Digital Editing 101

Following an Art Photograph from Capture to Print-Readiness


In this tutorial I've concentrated on the Photoshop Curves and Hue/Sat. tools which both work in 16-bit mode. There are many sophisticated and complex ways to edit an image involving layers, masks, blend modes, etc., etc. Sometimes you will in fact need to delve into these exotic realms to get the job done. What we've covered in this lesson are the bread-and-butter tools that should serve for the majority of your editing needs.

There are two especially frustrating issues in image editing for the beginner. One is learning how to use all the tools available; this can be conquered with time and patience. The other is a feeling of inadequacy regarding one's aesthetic judgement. Why did Dale make just the changes he illustrated above and no others? It may not seem to be the case now, but this too is just a matter that time and patience will overcome.

It's important to realize that in making the changes I made above, I was not moving toward some single ideal version of the raw image. If I had started work on this image yesterday or tomorrow instead of today I might well have ended up somewhere very different. If some other artist had started from the same raw file she would very likely have ended up somewhere very different. Part of the reason it's called art instead of science is for this very reason, that there is no single correct answer to any aesthetic decision.

That said there is a practical distinction between the first efforts of an amateur chef to create her own goulash recipe and the seemingly effortless creation of a veteran chef. The distinction is that the former may very well taste so bad that it has to be tossed. So the first principle of image editing is never to burn your bridges. Always preserve your raw file and quite possibly the original TIFF you generated from it, so you can go back to square one if needed. If you spend an hour cloning out a phone wire running across the full length of your picture, save that much work before proceeding to introduce a radical colour shift or sharpening procedure that may ruin the entire "meal".

As an art student I once saw a short movie made of Picasso creating a painting on glass of a Riviera beach scene. Pablo with brush and paints on one side of the vertical glass pane; camera on the other. He started out quickly and deftly, then had to wipe out an area, repainted, then wiped again. In the end he was not satisfied with the image and declared it an instructive failure. This may well be the most important lesson a creative artist can learn. If Picasso allowed himself to fail, so can you. To an artist, the eraser is every bit as important a tool as pencil and paper.

Next steps

Learn about palette power and tone sculpting when you're ready in Digital Editing 102: Making it Sing