When I started thinking about leaving my job to become a full-time content creator back in 2018, I knew that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed to level up my photo editing.
It has been a gradual learning process for me ever since then—lots of trial and error, lots of bad (and I mean really bad) photos, and hours upon hours of studying editing techniques from talented photographers and creators via YouTube tutorials (and TikTok!)
Now that we’ve been stuck inside for nearly 5 months, I’ve had a LOT of time to “hone my craft” even further, and I feel like I’ve definitely found my groove in terms of editing photos and creating a more cohesive Instagram feed + overall brand.
So, if there’s one positive that has come out of being quarantined, it’s that I finally took the time to do & learn things I otherwise would never have gotten to. When life gives you lemons, as they say…
Anyway! You’re not here to read about personal development and self-improvement. You’re here to learn how to edit photos for Instagram, or wherever it is that you post them. I will preface this article with a disclaimer: I am not a professional photographer and I’m not a professional photo editor. I do, however, make a living from the photos and content that I post, so do with that what you will.
The advice that I’m sharing is purely how I edit my Instagram photos — but remember that there’s no right or wrong way! Everyone has their own taste and style. Let’s begin!
How I Edit Photos for Instagram
Things I Use:
- LAPTOP: Dell XPS
- I love editing on the Dell XPS because I find the image quality to be better than my Mac. You can tell just by looking at the photos of my screen throughout this post how insanely vibrant the display is. (There are a number of other things that I’ve come to really appreciate about the XPS that I’ll get into later!) Thank you to Dell for sponsoring this post!
- CAMERA: Sony A7iii Full Frame Mirrorless Camera (Lower Priced Option: Sony A7ii)
- LENS: Sony 28-70 mm lens (kit lens that came with camera)
- MEMORY CARD: SanDisk 128GB
- IPHONE: XS MAX
- EDITING SOFTWARE: Adobe Lightroom (I prefer to use “Lightroom CC” because it uses cloud-based storage and syncs with the Lightroom mobile app; the other option is Lightroom Classic, which has some additional capabilities, but lacks the cloud feature)
- The Adobe Lightroom mobile app is free, but if you want it on your desktop, it’s around $9.99/month.
The tutorial below will apply to both iPhone photos and photos shot on a camera.
Camera Settings Tip:
1. SHOOT IN RAW.
If you’re shooting on a camera, my BIGGEST piece of advice would be to shoot in RAW rather than JPG. This is simply a setting that you can switch with one button on your camera. (Literally just Google “name of your camera + how to shoot in RAW” and you’ll find how to switch it on your specific model.)
RAW files are much larger, and much more detailed than JPGs, so they retain a lot more information, making the editing process much, much better.
2. TOO DARK IS BETTER THAN TOO LIGHT.
When you’re shooting a photo, it’s always better for the original image to be slightly dark (underexposed) than too light (overexposed). Many photographers have told me this over the years, but I didn’t fully understand it until I started experimenting with shooting and editing myself.
It’s one of those things that you’ll *get* when you actually do it. The most important thing to know: in editing, it’s easier to lighten a dark photo than it is to darken a light photo. That’s an oversimplified explanation, but it should give you the general idea.
Step-by-Step Editing Tutorial
1. Import your photos to your computer.
I will usually start by dragging the photos from my SD card to my desktop. (On some laptops this can take a loooong time to load because of how large the files are, but I find it to be super fast with the XPS.)
I then import the photos to Lightroom.
2. Make your selects in Lightroom.
Once my images are dragged into Lightroom, I’ll go through and narrow down the selection by “unchecking” anything that I don’t like. At this stage, I’m not choosing my all-time favorites—I’m just quickly weeding out anything that’s truly horrible.
For ex: photos where my the subject’s eyes are closed, or the picture is out of focus, or the angle isn’t right, etc. won’t make the cut.
3. Add them to a pre-existing album, or create a new album.
In Lightroom CC, I like to organize my photos into albums based on a keyword or the location.
Some people prefer to name their albums based on dates—but I find that the keyword/location technique better suits my needs. (For ex: if I’m looking for my photos from Japan, it’s much easier to remember that they’re in the “Japan” album rather than the “March 2019” album.)
4. Select a photo to edit.
This is pretty self-explanatory…
Also: you’ll notice that this photo is shot underexposed (i.e. it’s dark!) That’s because of what I mentioned above. Shooting slightly underexposed images are easier to edit than overexposed images.
OPTIONAL NEXT STEP: Apply a preset.
I have my own preset (aka filter) that I use on all of my photos to give my Instagram feed a cohesive aesthetic. But you don’t necessarily need a preset in order to create a beautiful image – it’s just a cool option that will give your photo a more unique, defined look. It’s also a way to ensure that your feed has an overall consistency, which can be challenging if you’re editing every single photo individually.
I’ll go into presets a bit more later in this post, but I think it’s important to understand some basic editing steps first before you start playing with presets. (FYI: I don’t currently sell my own, but as soon as I figure out how to do it, I promise you’ll be the first to know!)
Even without a preset, if you follow the below steps and stick to the same editing style for each photo, you’ll end up with a consistent appearance across your images.
5. Straighten and crop.
Often times I like to begin my process by straightening and cropping. The reason I do this before I edit is because it helps to give me a better idea of what the focus of the photo is, and how much detail I’ll need to go into when editing.
For example, if I decide to leave it as a wide crop where the subject is far away, I’m not going to bother editing out a wrinkle in the dress or a piece of hair that’s out of place.
However, if I decided to crop in closely, I’ll know that I’m going to have to spend more time fixing details like the wrinkle or a blemish.
6. Exposure (aka brightness).
The next thing I address is the exposure or brightness of the photo. I like my photos to look really bright and airy (but it’s important not to get too carried away or the photo will end up looking blown out.)
You can play with the Exposure slider a bit by dragging it back and forth until it reaches a place that looks good to you.
For most of my photos, the sweet spot is somewhere in the +.5 to +1.0 range.
I usually don’t increase the exposure beyond +1.5, unless the photo is suuuuper dark.
7. Highlights, Shadows, Contrast, Whites & Blacks.
I typically decrease my highlights, increase my shadows (a lot), and *slightly* increase the contrast (but sometimes I don’t touch it at all.) I find that this combination gives the photo the bright and airy look that I prefer.
I then increase the Whites slightly and bring the Blacks down a tiny bit.
For people who are going after a darker, more moody look, Whites & Blacks are a good place to achieve that. If you decrease both, it creates a darker, moodier vibe.
There’s no hard and fast rule in terms of “ideal numbers” for the above – it really varies for each photo based on the lighting it was shot in, and what looks good to you.
8. Temperature & Tint.
Temperature deals with how “warm” or “cool” you want the photo to look. Drag the slider to the left toward blue, and the image will look cool; drag it to the right toward yellow, and it’ll feel more warm.
I usually increase the temperature a tiny bit because I like the image to look more warm than cool. If you play around with it, you’ll notice there’s a very thin line between looking warm and looking VERY ORANGE so tread lightly with this one!
You’ll notice that the photos in my feed have a pink-ish hue, and some of that is due to Tint. The tint slider gives you the option of a green-ish tint, or a pink-ish tint, so I drag it toward the pink (usually somewhere between +3 and +15).
9. Vibrance & Saturation.
Vibrance will give your photo a little extra oomph without being too overwhelming; saturation will give your photo a LOT of extra oomph. I usually increase the Vibrance to somewhere between +2 to +20, and leave Saturation in the middle. (Overly saturated photos are my pet peeve!)
10. Sharpening and Clarity.
You’ll find Clarity underneath “Effects” and Sharpen underneath “Detail” – but I usually do them in the same step because a lot of what they achieve is similar.
Sharpening will, of course, give your photo a sharper, more crisp look. I usually land in the +50 to +75 range. If you go too high with sharpening, your subject (assuming there’s a subject in the photo) will start to look like a cardboard cut-out. That’s not really what we’re going for.
Be careful with clarity, especially for close-up portrait photos, because it can accentuate imperfections like wrinkles and blemishes. However, bumping up the clarity just a few notches can make the photo look more clear and crisp.
11. Color Mixer.
Here’s where things get REALLY personal in terms of style and aesthetic. The Color Mixer is an area where you can have a lot of fun – but it’s also not entirely necessary. If you’re just looking for a clean, basic edit, and you aren’t obsessive about having a cohesive Instagram aesthetic, you can definitely stop here!
If you decide to use the Color Mixer, it’s the place where you can choose to play up/enhance certain colors, and decrease others.
For example, I’m not a big fan of having yellow in my feed, so I always decrease the saturation of the yellows. I love the look of turquoise/blue (and you’ll see that in many of my photos) so I will usually increase the saturation of the Blue and Aqua sliders.
Color Mixer is also where you can control skin tone, and it will really differ for each person depending on your complexion. For myself – if I look too pale or washed out and want to look more tan/bronzed, I go into the Oranges and decrease the luminance.
The most important thing to know about the Color Mixer is what the “HSL” functions do:
HUE = controls the actual tones of the color
SATURATION = deals with the intensity of a specific color
LUMINANCE = addresses the brightness of the color
12. Export from Lightroom.
There are other more specific adjustments I make after I’ve done all of the above, but this is the bulk of it!
Once I’m happy with the image, I export the file and save it to my desktop (if I’m using my laptop) or save it to my camera roll if I’m editing on my phone.
WHAT ARE PRESETS, AND HOW DO THEY WORK?
So! You’ve likely heard people refer to presets as the “secret” to creating a beautiful Instagram feed. As I mentioned earlier, presets are an incredible way to step up your feed, give it a unique aesthetic, and create consistency throughout your photos.
Presets are essentially filters for your photos. The nice thing about them is that you can apply them to photos and it helps to create uniformity – think of it like a “copy + paste” filter that you’re applying to all of your images.
One thing that a lot of people don’t understand about presets – and something that I didn’t understand until I started using them – is that you still need to make adjustments after applying a preset to a photo. This is because every single photo has different qualities – different lighting, different colors, etc.
A photo you take inside of your home under artificial lighting will look completely different from a photo you take outside in the morning or at sunset. Even if you were to apply the same exact preset on all three of those photos, they’ll still look slightly different – despite the fact that they share the same “filter.”
Does that make sense?
When applying a preset to a photo, I typically apply it first, and then still go through all of the steps listed above. I think of my preset as a nice starting point to ensure some level of uniformity among my images.
Because every creator creates his/her presets based on his/her individual photos, you’ll need to make tweaks in order for them to fit your photos. The areas that typically need the most adjustment, in my experience, are with skin tones.
I remember the first time I bought a preset from someone, I added it to my photo and I was APPALLED because I looked like an oopma loompa! The influencer had designed the preset according to her complexion and not mine, so when I applied it onto my photo, things looked…totally of whack. (This is VERY normal – it’s impossible to create a “one size fits all” preset.)
Once you learn how to make the adjustments, it becomes very routine and not that time consuming.
Here are some fun before/afters using a combination of the edits I described above as well as my presets. I tried to include a mix of indoor shots, outdoor shots, iPhone shots, product shots, and DSLR camera shots – so that you’re able to tell the magic of editing on just about any photo in any atmosphere.
There are a TON of questions I’ve received in the past that I didn’t have time to address here (i.e. using different apps on your phone, using an app to plan my feed, tips for shooting photos themselves) – I’ll address all of those in a separate post!
If there are any other questions that you have, leave them in the comments and I’ll include them in my next blog post!
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