Trees, pool and raised boardwalk
Lens-Artists,  Photographic techniques

From forgettable to favourite: editing for impact

Some say that a photo should be a direct representation of what we saw as we clicked the shutter. I say, that is impossible. The eye, like the camera, may see the true picture, but the brain tends to see what it wants to see, and the photo may therefore disappoint.

We filter out that ugly sign in the background. We don’t really notice the telephone wires overhead. We know it is a sunny day so we see warm sunshine, even where a camera may capture a rather flat scene. Must a photo retain all of these things; or is it acceptable to remove them so that it looks like we thought it looked, rather than as it really did?

And what about the things we do see but wish we didn’t? The stray person in the background; the ugly car parked in front of the beautiful church; the branch of a tree partly blocking the view? Photo-editing can remove those distractions to create a more aesthetically pleasing, if not totally accurate, record of a scene.

I confess I love to edit my photos; I am not a purist. As I have said elsewhere in this blog (Smoke and Mirrors), I strive to produce the best images I can. And I do so even if that means playing around with the originals to create something I find more pleasing to the eye, and more reflective of how I perceived the scene rather than how the camera recorded it.

I was pleased therefore to see that this week’s Lens-Artists Challenge invites us to share some ‘before and after’ images. Although this does unfortunately mean that I will have to let you all see those original images that didn’t please me as much as I would have hoped, and which I would normally keep well-hidden!

The suggestion is that we present some images that were initially disappointing ‘out of the camera’ but which through editing we’ve turned into ‘keepers’. Let’s see what I can find …

[If you must look, the originals are at the foot of this page!]

A gossip with a friend

Two ladies sitting outside a shop
Bookshop in Sofia

While visiting Sofia with some Virtual Tourist friends in 2019, I took a walk in the streets around our hotel in search of street art and street photography possibilities. I grabbed a shot of two women engrossed in conversation outside a book store. The shot had potential but needed work. I cropped out a distracting building, car and street sign on the right-hand side and got rid of a white sticker on the bookshop wall. I then converted it to black and white, using Silver Efex Pro’s ‘dark sepia’ filter to give it a slight vintage feel.

Lone fisherman

Fisherman in small motor boat near the shore
Bulgarian fisherman

I grabbed this photo of a fisherman from a minibus while on an outing in Bulgaria. I knew the bridge was in shot and that I was too far away, but I reckoned I could make something of it. So back home I cropped and straightened the image; I also lightened it as the tinted window of the bus made it look murky. Finally I gave it a slightly painterly effect in Color Efex Pro.

On the streets of Hanoi

Elderly lady in a basic shop, black and white
In old Hanoi

I took this photo while on a walk through old Hanoi last February. I found the woman very interesting and photogenic, so I cropped tightly around her. And, as I often do with street photos, I converted it to black and white. Finally I boosted the contrast and added a touch of vignetting to highlight her face.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Silhouette of building and palm trees against pink sky
Angkor Wat at sunrise

When we visited Angkor Wat last year our guide took us to a spot where we could watch the sun rise over the ruins away from the crowds of other tourists there to do the same. It made for a much more peaceful experience; but we didn’t get the water in the foreground to lighten our shots so photography was challenging. I took this shot on a long exposure with my camera resting on a wall. It needed straightening, naturally, but that alone wouldn’t ‘rescue’ the image. So I used Photoshop Elements to lighten it, which revealed the bright colours of the sunrise. It also revealed the causeway, giving the foreground interest that, without the water, the image lacked.

I increased the saturation of the sky a little and also removed the distracting bit of scaffolding towards the left side, which had been hardly noticeable in the original but showed up more against the brighter sky. And I used Color Efex Pro to smooth out the worst of the grain in the sky. For this I employed a favourite trick, applying the skin smoothing filter but using the eyedropper to pick up the different shades in the sky.

Kamikochi in the rain

Trees, pool and raised boardwalk
In Kamikochi NP, Japan

We spent a rainy morning walking in Kamikochi National Park in the Japanese Alps. Despite the bad weather the autumn colours were lovely, but the resulting photos sometimes fell a bit flat. For most of them I just used PS Elements to boost the contrast; but for this shot I had some fun playing around with Landscape Pro to add a more dramatic sky and make it look generally more autumnal.

Rain again on Lago Todos los Santos

Misty view of trees on a hillside
Trees near Peulla, Chile

In Chile we spent another rainy day cruising on Lago Todos los Santos. The outing was prebooked and pre-paid, otherwise I don’t think we would have bothered, as there was zero chance of seeing the stunning mountains that (apparently!) surround the lake. But of course I still had a go at taking some photos. I was especially drawn to the forested hills around Peulla where we stopped for lunch, although I could only just make out the interesting shapes of the trees through the drizzle.

I started my edit on this one with the ‘auto smart fix’ option in PS Elements; the mists dropped away to revel the soft greens in the trees. Next I boosted those greens with the foliage enhancer in Color Efex Pro. Finally I used one of its vintage film effects to produce this finished result, and gave it a frame. It reminds me a little of an oriental painting, just as my original view of these trees had done.

Lake-side in Peulla

Lake framed by large tree
Lago Todos los Santos in the rain

Another ‘rescue’ from the same trip was taken down by the boat landing in Puella. I cropped out the distractions of fence and ferry, removed some of the bright orange buoys and used the colour contrast filter in Color Efex Pro to brighten the scene, making it look more misty than miserable. I also added a very slight vignette to further emphasise the brightness on the water.

And now to reveal the originals

Click to open a slideshow if you really must see them full size!


  • Marsha

    Your pictures were awesome, but the fixes made them professional. My favorite might have been Kamikochi National Park, but then the very next picture of Peulla, Chile looked ethereal. Well done.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Malcolm – good to hear from you but I’m not sure I understand your comment. What do you mean about one of my ‘photo links’? All the photos should be visible without needing to link to anything. Can you not see the post properly?

      • Easymalc

        Perhaps I should have phrased that better. It seems that you follow different groups including photographic ones. I can see all your posts without any problem

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Ah yes, I see – I thought you had seen a link you couldn’t follow 😕 This post is a response to one of the blogging challenges I’ve started doing. I’m really enjoying them – the photo ones give me ideas about different ways to present my images, and the more general ones help me identify snippets from past travels to share. And they are a good way of getting involved in a community of other bloggers 🙂

  • Away We Go

    How interesting, you did a post about editing photos! It’s so relevant to me now, I am in the midst of getting a program to do some nice editing to all our travel photos for our travel blog. I really enjoyed “Lake-side in Peulla”, it gives it such a dark but cool feeling.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks 🙂 I’m a big fan of editing, within reason. I’m glad you liked that shot, it’s one of my favourites.

      If you’re interested in getting involved in some of these challenges have a look at Cee’s page here: She’s compiled a really helpful list of all the photo challenges she knows of – you’ll see there are loads of them, so one or several will suit you!

      • Away We Go

        Yes!! Totally, we are huge proponents to not “over-editing”! That is huge because unfortunately the “fake” pictures are what attract so many people and what sell.

        Thanks for the link! I’m interested in getting involved with the community and spreading some love!

  • Amy

    These editing results are beautiful, Sarah. The image of the Lago Todos los Santos is like a painting. The fisherman is my favortie.

  • Leya

    Love your description of enhancing and editing – and the stunning results. My favorite must be the trees – easily on my wall!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Leya 🙂 I’m really happy you like that trees photo! As I said to Tina below, I was hesitant about including that one, as I feel it still doesn’t look as good as I would hope to get it! But maybe if you both like it I should leave it alone now?

  • starship VT

    I completely understand your answer to Margaret21. I go through much of the same editing work with my travel photos (sorting, deleting, etc.) too and it is a huge amount of work when you’ve literally taken a thousand or more photos — then the best get edited as needed and a very few later are selectively posted with my blogs. I see the ability to edit photos as a positive thing. Love the work you’ve done on your photos in this blog, Sarah!

  • katieshevlin62gmailcom

    I always can’t wait to edit my photo’s when I’ve been away. I love the first photo, bookshop, I can see why you edited it and the effect is amazing. My other fave, Hanoi I like the before and after for different reasons. Great idea to compare!

  • rosalieann37

    I am not a purist either – I know that what I think I see is not really the same as what the camera sees. But I don’t spend a lot of time editing my photos either – partly because I don’t have the equipment for it. I don’t often use b&w for my photos. I mostly use monochrome when I haven’t got the exposure quite right or the colors are off. But it does work really well for portraits

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I agree, B&W portraits can be very effective. But you don’t need specialist equipment to have a go at editing – there are several free to use websites with simple and/or fun editing options, for instance

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Margaret 🙂 My view is that there’s a classic 80/20 rule to be applied here. About 20% of my shots look good enough straight out of the camera, the other 80% would benefit from editing. And that’s after I’ve binned the rejects 😆 Actually, there are a number of 80/20 stages. Firstly I weed out duplicates, poor first attempts, total disasters, and ones that just aren’t as good as others I took of the same scene – that probably gets me down to 20% of the photos I shot on a trip. Of those, about 20% are usable straight away, 20% have potential but need a lot of work to make them any good (like the fisherman, the women at the bookshop, Angkor Wat). The remaining 60% (of the 20%) need a few tweaks to improve them, like a small crop, straightening or a contrast boost 😀

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 🙂 I would agree that some of the originals work as they are (Kamikochi, the woman in Hanoi, the lakeside in Peulla, the two women in Sofia) but I wouldn’t say the same about the Bulgarian fisherman or the Angkor Wat photo, myself 😆

  • Simone

    Really enjoyed this Sarah! I am so happy that you shared the before and the after of the photos as well! (although it was a bit of scrolling up and done, lol)
    I am not a purist either, but I still like that photos represent the reality. And that is what you did in all of yours in a wonderful way. Maybe this is not the direct representation of what the shutter clicked, but it IS the representation of your feelings and what you saw through your camera lens. And that is what I do love!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Simone! Haha, yes, I realise you needed to scroll to see the originals and I did think about presenting them side by side, but I wanted the finished pieces to be judged as they were, not as comparisons with the original image. I’m so pleased you liked the results 🙂

  • SandyL

    Your final shots are wonderful and I’m glad that you ‘found’ them.

    I’m with you, I’m not a purist either. Better photographers than I can compose & make a final picture in camera. I for one, am glad to have the tools to extract a better picture.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Sandy 🙂 But many of the best photographers have always put in the effort after taking the initial photo to really make it the best it could be. Think of Ansel Adams and his zone system, perfecting the different shades of grey in his images through careful manipulation at the printing stage. I’m not for a millisecond comparing myself to him, simply saying that if someone as great as him felt that his images needed work post-production, than the rest of us can be comfortable feeling the same about ours!

  • Tina Schell

    Sarah, I really loved your response this week and truly appreciated your willingness to share your unedited originals. Also loved that you gave us the detail on your thoughts and processes throughout. That final image of the Japanese trees IMHO must have made the entire trip worthwhile! It reminds me very much of an antique Japanese scroll painting. Definitely wall-worthy!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Tina 😀 It’s interesting that you picked out that tree image for particular comment, as that’s the one I was most hesitant about including. I feel it still doesn’t look as good as I would hope to get it!

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you! And please include your name in case WP marks you 'anonymous' - thank you