10 post-processing mistakes everybody makes (and how to avoid them)

We asked six professional photographers to tell us about the most common mistakes they see among beginners, including a few they made early on in their careers, and they shared their best tips for boosting your editing game.

1. Not getting it right in-camera

“One of the most common mistakes that I see in beginner photographers’ work is a lack of planning,” the Chilean-based photographer Ronny Garcia says. “Take the time in pre-production to think about what you want to do, how you want to do it, and what you need to realise your idea. These days, we have access to digital programs, like Affinity Photo, that can do incredible things, but it’s a mistake to assume that everything can be corrected in post-production.

“Image processing programs help us get the best out of our photos, but only if the image is already well-exposed and has a good composition. The most important thing is ensuring you create the best photo possible in-camera, before editing it.” In other words, post-processing won’t “save” a mediocre photo, only elevate a great one. If you can, take multiple exposures to ensure you get it just right on location.

Melanie by Ronny Garcia (@_ronnygarcia on Instagram)

2. Overdoing it

“One extreme I sometimes see with photographers beginning their creative journey is over-editing,” the English photographer Dan Baker tells us. “The brightness, colour tones, saturation, sharpness, or exposure is often pushed too far, and that ultimately detracts from the photo. The viewer becomes blinded by heavy-handed editing and unfortunately loses sight of the image itself.

“I believe that every edit should give flavour and gently enhance the scene to the point where the image and edit work in harmony. To do this, exercise restraint when editing and enhancing images. By applying small changes, you can create balanced photos.” Glancing at your histogram can also be a great way to quickly check your work as you go while avoiding clipping in the shadows or highlights.

3. Only making global adjustments

To get the most out of your images, once you’re happy with making adjustments globally, you need to start working with Masks to restrict filters and adjustments to only the specific areas where they are needed. For example, applying a Shadow/highlights adjustment to bring out the highlights in one part of an image may clip the highlights in another. Masking the adjustment layer to a selected area of your image will avoid this.

From the project ‘Summer of Distance’ by Dan Baker (@danbaker88 on Instagram)

4. Not checking your work

“A simple tip that I often employ is to step away from editing and come back later with fresh eyes,” Dan continues. “It’s amazing how many times I think something looks good in the moment, but once I have wandered off to get a drink and returned to the monitor, I can see how far I have overdone it. There’s no rush. Taking your time and using restraint can be powerful tools in your creative journey.”

5. Blurring the skin

In portraits, skin can easily become over-edited unless you keep a careful eye. “My ultimate ‘post-processing pet peeve’ is over-smoothing of skin,” the fine art photographer and portrait artist Laura Ferreira explains. “I have destroyed many a pore in older photos, and I cringe at myself. It’s something that makes my eyes uncomfortable and ruins an otherwise great portrait.

“It comes down to knowing the correct technique. Before I knew about frequency separation or dodge and burn, I was slapping a blur on a selected area and then fading it to get a hint of pore texture. I got away with it sometimes, but other times, it was horrendous.

“If a model has great skin, you’re good to go with simple cloning of a few things here and there, but if you’ve got to balance out tones or marks, your easiest technique is using the Frequency Separation filter in Affinity Photo. Please avoid using anything under ‘Blur’ when editing skin; it is not a good look.”

Technicolour Soowan by Laura Ferreira (@lauraferreirastudios on Instagram)

6. Forgetting to straighten the horizon

Images often come out of the camera with a slightly crooked horizon, but this mistake is easily fixed by straightening your photo. You can also use the Crop Tool to finesse your composition according to the rule of thirds or golden ratio.

7. Copying someone else’s style

“When we first start as photographers, we tend to copy editing techniques and styles we see other photographers use,” the Malaysian-based photographer Rafiq Farhan tells us. “Don’t get me wrong: it is good to learn from other photographers when you are a beginner. But if you stay in the same place for too long, you’ll start to stagnate.

“Over time, you need to develop your own post-processing style and tastes. It took me quite a long time to create my style of editing, and I made countless mistakes along the way, but I can say that I’m quite happy seeing my work today. In my opinion, post-processing is the most important and fun part of photography.” Downloadable presets are great, but don’t forget to experiment with your technique as well.

Luna Valley by Rafiq Farhan (@rafiqsfarhan on Instagram)

8. Editing only for web, not for print

“When I started as a photographer, I didn’t think about selling prints,” the Paris-based photographer Emilie Mori says. “My images were very small, and I processed them mostly for web use and smaller prints. As time went by, I started getting requests for larger formats, and I had to adapt my editing process.

“I now work on all my images in a very large format right from the start. I also print my photos after retouching to avoid any surprises. The effect is sometimes very different on paper than it is on a screen. Some photographs look better printed than on a screen, and others are the opposite, so you have to tailor your editing based on the end result.”

Global warming by Emilie Mori (@emiliemori on Instagram)

9. Not adding metadata

Once you’re dealing with larger quantities of photos, you’ll want to keep them organised using searchable keywords. You can also add details like copyright information and captions to your metadata for easy access.

10. Forgetting to have fun

In the end, editing is about expressing your creative vision, so don’t be afraid to break the rules. “I’m not a technical photographer or editor, and I like to let go and play as much as possible,” the Romanian fine art and portrait photographer Cristina Venedict tells us.

“I’ve always been inspired by painters as much as photographers: Degas, Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec, to name just a few. Later, I discovered the work of Maggie Taylor, who uses editing to create her own dreamworlds.” Not every edit has to be entirely realistic, so experiment occasionally and push the limits to see what you can create. Just make sure your edits are non-destructive so you can revisit them later.

The Age of Innocence by Cristina Venedict (@cristinavenedict on Instagram)

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.