As a photographer, there are a few items on my checklist that I make sure are considered before I finish getting a photo ready for sale. These are not necessarily groundbreaking ideas, but they will help you focus on the small things, which I believe make a big difference (in photography and life!). So, here are some guidelines that I follow:
1. Straighten the horizon
Often overlooked, aligning the horizon is one of the first things I do to my photos. While this seems minor, it makes a huge difference in the quality of the photo. If you were to compare two photos side by side, one with the horizon straight and one with the horizon slightly tilted, you would immediately see the difference. However, we usually just have one photo to reference and a slightly tilted horizon is easy to miss. Be sure to check your photos for straightness; it can make a big improvement.
Re-aligning a photo can be done very quickly in Lightroom or a similar software program using the crop tool, which puts a helpful grid on the screen to use. If there is no horizon line visible, try to find something else in the photo that makes sense. If there is a door or a pillar, for example, you might straighten that vertically instead. The point of this is to find some anchor point to make sure that your photo is straight. Of course, a photo can be slanted on purpose for creative reasons but usually photos look best when straight. A bubble level on your camera can also help reduce or eliminate straightening the photo after it’s shot.
2. Remove artifacts
Scan your photo for artifacts and use photo editing software to remove them. Some of your lenses may have spots that will show up on the photo (often times you may see them in the sky) or the image itself may have specs or artifacts that seem out of place. You might also have something distracting in the photo, such as a blurry object, that should be removed. Lightroom, for example, has a tool in Develop mode called Visualize Spots that is very helpful in finding artifacts that you might not see with your eye. The other thing you can do is slide the exposure handle up and down dramatically to show any unwanted spots.
When all else fails, I tend to move around my monitor with my eyes looking at it from various angles to see if I’ve missed anything. It may sound a bit odd, but I always tend to see something I didn’t before by looking at the photo from different angles. This works really well with a laptop that you can move around and angle.
Take a look around the edges of your photos and crop out any unwanted space or items. This may seem pretty basic but there are many times when a photo could be slightly cropped to enhance the overall image. I am guilty of this myself and have found older photos where I should have made a simple, very slight crop. For example, you might find that in one of the corners a building is just slightly showing. Cropping out that little part of the building removes a distraction, improves the focal point, and enhances the photo. In this photo, I have cropped out a few birds that drew attention away from the surfer. It’s simple, but important.
4. Dodge & Burn
This is really key, in my opinion. Dodging (or lightening) and burning (or darkening) various areas of your photo can make or break the photo. I’m going to use the example of a landscape photo with a sky. If you have exposed the photo for the scene as normal, often times the sky will appear too bright and blown out (assuming you did not use a Graduated ND Filter when you took the shot to darken the sky). You can fix this in post by using a graduated filter in Lightroom and using the exposure tool to drag over the sky to bring down the exposure and display more contrast in the clouds. If there aren’t clouds, as in this photo, simply darkening the sky works.
This is a simplistic example, but in general you should analyze your photo and look for areas that need to be either lightened or darkened. Perhaps someone’s face needs a little lightening or an object in the foreground could use a little darkening. With headshots, for example, I tend to burn a little under the chin to enhance the chin line.
As a designer and a photographer, I am a big proponent of subtly. I always struggle with how much or how little to sharpen an image. I typically use a little bit of sharpening in Lightroom, but I am careful not to overdo it. As a general rule of thumb, I try to keep the amount of sharpening under 50 and often times use between 10-30 for the amount, 1.0 for the radius, between 10-20 for the detail, and usually very little or no masking. This is really on a per-photo basis and needs the eyeball test, but my general philosophy is to sharpen a little to enhance the details without going overboard. Besides adding a lot of additional grain to the photo, excessive sharpening can also reduces the quality of the image.
6. Presets & Filters
Digital photography has come a long way and using presets, filters, or brushes creatively in your photos can really create the mood you are going for. There are lots of presets you can buy (I really like the Film from VSCO) and even more you can make yourself. I’ll be the first to tell you that a lot of my photos have some type of filter, preset, or brush applied. At a minimum, I will check the exposure, temperature, highlights and shadows, and saturation of my photos. The only ones I tend not to touch too much are my studio shots, which are usually exposed exactly how I want them because I can control all camera settings and lighting before taking the photo.
Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed when selling photography on various websites that I’m often asked to remove filters altogether so that the customers can apply whatever style they want to the photo. I’m really torn about this because in one sense I understand that someone might not want a particular style applied to the photo. However, the photographer is trying to achieve a mood or feel in their photographs and any editing they do is to bring that vision to life. I really like the photos that I’ve seen on Creative Market and the policies they have about letting photographer dictate their own images and styles without overly critiquing them. My advice is to listen to your customer’s feedback and then determine whether or not to use filters when selling photos.
When it comes to photographing people, I believe you should spend some extra time to make the person look their best. My philosophy is that if the person likes the way they look in the photograph then they will be excited to show it off and use it, as well as recommend you for future work. Additionally, making someone feel good about themselves is something we can do as photographers that positively impacts their life. This makes you both feel good!
Taking a photo of someone and having them like it is no easy feat — most people don’t like photos of themselves because they are overly critical. While I won’t get into lighting, poses, and composition, I do want to mention tips for improving a person’s appearance. Typically, I look over the skin for any blemishes and I remove those first. Then I often enhance the eyes with a brush (again, very subtly) and sometimes whiten the teeth ever so slightly. I might also brush the skin to smooth it out and soften it, as well as dodge and burn certain areas to create more defined lines and sharper features (like burning the neck under the chin to create a more defined chin line). If you are doing a studio shot, you should look for light reflections on the skin and smooth those out as well. In this photo, there was some unwanted glare on the nose and cheeks that I removed in post.
This is my basic checklist. I am guilty of not following these guidelines myself at times, and sometimes rules are meant to be broken, but this is the workflow that I typically go through before I finish editing a photo. If you have anything specific that you do, please share in the comments below.
Originally published on Creative Market