No matter what you’re shooting or how you’re shooting it, there are a few areas in which almost every image can be improved. Here are the five essential photo enhancements you should make to every image you shoot.
1 FINE-TUNE THE EXPOSURE
I frequently rely on the wide exposure latitude of my RAW image files to wrangle significantly over- and underexposed images into a more ideal range. (I can use the same controls to tweak JPEG files as well; I just sacrifice a bit of latitude and pure lossless control.) And even with spot-on in-camera exposures, there’s almost always room for fine-tuning in post.
Within Lightroom (the controls are similar in Aperture, Capture One and many other RAW-processing applications), I start my exposure adjustments in the Develop module. In the Tone panel, I can make broad, wholesale adjustments to the overall exposure by moving the slider left or right. With RAW files, this control is virtually indistinguishable from having made the correct exposure in-camera within about a two-stop range. Greater changes also can be made with this slider, but at that point, it’s a salvage operation that sacrifices details in shadows and highlights, which really isn’t about subtle fine-tuning at all.
Having dialed in the exposure fairly precisely, even more fine adjustments can be made to Brightness, Contrast, Recovery, Fill Light and Black Point via their individual sliders. Localized control via adjustment brush dodging and burning provides the nuance that most images need to go from good to great, and Lightroom’s Graduated filters make it easy to adjust brightness and contrast at the edges or across broad areas of a scene (for instance, to burn in a too-bright foreground in the lower half of the frame). While they may have different names, these controls are somewhat typical across image-editing programs.
2 SHADOW AND HIGHTLIGHT RECOVERY
After adjusting exposure, brightness and contrast should be generally pleasing across the scene. But I still like to give attention to the areas in a scene where detail most often disappears first: in the shadows and the highlights. Small adjustments to the Black levels slider will make a big difference—the more dark tones there are in a shot, the more restrained you should be with the slider, as it will block up shadows pretty quickly and eliminate detail.
If you feel that your image is losing just a few too many details at the darker end of the curve, you may want to lighten up the black point, taking it away from a pure, detail-free black to a less heavy, dark-gray-with-detail level. If that’s not enough to restore detail missing from the shadow areas of a scene, from there try a subtle Fill Light adjustment. This is especially useful for recovering detail from dark shadows and for general lightening of dark- and middle-gray tones—very handy if you need to rescue some detail from an underexposed frame.
If I’m faced with an image that’s simply overexposed or has minor areas of blown-out highlights where I’d like to have some detail, Lightroom’s Recovery slider is a huge help. For areas in a scene that have minor detail at the pixel level (though it may not be visible to the naked eye), the Recovery slider will bring down the lightest values into the visible range and artificially darken blown-out highlights. It’s as if you grabbed the right edge of the histogram and dragged the peaks toward the middle of the graph—which you can also do with Lightroom’s histogram. In other programs, too, highlight-recovery sliders are the ideal first stop, but additional adjustments for localized control can be made with basic burning in of the blown-out bright areas. Setting Photoshop’s Burn tool to focus on highlights, for instance, can add faux density to otherwise detail-free areas of a scene that may be distractingly bright. While upping Lightroom’s Recovery slider can bring down overexposed highlights, a heavy-handed approach makes images appear flat and muddy. A gentle touch will rein in contrast and detail in the shadows and highlights, crucial for a great photograph.
3 WHITE BALANCE AND COLOR CORRECTION
If you shoot RAW, adjustments to color balance made after the fact are literally just as easy as if you made them before you clicked the shutter. This is one of the reasons why I so strongly advocate for RAW. But even if you shoot JPEGs, you can adjust the white balance after capture, as well.
For this, you have two options: deliberately set the white balance incorrectly to achieve a specific color effect or try to make the white balance spot-on perfectly neutral. The latter is fairly easy, as you can do it by the book. Simply photograph something that you know is neutral white or gray (such as a color chart or gray card) within the scene and use Lightroom’s Eyedropper tool for a one-click perfect color balance in post.
Alternatively, most processing programs provide white balance presets and color temperature settings for dialing in white balance without the benefit of a gray card. Shooting outdoors in sunlight? The sunlight preset will look great. Adjust the color temperature slider to fine-tune just how warm or cool that daylight image looks, and you’ve pretty easily ensured an ideal white balance.
The tricky part comes when you want to make a dramatic shift from neutral, say, to enhance the feeling of warmth in an image with a warm orange overall glow or to make an image appear cool with blue hues. Luckily, you use the same tools for this type of white balance adjustment, but there’s no "right" way to achieve the effects. If it looks right to you, it probably is. I find the color temperature slider, no matter the program I’m using, to be a great way to skew color balance to fine-tune the mood.
4 NOISE REDUCTION
One of the best technological developments in the digital era has been the ability to produce relatively low-noise images even when shooting at very high ISOs. This has freed photographers to work in extremely low light and reduced the need for augmented light (from a handheld flash or other light source) that can change the mood of a scene dramatically. Even though today’s DSLR sensors produce incredibly low noise, they do still create digital noise that must be addressed at almost all ISOs. Longer exposures create noise, too. To improve an image’s signal-to-noise ratio after exposure, simply make noise reduction a standard step in your postproduction workflow.
Noise reduction can be done in Photoshop and plug-in programs that offer enhanced noise-reduction controls for photographers who consistently push the boundaries of high-noise images. In Lightroom, noise is mitigated with fairly simple controls that address luminance and color noise. Color noise is largely addressed by default, though the Color and Detail sliders (within the Detail panel in Lightroom’s Develop module) allow you to eliminate even more noise with a simple adjustment to one slider.
The really powerful control comes from the Luminance sliders under the Noise Reduction panel, in my opinion. Luminance noise
reduction dramatically eliminates the most visible noise from high-ISO and long-exposure image files. The Detail slider allows you to toe the line between eliminating noise and the complete obliteration of image-forming detail. Detail settings are different for every image, and it’s affected by how large an image will be viewed.
It’s no coincidence that I saved sharpening for last. Sharpening should be the last step prior to final output because sharpening should be done based on how a photograph will be viewed. For instance, if you’re delivering a photograph to be printed in the newspaper, you’ll want more sharpening than if your image is intended for a high-gloss substrate that won’t bleed.
With Lightroom, I adjust sharpness in two ways. The first one is closest to other sharpening methods available in Photoshop, Aperture and other applications. Within the Develop module, I start with the Clarity slider to easily make an image appear sharper by enhancing edge contrast. (This is a great technique for creative sharpening, which can be done earlier in the editing process.) I really fine-tune sharpness within the Detail panel—which enhances edge contrast similar to the Clarity slider, but also adds considerable control over the intricacies of sharpening. Radius and Amount sliders affect how bold sharpened edges will look, and the Detail slider helps keep you from oversharpening.
The Masking slider is my favorite way to prevent unsightly oversharpening (much like Threshold in Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask sharpening control), by limiting sharpening to only the biggest, boldest edges in a scene, effectively minimizing noise without sacrificing the appearance of improved overall sharpness.