Enhance special moments with these simple photo editing tips

Discover how shooting RAW and editing in Canon's Digital Photo Professional or Adobe® Lightroom® can help you get more from your photography and show big occasions in their best light.
A before and after shot of a couple on their wedding day next to a lake, dark and unedited on the left, showing the lighter version on the left, edited in DPP.

As a photography enthusiast, you're probably accustomed to using your camera's settings and options to refine the focus, exposure and composition of your photos, and you might routinely review your shots on the camera's LCD screen and then retake them with slightly different settings to get them just right. With so much care going into the shooting, an image straight from the camera is often enough for documenting your experiences – but there are some special occasions that justify even more attention. Weddings, anniversaries, birthday parties, graduations, your child's first steps… once-in-a-lifetime moments are worthy of being remembered in the best possible light, and that's why it's important to learn how to edit your photos. It means you can fix many mistakes, improve the composition and brightness and other technical aspects, give a distinctive look to all your pictures from one event, and much more.

To give yourself more latitude when it comes to editing your images, it's worth shooting RAW – that is, setting your camera to save your images as RAW files rather than JPEGs when you take them. A RAW file is essentially a digital negative that contains the raw, unprocessed data from your camera's sensor, from which you can produce multiple interpretations of the image. JPEGs are already processed by the camera and are easily shareable straight from the camera, but give you very little headroom for editing or correction. One practical way to get the best of both worlds is to set your camera to save both RAW and JPEG – that way, you get a picture you can easily share and also a RAW file you can enhance and experiment with later. Be aware, though, that you will need more room on your memory card for your camera to save both versions of every shot.

In order to create a photo from a RAW file, you need to process it. You can do this in-camera, and even make some adjustments along the way, tweaking the brightness, correcting lens aberrations, applying preset effects such as Vivid or Soft, and more. It makes sense, however, to do the processing on the (much larger) screen of your computer using specialist RAW editing software, such as Canon's free Digital Photo Professional (DPP) or Adobe® Lightroom®. It's easy to do, and gives you the opportunity to apply a different Picture Style, white balance, noise reduction setting and much more. Any edits you make to the RAW file (whether in-camera or on your computer) are non-destructive, which means the original file is unaffected and any adjustments can be undone, tweaked or removed at any time, even if you close the file and reopen it later.

Improving the exposure

A screenshot of Adobe® Lightroom®, showing two different exposures of an image of a woman applying makeup standing at a window in a dark room.

RAW files have a wider dynamic range than JPEGs, and can hold detail in shadows and highlights that might appear lost on the camera. Brightening up the shadows can reveal noise, though, so be prepared to use noise reduction.

A screenshot of DPP showing an image of a bride getting ready. Underexposed areas are highlighted in blue, overexposed areas in red.

With the highlight and shadow warnings activated in DPP, light areas that are at risk of clipping have a red overlay. Areas that are potentially too dark, and therefore risk shadow tones being clipped, have a blue overlay.

Exposure is one aspect that you can fine-tune when you process a RAW file. Although you can't change the aperture, shutter speed or ISO, you can adjust the overall brightness, as well as selectively improve the shadows and highlights. This is particularly useful when it comes to editing traditional wedding photos taken on a sunny day, when it can be challenging to capture detail in both the bride's bright white dress and the groom's dark suit.

RAW files hold a wider dynamic range than JPEGs, so you can often recover apparently-lost detail using the Highlight and Shadow controls. These are available as standalone sliders in the Develop module in Lightroom®, and under the Picture Style section in DPP. If you're using DPP you can also change the Auto Lighting Optimizer strength, which will automatically enhance the exposure and contrast for you.

Avoiding clipping

A screenshot of the exposure settings in DPP being applied to an image of a couple on a deserted seashore holding hands.

Check the histogram as you make adjustments to exposure, colours and contrast in your RAW editing software. If the graph is pushed up against the right-hand edge and looks cut-off instead of tailing off gradually, that indicates that parts of the image will be pure white. The main thing is to make sure the subject is exposed correctly.

A screenshot of Adobe® Lightroom® showing the Tone Curve tool being used on an image of a newlywed couple standing in front of a waterfall.

Use the Tone Curve in your software to add contrast and make the image pop. A shallow S-curve is a good starting point. You can achieve this in Lightroom® (pictured) by nudging the Highlights and Lights sliders to the right and the Darks and Shadows sliders to the left. In DPP, you click and drag on the graph to darken the shadows and lighten bright tones.

Where shadow areas that should contain subtle tonal detail become an indistinguishable black, or bright areas are blown out to stark white, they are said to be clipped. You can see this in the image's histogram on your camera or in your RAW editing software: instead of tailing off at either end, the histogram curve will look cut-off. So keep one eye on the histogram as you make exposure adjustments. When you move the sliders, the histogram will shift towards the right as the photo gets brighter, or to the left as the photo gets darker. In general, you should avoid pushing the histogram off the edge of the display, because you will lose details in areas of the picture that become clipped. Of course, there will be some photos where a brighter or darker result gives a more interesting effect, but you'll normally want to retain plenty of detail in areas such as the bride's dress.

To make it easier to judge exposure adjustments, you can activate the handy highlight and shadow warnings. These will indicate any areas in the image that will be rendered pure black (shown in blue) or pure white (in red). You'll find this option in the Preview drop-down menu in DPP, and you can toggle the warnings on and off in Lightroom® by clicking the small boxes at the top of the histogram.

If you've brightened up the shadows and reduced the highlights, you may find that your image lacks contrast. You can use the Tone Curve control panel to bring some of this back. To boost the contrast, try a shallow S-shaped curve to start with: click on the middle of the line running across the centre of the graph to set the mid-point, then click lower down the line and drag it downwards a little to intensify the shadows, and click in the top part of the line and pull it upwards a little to punch up the whites.

Correcting the white balance

A screenshot of DPP showing the colour balance being corrected on an image of a newlywed couple standing in the snow.

DPP gives you a range of tools for removing colour casts, including the Click White Balance eyedropper, which you can use to click directly on an area that should be a neutral white or grey area. Here, additional amber was added using the slider under Fine tune, to further warm up the cool image.

Before making adjustments to the colours in your image, it pays to set the correct white balance. Photos captured over the course of a celebratory event such as a big wedding are likely to have been taken under different types of lighting – from daylight or artificial lights for the ceremony itself, through to sunset and disco lights at an evening party. You can use the comprehensive suite of white balance tools in DPP or Lightroom® to remove colour casts caused by the different lights – or even add one for creative effect.

The white balance presets in DPP mirror those available in Canon EOS cameras, and you can fine-tune the result by manually changing the mix of blue/amber and magenta/green to ensure that colours are true to life. Alternatively, you can use the white balance eyedropper tool (Click White Balance) and click on an area of the image that should be a neutral white or grey to remove a colour cast across the whole image. A similar set of controls is available in Lightroom®.

The colour of the light might be what drew you to take the shot in the first place, though, so don't feel that you have to neutralise it. Besides, a slightly "warmer" (more red and less blue) white balance can produce more flattering skin tones.

Enhancing the saturation

A screenshot of Adobe® Lightroom® showing profile presets being applied to an image of a bride standing in front of a yellow lighthouse.

Lightroom® has a selection of presets (on the left) and profiles (on the right), which enable you to apply a specific look to your photos with just one click. You can use the sliders and other editing tools to refine the result. DPP's Picture Styles and custom recipes work in much the same way.

With the colour temperature set, it's time to move on to colour enhancement. When you open a RAW file in DPP, the Picture Style that was used to take the photo will be automatically selected, but you can use the drop-down to try a different one. The Advanced section enables you to edit the parameters of the Picture Style too, including changing the colour tone and increasing or decreasing the colour saturation.

Instead of a Picture Style control, Lightroom® has a range of picture profiles and presets that give you a complete look with just a single click. These can also be used as a starting point for further edits, and you can save your finished look as a new custom preset that you can use on other pictures. Using presets can save a lot of time, and many wedding photographers who have to edit hundreds of photos rely on them as a quick way to get a popular filtered or vintage look.

Batch processing images is another way to streamline your workflow. In DPP, rather than processing each photo individually, you can copy the editing recipe from one image and apply it to another image or a set of them. To do this, select the thumbnail of the image you want to copy the settings from and go to Edit > Copy recipe in the top bar. (Alternatively, use Edit > Select and copy recipe settings and you can choose exactly which settings to copy.) Then select the thumbnail or thumbnails that you want to apply the same look to, and go to Edit > Paste recipe. Once you've applied a recipe or Picture Style to an image, you can always make further adjustments to it, or revert to the settings with which it was taken – remember, all edits are non-destructive.

Boosting individual colours – and going black and white

A screenshot of DPP showing the lightness being enhanced in an image of a newlywed couple embracing.

Using the Hue, Saturation and Lightness (HSL) sliders in DPP enables you to make targeted adjustments to specific colours. Dragging the orange Lightness slider a little to the right can brighten up skin tones.

A screenshot of Adobe® Lightroom® showing a monochrome image of a newlywed couple in front of a triangular hut.

Converting a series of wedding photos to black and white is a great way to tie together a collection of images. After conversion, use the sliders for the colour channels to change the mix of tones and add contrast.

Both DPP and Lightroom® have a series of Hue, Saturation and Lightness (HSL) colour adjustment controls. These sliders enable you to refine the individual colours of a photo for subtle or more substantial results. If you're working up an outdoor shot, for example, you might want to adjust the blue sliders to deepen and enrich a blue sky, or lighten it and subdue the saturation, depending on the particular style you're looking for. You can also enhance the atmosphere of an autumn wedding by accentuating oranges, yellows and reds. Moving the orange Lightness slider just a few steps to the right is a useful trick for improving skin tones in portraits.

Of course, you might want no colour at all. While birthday shots often benefit from more vivid hues, converting wedding photos to black and white adds a timeless quality that allows viewers to focus on the emotion of the moment. Going monochrome can also help you to solve some technical problems. It can bring consistency to a collection of shots taken at different times of a wedding day and in different locations, for example, and it can also rescue pictures taken at high ISOs or in poor light in indoor venues.

Rather than selecting the Monochrome Picture Style in DPP, click the Monochrome button at the top of the Hue, Saturation and Lightness colour adjustment panel. Doing this will allow you to continue to use the H, S and L sliders to adjust the underlying colours and consequently the different grey tones in the converted image. Some pictures can look bland and flat when converted to black and white, but you can achieve more dynamic results by using the Lightness sliders to add contrast and separation.

As you progress through the various stages of editing a photo, be prepared to go back a few steps and fine-tune changes that you made earlier. You might find that you need to readjust the exposure or tweak the contrast after you've changed the colours, for example. The final stage is to apply a little sharpening. Less is often more when it comes to sharpening, so magnify an important detail to 100% to help you judge when you've applied just the right amount.

Written by Marcus Hawkins

Adobe® and Lightroom® are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

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