The most helpful photo editing tricks, where to find the tools on your photo and the best editing apps.

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Deborah Sandidge is a travel photographer who has written books on photography, teaches advanced photo technique workshops and has been honored as a Nikon Ambassador. In short, she knows her stuff.

When she photographed the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption in Santiago de Cuba, she used all of her know-how; she scouted ahead of time, found a rooftop vantage from which to shoot and waited until the light was perfect. But the resulting photo was a flop. “I wasn’t getting the emotion,” she said.

Then she applied the “art sauce” that virtually every travel photographer uses. She used software to tweak the image, turning the color photo into a dramatic black and white. “It just didn’t feel right until I removed the color,” she said. “I felt like this is what I was going for, and all that emotion and vintage feel was allowed to show through in the image.”

This is the secret of professional travel photographers. No matter how good the image they capture is, the editing — called postproduction, or “post” for short — makes it a little better. Sometimes, a lot better.

Editing for the masses

But it’s not just for pros. Smartphones come with built-in editing software that can transform travel photos from washed-out to wow. It only takes a minute and a few screen swipes to improve photos. Whether you are editing on a phone or with an advanced desktop digital darkroom program, the controls are similar.

“They all do pretty much the same things. They even call the adjustments the same things,” said Scott Kelby, an internationally known Photoshop artist and founder of KelbyOne, a photography education website.

The first step in editing is to pick out the biggest problem with your photo. “There is not a magical step list of things to do to the photo,” said Josh Haftel, principal product manager for Adobe, which makes Photoshop. “It depends on what the image needs.”

Check your crop

Framing often is the problem, said Rick Sammon, a photography educator who has been honored as a Canon Explorer of Light. When photos include too much, the eye is not drawn to the intended subject. That can be fixed with the crop tool, which lets you shrink the frame and recompose so the subject is placed where you want it. “Cut the clutter,” Sammon said. “Painters add to a canvas, photographers subtract.” He uses the tool so much that he claims to have “OCD — obsessive cropping disorder.”

An after version of a nighttime shot of the Sarasota skyline is placed on top of the before image. The photo was cropped and then the overall exposure was brought up, increasing the building details. (Roy Furchgott/The Washington Post)
An after version of a nighttime shot of the Sarasota skyline is placed on top of the before image. The photo was cropped and then the overall exposure was brought up, increasing the building details. (Roy Furchgott/The Washington Post)

Adjust the shadows

Because cameras can see only a portion of the range of light that the eye can see, in many photos the darks are too dark and the brights are too bright. “You want the picture to look like it does to your eyes,” Sammon said. “All of the software has shadow and highlight sliders.”

Turning the shadows brighter and highlights darker will make the photo look more like it does to your eye. If that makes the darks too gray, look for the “black point” control. It will make the blacks blacker without killing all of the detail in the shadows.

Make it sharper

When the exposure is set, there is another critical adjustment: clarity, which is generally called something like “sharpness” or “structure.”

“Just think of this as the detail-enhancing slider,” Kelby said. “We admire the details.” However, be careful: Not every photo benefits from sharpness. “You don’t want to use it on a baby,” he said. It can accentuate skin blotchiness. “They start to look like they have been bruised in a fight.”

Add warmth

Pro photographers know that the best time to capture images is during the “golden hours” around dawn and dusk, when the light has a tint. But they also know that the tint is easy to add. “Because I am a travel photographer and I am interested in making pleasing pictures, I will often warm up a picture, meaning I will add a little bit of red, yellow and orange,” said Sammon. Look for an adjustment called something like “temperature,” “warmth” or “cast” to make this adjustment.

Dig for the most controls

Some of these tools are easy to find on your phone or tablet, and some you might have to dig for a bit. The location of the controls will vary from device to device, but on most phones and tablets, you pick a photo, then touch edit. That should reveal an icon that looks like a menu, or a dial, which uncovers options. Often it’s one more layer down for the full set of controls. You may have to touch an arrow or an icon to get there. Check your manual, or just keep digging until you get to the longest list of adjustment controls.

When in doubt, use a filter

Of course, you can alter your photos by just throwing a filter on them. And pro photographers aren’t necessarily against using filters, especially if you have a style that lends itself to a particular look. For instance, Kelby points to the Instagram account cestmaria, by Marioly Vazquez, whose photos are all similarly pastel hued and are shot specifically to use with what may be a single filter. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with that,” Kelby said. “When people are smart like [cestmaria], it’s just so likable.”

But a filter is just someone else’s set of adjustments that are made to look good on someone else’s photo. “If you just slap a filter on every kind of photo — here’s my brother-in-law, here’s a moon shot — the filter will be what people notice,” Kelby said.

A filter, sometimes called a “preset” on more advanced digital darkroom software, can also be a good starting point. “Sometimes going to presets can be a springboard to inspiration. If you choose a preset, I wouldn’t use it at 100 percent; dial it back,” said Sandidge, meaning adjust the intensity of the effect so that it is not overly apparent. “Let the subject guide you. That’s where the personal style comes in,” she said. “That’s what makes it yours.”

Advanced apps

The adjustments with filters are all applied to your entire photo and can be done quickly. More advanced software will let you make changes to parts of a picture, such as intensifying blue tones or erasing a light pole that spoils the shot.

For editing on the phone, Sandidge uses an app called Snapseed if she wants “to put something on Instagram in real time and punch it up a little.” Snapseed will do more than the average software that comes with your phone. It has quite a few tools, which can be a bit overwhelming. But it has a tutorial, and you can cancel any changes you make to a photo without fear of ruining it. It can do the simple edits mentioned above, and it’s powerful enough to touch up skin blemishes or remove an unwanted railing from a photo.

The granddaddy of postproduction software is, of course, Photoshop. Adobe makes a range of products, some very simple to use, such as PS Express, which is free but requires you to share personal information before you can use it.

Many pro photographers lean heavily on Lightroom, a powerful but simplified version of Photoshop that costs $10 a month and will work on desktops, laptops, tablets and phones. It uses a slider system and a few tools that let you make adjustments to color and sharpness, remove blemishes, adjust lighting and much more.

Or you can move up to the full version of Photoshop, which allows sophisticated editing such as repositioning people, adding clouds to a sky, changing people’s expressions and adjusting color with surgical accuracy. By itself, Photoshop costs $21 a month. But you can get Lightroom and Photoshop with limited online storage for the same $10 a month as Lightroom alone.

There are alternatives that might be less expensive in the long run, such as ON1, a powerful editing program with simplified controls. It doesn’t have some of the more sophisticated tools of Photoshop, but beginners will find it easier to use. The recently released 2019 version is $100 with no subscription fee, or $80 to upgrade from an older version.

There is also Luminar, a $60 program that has much of the Lightroom editing power, plus handy effects such as a filter that improves sky, and one that places golden rays of sun in your shot. It also has an artificial-intelligence adjustment that makes multiple changes to a photo at once. It’s a great starting place for any editing, but you may find that you still have to fine-tune manually for full effect.

If that sounds like too much work, Luminar sells a program called Photo Lemur ($35), which is just the artificial-intelligence adjustment with a single slider.

Watch how far you go

While postproduction editing is intended to fix problems, it can create problems of its own. Ask Kelby for the most common editing mistake people make, and he’ll tell you: “Overprocessing the photos.”

“It’s kind of like if you like your food salty, you make it saltier and saltier, you become immune to it,” he said. “But someone else tastes it and goes, ‘Whoa!'”

The rule of thumb is this: If people can see that the photo has been processed, you’ve overprocessed.