How Do You Know When an Edit Is Done?

One of the struggles I have as a photographer is knowing how much to edit an image. This became increasingly difficult once editing became a major part of my artistic workflow when shooting landscape photography, so how do I know when a photo is finished?

The easy answer to this question is that the edit is done when you're happy with the image. I certainly agree with this in theory but struggle to actually execute in practice. What happens if you're never happy with an edit yet you know the image has portfolio potential? What if you're trying to perfect new skills and push yourself to new heights in your edits? This is where I struggle the most. I'm always trying to improve my skills and never want to get complacent in my work. However, I also have to accept that not every image I produce will be better than all my previous images. If that were the case I would only post a few images a year. While I don't have a quick answer to solving this dilemma, I have figured out a way to continually improve your work while also finding happiness in simple edits.

Simple Versus Complex Edits

This is the most important topic when it comes to knowing when an edit is done. It's simply asking the question "what do you want out of an image?" Do you need to blend multiple exposures together, stitch together a panoramic, remove objects, or simply adjust some sliders? Usually finding those answers is the easy part and the hard part comes when you're trying to find the creative touch you want to add to your photo. Let's start by using a complex edit as an example.

7 Vertical Shots Stiched Together. No Edits

Yikes that flat image looks awful. This is a 7 shot vertical Panorama from Kirkjufell in Iceland, a place you might recognize from Fstopper's very own Photographing the World. The only editing I've done in this image was combining the vertical shots into what you see here. You might look at this and think it isn't worth touching which at first I totally agree with you. The secret I have is that I was actually there when I took the photo. Shocking isn't it? But seriously by being there I have a much better idea of what the scene actually looked like and it was nothing like this flat image. Knowing this I knew there was a lot of potential in the image but I also knew it was going to require quite a lot of work. Sometimes you might only want to edit an image until it appears exactly how you remember it.

Notice Color, Atmosphere, Mood, Temperature

After several hours of work this is where I ended up. This isn't close to the final image though as you can tell the image is still relatively flat. That said it's quite far off from where we began and starting to look much closer to how it appeared in real life. There is color and life in the image now, the clouds have much more mood, and overall the image looks like it has more potential to end up in my portfolio than it did previously. We still have more work to do before we reach that point though. 

Enlarged Kirkjufell, Small Amount of Light Painting

This is a subtle change trying to recreate what the scene looked like in person. You'll notice the mountain of Kirkjufell looked tiny in the previous image and here we have edited it very slightly to represent it's size more accurately. You could say this is cheating but the reality is when you shoot at such a wide angle, proportions of objects completely change. With that in mind it still looks tiny in comparison to how it appeared in person but this is a small edit to get closer to the real life look we want. 

Still Lacking Contrast and Feeling

You'll notice not much has changed from the last image except a few slider adjustments. That's because I tend to edit as flat as possible for all destructive parts of an edit such as light painting, scale manipulation, exposure blending, etc. Once I have a flat image I'm happy with I will take it into Lightroom or Camera Raw and adjust sliders to finalize the image. Overall I was content with how far the edit had come from the beginning and liked that this was a close representation of the scene in real life. However, I wasn't happy with the image so I left it sitting in my catalog for over two weeks. Something I highly recommend after a long edit is to leave an image for at least a day and come back to it with fresh eyes. I did just that when I finished this image and found myself disappointed in the final image. 

Two weeks went by and I was feeling creative so I fired up Photoshop and started working on this image even further. Ultimately I felt like it lacked clarity (not the slider kind) and a "wow" feeling like I felt when I was there. So where did I finally end up?

The Final Edit

A lot changed since that last edit but some of it isn't quite obvious. The biggest change is the dynamic lighting that was added to improve the image. Previously most of the waterfall was evenly lit and lacked contrast. By painting in light and creating a false shadow behind the ridge it appears as though the waterfall is now partially illuminated in golden light. You'll also notice there is more contrast on the mountain of Kirkjufell making it stand out a little more in the image. A few other changes include skewing the bottom left corner to remove dead space, fixing the color tones in the sky, and skewing Kirkjufell ever so slightly. 

Thus after roughly 10-14 hours on this image, I am done (I think). To me it's these little details that matter and something I wanted to push myself to improve upon when I started working on this picture. Throughout editing the image it became a challenge to see how far I can alter an image from flat and boring to grand and majestic. Thus being done was when I finally felt like it didn't need anything else to accomplish those goals.

So what happens when you work on an edit without any of those goals in mind? 

How Would You Edit This Photo?

This was a special moment in my life so there's a lot of emotion mixed into this image for me. It had rained most of the week I was in Iceland and this was the only day the sun really showed up. A 3 hour drive to Jokulsarlon took nearly 8 hours because that's just how Iceland works, you have to stop and take photos everywhere. Thankfully by the time I got to the glacier lagoon I was gifted with a very memorable sunset. This image was taken at the peak of pink light and a large chunk of glacier had just broken into two pieces causing one piece to completely flip upside down revealing a gorgeous blue hue of ice. Without much time to react this was one of the better images I came away with.

Just a Few Slider Adjustments in Lightroom

This is the final edit. It took roughly 5-10 minutes, no Photoshop, not even a radial or graduated filter. I mulled over this image for months. It was always in the top of my priority to put more work into but every time I looked at it I couldn't figure out what I wanted to change. Eventually I just came to terms with the little editing I had done and finally realized that I just didn't want to change anything. Could I have taken it into Photoshop and removed the power line you can barely see on the left or painted more light into photo? Absolutely but I never felt like it was necessary for this photo.

Unlike the photo of Kirkjufell my goals here were completely different. I didn't need to push myself to learn something new or take a boring image and turn it into something far better. I just wanted the beauty in the image to remind me of the beauty in nature and it required very little to do so. 


So you might still be wondering what the answer is to the question that started this entire article. The truth is I don't always know when I'm done with an edit. Sometimes I want to challenge myself to learn a new technique and other times I just want an image that represents the feelings I had in person. I've found learning this has helped me grow as a photographer especially when it comes to editing. Sometimes you might want to spend hours perfecting, learning, changing, and growing with an image. Other times you might find yourself staring at the screen realizing you don't want to change anything.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as it's a topic I've struggled with for years and I think will never fully go away. Geddy Lee of the band Rush, one of my favorite musicians, says he absolutely hates finishing an album because it means he can't continue working on his art and that it's locked in forever. Sometimes I feel the same way about my photos. It can be such a challenge to accept that you're done. Do you struggle with these problems at all? I'd love to hear I'm not the only one.

Okay I think I'm done with this article... maybe; part 2?

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Mike Schrengohst's picture

Nothing is ever "done". I edit photos that I shot 40 years ago to make new versions that are now possible with digital technology.

Alex Armitage's picture

Sometimes I tell myself that once I put it on a wall, I can't ever touch it again. But then I notice imperfections and changes I want to make. The struggle.

Daniel Medley's picture

"Something I highly recommend after a long edit is to leave an image for at least a day and come back to it with fresh eyes."

So much this. Even with a quick, uncomplicated image, a few minutes away then reevaluation is very useful.

Alex Armitage's picture

Hey I just want to say thanks for making it even halfway through this article, haha. Might write an entire piece on just that point as well.

John Nicholson's picture

Excellent point. I will leave photos alone for days or weeks and come back with a fresh perspective. Helps a lot even if it's only to confirm you were done the first time.

Daniel Medley's picture

I learned this lesson the hard way. I used to edit, think it was good to go, upload to my portfolio or whatever, and then a couple days later look at it and groan. My goal, now, is to avoid the groan.

Alex Armitage's picture

I have a long process that's probably a little overboard myself

Marion -'s picture

I agree with you 100%. I always find changes I want to make after not looking at my screen for a day. When I don't have that much time, I'll compare it to an earlier photo that I'm already "done" with.

Simon Patterson's picture

I don't ever finish editing a photo, but occasionally I momentarily stop. Usually that's only because it is needed to be printed or published somewhere.

Linus Talltjarn's picture

Okay, I'm sorry but 10-14 hours of editing tells me that you should never have done the edit in the first place. What came out of the edit looks super artificial like a lot of landscape photography around here. If you like that kind of style, that's fine, but dont call it "what the scene actually looked like". Every photographer who has shot one or two landscape can tell the difference between the real world and the fantasy world created on the computer. The second image on the other hand looks much better even though you went a bit too far on the saturation.

When you have a good photograph to to begin with, editing should never take more than maybe one hour to edit (unless you are going for a print but then most of the time is spent on small details rather than global adjustments). What I'm trying to say is people should stop trying so hard to rescue failed photographs by turning them into monsters. Focus on getting the best shot with your camera in the field instead. My biggest inspiration in landscape photography is Elia Locardi and from watching his tutorials here on Fstoppers I've learned that you cannot create something out of nothing. If you try, you only end up with something that looks nothing like the real world.

Alex Armitage's picture

I think there are two fields of thought when it comes to this, something I actually want to talk about in an article. Personally I think you can be artistic behind the camera and behind the computer. Obviously that's a controversial topic when it comes to landscapes but many of the people that inspire me do a lot of editing. Which is kind of what I was getting at with this article. I had a lot of fun editing that shot of Kirkjufell and felt very accomplished with the end result.

I did try to discern that the image I wasn't happy with before the last edit was close to my view in real life, maybe not exact of course but nothing crazy. The last edit was very much me feeling creative and pushing myself to explore. Which is likely why the edit time took so long. I would do things and delete the layer, try something else that didn't work, etc. I could take the first image and spend less than 20 minutes and get something that's "okay" but that isn't what I wanted from the image.

Also I do have this in print, 80x40! So those small details matter too. Appreciate the feedback!

Alex Armitage's picture

Kirkjufell as big as my head! :)

Kirk Darling's picture

Unmesh Dinda keeps sending me back to old files.

Robert Nurse's picture

Like you, I know what the image looked like and, most importantly, felt like when I shot it. In post, I try to recapture that feeling if it's not there some how. Once I have that same feeling on screen that I had while shooting, editing is over.

James Parker's picture

I agree - even Ansel Adams said photograph how it makes you feel, not how it looks. He edited his photos in the darkroom way past what it was actually like if you had been standing there.

Peter Hernandez's picture

It's done when nothing about it bothers me. Simple :)

Jens Sieckmann's picture

First: Nice that you shared your thoughts about that difficult (because it's so subjective) topic. In the first place I find it important to be happy with your shot (out of cam) you want to edit. If you have doubts about that, the editing will fail in most cases. If you limit yourself only to the best shots you will likely succeed in editing.