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Photoshop - The 7 Deadly Sins

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

Photoshop, perhaps the most innovative creation in the photography world for a vast number of years ?

Used correctly it can be an amazing weapon in your arsenal, but are you making these 7 terrible mistakes that will ruin your image ?

The Biggest Mistakes You Can Make In Photoshop

Now I'd like to start by saying this is all my own opinion, doubtless others will have other ones and mine are purely based on my own findings, my own mistakes & and seeing those made by others.

It is also very much exclusively based on the landscape photography element rather than any other type of photography where these sins may well actually be plus points.

I use Photoshop every day for my job in graphic design and I'd like to think I know my way round it pretty well, I also use it for my photography. Now before the purists recoil in horror about the use of Photoshop I would like to explain something.

I never use Photoshop to alter the image, to add items etc... the picture you see is the picture that was taken with some very minor adjustments in curves, levels, sharpening and saturation IF needed.

Why does it need it I hear you ask ? Well, for those who know their cameras and how RAW works I apologise for going over old ground but for those that don't I will explain.

Modern cameras these days can shoot in a format called RAW as well as the standard formats such as JPEG, etc. The reason photographers largely choose (And quite rightly so) to shoot in RAW is because it gives you a massive benefit in the amount of information that the format records, it is also not compressed like a JPEG thus giving you far superior pictures.

For example a JPEG file will contain 256 levels of brightness whereas a RAW file will contain somewhere between 4,096 to 16,384 levels, Now you can see the major benefits of using it and why you should all be shooting in RAW. Detail is easier to pull out of this file because it contains every last bit of information that has hit your cameras sensor.

If you happen to shoot in JPEG then don't be fooled into thinking that your unedited shot right out of the camera hasn't been adjusted, because it has.

The camera will use its own algorithms to apply contrast, sharpening & saturation etc to your image, but it will apply them globally to your image and then on top of that it will compress it giving you a sub par image, of course you may well think it looks great when you see it but the fact is, it could be so much better.

Photoshop/Lightroom simply lets you apply the same things your camera does to your image but far more selectively, Some areas will benefit from adjustment of saturation whereas another area might not so these programs let you do just that, your camera applies the selected level to the whole image.

Post processing has been going on for years and years even with film cameras where the skills of dodging & burning brought out contrast to selective areas of an image.

Of course Photoshop/Lightroom can be used to manipulate and image but thats not what were all hopefully doing right ?

So on to the topic in question, why can this wondrous program which is a pandoras box of delights to make your image the best it can be also be the same thing that can destroy it.

Photoshop Shadow & Highlight adjustment

1. Shadow & Highlight Adjustment

This is one of the worst "trends" to come out of the booming photography surge at the moment and it's in my opinion the worst mistake thats being made and on the greatest scale.

When shooting RAW you are able to pull unimaginable amounts of detail out of your shadows with the magic slider but there is the problem, people get carried away during their processing and slap the slider so far up it reduces all the contrast from the image leaving it flat and dull, and they don't compensate by adjusting the contrast.

Landscapes by nature HAVE shadows, they are part of what you see, when you have a strong light source illuminating the area and then there is a part obscured from that light it WILL cast a shadow and it's absolutely fine to show that rather than try and pull out so much that the image is just a flat mess.

The trend these days seems to be to shoot the image as under exposed as possible in order to protect the highlights, then get it into Photoshop/Lightroom and pull the absolute crap out of it with the shadow adjustment tool or the blacks slider, neither of which is a good option.

Exposure is your friend here, to start with try and expose the image correctly in the first place and then if you need to pull out some detail use an increase in exposure rather than shadows and correct any over exposed areas with the highlight adjustment.

I want you to remember this "It's ok to have shadows and contrast in your image" they are not dirty words, they are facts of nature and your photo should reflect that.

If you are pushing the shadow slider to the very end of the scale, STOP ! Stop it now, go to the corner and have a harsh word with yourself, the same goes for the highlight recovery slider although you can be a little more extravagant with this.

Ideally you really don't want to be pushing these further than +50 out of a 100, of course some scenes will need a little more but try and limit your use of them to mid way and compensate with exposure instead.

Trust me, it really will make a difference.

2. Saturation

Now this IS a very dirty word ! And its one of the things that is pushed most in images now.

Saturation can be a wonderful thing when nature produces it, vibrant glowing colours lighting up the sky is enough to get anyones heart racing let alone a photographer who pursues them with such passion

But the addition of saturation needs to be done on a "less is more" basis.

Don't get me wrong, certain images really do benefit from a boost of colours whereas its quite common when shooting sunset now for me to actually reduce the saturation of the image to give it a more natural feel.

Underexposing a sunset for example will by nature increase the saturation of those colours whereas overexposing will have the opposite effect so of course depending on how you shot the image will dictate if you need to add or reduce any.

The more contrast in the image, the more saturation. Sounds obvious, so why do people make the mistake over and over again, well I have a bit of a theory about that, that I will explain later.

When something is over saturated it loses all tone, it effectively becomes one big blob of flat colour that makes your image look terrible because its just not how nature works, nature provides wonderful saturation but its balanced out with tones, variations and contrast.

These days people seem to judge their photography prowess based on how many people "Like" their image, more "likes" equals better photo, let me dispel that myth, "Likes" do not equate to talent.

You want to know if your image is good, ask a professional to critique it, don't rely on non photographers who see a picture that is dripping in saturation and think its marvellous, they will "Like" it and share the hell out of it and others will do the same and so the cycle continues.

You know it's not real, so do your fellow photographers but you have fooled the general public because they don't know any better, not cool !

You've just believed your own hype, not actually achieved anything.

Saturation is a very misunderstood thing and it can be very effective when used correctly but when over used it becomes awful, It's very hard to notice this when you first start out because you are so in awe of these bright vivid colours that are lighting up your screen, but one day you will look at your work and think, wow I really over cooked that one.

Another option if you feel your image is lacking some punch is to use the Vibrance slider.

Vibrance adds saturation to areas that ARE NOT already saturated, therefore its ideal to use on a sunset for example where you have a saturated sky but the rest of the image is lacking.

It's not a magic fix and it will still bump up saturation but at a vastly reduced rate so give it a try, it might just save you from over cooking the image.

3. Clarity

Clarity is another misunderstood beast and whilst it has its merits when used effectively it can also kill an image.

All clarity really does is increase mid tone contrast on an image, move the slider to the right and it will give a little more punch to those mid tones, keep moving it on and the effect gets stronger, go a little further and it starts to look crunchy, a little more no wait you've completely killed it.

That is the danger of the clarity slider, knowing how far to go, as a rule I would add a MAXIMUM of +5 to +10 out of 100 in extreme cases and more often than not I don't even touch it.

Your mid tones are better targeted with a curves adjustment layer in my opinion.

Clarity does have a place but know when to use it, if your mid tones are lacking then a little tickle of the clarity slider can vastly improve an image, although be aware it will actually reduce the saturation slightly too.

Imagine that all your mid tone pixels now have a black circle around each one, that is what you're doing when you add clarity by the bucket load.

Clarity is often mistaken for sharpness too, it actually doesn't sharpen your image at all, it's just adding more mid tone contrast, that is it so don't make that mistake.

4. Colour Temperature

This one is subjective I guess, and some people want a certain look but more often than not it is overdone.

Have you ever seen those images that look like they have a one colour filter over them ?

You know the type, they look blue, or orange etc...

There is a colour cast on the image and it looks bad, really really bad.

White balance is a pretty straight forward thing to be honest, Photoshop even gives you several presets to try in order to get a good starting point.

Theres even the white balance tool, which if you click on an area of pure white it will correct everything else around it and it does a pretty good job.

So while shooting a landscape there isn't much pure white about I hear you say ! Well, thats true in which case you're going to have to manually do it.

Theres two sliders, the Temperature and the Tint, Temperature does the hot and cold colours i.e. Yellow to Blue and the tint does the green to magenta colours.

Again I can't stress enough its subjective, if you were shooting a silhouette for example you can pretty much go nuts with the sliders within reason because the colour isn't showing an effect over the whole image, just the lit parts but if you're doing it on a landscape with varying levels of luminosity then you will need to get it right.

As a guide I tend to try and get the sky right and the rest falls into place behind it but you will develop your own style for temperature so I wont list the various ways to achieve the same effect. However I do want to touch on the cardinal sin of the graduated filter, pulled down across the sky portion of your image and the yellow/orange temperature slider thrashed to within an inch of its life to create a fake sunset, then on top of that they add another sin, saturation !

Ok at this point I'm almost foaming at the mouth as I can't stress how obvious it is that you have done this, it absolutely destroys your credibility as a photographer and photographers can see through it in a heartbeat.

You might well fool the general public, bless em ! But the only person you're really fooling is you, you have a wild sunset in the sky but everything else in the image has no reflection of the colour tones that should be there, it's a dead give away and it's killing your pictures !

A prime example of this is while out shooting a year or so ago during a very dull morning another photographer happened to move along side me on the beach and we both shot a couple and agreed it was a waste of time as it was dull and grey and no hint of colour or light at all.

I went home, as did he and my pictures went in the bin, His however appeared all over social media with a brilliantly orange sky, now I know that wasn't there, so does he. So how did the magic happen ?

Temperature ! And a large portion of post processing and a complete lack or morales.

The same goes for Nik Software with their skylight filter, the same orange in the pictures every time, step away from the software !

5. Over Sharpening

This is another very frustrating one where i've seen good pictures ruined all because of the sharpening process.

Sharpening is needed when shooting RAW and there are some very clever processes out there that can do it, and do it very well.

Always sharpen your image when it is sized at 100%, it will give you a much better idea of if you have gone too far or not.

If you sharpen your image while viewing it at 25% for example it might look just fine to you, blow it up to 100% and your eyes fall out it's so hideous.

Ok so I slightly exaggerated the point but less really is more as I've said before.

Also there is a big trend to use the high pass filter then the overlay blending mode, this does make images look very sharp but it leaves terrible halos everywhere and it's so unnecessary, mainly because its been over done.

If you insist on this method I would recommend as a guide using a radius of around 4.0 pixels, but in my opinion there are far better methods in Photoshop for sharpening and it should always be the very last thing you do on your workflow.

Speaking of halos that brings me nicely on to point number 6.

6. Halos left by the Adjustment Brush

The adjustment brush can be a very handy tool to use, it allows you to target a specific area and adjust it to suit, wheres the catch I hear you ask ?

Well, when people first use it they get a little excited that they can brighten up a dark tree for example by painting over it with a higher exposure and they go at it like a lunatic till the tree is bright and you can see detail, unfortunately behind it is also now over exposed and you are left with a big bright halo around the item.

Again the solution is obvious, use the brushes in built edge detection feature right ? Well you can but its rubbish ! So all it does is give you a slimmer halo :(

The best way is too not use this brush at all, instead use a layer mask in photoshop based on the colour look up, it will get it closer than anything for you and avoid those nasty halos !

Leave them for the angels !

7. The Wonky Horizon

Head in hands moment, why why WHY does this still happen ?

Your camera has the ability to produce a set of guides on it through the view finder or live view, you can buy a simple add on spirit level to make sure your bang on ?

Still missed it all ? No problem, photoshop and Lightroom can fix all that with one button, so why on earth are you not pressing it !!

Seeing a wonky horizon is really annoying in an image, there is no need for it its just poor post processing to have it in an image, or worse still, plain lazy.

Photoshop & Lightroom both contain a simple tool that by dragging along the horizon it will instantly straighten up your image.

Theres also the crop tool, this produces a grid over your image while you rotate it so you can get it bang on every time, there really is no excuse !

So all of the above is meant to be a light hearted laugh at some of the more common errors that post processing throws up today, Don't worry if you're making these mistakes, we all did and often still do but the important thing is to be aware of them, know what can cause you issues and take steps to stop it happening.

I know all these errors because I made each and every one of them so I don't think I'm any better than anyone reading this and I hope you will enjoy the rants above as a little bit of fun, in fact poking fun at myself by saying it.

The fact however remains these are errors that when fresh eyes look at your work they will see, and you can make it better with a little bit of effort and understanding so why not give it a try.

If you have any questions that i can help with feel free to message me and I will try me best to explain it for you.

Also I can be booked for courses on post processing which you can find more about by clicking HERE.

As always, Happy Shooting

Daniel Wretham

Light & Shadow work well together and nature provides the saturation

Landscape photography blog

Landscape Photography Blog

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