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How to Edit


Walk to Paradise Garden

W. Eugene Smith


Can you learn the ins-and-outs of editing by reading this?


This document can help you to create your own

Caterpillar to butterfly

Not answers, but ways to elicit them

What Are We Editing?

A photograph is a complex device.

Go to What's a Good Photograph?.

With Photoshop Elements, your photographs have adjustment knobs.

Three Goals

You're achieving three goals when you edit a photograph.

The goals, below, are 1, 2, 3.

But they're all poured into the same glass and shaken until they glow.

Goal #1 - Deep Structure

Your first goal is to find and understand the deep structure of the photograph.

Because Balanchine had studied music as well as ballet, he had an uncanny way of "seeing" the deep structure of the music he was setting and of rendering it visible.

Where as lesser choreographers might respond to the ornamentation of the score and set a trill, say, or a clash of cymbals, Balanchine ignored the surface irritation of the music and went right to its unfolding principles of development and contrast.

That was the source of the exhilarating beauty of those evenings.

City Boy, Edmund White

Goal # 2 - Context

Your second goal is to find and understand the context in which the photograph operates.

Context includes:

• Why you pressed the shutter release.

• The audience for the photograph.


• Knowledge of the subject.

For example, the director Carlos Reygadas, knows the Mennonite community in Mexico.

His film, Stellet Licht (Silent Light) used residents of the community as the actors, and filmed in their community.

• The conventions of the genre to which the photograph belongs.

Why reinvent them?

By knowing the conventions right away, you can bend and break them if needed.

• Your visual style.



Mixture of Mel Torme and Mel Brookes

Or ?

• What's being communicated.

That's the primary guide to editing.

Let's say you're editing a street scene in India.

If you're communicating . . .

The color of the scene . . .

Make a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.

The poverty of the children . . .

Burn and dodge their bedraggled clothing.

The booming economy of India . . .

Crop the scene to where there's the most sense of motion.

• Presentation.

A print, matted and framed

Web gallery

Hand-made book



• If part of a larger project, appropriate consistency with, or departure from, the other photographs in the project.

Goal #3 - Command of the Tools

Your third goal is to command and flow your cognition, judgment, luck, and intuition via the tools.

Here, intuition is a mixture of stored thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

You command and flow the knobs on the photographic device.

Ways to Reveal

Deep Structure & Context


Suspend judgment when brainstorming.

There's plenty of time for judgment later.

Wizard's Hat

Place it on your head.

Don't worry.

No one can see it except you—and the photograph.


Set a timer for five minutes, and write as much as you can about the photograph.

Who, what, where, when, why

Nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs

Text Bubble

Draw a rectangle in the middle of a sheet of paper.

That's your photograph.

Draw a cartoon text bubble coming from the photograph.

Write in the bubble what the photograph is saying.


Where's the light coming from?

Light from the direction of the camera encourages flatness.

Light from the side encourages texture and a stronger sense of volume, due to shadows.

Backlighting encourages separation from the background.

How contrasty is the light?

Bright shadows with diffuse edges?

Dark shadows with distinct edges?


If you didn't set the white balance to match the color of the light in the scene, you'll probably need to correct the color.

If you're editing a raw file, open the WB menu in the Basic panel and select the correct white balance setting.

Otherwise, use the eyedropper in the WB section of the basic panel.

Click on the eyedropper, and then click on something in the scene that should be gray, white, or black.

Play with saturation.

Try black-and-white.

Explore the psychology of color, too.


Set a timer for three minutes, and sketch the photograph.

Start with straight lines.

Then, curved lines.

Then, shapes (rectangles, squares, circles).

Highlights are little x's or ?.

Shadows are little circles or ?

Label motion with cartoon speed lines or ?.

Label stasis with underlines or ?

Two Dimensions

Place a tic-tac-toe grid on the photograph to apply the Rule of Thirds.

In the Develop module, above the Basic panel, click the Crop tool.

Press o (letter o) until you see the tic-tac-toe grid.

Where do the elements of the photograph sit and hang from the grid?

Vignette the middle of the photograph.

Hold your fist between your eyes and the monitor.

Do the edges and corners add, or subtract, from the photograph?

Three Dimensions

Look for flatness and depth.

Does the foreground, if present, contribute to photograph?

If it's not present, should it be?

How about the background.

Focal Point

Where do the viewer's eyes look, at first?

Do they stay there?

Is there a secondary focal point?

Do the viewer's eyes stop scanning?

Or, do they keep moving around?

The Tools

Tools have rules, to be broken, of course.


Rules are applied without gray.

They're black-and-white.

But, you work in a gray world.

Rules make you confident and comfortable, when you should be anxious about the myriad choices between the photograph and you.

That's okay.

Use your rules "blankie" to balance yourself as you cross the high wire of choices.

Then, float.

Break the rules, as needed.

Deletion Tools

Delete what get's in the way.


Deemphasize Tools

Deemphasize what you can't delete.



Lower contrast.


Add Tools

Add what's needed.


Emphasize Tools




Increase contrast.


Good Work Habits


Keep it simple, at first.

Mathew Carey Lea made the suggestion in 1868, and it still applies today.


Mathew Carey Lea (1823-1897)

Global → Local → Global

1) Edit globally, at first.

Do things that change the entire photograph, such as Levels.

2) Then, do local editing, such as burning and dodging.

3) Finally, return to global editing by doing noise reduction and sharpening, if needed.


Always check your work.

Press y to see the original next to the edited version.

If you make a virtual copy before editing, click back-and-forth between the the original and the virtual copy.

Go to Compare.

This is how you teach yourself what looks good.

Editor Anxiety

You have many choices.

That can be daunting.

Take a break.

The Basic panel get's the photograph to 80%.

Doing some burning and dodging with the Adjustment Brush tool gets the photograph to 90%.

That's a big improvement.

As you do more, you'll get closer to 100%.

Three Helps

Help #1 - Umpf

Experience = umpf.

If you edit enough, and it doesn't have to be hundreds of photographs, you'll develop umpf.

Umpf appears when you're making a choice.

You look up and to the right and you think of what needs to be done.

Help #2 - Passage of Time

The passage of time increases your ability to judge your editing.

Reopen photographs that you've edited, and check them.

Help #3 - Project

Work on a project, a body of work that's related.

What you want to communicate, with the help of editing, with one of the photograph, can often be applied to the others.

Feedback Loop

By editing, you've added a powerful feedback loop to your endeavors behind the camera.

By editing, you become a better photographer.

Reward Yourself

When your all done, compare the original version with your edited version.

As mentioned:

• Press y to see the original next to the edited version.

• If you make a virtual copy before editing, click back-and-forth between the the original and the virtual copy.

Go to Compare.