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Editing Photos vs. Photo Editing, Know the Difference


Post-Production Is Not The Same As Selecting Images

Edited photo of model

This is an “edited photo” that resulted from photo editing the original photo shoot.

Before digital photography became a reality, most people never knew about photo editing or editing photos, unless they were familiar with shooting photos for publication. Unfortunately, with the advancement of digital photography, many people get the terms confused, similar to the use of the words affect and effect, which have totally different meanings. Affect means to influence the result, thus creating an effect. Photo editing is the affect that influences the effects of editing photos. So in this photoblog article, I’m going to break down the two terms, photo editing and editing photos.

We’ll start with “photo edit,” as photo editing is the usually the first step of the process before editing a photo. Photo editing involves a visual search through an entire photo shoot for the best selection of photos for editing (post-production). Hence why in the “masthead” of a photo-centric publication, you’ll normally find a “Photo Editor,” or similar term, listed among the staff. For example, if you open up a magazine, you’ll see the editor, publisher, copy editor, photo editor, etc., listed in the masthead, or column of staff credits. Some magazines might even refer to a photo editor as the creative director, creative editor, director of photography, picture editor or something similar.

Normally a photo editor has the first decision, or first edit, from all the photos taken or submitted by a photographer. That editor literally inspects every image from the actual photo shoot and determines the best images through a rough edit, then through at least one more edit, and finally narrows the selection process down to the final photo or photos, depending on the publication photo requirements.

This is a selection process to ensure the proper photo(s) will accompany the editorial content of the publication while adhering, as a minimum, to the basics of photography or what makes a great photograph. The actual publication editor or senior editor has the final word, not the photographer or the photo editor, similar to the chain of command found in the military, that senior editor is the final approval authority before the overall publication approval from the actual publisher.

A photo editor uses the same principles professional photographers use to photo edit photos prior to post-production and most photo editors are trained in photography. Some of those principles, fundamentals and concepts include checking for correct exposure, image sharpness, composition, cropping, and does the image fit its original intention?

Photo Editing Workflow in Adobe Lightroom

I first go through all my photos from my photo shoot and “star” them in Adobe® Lightroom, starting with one star first, then two stars, etc., up to five stars if needed.

I photo edit my photo shoots as any professional photographer should, using a consistent workflow process. Being that I’ve held the position of photo editor in my past publication experience while in the military, I always insisted that my photographers rough edit their photos first, though I always reviewed all photos shot during an assignment and gave my final recommendations to the editor. Whether shooting for publication or not, every photographer should photo edit their shoots as this step will help them see what makes a great photo and what does not. It’s one of the fastest methods for becoming a better photographer, as you essentially are your own critic first, thus you learn over time what works in your style of photography and what doesn’t.

Here are some “rough” or first edit things to look for during the photo editing process:

  1. Is the photo properly exposed? If not, do not select. Look at your exposure settings in the EXIF information of the digital photo and learn what you did wrong in your camera exposure settings.
  2. If there is a person in the photo, are the eyes tack-sharp? If not, do not select. Always focus on the eyes, nothing else.
  3. Is the composition correct? If not, do not select and ask yourself, why not? Learn the elements of composition.
  4. Is the cropping correct? If not, do not select and ask yourself, why not? Learn the rules of cropping.
  5. Is the image filling the entire frame, the only exception is for a cover shot to allow room for the flag, or title of the publication. If not, do not select and learn to shoot tighter, fill the frame, in publication and great photography, we do not leave room for printing 8×10- or 5×7-inch prints, we shoot full-frame, cropping outside the camera is for farmers. Photo editors want full-frames and they use percentages for position, or column-inches.
  6. If there is a person in the photo, are the toes or fingers cut-off? If yes, do not select and ask yourself, why did you chop off fingers or toes?

These are just a few things photo editors look for when photo editing images from a photographer’s photo shoot. If the photo passes the above six items then they start to whittle down the photos in review to the images that show the best impact based on perhaps things like S-curves, diagonal lines, points of interest, the Rule of Thirds, hot spots or blown out highlights, detail or lack of detail in the shadow areas, color balance, action, mood, etc. Photo editors are looking for the “best” photo overall and not necessarily one that will win you a blue ribbon at the State Fair.

I’ve always stated at my photography workshops, “The main difference between a professional photographer and an amateur is that the professional photographer doesn’t show you’re their bad photos, we all take them to get the good ones.” In the old days, we called this taking of bad photos to capture the great ones, “burning film.” As an example, when I work with a new model, I’ll take photos to help her relax while I’m building her trust and our rapport, eventually the better photos are the ones with the more relaxed facial expressions. Not to mention, the first photos might be light-check photos too, which normally hold no after-the-shoot value. It’s also part of the full workflow for creating great images. Some form of a photo editing workflow is a habit every photographer should practice as it helps improve their photography while fine-tuning their photographic style.

Photo Editing Rating System in Adobe Lightroom

After my photos are “starred,” I then activate the rating “filter” in Adobe® Lightroom.

A typical workflow for me, when it comes to my photography after the shoot, is to first download all my photos via Adobe® Lightroom, a perfect tool for photo editing, editing photos and more important, cataloging photos for future recall.  I then, in the “Library” mode, will browse through the photos quickly and “star” the photos that catch my eye first. Normally I look for facial expressions, exposure, sharp eyes, composition and proper cropping. I then will use the rating “filter” to look for photos rated one star or better. This reduces the amount of photos left for me to run a second edit, where I use two stars for the photos that meet my high standards and if necessary, I’ll do a third edit with three stars, etc., up to five stars.  This helps me narrow down my photos to the most important photo or photos.

I then use Adobe® Lightroom in the “Develop” mode to make any small adjustments like exposure, recovery (for recovering any overexposed highlights), fill light (for bringing out the shadows or underexposed areas) and blacks (for adjusting contrast between highlights and shadows.) to the top selected photo(s). Then I export the best photo(s) into Adobe® Photoshop for image correction, such as removing blemishes, unwanted clutter in the background, burning, dodging, etc. Normally I do my best to get it right in the camera, so my post-production in Adobe® Photoshop is limited to methods I’d use back in the darkroom days of film. The idea is to select the best image so photo editing doesn’t result into photo manipulation, or a photo illustration. I”m a photographer, not an image-maker.

Black and White Edited Photo

Here I”ve changed the photo, in the editing process, to black and white using Nik Software”s Silver Efex Pro filters.

There is a fine “ethics” line, especially in photojournalism, when a photo crosses from editing a normal photo correction into manipulation or illustration. In non-photojournalism genres of photography, such as glamour or beauty photography, while the ethics are more lenient, editing of photos that transcends into more manipulation than correction, can cause problems, as Lancome and Maybelline learned the hard way when the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned manipulated advertisement photos of Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington. (See: “Photoshopped” Or Over Corrected?”)

For my more artistic image editing, I will utilize other tools in Adobe® Photoshop normally through the use of Nik Software filters, like those found in the Nik Color Efex Pro Collection. My favorite Nik filter being the Bleach By-pass filter for smoothing the skin, and sometimes even Nik Software Silver Efex Pro for converting color photos into black and white photographs. The post-production workflow steps above are for the editing of photos, or post-production, after photo editing a selection of images. (See: Video Tutorial)

Basically, photo editing affects the selection of images for post-production that determines the image correction effect for the final photo. It’s normal that a professional photographer photo edits first, thus reducing post-production time, as time is very valuable to any photographer today. During the days of film photography, rarely would the average photographer understand the term photo editing, but with digital photography today, many photographers confuse the term photo editing for the term editing photos. Normally editing photos doesn’t start until after the photo editing process.

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  1. Nice that you have clear the distinction between the two.

    On the RAW workflow side, I would urge everyone shooting RAW to examine the differences between how Adobe products alter your RAW file vs using your manufacturer’s software. Agreed, the manufacturer’s software is often awful but for Nikon, which I shoot, the free ViewNX software is perfectly good for rating files and doing all the basic adjustments of WB, shadow or highlight recovery and exposure changes. Plus, it has superb tools for creating custom picture controls which you you can then load back into the camera, which can cut down on the need for any post-processing.

    And this: “Before digital photography became a reality, most people never knew about photo editing or editing photos, unless they were familiar with shooting photos for publication”

    …is sort of wrong, IMHO. Anyone developing, printing, projecting or exhibiting their work would know exactly what both photo editing and editing photos were. 🙂

    • Thanks for your feedback, on the last part, perhaps I’ve should of been more clear, as to the “terms” before digital photography. Thanks!

  2. Totally Agree. the difference is necessary to know.

  3. This is a great article, after my wife and I complete a boudoir shoot choosing the final photos is always a challenge, in fact it sometimes turns into an all out brawl! We are continously in an uproar about what images to keep and which ones to discard. This information may go a long way in helping our relationship, lol!

    • I’m glad you like it! No time for brawls in photography! 😉

  4. Great article! As an “advanced amateur” this information enlightened and also let me know that I am on the right track. Also, in response to Alfie and the manufacturer’s software, LR’s develop module allows the user to selct the camera profile. I discovered that this has an amazing effect on the quality of photos. This is more than likely old news to all of you, though. Have a great day!

  5. The more I read your articles, Mr. Gomez, the more inept I feel as a photographer. However, it’s my opinion, if we never push our passion to the limits of refinement… it will die. Much respect.

    • Doug, thanks for the kind words. The key to it all, just keep shooting, it’s the best learning tool. Thanks!

  6. I use Aperture for the exact same reasons when I do my photo editing. Then arrange by rating and then sometimes put it away and go back the next day to make sure I didn’t miss something or chose a shot for the wrong reasons (maybe I didn’t notice the slight out of focus).
    After watching so many tutorials and such on Lightroom though, I think I might need to make the switch!

    • I started many years ago with Aperture, and I love Apple products, but I found out Lightroom is much easier and works great straight into Photoshop. Now it’s simply a habitual workflow solution for me and I’m sticking to it! Thanks for your feedback, Rolando

  7. I can’t thank you enough. I am just starting out and still using a point and shoot by choice. Before forking out money for a better toy I have been working on the basics and I feel that even though I have been doing this for a month, my product has been nearly as good as the “local photographers.” This section as well as the O’s and A’s article have shown me that I have been starting the right way by improving on the little things first. Thanks so much!

    • You are very welcome, please pass it on to others too! Thanks!

  8. I’ve been searching the site for the O’s and A’s article that was mentioned by Travis J above. Can someone please point me to it? Thanks in advance!
    I just discovered this site and I’m very excited to delve in and learn.

  9. Hi Rolandogomez,
    Thanks for explaining the differences between the two. You have also described the things you need to check out during photo editing which are really helpful.

  10. Excellent article my friend !

  11. Thanks for sharing your knowledge about photography and editing. This article is a good source of info related to editing.


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Welcome to (Lens Diaries™), a hybrid photography blog with social flair. The photoblog provides photo tips, photo tutorials and photo diaries by professional photographer, author, writer, speaker and social media consultant, Rolando Gomez.

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