Photography Post-Production (Editing)

Post-Production, also known as post-processing or photo editing, is the stage after the actual photoshoot to enhance the photographs and bring out the feel, which is as crucial as the actual shoot.

Most cameras have their own preset setting and users may have a few options to adjust, for examples, colour tone, saturation and contrast. The setting will determine the appearance of the photographs at the display screen of the camera. However, the camera (1) cannot remove flaws and (2) using presets from the camera manufacturer does not make photographs stand out - they will look like being taken by just any camera owner.

Photographs that are produced by DSLR can be extremely sharp and definitely have more details than photographs taken by camera phone (small sensor size). Therefore, if you want to print a photograph taken by a DSLR in large format, every small flaw can become very obvious. This is why pre-wedding and modelling portfolio shoots require advanced editing.

Fortunately and unfortunately, if you are planning only to upload the photographs into your social media profiles, the flaws may not be very obvious since social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram usually reduce the dimension and quality of the uploaded photographs.

Do note that post-production work is subjected to individual photographer's professional taste and preference. Do not request/demand a professional photographer to follow another photographer's style. Therefore, do engage the services of the photographer only if you like his work.

Types of post-production

Editing has different categories and different photographers may use different terms.

Usual photoshoots, such as event shoot, that require many photographs will only be touched up with basic editing. If you are rich, of course, you can pay the photographer extra (depending on his own rate) to do advanced editing instead, which is subjected to his availablity as well.

raw photo basic edited photo advanced edited photo

The dimension of the photographs are reduced for web purpose. The actual size I will give to clients is larger (can be printed) and thus viewers can spot flaws (if there is any) easier.

Basic editing

It refers to fine tuning of the colour, exposure (brightness) and cropping to the photographer's standard. No professional photographer can get the exposure level perfectly right on the spot for all photographs, unless it is shot in a studio or indoor environment where the ambient light does not interfere and the correct exposure is measured before the start of the shoot, and also, given the subject is placed at the exact spot without moving a step. Given that the exposure metering of DSLR camera is not 100% reliable, especially when background's light is strong (backlighting), every photograph will require at least a little editing for exposure for the perfectionists. Photographs taken at different spots of a location may have different colour tones as well. Every photographer also has his own preference on the colour tone, level of contrast and clarity, and he may increase or reduce them.

Do note that if you are only paying for basic editing, you are advised to engage a professional hair and makeup artist (HMUA) to do a makeover for you. If you have a tight budget and can only afford a "budget HMUA", it will definitely affect the quality of the photographs that you are appearing inside.

Advanced editing

Some photographers may use the terms "refined editing" or "full editing". It includes removal of tiny flaws on the photograph, such as a small patch of dirt.

basic edited photo - zoomed in advanced edited photo - zoomed in

The sample photograph above was taken using a large softbox at the closest distance possible and thus the lighting has already made the complexion of the models in the RAW file much smoother, or otherwise, you will be able to see a bigger contrast between the two types of editing. For the advanced editing, I have tried to keep it as natural as possible since it is just a casual couple shoot.

For portrait shoot, it usually includes skin touch-up, such as removal of the usual skin problems that include pimples, freckles, stretch marks, scars and bruises, and rough skin. No matter how skilful a makeup artist is, flaws are likely to appear inside the photographs, depending on the angle and lighting, and thus will require editing. Of course, having the help from a good hair and makeup artist will always be better than a normal one. Besides, it also depends on the budget and skill, the makeup artist may even hide scars on the other parts of the body, which will lessen post-production work.

Depending on the skill and effort of the photographer and other factors such as the model's skin condition and makeup, it may take a couple of hours to work on each photograph. It is not as easy as using phone applications (app) that simply blurs the entire face to make it look "flawless" and often, like a plastic or alien. However, if your art sense tells you that phone applications can do 90% of the work, you are highly encouraged not to waste money on hiring any professional photographer.

To judge the skill of the photographer, open the edited photograph at its full size and look through every part.

Since advanced editing requires the extra time and effort for each photograph, photographers usually charge by per photograph and it is not cheap. Unfortunately, most non photographers do not appreciate or understand it.

Note: I have noticed that many photographer simply blur out the faces to "remove the flaws" and they end up looking like plastic. My editing style involves more details, hard work and time that will make faces look more natural.

Extreme editing

It may include extreme editing of the photographs, such as removal, merging or adding of objects, which are very time-consuming and tedious, but can make big differences if you put the raw and finished photographs side by side. It may also include "slimming" of the model. Of course, different photographers have different limitations for editing.

I have spent over five hours working on a model with bad complexion, basic makeup, different colour tones on body and meaty body.

JPG vs Camera Raw

A DSLR camera can usually generate two types of file format - JPG (*.jpg) and camera raw (eg. *.arw, *.cr2). JPG files are the "final" version from the camera setting and can be opened and viewed by most devices like computers and mobile phones. Camera raw files are unprocessed files that contains more details and thus have more rooms for adjustments (can tolerate higher level of errors during the shoot). However, they have much larger file size and may not be opened by some devices, and thus will eventually be converted to JPG files after editing work is done.

One example is when you try to brighten a JPG file during post-production, the underexposed parts may remain dark and more noise may appear; whereas a camera raw file has more margins for adjustment and there will also be less noise appearing on the photograph. Editing of colour temperature using camera raw file can be a lot easier, especially for shooting at venue where there are different ambient lighting (eg. white light from ceiling and warm light from windows).

Most professional photographers prefer to work with camera raw files but there are also some who choose JPG files since they do not intend to do much (or any) post-production work after the shoot.

Post-production and actual shoot come in a package

Every photographer has his unique preferred adjustments for his photographs. For examples, some photographers add a purplish or green colour tone to the photographs and some prefer to have a higher clarity level or contrast; some photographers may also like to brighten or darken the shadows. Some photographers may also underexpose the photographs on purpose so that certain parts of the photographs will not be overexposed and lose the details; therefore, only the actual photographers know what exactly to adjust during post-production.

While there are some very popular photographers who are very busy and will outsource the post-production job to retouchers, they usually have a set of rules and settings for the retouchers to follow.

Therefore, it is an insult to the professional photographer when a client suggests/insists in doing the post-production work on behalf of the photographer. It is indirectly telling the photographer that the client can do the same or even better post-production work than the photographer.

Advanced Editing for Portrait Photos

Below are the details that I may work on for advanced editing, especially when no hair and makeup artist (HMUA) is involved. Over-editing may make the photos become "fake" and thus it is quite challenging to strike a balance sometimes. Most of the time, I will try to keep the photographs as natural as possible and not over-edit them.

  1. Strands of hair
    Small strands of hair covering the face or eyes will make it look messy for most themes. They should be uniform in direction. Hair being separated in certain condition, for example, forming a "hole" (can be circular or triangular) will not look good. For certain angles, the ear should not pop out from the chunk of hair, which will look like mickey mouse. In many cases, the photos have to be given up.
  2. Not-so-nice complexion
    This is pretty straightforward. With pimples, acnes or scars won't make the photo looks nice. Depending on the condition of the face, the time taken to touch up varies. Even with the help of makeup artist, Skai will probably have to touch up a little but things will be so much easier!
  3. Uneven skin tone
    This happens frequently when no makeup artist is involved. Most models who know how to do simple makeup will tend to overlook it when they apply foundation on their faces, such that the face and neck have obvious different colour tones. Sometimes it may be caused by lighting.
  4. Scars and bruises
    Scars and bruises on body, such as hands and legs, will require touch up. For commercial shoot, the makeup artist should cover them up during the makeup session. However, for non-commercial shoot, makeup artists usually won't do such tedious job. Fortunately, scars and bruises at most places and angles should be easy to be removed in photoshop.
  5. Panda eyes
    Panda eyes will be at least be lightened. This is why the model needs a good rest the night before.
  6. Holy moles and freckles (selective)
    Some people prefer to leave them untouched. As long as they are not distracting to the face, they can be left behind.
  7. Yellowish teeth
    Yellowish teeth is quite common for models who love drinking tea or coffee. It may give a dirty feel to the photo. Skai may whiten the teeth if condition is bad.
  8. Dark armpits
    Applicable to certain outfits only. Normally Skai will whiten it a little.
  9. Bra straps
    For most non-sexy themes, it doesn't look tasteful to have bra straps shown. Therefore, the model should wear a strapless bra for strapless outfits like tube top/dress. Transparent and translucent straps look bad. Bra that is tied around the back of the neck may be an exception for sporty theme.

    It takes a lot of time and effort to remove the bra straps in photoshop, depending on how detailed a photographer wants to be. Depending on the angle of the model and the interaction between the straps and other objects such as hair or background, the straps may not be able to be removed easily and the photos may be abandoned.

    After all, there is no need to waste time in photoshopping the straps away. The time a photographer has to spend on such editing is better spent on shooting another model who bothers to help him to reduce time wastage.
  10. Composition
    Most non-advanced cameras have around 97% view on the viewfinder and thus the photos taken will be larger than the intended ones. Therefore, some cropping may be needed for photos. In many situations, it may be too rush (some moments/expression may not happen again) to frame up the photos properly before pressing the shutter button and therefore cropping will be required eventually.
  11. Lighting (exposure) and colour (white balance)
    Technology of camera is not good enough to determine which is the real "white" colour. Therefore, the overall colour tone will tend to lean towards to a certain tone. During the shoot, a white balance card may be used to set it. However, any change of light may change the white balance again. Therefore, setting a correct white balance is almost inevitable during post-production work, especially if a certain mood (colour tone) is expected.

    There is also no perfect lighting condition for any shoot. Therefore, some post-production work may be required to darken certain spots that are too bright and also brighten some that are too dark. Different skin tone will also affect the exposure. Lastly, it's never easy to get a perfect exposure unless a light metre is used, which is expensive and time consuming. Furthermore, it's impossible to judge the exposure properly on the small LCD screen on the back of the camera.

I'm in for discussion if the model does not want any body part to be edited, such as freckles and moles. Just wink at me and we can pillow fight over it.

Contribution to the length of post-production work

The time I would need to spend in order to give my clients the final photographs are influenced greatly by various factors.

  1. Number of photoshoot I have done with other clients
    I usually work on my photoshoot albums based on first-come-first-serve principle for fairness. Therefore, if I'm owing many clients their photographs before the shoot, it will definitely take longer time for me to even get started with the latter albums.
  2. Availability of my consultant
    Sometimes, I do work with my advisor in the post-production work, especially for portrait shoots. Tricia Lee is a very experienced commercial makeup artist who has taught me how to catch flaws on the photographs. She does excellent makeup and hair, and keeps up with fashion. She is extremely good in directing the poses of models. With her help, I'm able to rectify problems inside the photographs. Since Tricia is very busy, I may also work with other reliable friends.
  3. Number of photographs we have taken
    Filtering of photographs is not as simple as what you think. Looking at the overall feel before zooming in to look at small details part by part is draining. I may take a few shoots continuously in case of any error and sometimes the similar ones are great photographs to be chosen from. I will also need to think whether a good photography is worth "saving" in PhotoShop if there are some flaws inside. That means the more photographs we take during the shoot, the longer time I will take to filter the photographs; eventually, the final photographs will have better quality though.

    In fact, I'm very sure most photographers do not work as crazily as me. I will usually go through all the photographs a few times over a few days in case of me making any impulsive decision to filter away any potential photo. By going through the photographs many times over a long period of time, it allows me to select the photographs that have longer lasting beauty.
  4. Number of final photographs I'm trying to produce
    This is pretty straight-forward. The number of final photographs I'm going to produce will highly influence the time to be taken, especially for portrait shoots.

    When I was a beginner, I had made a lot of mistakes by going in large quantity in order not to disappoint my friends. I tried too hard to make them happy because they were very kind to work with me when I did not have a solid portfolio. The fact is quality matters so much more than quantity. If you have too many good photographs in the same makeup, hair, outfit and location, people will get sick of looking at the photographs. Furthermore, most of the shoots were done without any makeup artist while the models were not good in doing their own makeup. It had caused me lost of opportunities to work with more models to practise and build up more varieties of portfolio. Working with fewer models would also decrease marketing for my photography work.

    However, for certain themes such as story-telling shoots, I still have to work on quite a number of photographs in order to allow the "story" to flow. For normal shoots such as fashion, I will be working on minimum number of photographs.

    Therefore, the more advanced edited photographs the client needs, the longer time it may take to finish the photographs.
  5. Model's hair and makeup (for advanced portrait editing)
    It is not only time-consuming but also frustrating when no hair and makeup artist is involved, especially when the model does not have good complexion. The easiest and fastest way to solve the complexion problem is to blur out the model's face but it will give a fake feel to the photo. This is what most girls are doing on their own photographs when free mobile phone applications are so common. My style is to go into details to remove tiny flaws and minimize the level of blurriness to be applied on the face - it just takes so much more time but can produce more natural photographs. Hair usually gives me headaches.
  6. Quality of my shooting
    The photographer, which is me, does make mistakes as well. Some "mistakes" are unavoidable due to various constraints. If there are problems such as lighting, I may take more time to figure out how to "save" the good photographs. The effort and time to be spent on PhotoShop will also be a lot more.
  7. Season of the year
    Both my tuition agency and photography businesses have peak and off peak periods. Therefore, there are certain times of the year I may be busier. I will also need the following months to finish up the piled up work.


Photoshop (post-production) work can be easy but doing a good job that makes the photograph looks natural and unedited is extremely difficult and requires great amount of patience. Smoothening a face is not only about adding blurriness or over-exposing it like what most mobile phone applications do. This is why many amateur photographers' portrait works look bad - they flatten the faces or make them look like plastic.

Every photographer has his own shooting and editing style. Therefore, only approach the photographer if you like his style.

You are highly encouraged to read about the misconceptions and myths in professional photography.

You may be interested in:
- Photography shooting style
- Quality and quantity of photographs - contributing factors
- The importance of watermark
- FAQ about photography
- Misconceptions and myths in professional photography

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