The Top 5 Photo Editing Skills to Master

Look like a pro with every photo

Photo editor working with photographer
shironosov/iStock

It’s uncommon to have a single photograph capture a scene exactly as intended. There are some exceptions, such as portrait photos taken inside a studio, where lighting, backgrounds, camera positioning, and even poses are under great control. Thankfully, there are plenty of image editing programs and mobile apps packed with tools to help you improve your photos.

The photo editing skills/techniques you want to master are:

  • Cropping and Rule of Thirds

  • Rotating

  • Applying adjustment layers and masks

  • Correcting color and saturation

  • Sharpening

Best results will come from desktop/laptop software (e.g. Adobe Photoshop CS/Elements and alternatives to Photoshop), although some mobile apps for Android/iOS are also quite capable. Before you begin, make sure to work on copies of photos and not the originals. You don’t want to accidentally and/or permanently overwrite/lose the original data!

01
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Cropping and Rule of Thirds

A screenshot of the process of cropping a landscape image
The crop tool is one of the most effective ways to direct viewers’ attention to where you want it to go. Mark Desmond / Getty Images

Unless you’re specifically planning and capturing perfect shots every single time, there’s a good chance that many of your photos can be enhanced by with some cropping. Although considered a basic image manipulation skill, the use of the crop tool is one of the most effective ways to direct viewers’ attention to where you want it to go.

Cropping a photo involves removing unwanted (typically outer) parts of an image. It’s quick and simple to do, and the results can turn great photos into a professional-looking ones. Consider:

  • Crop to improve composition/focus: If your subject matter feels small and/or lost within the image, crop so that it fills the frame – more subject, less background. Or you might want to "zoom-in" on a specific part of the subject. Either way, the change of perspective will help to emphasize and create a clearer point of interest to viewers.

  • Crop to remove details: Distracting elements can be wayward shadows, bits of trash, unrelated objects/strangers, excessive backgrounds, unused/empty/uninteresting space, or anything else that intrudes on or doesn’t contribute to the spirit of the photograph. Cropping is an easy fix, especially if such distractions are towards the edges of the image.

  • Crop to change orientation/framing: When taking pictures in the moment, we may forget to hold the camera in a way that complements the subject (i.e. vertically for tall scenes/objects, horizontally for wide scenes/objects). You can apply a horizontal crop to a vertical image or a vertical crop to a horizontal image in order to switch the perspective and create a stronger piece.

  • Crop to change aspect ratio: Cameras can shoot in different aspect ratios, which offer different qualities in terms of what a person sees within the image (e.g. a 4:3 aspect ratio picture is distinct from one set to 5:4 or 1:1). Cropping for aspect ratio can also be crucial when one wants to print photos at a specific size in order to fit a frame.

One of the most common terms heard in photography is the Rule of Thirds, which relates to composition. Think of the Rule of Thirds like superimposing a 3x3 grid (i.e. tic-tac-toe lines) on top of an image – many digital cameras and software editing programs have this as a standard feature. Studies have shown that, when looking at an image, our eyes will naturally gravitate towards the intersection points of the grid. However, many of us commonly take pictures with subjects dead center in the frame.

By enabling the Rule of Thirds overlay, you can adjust a crop so that subjects/elements are intentionally positioned along lines and/or at intersection points. For example, in landscape photography, you might want to crop an image so that the horizon or foreground is set along one of the horizontal lines. For portraits, you might want to place the head or an eye at an intersection point.

02
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Rotating

A screenshot of an image being rotated in Photoshop
Rotating a photo just enough can set the correct perspective and get rid of any subliminal distractions. Plume Creative / Getty Images

Rotating photos is another basic, easy, yet critical skill to apply when editing images. Think about when you see picture frames or floating shelves hung crookedly on a wall. Or a table with uneven feet that moves just a bit whenever someone leans on it. Pretty distracting, right? It’s hard for many not to fixate on such issues once becoming aware of them.

The same concept also relates to photography – shots may not always align as intended, even when using a tripod. Rotating a photo just enough can set the correct perspective and get rid of any subliminal distractions. Just don’t forget to crop once more (for framing) after rotating. Consider:

  • Landscapes: Rotate photos so that the horizon is horizontal from end to end (many image editors can overlay a grid of lines to help with accuracy). This presents a cleaner, symmetrical, and more professional look. Make sure you don’t mistake landscape elements (e.g. sloping hills or valleys, mountain ranges) for the horizon (where the sky meets the earth or sea).

  • Portraits: Instances where someone is leaning up against a vertical surface (e.g. wall, doorway, building, tree, pole, etc.), rotate the photo so that the object is vertical. An exception would be if the object is not vertical in real life – simply reference something else in the image for vertical alignment.

Tip: Adding grid lines (e.g. click View in Photoshop's menu bar, then select Grid) can greatly assist with precise alignment 

But know that photos don’t always have to be rotated so that elements are perfectly aligned vertically or horizontally. Sometimes, you may want to rotate images (and then crop) to give them a creative, unexpected tilt!

03
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Applying Adjustment Layers and Masks

A screenshot of applying an adjustment layer in Photoshop
Adjustment layers allow for modifications without permanently affecting the original image. Mark Desmond / Getty Images

If you want to fine-tune levels (tonal values), brightness/contrast, hue/saturation, and more in a non-destructive way (i.e. making modifications without permanently affecting the original image), applying adjustment layer(s) is the way to go. Think of adjustment layers like overhead projector transparencies; you can write/color on them as much as you like to change what you see, but whatever is underneath remains untouched. Here’s how to create an adjustment layer using Photoshop CS/Elements:

  1. PressD’ to reset foreground/background colors.

  2. Click Layer on the menu bar.

  3. Select New Adjustment Layer.

  4. Select desired layer type.

  5. Click OK (or hit the Enter key).

When you select an adjustment layer, the Adjustments Panel (typically appears underneath the Layers Panel) offers the appropriate controls. Changes are reflected immediately. If you want to see a before/after, merely toggle that adjustment layer’s visibility (eye icon). You can have multiple adjustment layers at the same time, either to compare (e.g. seeing if you prefer black and white vs. sepia tones) and/or combine effects.

Each adjustment layer comes with its own layer mask (represented by the white box next to the adjustment layer’s name). The layer mask controls visibility of selected portions of that adjustment layer – white areas are visible, black are hidden.

Let’s say that you have a photo you want to make black and white except for everything that is green. You would select Hue/Saturation when creating an adjustment layer, move the Saturation slider bar all the way to the left (-100), and then use the Brush Tool to brush over the green areas (you can hide/unhide the adjustment layer to peek at the colors you’re looking for). Over-brushed some pixels? Just use the eraser tool to "erase" those black brush marks. The layer mask’s white box will reflect your edits and show what’s visible and not.

If you’re done with or don’t like an adjustment layer, just delete it! The original image remains unharmed.

04
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Correcting Color and Saturation

A screenshot of an image being edited in Photoshop
To maintain balance and photo realism, take care to not over- or under-saturate an image. Burzain / Getty Images

Modern digital cameras are quite capable, but sometimes (e.g. due to lighting/environment conditions, the way the sensor processes data, etc.) colors in photos can be slightly off. A quick way to tell is by looking at:

  • People's faces and/or skin
  • Something in the image you know should be bright white (e.g. shirt, clouds)

The temperature of light (e.g. cooler from bright blue sky, warmer during sunrise/sunset, drab white under fluorescent bulbs, etc.) during shooting can affect skin tones and white elements with a color cast. Thankfully, small tweaks – particularly with the aforementioned adjustment layers – can correct the colors.

Many image editing programs (and some apps) offer an Auto Color Correction feature, which generally works well (but not always perfectly). Otherwise, colors can be manually manipulated by adjusting:

  • Levels (RGB channels and histogram with option for auto-correct)
  • Hue/saturation (RGBCMY channels)
  • Photo filters (e.g. warming, cooling, etc.), to name a few.

The aforementioned are available as Photoshop CS/Elements adjustment layers, which offer greater control over removing color casts and improving saturation.

To maintain balance and photo realism, take care to not over- or under-saturate an image – or at least the colors that should remain more natural. However, you can make adjustments to select areas of an image (like with the aforementioned layer masks) to saturate specific colors for a bit of creative dramatization. Just don’t forget about adjusting brightness, contrast, highlights, and shadows, since those can help with depth and the separation of colors to really make images pop!

05
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Sharpening

A screenshot of an image being edited in Photoshop
Many image editing programs offer an Auto Sharpen feature as well as several sharpening tools. Fernando Trabanco Fotografía / Getty Images

Sharpening should always be the very last step in the photo editing process. The effect is exactly as it sounds – sharpening refines edges and small details, which helps to improve overall contrast and to make the image appear more distinct. The effect is further pronounced if the image has soft and/or blurred areas.

Many image editing programs and apps offer an Auto Sharpen feature and/or sliders, which allow users to adjust the amount of sharpening applied to the entire photo. There are also sharpening tools (similar to using brushes) that let you manually sharpen only select areas within an image.

But for even greater precision and control, you can use the Unsharp Mask (despite how it sounds, it does sharpen) feature in Photoshop CS/Elements:

  1. Click Enhance on the menu bar.

  2. Select Unsharp Mask. A panel will appear, showing a zoomed-in portion of the image (which you can move around to find details to focus on) and three sliders to adjust sharpening.

  3. Set the Radius Slider (this controls the width of the sharpening lines, higher means more effect) to 0.7 pixels (anywhere between 0.4 and 1.0 is a good place to start).

  4. Set the Threshold Slider (this controls how edges are determined by dictating how different two pixels need to be for sharpening to be applied, lower means more areas/details are sharpened) to 7 levels (anywhere between 1 and 16 is a good place to start).

  5. Set the Amount Slider (this controls the contrast added to edges, higher values mean more sharpening) to 100 percent (anywhere between 50 and 400 is a good place to start).

  6. Nudge the sliders a bit while observing the whole image to find the right amount of sharpening (i.e. suits preferences without overdoing it).

Remember to view images at 100% size on the screen so that sharpening effects are easier to evaluate (the pixels are represented the most accurately). Study areas with more and/or finer bits of detail will help. And keep in mind that more isn’t always better – too much sharpening will add unwanted noise, halos, and/or exaggerated/unnatural lines. Accurate sharpening is an art, so practice often!