10 tips for editing your self-portraits

Whenever you take a photo, whatever the subject, there are three basic edits that you should always consider making to it: crop, color, and contrast. They’re the Three Cs and they have the power to elevate a photograph from something that’s fairly ordinary to something a whole lot more special. Even if you’ve snapped something on your smartphone, you can still use a simple editing package to make these adjustments before you share the image on Facebook or Twitter.

1. Crop: Crop is fairly self-explanatory – it adjusts the parameters of the image to ensure that nothing extraneous detracts from the main point of focus. Getting in close to your subject is vital to taking good photos. You should be able to feel as if you can reach through the image and touch the subject, especially with portraits. It’s hard to make a connection to a vague dot of a person on the horizon; it’s far easier to feel involved with a photo that plays on someone’s captivating green eyes. A crop can help you achieve this. Not only that, but it allows you to slice away an unfortunate sliver of background, to straighten the horizon, and organize the frame so that you’re making the best use of the rule of thirds.

A careful crop can turn an okay photo into a masterpiece.

2. Color: There are two parts to adjusting the color of an image: white balance and saturation. By adjusting the white balance to compensate for the time of day that a photo was taken and under what lighting conditions, you can be certain that white will look white, and not some odd gray-green. If you’re using white balance properly, you will shoot your images using a gray card and adjust accordingly in your editing suite. Alternatively, you could play with your camera’s white balance settings or move the white balance slider in your editing suite until you reach a temperature that offers an accurate reflection of the colors as you shot them. As for saturation, or the intensity of a color, it sometimes benefits from a touch of boosting. Saturation is usually controlled by a slider in your editing suite. Move it a few points to the right to boost saturation, or tone things down by shifting it to the left.

How you color-balance your photo depends on how you want it to touch your viewers. In this picture the warm colors project summer and innocence.

3. Contrast: Contrast is the difference between the blacks and whites in an image. An image benefits from having its contrast upped a bit so that the differentiation between its lights and darks can be emphasized. You won’t want to increase the contrast too much, because that can mean a loss of detail in your image. The idea is to bring a bit more punch, not leave it looking like a negative! Those are the basics, then, but what can you do in addition to the Three Cs to make your images sizzle, sparkle, and stand out from the crowd?

Contrast is of huge importance. In this case, I opted for extreme contrast, in the form of a silhouetted photo.

4. Shoot in Raw: Raw saves data just as the sensor records it, which means that when it comes to making edits, you have a great deal more latitude to make your image look how you want it to look, not how your camera thinks it should look.

5. Eyes: Eyes are the key feature of a portrait. Make sure they’re in focus, check that the whites really are white, the pupils are a deep, dark black, get rid of any red veins, and emphasize the catchlight, or the small reflection of the photo’s light source. If you’ve had the misfortune to take a photo that makes you look like a red-eyed devil, Lightroom has a correction feature for that!

Eyes are absolutely crucial in portraiture; if you include them, know that this is where your viewers’ eyes will be drawn before anywhere else!

6. Clean up: While I wouldn’t advocate huge amounts of reconstructive Photoshop surgery, I have no objections to cleaning up spots and blemishes on skin, or removing stray hairs, and that includes my self-portraits. If they’re not normally there, and aren’t part of my normal perception of me, what’s the harm in using Lightroom’s Spot Removal tool or Photoshop’s Spot Healing brush to clean up a pimple or two? Exactly!

7. Monochrome: Black and white portraiture looks timelessly elegant and is flattering to the subject. Skin tones are evened out, eyes sparkle, hair looks glossy, and people simply shimmer in monochrome. If your camera has a monochrome setting, flick it on; if it doesn’t, try a smartphone app or an editing suite. Snapseed has six different monochrome effects while Lightroom has a dedicated monochrome button that converts an image to black and white in one click. You might also want to try adjusting the red and blue levels in an image to alter the effect. By increasing the red tones, you will create a fairer complexion that minimizes blemishes and freckles. Ramp up the blues and you’ll accentuate those features. If you’re looking for a gnarled, wizened look, it might be just what you want. Just don’t convert an image to black and white by desaturating it, or it will lose its warmth and intensity.

Black and white can be an extremely powerful tool in conveying emotions.

8. Hair: If someone wants to change her or his appearance quickly, the first thing that usually comes up for consideration is hair, whether it’s length, style, color, or all three. The best kind of editing that you can do to hair is dodging and burning. Dodging means to lighten something and burning means to make it darker. By burning the shadows and dodging the highlights, you can make your hair look sleek, glossy, and every bit as gorgeous as in a shampoo commercial.

9. Sharpen: The final step in your editing armory – always the last adjustment you should make – is to sharpen your images. You don’t need to sharpen them a lot; an over-sharpened image will look horrible. Again, it’s something that you can do using a mobile editing app or in an all-singing all-dancing suite. Sharpening is about finding the right degree of definition so that your pictures aren’t floppy messes or grainy heaps; play around with the slider until you reach the balance that works for your image. You’ll improve with practice and just how much sharpening you need to apply will become intuitive to each image.

10. Frame: There are a lot of frames or borders that can be readily added to any image these days, so many that it could be thought of as rather cliché if you’re not careful. But there are other ways of punching your image out from its edges – a delicate vignette, for example, might be just the trick to elevate a shot and pull attention in toward the center of the frame.