A Few Digital Editing Techniques

This gallery will show some different ways a digital camera file can [hopefully] be improved for eventual publishing on line or as a print.  I was tempted to say this is some form of basic editing, but that is not true. Editing, basic or otherwise, covers a lot of different things.  It would be accurate to say these techniques are basic to me.  I use some form of one, two or all three of the families of commands described here when I put photos on this website.

Something intended for print is usually more complicated, but not always.  If I get to printing that will be at another time and on another page.

To my thinking a good photograph must be presentable either on a monitor (a monitor that represents reasonably accurately color) or in print.  If not I ask myself “what good is it?”  Other answers are of course possible, but I look at it from this view point – it must be presentable on either a monitor or in print.  If it is not then I do not expect anyone to look at it.

I do not expect my ‘post’ photographs to live up to this, but most of what you will see in one of my galleries must meet this basic test.

There are a few popular software platforms for changing or altering photographs in a digital format.  I use Photoshop CS6, and the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in within Photoshop CS6 for my processing software.   These reside on a MacBook Pro I bought in Nov., 2009.  The software are the most current versions as of this writing, the computer not at all so.   Adobe Photoshop software offers literally billions of potential editing alterations.  I show only a few very here.

Other people will prefer other techniques so don’t think this is the last word on editing.  I’m only sure it is not the first word.

A number of steps have to take place before the file is printed or put on a monitor.  The first thing you have to do is take the photograph using a digital camera, or use a scanner to scan an existing photograph into a computer.  This discussion will be from a digital camera point of view.

Digital cameras have different ways of recording images.  They range from recording the most data that can be captured by the particular camera being used to any number of smaller data ranges within the same camera.  Generally each brand will have its preferences which are forced by the constraints of the technology built in the camera, and the market segment the manufacturer wants to reach.  In case you wonder what I’m saying it really means this:  A $200 digital camera will only do so much.  A $6,000 digital camera will also do only so much, but a whole lot more than the $200 one.

Many cameras will have a Raw or RAW format and 1 or more JPEG formats.  Some cameras will offer various combinations of formats at different density levels.  I shoot strictly at the densest level my camera offers because it gives me the most data to work with.  Therefore I get a Raw file at 16 bit level.  On the computer the file will vary in density from about 23-34 megabytes (MB) in Raw.  Converted to the standard Photoshop format the same file will top out somewhere above 120 MB!  I use a large hard drive with large hard drives for backup.

If I print the file it is first converted from Raw format to PSD (the standard Photoshop file format) and left in 16 bit mode. A photograph directly from the camera requires editing.  This is not just a general observation, it is almost carved in stone.  I have yet to take a digital photo that doesn’t need at least some minor editing.  Again, some of the editing techniques I use are shown below.  If I put a photo onto this website or send it as an email attachment then the photo file must first be converted from Raw to PSD, reduced to 8 bit, edited [A few edits? Many edits?  Who knows?], made much smaller in size, then saved as a small JPEG file.  That means anything shown here has been through a process that takes a bit of time.

More on file types — Raw is not an acronym so it shouldn’t be written as RAW.  Raw is the basic digital file as captured by the camera.  Its like a vegetable when you first pull it from the ground.  It is not waxed, polished, or preened to make it look good.  There is no processing or editing of the file in the camera.  All the camera has done is store the file in its own proprietary format so it is ready for export to a computer or other device.

Raw is not a universal format.  Complicating things, each manufacturer has their form of Raw.  That is what I mean by proprietary.  That also means a Canon Raw file is not a Nikon Raw file, etc.  A conversion program, or driver is necessary to make the file appear in Photoshop or any other editing software.  If I had 2 or more different camera brands I would have 2 or more different drivers to allow Raw to appear on my computer in Photoshop.  Once the driver is installed you forget about it until you get a new camera.  When you get a new camera you have to use the same driver for Raw or find the current driver version.

JPEG is the acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group.  You don’t need to know that, just the acronym.  A JPEG file is an industry wide file format used for compression of digital photos.  Just about every manufacturer builds it into their digital cameras.  In most cases JPEG is JPEG is JPEG, etc.

There are other file formats out there, but Raw & JPEG is all I will cover here.  For instance, one publications I occasionally submit photos to requires TIFF format, but that is for another time and another post.

Once you’ve exported the digital file from your camera to your computer the file should not necessarily be considered as the last word.  This is no different than black & white negatives or color slides.  Many times in the past an image from film was altered before printing, the same continues to be true with digital images.

That means digital is a starting point.  You may find images directly out of the camera to be perfectly acceptable to you.  If you do then that’s great.  Or you may find the file needs some changes.  Camera manufacturers try to make a file that interprets luminosity, tone, hue, color, etc. against a common international standard.  However there are still limitations to technology.  The rendition of a file may be identical from camera X to another camera X.  On the other hand they won’t necessarily be the same from camera X to camera Y, but they will be close.  Therein lies the ballgame.

All the images shown here begin from the same identical digital file.  For purposes of making the file easier to show on this website each file is shown in an 8 bit reduced sized JPEG format after editing.  All editing will be described. The basic digital file was shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II using a 24-105mm f/4 lens with an Ultraviolet (0) Haze filter. The haze filter adds no color cast.  Its intended use is to reduce some ultraviolet from hitting the image sensor.  The second & more important use to me is it protects the front element of the lens. That means if I drop it the filter breaks, but not necessarily the lens or the camera.

The camera & lens used an f/18 aperture, 1/400th of a second exposure, ISO 640, & 28mm focal length on the lens.

A caution here – the differences shown in the illustrated files may be subtle!

1 – This is the digital file right from the camera with no editing.  The “Auto” button in the Camera Raw plug-in is not used.


2 – This is the digital file right from the camera altered only with the “Auto” button in the Camera Raw plug-in.



In Levels (Command-L on the Mac) the color and tone of the file can be adjusted.  These are represented on a Histogram.  The Histogram is a simple X, Y axis chart where the ‘Y’ axis is changeable for red, green & blue channels or all 3 at once.  There are also a number of other options for Levels not discussed here.

The Histogram represents pixels (or color) in the file along the ‘Y’ axis.  The axis extends from numbers 0-255.

3 – This is #1 (no Auto button in Camera Raw) edited in Photoshop under the Levels command along with its Histogram.  The Histogram shows this file has color from 0-238.  The histogram beyond 238 is blank because the photo registered no color there.  Manually moving the slider from 255 to 238 then hitting the OK button shows this file above.


4 – If instead you hit the “Auto” button in the Levels box (shown above) you get this file.

5 – This is the combination #2 and #4.



Curves (Command-M) is found hidden under the Image menu then Adjustments sub-menu.  It is very versatile for making changes to the tonal balance, contrast, and exposure of photos.  The Curves menu has lots of options and a myriad of ways to change your digital file.

In the Curves chart it is also possible to move the curve where ever you want.  Against the 256×256 point grid in the software this gives over 65,000 points to choose from.

I generally use Curves for the boost it makes to contrast.  As a secondary effect it sometimes seems to improve the color saturation.  When this happens other commands may become unnecessary.

Curves can also be used to change high lights, mid tones, & shadows.

6a – This is the Curves dialog box of the file shown in photo #1.

6b – Curves also has some presets from a pull down menu which is shown here.


7 – This is the file from #1 with the ‘Darker’ preset from the Curves pull down menu.


8 – This is the file from #1 with the ‘Increase Contrast’ preset from the Curves pull down menu.


9 – This is the file from #1 with the ‘Lighter’ preset from the Curves pull down menu.


10 – This is the file from #1 with the ‘Linear Contrast’ preset from the Curves pull down menu.


11 – This is the file from #1 with the ‘Medium Contrast’ preset from the Curves pull down menu.


12 – This is the file from #1 with the ‘Strong Contrast’ preset from the Curves pull down menu.

As you see some of the effects are useful, and some hurt the photo.



The Hue/Saturation (Command-U) on the Mac is extremely versatile.  It should be used with care.  Hue/Saturation is basically for color correction.  One of the techniques to turn a color photo into a black & white is found here.  It can be used, for instance, to turn all the reds into grays leaving all the other colors untouched.

This is the Dialog Box with two of the pull down menus.

13 – This is the basic Hue/Saturation box.  Command-U on the Mac takes you here.

13a – This the first pull down menu in Hue/Saturation.

13b – This is the second pull down menu in Hue/Saturation.

You don’t have to memorize theses.  You should remember Hue/Saturation gives you many ways of controlling your output.

In the basic menu #13 Hue, Saturation, & Lightness are each sliders at a center point numbered 0 (zero).  The Hue slider moves plus or minus 180 points (or degrees if you think of a color circle).  Hue makes all sorts of color changes.

14 -This is the basic file with Hue at -90.


15 – This uses +90 which seems to swap the basic colors of the sky and rock tones from #14.


16 – Saturation in the basic menu moves the slider from -100 to +100.  At -100 you have a basic black & white.  There are other ways to convert to black & white, but that is not the subject here.


17 – If the slider is set to +100 the colors are as saturated as possible.  It is a lot of fun for an alternate reality.

Lightness also moves the slider from -100 to +100.  At -100 the file is totally black and nothing shows.  At +100 the file is totally white and nothing shows.  In its most basic form this slider can be used to lighten or darken the file.

The first pull down menu, 13a, offers some presets.

18- Sepia, for instance, tries to give a sepia toned black & white rendition of the file.  There are other ways to get sepia toned images, but this is probably easiest. For you it may or may not be the best way to make sepia tones, that is ultimately up to you.


19 – Some of the other features in the first pull down menu, 13a, can render rather strong effects such as “Heavy Saturation”.


20 – Some can be useful such as “Increase Saturation”.


21 – Or “Increase Saturation More.”


22 – Cyanotype is also an option.  It can find uses in places.

The second pull down menu, 13b, offers changes in each of 6 different color channels against the same Hue, Saturation, & Lightness sliders.  Here you can enhance any of the colors, or make them disappear if you want to.

23 – On this one the Blue channel is totally desaturated or eliminated with -100 saturation.


24 – This one the Blue channel is totally eliminated with -100 lightness.  That means blue is still saturated at a normal level, but any blue color has been lightened to white.  Compare it to #23 immediately above.  They are not quite identical.  The foreground appears unchanged, but the sky is deeper in this one.

25 – The original photo was taken at an altitude of almost exactly 5000’.  At that height the color shifts to the blue.  This file has only a “Red Boost” from the menu in 13a.


So that leaves the question of what do I prefer, or what did I illustrate in the October 21, 2012 post where this photo originally appeared?  It is #3 (no Auto from Camera Raw, manual move of Levels slider), and a red boost.  Guess what?  Some of the most basic edits may work just as well, but that is my prerogative as the Photographer.  You have the prerogative with your photos too!