How to Edit Every Ugly Location to Look Like an Editorial

How to Edit Every Ugly Location to Look Like an Editorial

I have always loved shooting in ugly places such as gas stations and abandoned buildings, but it took me a while to learn how to make these places look magical in my images. You can't just put a beautiful woman in front of these places and expect it to work.

Shooting on location is always a blast and there are endless possibilities of backdrops to discover, but sometimes we have to do a little extra work in Photoshop to balance our subjects with what we choose to shoot in front of. Since too much grunge isn't always very commercial or editorial looking, I had to figure out these tricks to shoot and retouch the ugly to make it magical and appeal to everyone.

Here's how I edit images from literally any location to make them work in an editorial style. With these techniques, I have also started using some of my older images that didn't really match my current aesthetic in location choices.

Photo by Gabrielle Colton

Color Grade

It never fails to amaze me how colors alone can take an image from average to something you will see in a magazine. In my images, color grading is the most important part of making these types of locations more editorial. Everyone's eyes are affected by colors, even if they have zero knowledge of color theory so it's important to get them right when shooting in mundane or unattractive locations.

I have found that when shooting grunge, warmer color grades work best to balance the images out. Warmth seems to appeal to my viewers who usually dislike grungy images. I use a lot of brown, tan, magenta, and peach tones to bring this warmth and life to these types of images.

In the image below, I made sure to balance out the colors on both the right and left side of the image to draw more attention to the models. I also made the clothes closer together in color so they were less of a distraction to their faces. 

After editing, photo by Gabrielle Colton
Before, photo by Gabrielle Colton

Add Gradients

I use gradients often in my images, but they are especially helpful in softening up and balancing images like these with grungy backgrounds.

Just like when color grading these images, I usually use warm tones for gradients. I will often pick up skin colors from the subject and use them to create my gradients for these.

Without even retouching the spots on the wall or anything else in the image, gradients give the image below a more lively aesthetic. Although it's still the same background, gradients oftentimes make these imperfections softer, less noticeable, and more pleasing to look at.

The two gradients I used on either side of the image below also draw you into her face, an effect that wasn't really present prior to adding them. Gradients are also a great way to blend a subjects clothes and skin tones smoothly with the background contents. 

Photo by Gabrielle Colton
Photo by Gabrielle Colton

Clean Up Distractions

When I shoot in front of grunge backgrounds, I typically edit out imperfections in them as much as I would on the skin. I'll clone out anything from signs, pieces of garbage, and chips on walls until the background has minimal distractions to the eye. The cool thing about retouching backgrounds like this though is they aren't perfect to begin with so you do not have to be too meticulous about your editing. When shooting in a rugged location there is sometimes a lot of distracting colors as well. I will do a lot of color changing of objects in Photoshop to make everything in the image match and flow well together.

When cloning out pieces of these images, I try to keep the texture pretty similar throughout the background. Doing this really helps keep viewers attention on the subject of the image. For example, in the image below the background is mostly very rough in texture, so I cloned out those smooth bright yellow poles. I also removed the spray paint from the wall behind the model that was touching her body in the image. I did this to leave a nice blue frame around the majority of her. In short, I try to make more solid chunks of color and textures throughout the entire background.

Sometimes pinpointing what to edit and what to leave in these images can be challenging, but once you practice a few times you will know exactly what to take out and add to every image you make. It's always helpful to sit back often and view your image from farther away to see exactly where your eyes are led to.

Feel free to share any images you've created like this, I would love to see them.

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Jorge Cevallos's picture

Very good tips. Thanks for posting.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Your color grading and gradients are bold and determined, is so great to see such a freedom... I'm so shy when it comes to modifying one image far away from his starting point... But I think is time. If I don't start creating daring, fearless, audacious images I'm not going to find my voice never. You are such an example, I'm going to follow it and see where leads me :D

Thanks, Gabrielle. You always add great content!!!!

Daniel Shortt's picture

It depends on your goal, work that heavily edited won't work well in a commercial way, it requires a much cleaner look. All depends on what you want to do with your work

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Absolutely I totally agree with you. There is so much detail I could go in with this for different clients or vibes, but this is just a simple start for people to mess around with :)

David Kilper's picture

Gradients don't fix bad photos, nor does anything else in this article.

After all my publishings in VOGUE Italia and British VOGUE I can't say I agree with anything in this article. I think there's a lot more to editorial photography then you think because color grading is a minor back end detail. Everything that goes into the photo prior to releasing the shutter is the difference from magazine fash eds and everyone else's work, not gradients.

Don't even get me started on how the industry is actually over the whole fake glare and solar flares phase of Photoshop exploration.

Travis Bateman's picture

Not sure you got the point of this article!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Thank you for your input David. It is in no way meant to be a fix all for bad images. In the title it states "LIKE" an editorial. I don't ever claim this is what makes editorials, I know it is far from it. But it is a way to get closer to the feel and tones of editorial work. Thanks

Geoffrey Badner's picture

Applying a gradient doesn't make it "look like an editorial".