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Photo Editing for Beginners: A Guide

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Written by: Cormac Scanlan

Photo editing and processing is almost as old as photography itself. Since the birth of the photo, photographers have always strived to improve their photos by developing them at home, tinting, toning, and cropping their pictures to make a good photo great. In the days when all photography was shot on film, the option to edit and process photos was pretty much limited to professionals and enthusiasts with a lot of time and patience. These days however, the development of the digital camera has meant that you no longer need your own darkroom to improve your photos. Using a fairly standard PC and a some digital image editing software you’re pretty much ready to roll. There is undoubtedly a lot to learn if you want to get into creating the kind of creative artworks produced by the likes of Justin M Maller or Calvin Ho, but if you’re just looking to improve and correct your photos, digital editing is surprisingly quick to learn. It can be a little daunting if you’ve never done it before, but with a bit of practice it’ll soon become second nature.

A wealth of options

If you’ve already begun looking at your options, the first thing you’ll have noticed is that it seems that every man, woman, child and hamster with a programming degree seems to have has had a go at designing an image editing package. Well maybe not, but there are literally hundreds of packages on the market. Simply choosing a software package to start out with can be a task in itself. Looking at the options available, you’ll also notice a huge variation in prices, ranging from completely free (we like those) to packages costing more than a budget round the world flight.
Photo editing

Free image editing software

First up are the free software packages. Free stuff means more money to spent elsewhere, so for a lot of people this might be the preferred option. Below are the most commonly used free image editing packages:


Picasa is a downloadable image organiser from Google which also features some basic photo editing options. There are a variety of quick fix options such as contrast and colour adjustments, as well as the ability to remove red eye and crop your images. Significantly, it also offers the ability to adjust the shadows and highlights of an image, a feature that a number of the cheaper paid packages lack. The best thing is it’s completely free, so have a look on Google for Picasa if you’re interested in a simple editor and organiser.
If you don’t find Picasa to your liking, there are plenty of other free options.


PhotoPlus for example, offers many of the creative tools you would usually expect to find on a piece of professional editing software such as layer effects, and clone, smudge and erase tools.


Budding designers and photographers after a professional image editor might want to try out GIMP. Don’t worry, it isn’t like it sounds, you won’t have to wear a mask when you use it; GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program and was started in 1995 as a free alternative to Adobe Photoshop. As a result it features many of Photoshop’s advanced functions, including basic vector graphic support, layer transparency, layer masks and smart selection tools. It can even open Photoshop documents and features support for most Photoshop plug-ins. If having a plethora of options and tools at your disposal doesn’t frighten you then GIMP is probably the best choice for you. It might not be as quick to pick up as some of the other free packages, but I’d strongly recommend persisting with it as it is easily the most comprehensive and the best value for money of any of the image packages available.
Tip: If you’ve been using a computer for a few years and have already bought a digital camera, scanner or webcam at some stage, you might already own a basic digital imaging package. Double-check the box if you still have it, there might be some software on a disc in there that already does what you want.

Using image editing software

Cost effective image editing software

If you don’t mind putting your hand in your pocket then you’ll open yourself to a lot more options because this is the category that most digital image editing software packages fall into. There are literally hundreds of alternatives ranging from the sublime to the practically useless. As with most things, as a rule of thumb you are best sticking to the well known ones. If you’re in doubt about what to buy, you could try a web search to see what others think of the software. It might also be worth comparing the features to those of the more comprehensive free programs such as GIMP, as very often the semi-professional packages do a lot less than some of the better free software.
Perhaps the most popular entry level editing package is Adobe Photoshop Elements, which is a consumer version of Adobe Photoshop, costing a fraction of the price. It features many cut down versions of Photoshop’s tools, but also offers quick fixes that its big brother doesn’t, such as quick red-eye removal and the ability to alter skin tones. It is aimed specifically at photographers so doesn’t feature many of the graphic design tools that Photoshop does, but if you are only interested in editing photos and are after something that’s easy to navigate with comprehensive online support and tutorials, then Photoshop Elements is a good option.
Another great package from the clever bods at Adobe is Adobe Lightroom. Lightroom is about twice the price of Photoshop Elements and is a nice bridge between it and the full version of Photoshop. Like Photoshop Elements, Lightroom does not feature any of the graphic design features of Photoshop, but it is an excellent tool for processing and managing your photos, from the point where they leave your camera to the time you output them to web or print. For budding amateur photographers who want to shoot and edit RAW photos Lightroom offers a lot more options than Elements and is an obvious choice. The workflows are so well honed to photo editing that many professional photographers with access to both Photoshop and Lightroom, favour the latter.
Tip: If you are interested in trying out the Adobe packages but aren’t sure which would better suit you, why not try downloading the 30 day trial of both. The trial is completely free and will give you a month to find out which works best for you.
If you are after a good alternative to the Adobe packages, you could look at Corel Paint Shop Pro. Formerly published by Jasc, Paint Shop Pro’s features measure up almost neck and neck with Photoshop Elements. It therefore contains all of the major functions of Photoshop, but without the sharp learning curve. Again, you can try out Paint Shop Pro for free for 30 days by downloading it from Corel’s website.
Other popular entry level packages include Microsoft Digital Image Suite and Ulead PhotoImpact. Both are good for basic editing but fall short of Elements, Lightroom and Paint Shop Pro for ease of use and sheer number of options.
Some of the results you can get

Photo editing on a “money is no object” philosophy

The battle for expensive professional market was traditionally fought out between Abobe Photoshop and Macromedia Fireworks. Both programs are pretty similar in terms of features and functions, but work in a slightly different way.
Photoshop features file support for other Adobe programs such as Illustrator, Premiere and After Effects, making it ideal for graphic designers and video artists, as well photographers. It also comes packaged with Adobe ImageReady which is a great piece of kit for creating gif animations and producing web graphics.
Fireworks on the other hand gives you the option to do all the animation and photo functions within a single program, but lacks some of Photoshop’s ability to export files to the Adobe video software. It is however laid out similarly to Macromedia Flash and supports some use of vector graphics; so anyone with any experience of using Flash should feel right at home with it.
Adobe bought out Macromedia a few years ago, so Adobe Fireworks (as it is now called) now comes with the Adobe Creative Suite, meaning if you want to try Photoshop or Fireworks and have the money for Creative Suite, you no longer need to make the choice!
If you haven’t been editing very long, you probably wont be considering expensive packages with a sharp learning curve that will probably do far more than you could possibly need. For the more serious photographers amongst you who are considering forking out for full Photoshop though, I would again recommend doing a 30 day free trial first. I would also suggest a trial of Adobe Lightroom so you can compare the two packages as you may find it covers all of your photo editing needs, in a more user friendly way, for a fraction of the cost.

Software bought… where do I start?

Ok, so you’ve got yourself a piece of software and you’re ready to start editing. This can be very daunting at first, but don’t worry, there isn’t that much to learn to start making good photos great. Think of your editing software as a way of correcting or perfecting whatever you shot on the camera.
Most editing packages will allow you to apply a whole heap of “funky” filters that do all sorts of crazy things, from making your photo look like charcoal etchings to giving everything the kind of neon glow travellers might associate with a dodgy night out in Bangkok. When you start out, play with these. Get it out of your system. I’ve seen it before. You’ll inevitably waste away hours turning your dad green or making pictures of your mates look like they are submerged underwater. It’s kind of therapeutic in a vaguely masochistic way, but the novelty will soon wear off, and this can ultimately only be a good thing. This sort of experimentation will actually teach you a lot about the way the software works, but if you want to be respected as a photographer your photos should look like photos. For the most part you should aim to make your travel photos look as if they haven’t even been edited at all – this is something of an artform which you will perfect and develop over time. There really are a a lot of things you can do to your pictures without breaking this rule, adding a dodgy plastic wrap effect to the pyramids of Teotihuacan isn’t one of them.
The most basic alterations are simple colour adjustments. Most image packages have quick fixes for these, which are meant to make the colour look more authentic. Have a look in the menus to find terms such as “brightness / contrast”, “hue / saturation”, “levels”, “curves” and “shadows / highlights.” They will most likely all appear in the same place in your software package.

Adjusting and correcting colours

Brightness / contrast

One of the simplest things you can do is make an image lighter or darker, or increase or decrease its contrast.
Sometimes a quick and simple adjustment of the brightness and contrast is enough to turn a dull underexposed snapshot into a nice high impact photograph.
Unedited photoBrightess / contrast adjustment

Auto Colour / Auto Levels

Quick fixes that adjust the colours, making them appear more natural. Sometimes if the light is artificial, pictures will appear a strange colour; a quick click of one of these buttons will usually sort it out though.
Unedited photoPhoto corrected using auto level / colour

Hue / saturation / levels / curves

An alternative to Auto Levels and Auto Colour are these manual methods of correcting colour. Hue allows you to change the colour of an image and saturation allows you to make an image more colourful. The more you increase the saturation the more colourful the image becomes… be careful not to overdo it though especially on portrait photos… Caucasian people’s skin contains a lot of red so oversaturating it has the effect of making them look like they are covered in a nasty rash or badly sunburnt! Levels and curves are very delicate, and quite complex. Levels allow you to adjust the amount of the 3 primary colours individually, and curves go one step further by allowing you to adjust the shadows and highlights too. Avoid using them until you have become competent at editing, but don’t be scared to experiment later as they are far more flexible and precise than the basic adjustments.

Shadows / highlights

These adjustments are a relatively recent addition to image editing software, so you may not have them if you’re using older or entry level packages. They allow you to brighten the dark regions of an image, and darken the bright bits. Once again this is a delicate process, overdoing it can ruin an image, so be sure to combine it with a brightness and contrast adjustment rather than trying to correct everything using shadows and highlights.


The ability to crop images can be a really useful tool for improving your composition. Sometimes cropping an image by as little as 5% can make a world of difference, at other times cropping out over half of a photo can turn an insignificant area of a large image into a stunning new shot. Rotating the image to line up the vertical and horizontal lines with the edges of the image will also help make your image more striking. Cropping is usually done with a crop tool, rotating is generally accessed from one of the menus; check your software’s help guide for more details.
Uncropped photoPhoto cropped to correct horizontal alignment

Once again, when cropping, remember to make the shot look like an unedited photo; if possible don’t stray from standard photo shapes and sizes. Long thin photos look cropped, but cropped photos which are the same dimensions as the original don’t.
Natural cropUnnatural crop

The image on the right does not look natural as very few digital cameras would be able to shoot an image that is as long and thin as this one!

Toning and desaturating

Most editing packages will give you the options to do all sorts of crazy things to your images, most of which you will probably want to ignore, but there are a few useful ones. The first of these is the option to desaturate: meaning to turn a colour image into black and white. There are several ways to do this. Some programs require you to go into hue/saturation and bring the saturation right down, others have a desaturate option, and some allow you to change the colour mode of an image to grayscale… all have roughly the same effect.
Choosing what to make black and white and what to make colour is entirely down to you, but as a general rule think about textures and shapes when shooting for black and white. Black and white images accentuate textures as they attract your eye more when there is no colour, and strong geometric shapes often look far bolder in black and white than they do in colour.
Toning allows you to add a colour to a black and white (or sometimes a colour) image. Check the help files to find out how to tone image using your software. Adding a tiny touch of blue to a wintery B&W image, a touch or orange to a summery photo, or a little brown to a nostalgic one can make a difference.
Portrait in colourPortrait in black and whitePortrait in sepia

Tip: For more striking results, once you are comfortable with desaturating, look into converting to black and white through coloured filters, this will allow you to accentuate different parts of the image depending on the coloured filter used.

The sky’s the limit

All of the editing techniques mentioned here are fairly basic, but should be more than enough to help you improve your photos. There are loads of things that good software packages can do if you take the time to learn them properly. With a little patience and careful practise it won’t take long to learn how to adjust the perspective of an image, alter the colours individually, stitch two photos together, or even remove people or objects that you don’t want.
The sky's the limit
The trick is to learn the basics first; and more importantly, to learn when and if to use them. Carefully combining the various colour and contrast adjustments is a skill in itself. Learn from your editing too, and think about it when you shoot photos. If you find yourself recropping a certain kind of image in a certain way, try to shoot the photo in such a way that you won’t need to crop it in future. If you find that your zoom isn’t long enough to get the photo you want, don’t fret about it, shoot the photo anyway and crop it later.
Most of all have fun and experiment. Editing and processing is a skill in itself. Process everything! Almost every single photo ever shot can be perfected and improved in some way. If you shoot and edit enough, you’ll soon find that not only are you developing your own style of photography but your own unique way of editing too. This combination will be vital to developing your own style, and making your images stand out in a sea of bland, samey travel photos…

Cormac ScanlanAbout the author: Cormac Scanlan

Author Cormac Scanlan is our resident photographer and Photoshop junkie. With years of experience and lots of professional work under his belt, taking and editing both stills and video, he knows his stuff…
Cormac is the gapyear.com Webmaster, planning and running the design and implementation of new features and website components. He has worked at gapyear.com since 2005, having previously taken a degree in Digital Media specialising in web design, image manipulation and sound and video production. If asked, Cormac would probably describe himself as an aspiring polymath or something, but we’ll keep things simple and just refer to him as a geek.
For more photography by Cormac Scanlan, visit Cormac Scanlan’s photography website.

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