Have you overdone it?

Very often, I tell photographers not to overdo photo-editing. So, how does one know when is it overdoing? What are the obvious errors to be on the lookout for when editing the photographs?

Sunset in Assam

(Photograph of a sunrise in Assam, captured on mobile phone, while traveling. The photograph was later enhanced and very often it gets the wows people long for. However on close look, it is terrible photograph with many photo-editing errors)

Playing with the dynamic range

Many a times, the scenes are drab to look at. These lack contrast and rarely make use of the complete dynamic range of the camera. On the preview screen of the camera, such an image presents a histogram which is concentrated in a small area. The remaining part of the histogram is blank. In post-processing, the ‘black point’ and ‘white points’ can be moved closer to the image’s tonal range, in a way that it gets stretched to cover whole of the available dynamic range. The result – a high contrast image with no over or underexposed regions. The blacks look blacker and the lighter parts of the image look brighter than before.

Dynamic Range Utilization

(Shifting the black and white threshold points to improve the overall contrast of the image)

Problems in doing so to look out for –

  • Doing so leads to ‘gaps’ in the tonal range of the photograph. These gaps appear as distinctive bands between slightly varying shades or tints of a single color. Computer professionals call it banding.
  • Dust bunnies and any other similar artifacts which might have been hidden earlier, show up. These should be covered up. (Clone Stamp vs Healing)

Going overboard with Saturation

In the world of color, this is the easiest trap to fall into. Most of the photographs that I see today, being shared on social media and photography groups, show this problem. The photographers in their enthusiasm go overboard with saturation settings. Both side of the extreme saturation is usually wrong and appears ghastly.

In an effort to get that silver look in the colored photographs, some photographers and even many ready to use plugins and settings of photo-editing programs, end up reducing the saturation. Sometimes to about half of what was originally there. The photograph looks impressive at the first glance but the truthfulness gets lost. It becomes just another photograph which people admire, pass a few comments and forget.

Similarly, the opposite also happens. Going overboard with excessive saturation can also create an image which seems to have an impact. The electric greens, flawless reds (overblown) and extra dark clouds can earn a few claps but never will they becomes masterpieces to be cherished. Such photographs are flooding the computer and phone wallpaper sites. Is it a way to hide the inhumane nature of technology? Do such over-saturated photographs lower the plastic-metal feel of these devices?

Stick with saturation levels that look beautiful and real. A quick test could be to look away from the computer screen and check the color of the greens on the trees and plants growing outside. Observe the color of your own hands while you work on the saturation levels in portraits. (Saturation – the ideal level)

Sun and the dry tree

(I’ll be using a small crop of the dry shrub on the right for the next sub-heading. More about this photograph – Photographing Sun)

Sharpening the flaws

Yes, that is what people do when they sharpen the photographs. The sharpening filters have an overall sharpening effect and therefore all the flaws get sharpened too.

The dust particles on the sensor, out of focus areas or the wonderful bokeh, pimples on the face, garbage in the foreground in your loved landscape, even the sensor noise … everything gets sharpened! So first and foremost thing to watch out for is what all is getting sharpened. Sharp flaws are more disturbing to look at than soft strengths in a photograph.

Second is the way how sharpening works. In their simplest forms, sharpening tools and plugins, enhance the contrast between the pixels of differing tonal value or color. In laymen terms, the borders are enhanced. This enhancement should not be distinctly visible as an outline. If that happens, you have gone overboard with sharpening.


(The image above is with over-sharpening. The one below is the crop from the final image with proper amount of sharpening.)

Closeup of the dried branches

Notice the light shade of the bordering pixels of the dry branches in the left side image. Similarly the dark pixels of the branches near the border have also been further darkened. Compare the photograph with the crop on the right which has been taken directly from the original of the photograph.

Dynamic range, saturation and sharpening are the three most common settings that I have seen photographers going overboard with. Each and every setting in photo-editing programs can be a potential threat to the beauty of the photograph. In photo-editing, less is usually more!

On a similar corollary, here is a quote from the field  of medicine – Every medicine which cures in normal doses can be a poison in over-dose.

Now, move on to the second part of this article – Have you overdone it? (Part 2)

Further Reading:
Photography getting lost to Photo-editing
Top 10 Photo-editing Traps

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