The D(i)S(ney)LR Series: Photo Editing Basics
Let's talk editing! I hope you've already taken my advice and started shooting RAW. Even the basics are FAR better if you're working with a RAW file from your DSLR.
My photo editing software of choice is Lightroom. Lightroom is made by Adobe, and you can purchase it as a hard copy OR subscribe to use it via Adobe's Creative Cloud subscription service for a monthly fee. It's one of the most affordable pieces of software that Adobe makes (especially if you're comparing it to Photoshop). When it comes to developing digital photos, Lightroom is one of the most intuitive programs you can use. I've never had a formal lesson in Lightroom or tutorials; occasionally there will be a small task I can't figure out and it's a Youtube search away (oh so THAT'S how I add watermarks...). All this being said, there are some things you can't do in Lightroom that you can do in Photoshop: massive retouching, sophisticated work with graphics, layers, overlays, etc. None of those are features that I'm personally interested in, and Photoshop is a BEAST to learn, so Lightroom works for me and what I do.
A quick word about Aesthetics...
There's no WRONG way to edit a photo. Do you like it? Does it look the way you want it to? Awesome. I'll walk you through some of my own personal choices, but I don't feel like I have a signature when it comes to my photography; I like to let the individual photo determine the overall look without feeling locked into a style.
The goal is always to have the photo come out of camera looking its best and needing as little editing as possible. Regardless: nobody sees an unedited photo but you (I appreciate the irony that this article is going to make that statement a lie when it comes to my work). So whatever it took to get the photo where it needed to be? It doesn't REALLY matter if the end result satisfies YOU.
CROP & STRAIGHTEN
Chip Litherland is a photojournalist. He also happened to shoot my wedding (I'm blessed, it doesn't look like he shoots them anymore). Chip said something to me that really changed the way I looked at photography. When Chip goes to sporting events, he shoots wide. "When these plays are happening on a football field or anywhere, you never really know where the moment will be happening. Shoot wide. Crop in. Your resolution is high enough, it's fine."
Plenty of my photos, I'll never touch the cropping tool. Then I'll have a shot like this one of Peter and Wendy in Festival of Fantasy.
Peter's got his eyes closed, and Wendy is looking like the most precious angel on planet earth. Why would I keep Peter in the shot, when it's all about Wendy? Now, I want to maintain a typical photo aspect ratio (rectangular, on my camera is 5:4). I could try just shrinking the horizontal frame OR Lightroom's cropping tool will allow me to switch this horizon photo to portrait.
Lightroom's Crop & Straighten tool allows you to choose from a number of standardized aspect ratios, or you can go custom and just make the photos any shape you want (I did this when I first got Lightroom, I don't recommend it for longevity's sake). I personally choose to hit that padlock icon and lock the aspect ratio, so I don't accidentally wind up with something wonky.
The Straighten option of this tool allows you to adjust the horizon on your photos. This can come in VERY handy, particularly when shooting the castle or stage shows. Most of the shooting you're doing in the parks is handheld, and without a level, we are all human and aren't necessarily going to have the photos perfectly straight. HAVE NO FEAR, LIGHTROOM IS HERE.
See how part of the stage is just... creeping up on my photo in that bottom right corner? Just adjust the horizon. Where this can really come into play is if you have very geometric backgrounds, pillars, etc. The grid function that appears is a godsend for allowing you to level any lines in your frame.
If you got to peek into my Lightroom library, you'd find that almost every finished photo says "custom" under White Balance (WB). What is White Balance? Depending on the color and type of lighting you're shooting with, the color white can/will appear differently (daylight is blue, incandescent is yellow, etc etc). You can, in your DSLR, set your white balance based on where you are as a good starting point. For me? It's never quite perfect. There are different DEGREES of Daylight (shooting MRFF the other day, the sun kept going behind a cloud so my White Balance had to be tweaked on ALMOST EVERY PHOTO).
If I have a photo editing soapbox, it's this one. Tweaking the colors in your photo to get your skin tones right may take a few extra seconds, but it makes the BIGGEST difference in your photos. It should be the FIRST THING you do, before anything else!
Several photos that might look unsalvageable out of the camera will suddenly look fantastic with the proper white balance and require almost no additional editing.
When it comes to tweaking the colors in your own photo, you have a few options for starting points. It looks pretty good? Leave it on "As Shot." Don't know where to start? You can try Lightroom's Auto setting (it's not awful sometimes). My personal favorite? That little eyedropper. Select the eyedropper, then click on an area of your photo that is supposed to be White (or close to it), and Lightroom will adjust the rest of the photo based on that. Ideally, there's a piece of white in someone's wardrobe. In desperate times I've used people's teeth or even the whites of their eyes (these are highly fallible, as on many people neither of these are truly white). Still, it's a place to START. Then you can manually move the color sliders left and right. When eyeballing white balance, don't necessarily try to make your WHITE look like white, rather look at SKIN TONE in your photos.
Most photos take minimal tweaks to make all the difference. Then, you've got shows like Hocus Pocus, where managing your color temperatures feels like a full time job. But that's why shooting and editing Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular will eventually become it's own article here.
There are some shooting situations that... I mean it feels like Disney sets you up to fail. And there is only so much that Lightroom can do. One of the worst is Enchanted Tales, where the show lighting changes frequently, none of the ambient lighting is particularly bright for exposure, and the fabric of Belle's dress is just reflective enough to bounce YELLOW LIGHT onto her skin and give you patches of yellow that no amount of tweaking can correct when you're also dealing with BLUE show lighting. In situations like this? You eventually just throw your hands up and say "IT'S NOT GETTING ANY BETTER!" IF you wanted to be EXTREMELY detail oriented, brush work could do further corrections.
Again, the closer you can get IN CAMERA to proper exposure, the better. But Lightroom will allow you to increase or decrease the exposure level on your shot by up to 5.0 "steps" of light. (With plenty of fractional increases along the way).
In Lightroom it's as simple as moving your slider bar left or right. Keep in mind, the more you adjust UP, the more likely any ISO grain you have is to be noticeable. The further DOWN you have to lower it, the more likely you'll have clipping from your photo just being too overexposed to be saved.
For more on mastering exposure in your camera, read here
Contrast is the difference between black and white in your camera. It's a similar concept to dynamic range. It's hard to describe, but I can show you instead.
Honestly I almost never touch this setting. The ONLY time I might add contrast is if I had a very underexposed shot that I had to raise the exposure on a LOT and now I'm trying to re-add a bit of definition to the shot (they can SORT OF balance each other... SORT OF...).
This is SUCH a handy setting for people like me who shoot outside in natural sun without the luxury of silks to help diffuse my light source. The Highlight function allows you to boost or diminish the points of highest exposure within a shot.
With my PERSONAL aesthetic choices, I almost always knock down my highlights a bit (especially with my full sun photos). I think it adds a bit of definition and detail to a photo and makes the frame seem more evenly exposed throughout.
The shadows function is similar to the highlights function, except now you can boost or diminish the points of LOWEST exposure within a shot.
This function can be SUPER handy if you're having to finesse a photo with more than desired backlighting (one of my best examples is having to shoot the Trolley Show from the train station, AKA uneven light and ALL THE SHADOWS FROM HATS AND HAIR). Rather than raising the exposure on the whole frame and leading to the background getting INSANELY overexposed you can boost the shadows. Again, use with caution, since you can get diminished definition and contrast with this as well if you go too far.
These sliders work sort of similarly to the highlights/shadows functions, but more specifically target areas of White or Black. The Whites bar? I don't touch it. Like, ever. I feel like any tweaks I'd make with this were already taken care of with the WB.
The Blacks bar is FANTASTIC, however, when processing RAW photos. Most RAW images come out a little milky and low on contrast (left), and a little dip down on the Blacks bar will make your blacks punchier as well as any of your darker colors just... richer.
There you have it, everything you need to get started with photo editing. I'd say 90% of the photo editing I do is with those functions right there, all under the "Basics" settings. Depending on feedback, we can explore my OTHER 10% (brushes, masks, graduated and radial filters, tone curves, advanced noise reduction, etc.), but most photos only need some tweaking of the "basics" to make the export ready.