colors that could use a boost while leaving the well-saturated ones alone. In the absence of this feature on other apps, I use Saturation very carefully.

Clarity. The amount of texture and detail. For example, some people might want to decrease clarity on portraits to avoid defining fine lines, wrinkles, or blemishes. Also called “Structure” on Instagram and “Definition” on Apple Photos on OSX only (not available on iOS). Not to be confused with Sharpen.

Sharpen. To make edges clearer and more defined.

Shadows, highlights, midtones. Respectively, the darkest areas of a photo, the lightest, and the areas in between.

Dehaze. This is an effect on Adobe Lightroom that helps eliminate atmospheric haze or fog. I like to use this to define clouds against the sky or make distant objects appear less hazy.

Photo editing basics

As I highlight above, many of the above aspects can be deliberately taken to either end of the spectrum depending on the style of the photographer or editor. For example, while some may opt for an underexposed photo to bring a brooding quality to a shot, others may choose an overexposed photo for a bright, cheery mood.

Photo Editing Lightroom

My personal preference is to edit my photos so that the final product most accurately represents the scene as my eyes saw it, but even brighter, more colorful, and more detailed.  This often means giving the photo a boost of exposure, vibrance, and clarity – with some dehazing thrown in for good measure. (If the photo looks overly processed, I’ll know I’ve gone too far!)

You can move the slider on the following photos back and forth to compare the “Before” and “After”. I’ll be discussing the process I used to edit on Adobe Lightroom, so the Dehaze function might not be applicable if you don’t have access to that program. Here are some tweaks you can make on Instagram or Apple photos to mimic Lightroom’s Dehaze.

  • Instagram substitute: I’ve found the Lux slider (the black and white sun icon at the top of the screen) provides a vaguely similar effect.
  • Apple Photos substitute: Apple Photos has separate sliders for Exposure and Brightness. Exposure, as described above, will darken or brighten the photo overall, while Brightness will affect only the darkest areas. After playing around with the settings, it looks like a combination of decreasing brightness and increasing “Black Point” lends the most similar effect to Dehaze.

The photo above involves a hefty bit of Dehaze to compensate for the haziness from the indirect sunlight shining over the tops of the buildings. I then lightened the shadows that the Dehaze function darkened a bit too much for my liking. Finally, I increased the vibrance and clarity so that the colors and architectural details on the buildings behind me appear more striking.


A DSLR, mirrorless camera, or even high-end point-and-shoot like mine are definitely no longer prerequisites to good photos. I’m often impressed with the shots that smartphones can capture, such as the one above taken with my boyfriend Alex’s Nexus 5X! Again, the indirect sunlight led to some dehazing, which also helped to define the hills in the background. Shadows and exposure are boosted to increase the brightness of the shot. I topped it off with added vibrance and clarity to draw attention to the varied blues and greens in the ocean and foliage.


I included this shot to show that some slight photo editing can improve a photo that was already good to begin with. Clarity and vibrance boosts on Alex’s handsome face intensify the color of his hair (“I can actually see my eyebrows!” he joked) and emphasize the details in his eyes. (Is it obvious how much I love this guy?

General photo editing tips

  • If you’re aiming for a photo with intense colors but don’t want orange skin tones, increase Vibrance rather than Saturation.
  • Similarly, deepen blacks if you want to get rid of some haziness. (The Dehaze tool would also work, if you have Lightroom).
  • You can use Clarity to adjust the look of skin overall, increasing to add more detail and ruggedness and decreasing to soften blemishes or lines.
  • Lightening shadows or darkening highlights sparingly can add better detail to a photo, making visible any areas that were initially too dark or too light to see.
  • Generally, filters will alter the realism of a photo, so if you’re going for that “Real Life, But Better” look, try to stay away from these.

Photo editing “challenge”

Now that you’ve learned the basics of photo editing, I challenge you to go out and find your own style! As cliché as it sounds, the best way to learn is to experiment. Play around with different settings and apps until you find effects that appeal to you. Creativity is subjective; don’t allow anyone to raise doubts in your ability to create. You can find inspiration in the work of others, but in the end it’s all about your perspective and how you want your photos to reflect it. (You can read more about how to be confident in your creativity while navigating social media here.)


What’s your editing style or favorite photo editing app? Let me know in the comments below!

In How-To by /
Previous Post