I find it interesting how often I see new photographers make the exact same editing mistakes I made when I started out. Every photographer who has at least a few years of experience can look back at some of their first sessions and find a number of things that they continually did wrong. I recently took a look at some sessions from my first year of photography, as well as asking a few other photographers to do the same, and continually found the same common issues.
We’ve all been there. We get excited about photography and then we realize that we have to learn to edit as well. At first it seems so overwhelming, and then as we start to learn new things, it becomes fun to know all of the options you have to improve your photos. Every time we learn something new, it seems like we want to implement it on every photo we edit. We then go through a process of learning that less is often more in the editing world and we finally begin to execute the skills we learned in a better way. This is all part of the learning process. But still, I wish I would have known more in that beginning stage that would have kept me from making the same mistakes continually.
Get Your Colors Rights
One of the first things that I notice that can really separate photography quality are the colors, specifically the skin tones in portraits of people. Being able to fix your white balance is such a helpful tool, but at the same time it takes a while to really develop an eye for this. When you are starting, if you are editing people, you should pay special attention to the skin tone of your subject, even at the risk of the rest of the photo not looking how you want. I often see people try to get their background colors to look good first, but when you are changing the white balance of the entire photo you can really sacrifice the skin tones. If skin has a green tint, the person will often be left looking ill, and it almost never looks good in photography. Similarly, an unintentional blue tint will often cause your subject to look dull. Leaning toward a warmer skin tone is better in most situations. If you are trying to get your background to look green or blue then that’s great, but never at the expense of leaving your subject’s skin looking off. Learn to get your subject right first when you are starting out and stay focused on that. As you develop your editing knowledge you will eventually learn to get everything else looking great as well.
I asked a handful of other photographers that I know about the most common mistakes they see in new photographers editing, and almost exclusively they responded with too much vignette being the most consistent mistake. I don’t mind a little vignette. There is definitely a place for it. Like most things in photography though, keeping it minimal is key. The purpose of a vignette is to cause your eyes to go directly to the center of the photo. If the vignette is used so heavily that the vignette itself become a main part of the photo, then it is overdone. The new photographer will very often go well beyond that.
Too Much of Everything
Like vignetting, when you are new to editing, you have a tendency to overdue everything. Giving your photos too much vibrance, saturation, clarity, and contrast are all common mistakes. At the same time, specific edits like teeth whitening, making the eyes stand out, and skin smoothing are all often really overdone as well. There will be a time to make some of these adjustments more extreme, but when you are beginning, do your best to keep everything you are doing to a minimum, knowing that you are prone to overdoing it. Another thing to think about is that your eyes will adjust to what they are seeing. If you stare at an over-edited photo long enough, it will begin to look normal. On some of my first sessions, I would spend a ton of time on a photo and be proud of it, only to look at it the next day and realize it was essentially ruined. I often revert back to the original photo while editing now to make sure that what I am doing is adding to the photo and not taking away from it. In Lightroom you can simply hit the backslash key (\) to quickly see the original. Slight adjustments that look natural are key until you have a solid grasp of why you would need to do more.
Know You Will Improve
Learning to edit is an overwhelming task. When you are just beginning, you already probably feel incompetent with your photography skills, but don't try and compensate for it with an abundance of editing. The best thing you can do is try and have a long-term goal for your photography. Understand that you are not there yet, but being patient with yourself as you learn and improve will keep you from feeling a need to try and make your photography amazing through editing. Being patient as your artistic eye and your style develop is essential as well. Setting a simple goal for yourself to keep things simple while you are still learning your style will save you from a lot of mistakes and bad habits you will most likely need to unlearn later. After I realized that I had been making some of these mistakes, I literally had to make a rule for myself to adjust a photo about half as much as I wanted to do. If you are still in your first few years of photography, look back at your last handful of sessions and see if you are guilty of any of these common mistakes. If so, make a note to yourself, adjust, and always keep improving.