The Importance of Editing in Photography

Everyone asks how to take better photos and what camera they need to take good photos, but I don’t think enough people are asking how an image was edited and what the image looked like before it was edited. Photography is more than taking a good photo. You first have to know how to capture a good image, and then you must know how to edit it to enhance the story, set the mood and sometimes define the style.

As photographers, I think we should be more transparent about our editing process because it is such an important part of telling the full story of the photo. Having a better understanding of how photos are taken and created benefits everyone. It creates a greater appreciation of all of the decisions made by the photographer when creating the photo, and it eliminates an unrealistic perception of a place, a person, or a subject.

before and after photo edit by me from Santorini, Greece
Before and after photo edit by me from Santorini, Greece

I’ll admit, it sometimes it is nice to not know. Art is mystifying because if so often takes us away from reality. Photography captures what appears to be real life and actually isn’t, and it has always been a controversial art form because of this. You should be questioning every photos depiction of reality because you can easily be deceived by it.

Editing further blurs this line between what is real and what is not. I found a short video about Ansel Adams, and in that video, he states, ‘My picture isn’t real, in the sense of tone. It is real optically, but it is much richer and deeper in value.’  Which I think is really fitting for what I am trying to get at here.

The video, which can be viewed here, talks about how he took the original image and how he used the darkroom to change the mood and tones of the photo.

Editing and manipulating photos isn’t a bad thing. Editing can change or enhance the mood, the story, and the message of a photo. Editing has always been a part of photography. It just wasn’t always called editing. Back in the days of film and darkrooms, it was common practice to enhance your photo using contrast filters, dodging and burning. Here are some images, from some very famous photographers, showing original darkroom prints marked up with various exposure times and then the final image on the right.

Darkroom Markup photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson – sourced from Magnum Photos via PetaPixel


Darkroom Markup photo of Muhammed Ali taken by Thomas Hoepker – sourced from Magnum Photos via PetaPixel

You can read more about these images in this article from PetaPixel. I hope from just viewing the images you can at least see how much deliberate decision making is put into each photo. Every aspect of the photo is considered to convey the final message and to draw you in as the viewer. 

Seeing these darkroom mockups and Ansel Adams photos, for me, further instills that editing is as much a part of the photography process as taking the photo itself.

I’ve been seeing a trend on Instagram of people showing their photo before and after editing, which I really enjoy. With everyone taking and uploading photos, I believe being transparent about the editing process creates a healthier environment for enjoying the photos. It also makes me appreciate their final image more because I’m getting a look into their creative process.

Photography begins with seeing the potential for a great photo, seeing how the light is hitting something just right or seeing a cool angle, texture, or color combination. So getting to view what the photographer originally saw, and then seeing how they brought that image to life is not only really interesting but also really important to understanding the medium of photography.

Before and after photo edit by me from Denver, Colorado
Before and after photo edit by me from Denver, Colorado

As a photographer, do you agree or disagree on being transparent about your editing process? And as a non-photographer, is this something you think about when viewing photographs?

Darkroom mockup photos courtesy of Magnum Photos via Peta Pixel.

The short film about Ansel Adams was found on DPReview and can also be viewed on Youtube.