We were fully immersed in the experience from the moment we set foot in Nepal. Often mesmerizing, sometimes trying, there were days of walking Kathmandu’s dusty, crowded streets, trying not to get hit by a car before we could get our paperwork sorted. Then there was starting out on the Annapurna Circuit when we realized the trek was going to be much harder than we had imagined. There was getting feverishly ill in Marpha where I was bedridden for the day, subsequently leading to taking the bus for a portion of the trek even though we had sworn not to, speeding through harrowing mountain roads with thousand foot dropoffs.
Nepal wasn’t memorable because it was fun or easy, or beautiful from start to finish. Actually, it was none of those things. Nepal was memorable because it set my senses on fire for a month straight.
I’ve tried to apply the lessons I learned in Nepal to photography.
1. Look for interesting, not (necessarily) pretty
It’s possible that too many of us are out there trying to create beautiful photos, when we should really be creating memorable ones. Rather than trying to make a pretty but otherwise boring picture, instead I wonder what can help my pictures stick with viewers for a little bit longer.
2. Take good pictures in the first place.
Editing makes good pictures better. Don’t waste your time editing bad photos; just move on.
When you start with something decent, you’ll end up with something better.
3. Keep it simple
There’s a fine line between saying what you need to say, and saying too much. Edit only as much as you need to, and then no more.
4. Crop smart
The fastest and most powerful way to edit an image is to crop it. There’s no magic formula for the perfect crop. The rule of thirds can help, but it’s definitely not a hard and fast rule. Strictly following it can actually limit your photography, sort of like telling Jackson Pollock to stay between the lines.
Instead, I go by the look at it test:
Look at it. If you like it, keep it.
5. Noise is okay
There is a present day mentality that all noise must be avoided. Photography wasn’t always like that – look at some old shots done on film and you’ll see that for many purposes, noise wasn’t avoided at all. In many cases it was actually embraced.
We’ve moved toward no-noise images for two reasons: lower noise helps sell digital cameras, and it’s better to start with a clean image. That doesn’t mean you have to finish with a clean image, and if noise helps add to the mood you’re looking for then do it!
You might experiment with turning the noise reduction features off in your camera. Some digital cameras actually have quite beautiful noise characteristics. Of course, you can also just add noise in your editing software.
6. Dodge and Burn like photography’s greats
Photography’s all time greats (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, etc.) burned and dodged like crazy. Burning and dodging is oldschool; that doesn’t mean it’s outdated.
It’s as simple as brightening the important parts of your picture and darkening the less important parts. More than any other photo editing tool, dodging and burning immediately adds clarity and focus to your pictures.
7. Seeing in COLOR
Whenever I see something I like in an original shot, I push it as far as I can just to see what will happen. I do this with everything – brightness, contrast, HDR, everything. Pushing the sliders all the way to the max inevitably leads to digital ugliness, so I’ll slowly back off until I like what I see.
This method works particularly well when working with color. I’ll jack the saturation slider all the way up, then I’ll back off until the image appears believable (or nearly so).
8. Try black and white
While you’re playing around with color sliders, don’t forget to see what your picture looks like when you turn them off. Black and white adds drama and depth to images in a way that color just can’t match. You can push the contrast far higher in a black and white image, creating a dark, powerful picture.
9. Use HDR when you need it
Sometimes HDR is the only way to take a picture. This happens when the brights are too bright and the darks too dark within the same scene. While I personally am put off by the cartoonish look of many HDR images, careful editing can keep things looking real.
Remember tip 3, “keep it simple.” Overuse of HDR quickly results in a muddy, boring visual mess.
Panoramas are a lot of work, both while you’re shooting and when you’re editing. While the results can be spectacular, it’s slow and inefficient and so I shoot panoramas only when I can’t zoom out any more.
It’s always a challenge to balance a natural look while trying to fit an unnatural width into a single picture, but there are a few photo editing programs that can help. Try PTGui or the free program Hugin.
11. Screw convention
Popular styles repeat themselves through the years. What’s popular today won’t be popular tomorrow, so don’t bother with it. Edit in your own style regardless of what’s getting hits online today. All of my favorite photographers have their own style that doesn’t always conform to what’s popular at this exact moment.
Finding your own photographic style helps you stand out as different and unique, and what could possibly be more interesting? Just remember to keep experimenting along the way.