I just got a comment that I must edit my photo. God know how many hours I have spent editing my photos. Thus I was a little bit surprised. It was explained that there are certain rules when doing editing. These rules applies no matter which software you use. She tried to explain it to my in short, but I am not sure that I got it.

What are these editing rules? Is there any workflow when starting to edit a photo? What should I think of when editing a photo? Is there any good tutorial that I have missed?

I have searched the Internet, but I cannot find a good guide. I know the basic editing rules like these. But what else?

BTW I take pictures using RAW and I do basic editing such as sharpening, adjusting the white balance and cropping.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you post an example? \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 16:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ The first rule of photo editing is that you do not talk about photo editing! The second rule of photo editing... \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt Grum
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 16:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ In what context have you been told to edit a photo? Have you posted something to a competition with rules regarding size etc? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 17:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Beware of people who have read books or taken courses until they have had time to recover their senses. Do not try to confront them directly; they are in a delusional state and must be allowed to re-acclimate to reality in their own time. In extreme cases, you may need to provide them a web site where they can rant safely and be ignored. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 22:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Mother of all rules is knowing when to stop editing :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 11:41

6 Answers 6


My general principles:

  • always work on a copy of your image
  • work on your best images - don't waste time editing all of them, just the ones you want to share/print/pulish
  • work non-destructively where possible (RAW editing, using layers, save intermediate steps if necessary)
  • when you are done, you image shouldn't look "edited"

Back up your files

Before you edit, make sure you have the originals backed up, so you only work on copies. Copies of your files should ideally be on a 2nd hard drive, external drive, CD/DVD, and if possible stored in a different location in case of fire, flood or theft.

What method is best to take backups of your digital photos?

Culling Process

Go through your images and flag or even delete the obviously bad ones (out of focus or otherwise). Use some sort of ranking system to arrive at what your best images are, and concentrate on editing and sharing those. Some people may cull their bad images out before backing up, so save space.

What's a good strategy for choosing which photos to keep?

Non-destructive RAW editing

Using a tool like Adobe Camera Raw (in Photoshop or Lightroom), make global adjustments to:

These changes may be all you need to do, and they are non-destructive (you can go back and undo/redo them. If you shoot JPG, you still make the same adjustments, but the changes will not be completely reversable, so you may want to Save As a copy once you're done.

Local editing

Next, depending on the image you may need to do further local adjustments, for example:

  • spot removal - removing dust spots or anything else small and distracting
  • remove color casts
  • dodging and burning (using dodge/burn tools or curves/levels layers with masks)
  • landscapes - you might use gradients to darken skies
  • portraits - skin smoothing and retouching


Once any defects are removed and the overall color and contrast are good, you may want to do conversions or effects (these could also be done earlier in the workflow)


For printing, uploading to the web, etc. you'll need to

  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice complete workflow. I see this question exploding now :) \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is the most complete answer and does give a nice example of which order to do things. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 21:12

Actually, contrary to what other people said, I think there are precisely two rules :).

  1. Is it a journalistic photo? If yes, then no editing beyond some crop/contrast/brightness/saturation adjustments. Really, nothing else.
  2. If it is not a journalistic photo, then every edit you make should bring the image closer to how you saw the scene in your mind, not your eyes.

Step 2 will take a massive amount of experimentation; after which you will probably come to some realizations that coincide with oft quoted rules like 'the rule of thirds' or 'the golden ratio' or 'cool colors recede, warm colors float forward' etc.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I didn't know I was breaking the rules when I edited photos to not look like my mind saw the scene ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @vin agree 100%. As a photojournalist my self, I do not edit my photos beyond: white balance, contrast, brightness, saturation, and crop. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alen
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 20:34

Photography is art. So there are no rules.

But to respond to your question in a useful way, I'll need to know what the commenter actually said. If the person who you were discussing this with left you not understanding their point, it sounds like their attempt to help and teach you has failed. Can you get back to them perhaps and ask them to explain their point another way? Or to send you an email explaining their thoughts? If this isn't possible, could you perhaps re-phrase your question to ask something more specific?


Photography is an art form, so as you alluded to - no exact rules exist. Even with that said, there are some common things that most people look for images to have.

If you are new to photography with a DSLR or in RAW mode - you might be missing the almost "required" steps after taking the shot. If you shoot in RAW, you really should be doing post processing of some kind, to things like the white balance, saturation, and sharpness.

The "tutorial" that you linked to is fine, and probably as close to a standard workflow as any you will find. Beyond that it really varies per image captured, and per theme you are working towards.

Some basic rules that may be suggested by critiques could include:

  • No obvious subject in focus
  • Focus missed the obvious subject
  • White balance is seemingly incorrect
  • Image noise is disruptive or obviously very high
  • Color is very flat, but doesn't appear to be meaningful

The above is a very basic broad list, it could go on for pages, and the list isn't something that should always be followed either. Go ahead and break the rules, you just want to have a purpose and meaning behind them when you do :)

  • \$\begingroup\$ I am not new to DSLR and do the basic editing. I have clarified by question on this. But thanks for your answer anyway. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 6:21

Rules in art are not to be followed but understood and the best way to come to understand them is to follow them. Once you understand them they will become second nature. At which point you will start seeing how they can be 'broken' for creative affect. So, follow the rules, but don't be convinced you must follow them.


There are no rules. Try to make it look so that you find it wonderful and fascinating to look at. This turns out not to be easy to do, it takes practice, learning from others and experimentation, but if you can make it so that it fascinates you, it is likely it will do the same for others.


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