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.