10 Most Common Post Processing Mistakes to Avoid
Given the amount of tools provided in Lightroom and Photoshop, it can often feel like navigating a minefield while processing your photos. With so many options, it's hard to know what effects to apply to your photo, and even harder to avoid some of the most common mistakes. Post processing mistakes are the biggest killer of compelling images. After teaching many new photographers in the past couple of years, I've realized that most photographers are making the same mistakes. I'll be sharing the most common mistakes of post processing in nature photography below.
Trying to do too much in Lightroom
Too many photographers quickly figure out how to use Lightroom, and never bother to learn Photoshop. Lightroom is a great tool for applying base edits on your image. However, it simply does not have the necessary tools for fine tune adjustments like Photoshop does. Once you feel like you've got Lightroom figured out, start learning Photoshop.
Incorrect White Balance
Most photographers use Auto White Balance in the field, meaning that the camera will decide the white balance. This is fine in the field, but usually you'll need to slightly tweak the white balance when you start editing on the computer. Images with good sunsets/sunrises are particularly prone to this problem. It's easy to warm up the image on an average sunset to try and make the photo appear more intriguing, but be careful when doing this. Often times, it makes the rest of the scene look unrealistic. When setting white balance, try and pay attention to a neutral object that is not receiving any sunlight, such as a rock in the shadows. Try and use the temperature and tint sliders to neutralize this object, and then fine tune the whole image from there. This will help you from making the mistake of poorly toned images while post processing. If you're interested in learning more about correcting white balance, check out this blog post I wrote back in December of 2019.
Sharpening can be a photographer's best friend, or their worst enemy. When done correctly, sharpening can increase the depth and add the final touch to your photo before exporting for print or the web. However, when sharpening is over or underdone, it can really hurt a photo. Don't sharpen all of your photos using the same settings. Make sure to individually dial in the photo, and be sure to zoom in to 100%+ when applying sharpening. Lastly, don't be afraid to sharpen in Photoshop, which allows you to mask out the sharpening in places like the sky, which should not be getting sharpened to begin with.
Forgetting to Use Spot Removal
One of my personal pet peeves is dust spots in the sky. No matter how many times you blow out your sensor and wipe the front of your lens, it is inevitable that you'll have to deal with dust spots in your frame from time to time. Dust spots in the sky are the easiest to notice. I like removing these spots in Lightroom, where you can use the Spot Removal Tool (Q) to easily find these spots. Once the spot healing tool is selected, click "Visualize Spots" and adjust the slider until you can see spots in the sky, and occasionally the foreground. You can easily remove the spots to clean up your photo.
Over-Saturation in Post Processing
Another common error made by new photographers. The answer to a weak composition or boring light is NOT increased saturation. On most of my personal photos, I find myself rarely adding saturation. When I do, I never add more than 10 points of saturation. If you do want to add saturation, I recommend using the HSL sliders, which allow you to selectively increase the saturation of just one particular color (i.e. blues, yellows, reds, etc.). This can help you pop one particular part of your photo without increasing the saturation of everything else.
This is a problem that you don't see as often, but I'd consider this one of the worst problems you can have. If the horizon in your photo isn't straight, it really throws your viewer for a spin. Luckily, it's incredibly easy to straighten the horizon in Lightroom. Grab the crop tool, and then click the ruler next to the words "Angle". This allows you to draw a straight line across the horizon, and your photo will be rotated to match that horizon.
In landscape photography, it is generally not considered ideal to have blown out highlights. However, if the blown out aspect is just a small part of the frame, I personally find it okay. A common mistake that many photographers make is to reduce the highlights greatly in a bright spot like the sun, and the highlights tend to look very washed out. If you blew out a small part of the frame in the field, leave it blown out in post processing to avoid this mistake! Give the highlights a glow, and make sure not to bring them down too much.
Poor masking is a problem that I see all the time. If you do want to mask an object in your frame to apply a separate effect, be sure to spend a lot of time making a good mask. Too often, I see photographers that simply use the Adjustment Brush to just brush over a small object. If this mask isn't refined (Photoshop is best for this), it is often obvious that you made an adjustment. When editing, your goal should always to be make the edits look as seamless as possible.
Too Much Noise Reduction
If you shot your photo in low light or at night, it's likely that the photo contains a fair amount of noise. Noise is something that most photographers consider undesirable in their photos, but noise helps add detail to low light photos. One mistake that many photographers make is applying too much noise reduction. The more you reduce the noise, the less detail your photo has, and the less depth you'll see. Too much noise reduction can cause your photo to look like a painting. As a general rule of thumb, I like to reduce noise at 100% zoom in Photoshop. I reduce the noise as much as possible before I start to loose the details in my scene.
Overdone Clarity Slider
The clarity slider is one of the easiest sliders to overdo in Lightroom or Photoshop. Simply put, clarity adds a special type of contrast which really helps bring out texture and detail. It's easy to add too much clarity, since it can easily boost the "pop" on your photo. Generally speaking, I never add more than 20 points of clarity to any photo.
Photo editing is a skill that you'll only get better at from practicing. If you've made these post processing mistakes before, don't worry! Making mistakes is the best way to learn. Go back and re-edit old photos, and you'll continue to make rapid progress. Once you feel you've got a grip on how Lightroom works, begin to learn Photoshop. Good luck in all of your processing adventures!