Editing Manually | Part 1

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Here it is…. my first, somewhat in depth post about editing. It’s not that I don’t want to share how I edit, I really don’t mind at all. HOWEVER, I am fearful of showing newer photographers EXACTLY what I do because part of the development of my style came from learning on my own. When I first started shooting, someone told me about ACTIONS. They were magical to me. Absolutely magical. With the touch of a button in Photoshop, my blues were bluer, my greens were greener and my images were BETTER!!!…. Or so I thought. I remember shooting and glancing at the back of my screen and thinking

“Oh it’s ok that her face is dark, I’ll just brighten it up later with “Ying/Yang”…. that was one of TRA’s actions that I used to use on a regular basis. The sad thing about that thought process was that I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself.  I thought it was normal to just “fix” things in Photoshop.  Well, nowadays, I’m thinking much differently. My goal for that last 3 and a half years has been to NEVER need to take an image into Photoshop. If my image is only good if I doctor it up in Photoshop, then it isn’t a good image to begin with. That’s a bold statement but I think it’s true. For me, Photoshop and Actions were huge crutches that were keeping me from REALLY mastering LIGHT.

I’m not sure how it happened, but eventually I realized that my BEST images were the images that looked great SOOC.  Not only were these my best images, they were also the EASIEST to edit. I could tell when I had a great shoot because I would edit those suckers at lightening speed! You see, GREAT images don’t need hours of work… they need a pop here and a temperature adjustment there… but they don’t need makeovers in Photoshop.

Now let me say this… I know that SOME photographers have a bold and dramatic style to their images and they NEED photoshop and actions to help them get that look. There’s nothing wrong with that.  However, I do think there is something wrong with being DEPENDENT on photoshop to make your images look decent. If you’re in a place where you feel like you have to “SAVE” your images in Photoshop after every shoot…. then you don’t need to be reading a post about editing, you need to be learning technical shooting skills and understanding light.  I say this because if you edit your way through your image issues, you will NEVER improve as a photographer. I realized this early on and I’m thankful that I didn’t spend years trying to figure out what was wrong with my images.  The more I understood light, the less editing I had to do. Six months into my business, I was introduced to Lightroom.  It wasn’t love at first sight… it took a while for me to understand this program…. but after I got the hang of it…. I became a new photographer. Instead of trying to use a ton of actions, I started understanding how to EDIT MANUALLY.

Ok, so we’ve all heard of shooting manually right? Well, this is the same concept. Instead of allowing Photoshop to make a ton of baby adjustments automatically with the click of an action, I started to learn the nitty gritty of basic photo editing. For Example… I wanted my images to POP!! So I thought I HAD to use the “Snap it Up” action to get that magical look.  Turns out, the only thing that “Snap it up” does is adjust the tonal curves, increase the contrast and adds a little vibrance…. all of these things can easily be done in Lightroom.

I became VERY well acquainted with the editing bar in Lightroom. I started learning the difference between “Blacks” and “Darks”…. I started playing with split toning and highlight correction …and I  started to really GRASP the basics of editing.  THIS is when my style really started to emerge. My style became more cohesive because once I learned how to achieve the look I wanted manually, I just applied that same edit to everything I shot!! My editing was becoming easier and easier. It used to take 3-4 hours to edit an engagement session when I first started….. YIKES! That’s because I was taking EVERY image into photoshop and was trying to perfect it with actions. Now, I import into Lightroom4 and I’m done in less than an hour.

I wish I had an “easy” button for this…. but the truth is, learning how to edit well takes time and PRACTICE. It took at least a year for me to really get the hangout of it and I’m STILL learning new things!! So here’s a challenge. If you’re a photographer that only knows how to use actions, challenge yourself to replicate your actions in Lightroom.  It’s TOTALLY possible!! If you have actions that have given you your “style”, figure out what exactly they are doing to your images and you’ll have SUCH a greater understanding of the editing process!!!

Photographers always ask me how I edit my images to make them SHARP… and the truth is, if it isn’t SHARP straight out of the camera, it will NEVER be SHARP.  Shooting sharp, well lit images starts in-camera!  I challenge everything to fall in love with Lightroom or your manual editing software of choice!! I will change you for the better!!!

Here are some images that were edited only in Photoshop with actions in 2008. I didn’t really have “control” over my style because I didn’t understand the basics of editing yet. The only thing “consistent” about my style was that it was INCONSISTENT!

These are some recent images that really show the consistency of my editing style no matter the setting, season or lighting.  All of my images should have a cohesive “look” to them no matter what!

There will be more editing posts in the future but this was an introduction to the foundation of my editing. It started with a lot of PRACTICE and a lot of PATIENCE! Happy Tuesday everyone!



xoxo, Katelyn
49 Comments Ask Anything, Education, Resources
  1. Candace reply

    Awesome Post Katelyn! it made the WOLRD of difference in my photographs as well when i learned how to take great photos SOOC and edit in Lightroom! :)

  2. Rachel Leigh Greene reply

    “You see, GREAT images don’t need hours of work… they need a pop here and a temperature adjustment there… but they don’t need makeovers in Photoshop.” AMEN!!

  3. Bethany McDonnell reply

    Great thoughts! Thanks!

  4. Kristen Driscoll reply


  5. Kandi Hodges reply

    I think it’s great you shared your path to processing – mine has been nearly identical. I fell in love with actions and thought they could fix anything. Then, I began thinking many of my images looked over processed, so I began dissecting the actions so I could lessen their effects and figure how to do what the actions were doing. So, maybe actions are a good place to start for a photographer to figure out his/her style. Thank you for sharing your story! It is so encouraging to me!

  6. Amanda Hedgepeth reply

    Thank you for posting this! I was just discussing this at the Q&A the other day and how the more and more I’m understanding how to get my ‘look’ in lightroom the less I’m finding myself in photoshop! YAY!!!

  7. Lanie Kay reply

    Thank you for reiterating to me that I don’t have to have Photoshop. I only have LR4 and have felt like that is all I have needed cause I really strive to get it right IN CAMERA. I’ve avoided getting Photoshop, but felt the pressure from other Photographers. No More Peer Pressure Here. Thanks!

  8. Katie reply

    YES!!!!! I have noticed that lately I have to edit my images even less and I’m so proud of myself when I finish a session really fast because I know it means I did a good job. And now when I have a session or a wedding I feel isn’t as easy to edit I go back and look at what I could have done differently with the light!!! Hopefully one day my editing will be super consistent like yours!!

  9. Callie reply

    So awesome!!! I always hear photogs raving about the latest “action” and I have always felt guilty that I didn’t use them – or even know HOW! Ahk, YAY for Lightroom!!!! I can’t wait to hear more from you on this in the future :)

  10. Kristyn Burnette reply

    Thank you so much for this post! I started with Lightroom because it was a lot more user friendly for a newbie. Although I know the basics of Photoshop, I’ve recently decided that I wasn’t going to make it a priority to learn more right now. I like my photos to be simple when it comes to editing, and I can achieve the look I want with Lightroom. Your post helped reaffirm that it is OK to skip Photoshop. Thanks!

  11. ashley link reply

    again! always right on point and so nicely said. i used to get so discouraged because i couldn’t afford photoshop and only used lightroom, but it’s like you said, it’s better to try and do the best you can in camera and not rely on other things to “fix” your work. i’m glad you were bold enough to say that. thanks again for a wonderful post and wonderful encouragement! i appreciate it and it pushes me to work harder and not rely on things to touch up my work! thank you!!!!!! :) :) :)

  12. Brooke reply

    Thank you! This is an awesome post! I realized about a year ago the SAME thing and I’m still learning about all the sliders in lightroom. Photoshop was my go to and I edited manually in photoshop but thankfully lightroom makes is super easy and more consistent. you are so right about consistency because even if you edit manually in photoshop it’s not as simple to get all your images on the same page as it is in lightroom!

  13. Abby Grace reply

    I started out similarly- I was in LOVE with some of the Kevin Kubota actions! It took me FOREVER to edit my images though, and when someone clued me into LightRoom, things got so much easier. It’s definitely been a process, though! I cringe when I look back at some of my old stuff :)

  14. Sarah Adams reply

    Katelyn! I just love this post…I think one of the main reasons I fell in love with your photography is because it is so natural and organic, and NOT over edited like so many photographers I see. Your photos tell TRUE stories- not make believe over-edited stories! Thanks for sharing your philosophy :)

  15. Melissa Kate reply

    I totally agree that a good photo doesn’t need a lot of editing… but the editing that is done can take place in photoshop or lightroom! Coming from a photographer that has never used lightroom, I still understand the same concepts that make a great photo and that these great photos take very little editing! :)

  16. Judith reply

    Love this!!! I think that too many people rely on actions and we need to make learning the basics a priority :D

  17. Anna reply

    wow, this is an awesome post, thank you! I’m just starting off and struggling with creating my own style, so this was really helpful. I know it take time and practice, but do you have any other advice in terms of your process for editing? Thanks!!!

  18. Zack reply

    I just want to know how to quickly remove blemishes and make skin very appealing for so many pictures…doing the brides face 400 times is tough business!

  19. Leslie reply

    Such a great post!!! It’s so true … I may or may not have done the same thing when I started … ha ha …

  20. Dallas reply

    This might be one of your best posts yet! I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said here. It is also great to see specific examples of your work before and after you mastered manual editing. How good must it feel to look back and celebrate how far you’ve come and how consistently great your work is!? Awesome stuff.

  21. Kari Jeanne reply

    I couldn’t agree more!!! Relying on photoshop to ‘fix’ images will only result in lackluster photos! Thanks for sharing :)

  22. Olivia J reply

    Very good post! I hope to see more editing posts soon. :)

  23. Tami McNeil reply

    Thank you…thank you…thank you!!

  24. Rebekah Hoyt reply

    Thank you for your generous spirit. You are SO right when you say that more success SOOC will give you more success and consistency with editing. I LOVE your style and I can look at an image and KNOW you shot it right away – that to me is a true testament of how amazing you are!

  25. Katie reply

    I love this post! Thanks so much for all of the information you share! I have started using LR recently and wondered if you shoot in RAW or jpeg. :)

  26. Karen Cox reply

    Very insightful, Katelyn! I will certainly apply your thoughts to my own work.

  27. Michelle Stoker reply

    Katelyn, i love this post! I never got into PS actions but know a lot of photographers that did. it seemed like an easy way to make your photos ‘pop’, I’ve used lightroom for about 2 years now and i love it! I know my specific style because i manually edit my photos. my husband is sometimes shocked at how fast i can finish editing a session but i reassure him that as my photos get better and my editing skills increase, i really don’t need as much editing time. :) you’re great!

  28. Mikkel reply

    I was the same way when I started out – and exactly with TRA! I was so sick of how long it took me to edit…that with editing frustration and will power to learn more about my camera I got A LOT better at getting it right in camera. And now I hardly open images up in Photoshop. I do most of my adjustments in LR if it needs any. Still love the TRA options but sparingly. The post resonated with me! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  29. Ashlyn reply

    One of my favorite things about your photography is that your photos look natural and not “doctored up.” It’s so true; you have to get that image great in camera if its gonna look good out of camera. I remember when I first go Lightroom that I over-used it. I edited photos and made them look like yuck. Too bright, too saturated. For me it was finding a balance- well, I still am!! I’m still learning LR but its the best. Thanks for posting this!! Reallllly enjoyed it! :)

  30. Kimber Wassenberg reply

    Thanks for sharing! I’ve actually never used actions (or know what they are in that case)…I tried presets in lightroom and didn’t like it at all. I manually edit all my images…I don’t think they all have too much of a cohesive style yet, but that’s just because I don’t think I’ve officially figured out what “my style” really is. I’m looking forward to more editing posts! :)

  31. Caroline reply

    AAHH!!! SO proud of you!! absolutely crazy to see the progress and growth that has happened! Keep Growing!!!

  32. Alaina reply

    Loved this post! Love your work:) question…all of your subjects look like they don’t have much bags/circles under their eyes–is this something you alter in your photographs? I currently do a bit but had a photographer pass judgement from me doing this. Any feedback you have on this subject who’d be so appreciated!!!

  33. Crystal Cherry reply

    Wonderfully written and well said. “get it right in the camera, first” !! As always … your work speaks for it’s self!

  34. Sarah m reply

    Oh, I SO agree!! What a difference I saw in the consistency of my images when I started avoiding Photoshop! It has it’s time and place, but I would spend hours editing, and would end up agonizing over details. In learning how to (1) get better shots SOOC and (2) use Lightroom, I no longer dread editing, I am done in a fraction of the time, and my images finally look like “me.”

  35. Becca reply

    Gorgeous images!! I loved this post. You have such consistency to your images. I can always tell when I scroll through facebook when someone is featuring your work because of the color and clarity. I fly down the minifeed and my attention is caught by what I’ve come to recognize as your gorgeous work!!

  36. Renee reply

    i heart you Katelyn james! and this post is exactly why… always speak your truth (which i seem to always agree with) in love and without judgment or a condescending attitude. thanks so much for sharing your talent and your sweet spirit!

  37. Michelle reply

    Thank you so much, Katelyn for this post. It’s good to hear that you don’t go through a whole lot of editing. I’ve struggled in this area recently because I thought that I had to use photoshop actions because, well, everyone else was doing it. But then i was running into the problem where I would compare my images from SOOC and the ones I edited and I liked the images SOOC more! This made me feel self-conscious because I thought I must be dumb to not want to do all this editing. I even asked my husband, “Is it bad that I would prefer to just hand my clients their images without having done much editing to them at all?” I’m finally starting to understand that my problem really wasn’t a problem at all. And this post definitely helps reassure that gut feeling I was having. So, again, thank you. :)

  38. Gabby / En Route Photography reply

    Well said! LIGHTROOM ROCKSSSSSS! Looking forward to more LR Posts! xxx

  39. Heather daly reply

    Thanks so much for the insight Katelyn! As photographers, It is important to not use these high powered programs as crutches. Too often pictures are photoshopped to the point where they are unrecognizable. The real magic begins behind the camera.

  40. Annetta reply

    thanks for this, Katelyn. I look forward to more posts in this series!

  41. Kristina W. reply

    This was such an interesting post to read! I’m not a professional photographer and only have a point and shoot, but it’s so interesting! I don’t have any photoshop skils at all yet so in one way I already do this — working on getting each photo as good as I can SOOC — but I’m going to keep it in mind for when I do start learning editing skills, and get a fancier camera.

  42. Yair Haim reply

    Beautiful work! I love the colors in your pictures

  43. Jennifer Johnston reply

    This is so true! I’m convinced that what sets great photographers apart from good photographers, is the understanding and ability to correctly use light. Thank you for this post!

  44. Kaury reply

    Katelyn I love your work! you are a truly blessing and your work very inspirational. I NEVER get enough of your posts. Honestly, I’m always learning something new and that’s one of the many reasons why i find your blog soooo awesome! Thanks for sharing! :)

  45. Ana reply

    How would you describe your style now?

  46. Meghan Thomas reply

    Holy Moly!!! Your like my photography soulmate lol I couldn’t agree more!

  47. Angie reply

    This post describes everything i feel right now! I’m trying to master lighting, its been really hard, i want those crisp images like i see on your page, I’m having a hard time getting them to look like this, then i depend on an action to do this or that…. do you only use LR for editing ?

  48. My | Virginia Wedding Photographer | Katelyn James Photography reply

    […] my last post I explained my journey from actions to Lightroom. Basically, I learned very early on that my […]

  49. Joanna M reply

    I used to photoshop every image, even ever so lightly. But now it’s all lightroom all the time.

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