Editing your creative work can make all the difference. Try ten tips from pro photographers as they share how they mastered the art of the stand-out edit.
In 2019, photo editing isn’t an afterthought; for today’s photographers, it’s a fundamental part of the creative process. Over on Instagram, photographers around the world attract hundreds of thousands (in some cases, millions) of followers with their dramatic and unconventional editing techniques. In many cases, their personal preferences have evolved into signature styles in the form of Lightroom presets and tutorials.
In stock photography, post-processing is nothing new; commercial photographers have always had to create technically perfect images with no noise, dust, or chromatic aberrations. But these days, the importance of photo editing goes well beyond meeting these technical requirements. By developing a unique editing style, photographers can set themselves apart from the crowd—and instantly draw the attention of buyers.
We asked six talented artists from the Shutterstock and Offset collections to tell us about how they found their distinctive aesthetics. Read on for our top ten tips for developing your own.
1. Create a mood board.
Your journey towards discovering your style begins with finding inspiration. Run some searches on Shutterstock and Offset, and collect images that leap out to you. Visit art galleries and take photos of work you admire. Browse Pinterest and pull photos you like.
In the beginning, all you have to do is find material that you love. It can be a mural you pass on the way to work (take a photo of it!) or a painting you find in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One important thing to consider is that you’re not just adding photography. Your mood board should include all different influences, ranging from fashion to architecture.
Once you’ve drawn together a chunk of materials, take a look through what you have in your collection. Spend an afternoon writing down words and emotions that spring to mind, and take notes on the aesthetic qualities you see over and over again. For example, are there lots of bright neon colors, muted pastels, contrasting blacks and whites? Those are all elements to keep in mind.
Image by Christianto Soning
2. Research, research, research.
“For me, self-learning was the best solution for creating my own editing style,” Malaysian photographer Christianto Soning tells us. “I spent time studying other people’s editing styles, attending workshops, reading articles online, watching YouTube videos, and just exchanging ideas with fellow photographers. Based on this library of knowledge, I then created my very own style that is simple and quick.”
Image by Chepe Nicoli
3. Shoot as much as possible.
It takes time to find your voice, so throw yourself into the process. “I came from analog photography, where each shot counted and where we had to be careful with the amount of material we were using (a 35mm roll has only 36 frames!),” Mexico-based photographer Chepe Nicoli admits.
“Saving shots was one of the bad habits I brought with me as the new digital era began. Big mistake—now I have learned that you should not save on shots. Every time I have something that could make a great shot in front of me, I shoot it as many times as is necessary until I am convinced that I have good material in my memory card.”
The more you shoot, the more options you’ll have for editing. You won’t process every single image, of course, but you can choose the best ones to enhance in post.
Image by Jacinto Marabel Romo
4. Only edit your best images.
In terms of editing, RAW files give you so much more to work with than your typical JPEG, and they must be properly exposed to begin with. Start off on the right foot by editing only your best images; these are the photos that will allow you to explore your creative potential, and not waste time correcting errors.
“Editing is important since it allows you to generate atmospheres, as well as to create your own visual language with focus and blur, contrast, light and shade,” Spanish-based photographer Jacinto Marabel Romo admits. “But the most important thing is to capture a high-quality RAW photo—well exposed and without too much noise. If the original RAW archive is not good enough, it will be difficult to get a quality photo—no matter how good your editing techniques are.”
Video by MarioProduction
5. Look inward.
We learn about what we like by consuming as much media as possible and by sharing ideas with other people, but at a certain point, it also pays to step away from outside influences. “I was inspired by other videographers and moviemakers,” cinematographer MarioProduction tells us. “However, I believe the worst thing is to copy someone else. In my opinion, every videographer [and photographer], should have their own editing style.”
If you find yourself relying too heavily on artists you admire—or if you notice your work looks a lot like theirs—it can help to take a step back and reflect on what makes you unique and different from everyone else. This process looks different for every artist, but maybe it involves writing in a journal or creating a scrapbook of images you’ve made in the past.
Image by Christianto Soning
6. Create your own Presets.
Downloading and purchasing presets are great ways to start, but get in the practice of editing your photos from scratch as well. Experiment with different sliders and tools, and if you end up with a result you love, save it as a reset to use later down the line.
Image by Viktoriia Photographer
7. Narrow your focus.
Photo editing is all about experimentation—but it’s also about focus. Try out too many presets or techniques, and you’ll end up with a jumble of images without any clear or distinctive style. Once you’ve played around and explored all the tools you have at your disposal, choose just a few you like the most. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the options, so limit the ones you give yourself. Applying these self-imposed restrictions will help you to stay consistent.
When process photos from a specific session, it’s especially important to keep your edits consistent throughout. While some image-buyers might just need a single shot, many of them will require several different ones for various platforms, and because they want consistency across their campaigns, they’ll be looking for uniform edits.
Image by Mary Osk
8. Look for patterns in your work.
Once you’ve collected enough material, it’s time to study your own portfolio—not just your mood board. Set aside your favorite images you’ve created, and ask yourself if you can find any recurring themes, like desaturated colors, heavy contrast, or dark and moody tones.
“Each time I would take a photo, I would think about how I felt in the moment, and what message I’m trying to convey with it,” Sydney-based photographer Mary Osk remembers. “I would then play around with Lightroom until it felt right.
“I think the experimentation was key to finding my style. Over time, I found that I would edit in lighter and cooler tones, as they best conveyed the look I was after. This matches the fact that I capture quiet, serene moments in my photos.”
Your editing style might well change throughout the years, but it’s crucial to take stock every once in a while of the progress you’ve made and the decisions you’re making in post.
Image by Mary Osk
9. Learn the value of restraint.
In the beginning, it’s easy to get carried away with edits, but almost all of the artists we spoke to warn against overdoing it. “My advice would be to edit in a style that is uniquely you, but also don’t over-edit,” Osk adds. “What works for a personal portfolio may not always work for a stock image. If you want the best chance of having your image purchased, edit in a more neutral way so that it has a widespread appeal.”
Image by Viktoriia Photographer
10. Keep growing over time.
Each of the artists we interviewed for this story has a recognizable style, but almost all of them insist that they’re still in the process of figuring everything out.
“The world doesn’t sit still, and the changes that happen around me influence my vision,” German-based artist Viktoriia Photographer tells us.“My photography changes also. How do you find your own style? Photograph what inspires you, photograph a lot, look at pictures by great photographers and masterpieces by artists who inspire you, and develop new ideas or reinterpret old ones.”
Top Image by Christianto Soning
Want more tips on photo editing? Check these out.
- 12 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Editing Black and White Photos
- Free Lightroom Presets for Better-Looking Portraits
- 9 Photoshop Tricks for Editing Photographs Quickly
- Photo Editing: 10 Techniques for Lightroom Color Correction
- Get Users to Stop Scrolling With 5 Stunning Lightroom Presets for Social Media