New Feature: Travel Photo Tune-Up, a Step-by-Step Tutorial


New Feature: Travel Photo Tune-Up
I’ve had a few people ask me recently for advice on editing photos. This got me to thinking (a rare occurrence) that people might be interested in a How To series on photo-editing. And rather than use my shots, I thought it’d be fun to work with your photos.


Travel Photos from the Ganges at Sunrise, Varanasi IndiaFirst of all, the disclaimer: I’m not a professional photographer. I’m just a guy who enjoys taking photos and has tinkered with photography on and off for twenty years. I manipulate my images to please my own eye and my style may or may not be to your liking. I like punchy, high-contrast photos — if you don’t, feel free to tone down the adjustments I make as you follow along. I’d like to help you create an image that you like and are proud of and only you know what that looks like.

I believe in using every tool available to improve my photos and to help them more-closely capture a scene as I remember it. My editing tool-of-choice is Adobe’s Lightroom 3 and that’s what I’ll be working in, but many of the techniques and tips I plan on sharing should work with other editing programs as well.

Please note that I’m not sponsored or being reimbursed by Adobe — Lightroom is a great piece of software that allows me to correct and improve my photos quickly and easily. That said, if Adobe wanted to sponsor me, I would gladly tattoo their logo on a prominent part of my body.

Seriously. I’ll be watching my inbox. Call me.

On to the Tune-Up: If you’re interested in submitting your photo, please check out the info at the bottom of this post. Matt from Backpacking Worldwide has bravely agreed to start the series off and sent me a great pic of an old hermit he met in Nicaragua. He’s asked me to mention that he’s new to photography and that he just bought his first SLR but I think he’s off to a very solid start and needs no disclaimers.

It’s a nice shot and there’s an interesting story behind it, but was taken in the worst lighting situation possible: midday. This happens to me all the time — when traveling, you can’t always return to a spot at sunrise or sunset and just have to make do with the available light. As Lennon said: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Photos from the Crumbling Beatles Ashram in Rishikesh, IndiaI think we can do three things to improve this shot. There are two elements that seem integral to the story it wants to tell: the old man and the carvings on the wall behind him. So first, we’ll crop out some of the rock wall and greenery that isn’t contributing anything to that story and make the hermit and rock art more prominent.

Then we’ll tweak color and contrast to bring out the details and add some punch. Finally, we’ll try to lead the eye to where we want it. We’ll deal with the bright background in the top right corner — bright spots always draw the eye and this one is pulling the viewer away from our focus, the old man. Once we’ve tamed that a bit, we’ll try to pull the eye to the subject by brightening him and adding some detail.

That sounds like a lot, but in reality I spent about five minutes working on this shot. It took me longer to write that last paragraph than it did to edit this photo. Granted, I’ve been using Lightroom for awhile now but I want you to realize that editing doesn’t have to be a slow and laborious procedure.


Step 1: Cropping

New Feature: Travel Photo Tune-Up
Cropping is one the simplest and most powerful edits you can make. I like to crop tightly and remove any element that isn’t essential to the shot. It also allows me to get rid of unwanted bright spots or distractions like tree limbs or street signs that may try to sneak in.

I cropped out a lot of the wall on the left and as much of the bright area to the right as I could. I wanted the hermit to be as large as possible, while still keeping all of the rock art. I also noticed that his hand is touching the wooden bench in a very distinctive way and didn’t want to lose that element.


Step 2: Tweaking Color and Contrast

New Feature: Travel Photo Tune-Up

Now that we’ve removed the distractions, let’s brighten and warm the image up a bit. I’m lazy and am a big fan of Auto Tone (or Auto Levels in Photoshop) and it usually does a great job of adjusting the levels, contrast and brightness to a good starting point. I have friends who are professional photographers and they’re rolling their eyes as they read this but, hey, it works for me.

If you have a lot of sky in your photo, it often tweaks things so that the sky looks great but the rest of the photo becomes too dark. You can counteract this by increasing your Brightness. The Graduated Filter can fix this up in a jiffy and we’ll cover that next time.

Next we’ll boost the temperature of the shot and warm it up a bit. Shadows tend to be cool, with a lot of blue, so a quick Temp tweak helps a lot.

New Feature: Travel Photo Tune-Up

In the Basic panel on the right, I’ve bumped up the Recovery slider quite a bit — the highlights were losing detail after the Auto Tone adjustment, so this helps bring that detail back. This is one of these adjustments where it helps to boost it to the max so see what it’s doing, then back off until it looks right to your eye. I also bumped up the Clarity a bit to bring out the texture of the rock and his clothes. I tend to think of this as the “texture slider”.

Scrolling down the interface, I stopped at the Tone Curve palette to add contrast. It’s hidden, but right under the graph is a drop-down box that allows you to change the Point Curve from Linear to Medium or High Contrast. I set it to Medium, after trying all three and seeing which I liked best.

I then boosted the Lights further by 35 to add even more contrast and to lighten the midtones. You may want to skip this step, but I like the luminous quality it can bring to a photo.

You can’t see it in the screenshot, but I also scrolled down to the Effects palette and set the Post-Crop Vignetting to -15 to darken the corners a hair and help pull the eye to the center of the shot.


Step 3: Leading the Eye

New Feature: Travel Photo Tune-Up

Now, let’s deal with that bright spot in the top right. I’m going to use the Adjustment Brush to select only the bright area — just click the tool in the top right (under the Histogram) and adjust the brush size with the sliders or by scrolling your mouse wheel. Paint over the bright area — we don’t have to be too precise as we’re making a fairly minor tweak to the exposure here so it won’t be noticeable if we paint over the edge of the cliff wall a bit. If you paint over something accidentally, hold down the Option key to bring up the Eraser Brush.

If you haven’t used the tool much, it may help to check the small box right under the photo that says Show Selected Mask Overlay — this will show your selection in red (as seen above) and make it easier to tell what’s happening. Turn it off after you’ve painted and you can tweak the exposure and other options as you like. I pulled the exposure down until it started to look unnatural, then eased it back up until I liked it. About a half-stop (.6) seemed to be enough. I should have painted out the tree limbs behind his left shoulder while I was at it. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as they say.

New Feature: Travel Photo Tune-Up

Almost finished! Now I just want to make the hermit stand out a little more and we’ll do that the same way we tackled the bright spot. We’ll brighten him up a bit, and increase the Clarity (texture) and Sharpness to draw the eye. I selected New under the Adjustment Brush tool to create another mask and painted over the subject’s face and body. I didn’t paint over his hair, as that’s already bright enough.

Once I had painted the new mask, I boosted the exposure by one-third of a stop (.3) and increased the Clarity, Saturation and Sharpness a tad. In fact, I think the effect is too strong but I’m leaving it this way to better illustrate the change.

These masks are easily edited or tweaked later. Simply click on the Adjustment Tool button and notice the small round dots that appear on the photo. Click one of these to select it and you can then make further changes to the mask itself or re-adjust the settings in the tool panel. Lightroom never alters your original photo, so all edits are non-destructive.

Feel free to play around and try new things — if you decide that you’ve completely messed things up, hit the big Reset button and start again. To create an image you can email, post online or take to a printer, right-click and choose Export. You’re done!


The Final Result:

New Feature: Travel Photo Tune-Up
There you go. If I wanted to spend the time, I might add another mask for the side of his face that is in shadow and increase the exposure a bit there. You can spend hours tweaking if you want to, but most of my edits are pretty fast affairs.

I hope this has helped in some way. Please leave a comment if there’s something I could explain better or if I missed a step (I’m writing this under a tight deadline — visa run tomorrow). Also, if you’d like to see more of these please speak up — I enjoy sharing tips and tricks, but these posts are a lot of work. So, if you like it, let me know and I’ll do more :)


Want to Submit an Image for a Tune-Up?

Photos from the Pushkar Camel FairSimple email a JPG HERE or to travelphototuneup at hotmail dot com. Please keep images under two megabytes (2MB). Keep in mind that I can’t use every photo, so please don’t be offended if yours doesn’t get published. I’ll be looking for photos that I think I can improve on and that will allow me to demonstrate different tricks and techniques. So if I don’t use your shot, maybe it was too good ;)

Thanks for reading this far. Happy Shooting.



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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Allison February 17, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Hi! I love this idea for a series of posts! I have a few things to add:

1) I agree with you on cropping, part of why your crop works so well is because it’s the definition of the rule of thirds.
2) I like the shadow on his face, it gives the picture definition! (Though I agree, your final edits work better for demonstration and would be a little more effective dialed back)
3) Your vignette is pretty subtle – I find most people (myself being one of the worst offenders I know) WAY overdo the vignette when they start editing their photos. Makes for sad sad over processed results!
4) In a later post you should discuss PRESETS. I love me some presets for time saving!

Lastly, I love the shout out for the adjustment brush! It’s the best, most unknown and untalked about feature in lightroom!


wes February 19, 2011 at 8:28 am

Thanks for the ideas! I, too, waaay overdo everything. Usually, I’ll spend an evening making my edits, then come back the next day with a fresh eye and tone much of it down. I didn’t want ot go into that with this post as it was already turning into a book ;)


Sara February 17, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Hi Wes! I have been admiring your photos for awhile and always wondered about your post processing techniques and how you get such great high-contrast results. I am just getting the hang of Lightroom and this post is very helpful, I would love to see more.
Thanks again!


wes February 19, 2011 at 8:27 am

Thanks, Sara. More on the way…


Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World February 17, 2011 at 10:58 pm

What a neat how-to article. I love Lightroom. I used to play around with a lot but recently have gotten too lazy… It always took me way longer than I think I should just to edit a picture. I wonder if maybe in one of the series you could give an overview on your workflow from RAW to posting an image on the site (do you do Save For Web?) and time savings tip? Just an idea :)


wes February 19, 2011 at 8:26 am

Glad you liked it, Jill. I do intend to do a workflow post and shortcuts post sometime soon :) I just export to jpg from Lightroom at about 75% compression usually.


Christy @ Technosyncratic February 17, 2011 at 11:01 pm

This was really helpful, so I’d love to see more posts like this in the future! I use Aperture but am still not that familiar with all the tools and editing options… so more than anything, this has lit a fire under my bum to get me motivated to learn (as well as illustrating what’s even possible).


wes February 19, 2011 at 8:25 am

Thanks, Christy. The best thing I’ve found is to just play with the buttons and sliders to see how they affect the image, then undo. You can’t ‘break’ anything, so just go for it :)


Michael Hodson February 18, 2011 at 2:35 am

great tips — I use Aperture, but the same general concepts certainly apply.


wes February 19, 2011 at 8:24 am

Yeah, I understand that they’re pretty similar feature-wise. Thanks for the comment.


Nick Hawkins February 18, 2011 at 7:41 am

Auto Tone is lazy, but I use it a lot too for just dumping raw photos up there.

I tend to use lens correction to take care of the vignetting by my FF SLR.

Check out the X-Equals Big Box LR plugins. They’re pretty slick and can do cool film effects.


wes February 19, 2011 at 8:23 am

Lazy works for me. Thanks for the tip on the plug-ins — will check ’em out.


Michael February 18, 2011 at 10:11 pm

wow, what a unique and generous offer, gonna go look thru the recent pix and send a couple yr way
clearly we now need a Mac and Lightroom to go with the new D3100, damn you


wes February 19, 2011 at 8:22 am

Please do, Michael. And, yeah, you can blame me for the new equipment. I can take it :)


Kim February 19, 2011 at 2:24 am

Great tip! This is exactly what we do to most of our photos. I love the adjustment brush. Lightroom is great. Keep the tips coming. I like it a lot!


wes February 19, 2011 at 8:22 am

Thanks, Kim — will do. I think I’ll keep them a little simpler than this one. Kinda got carried away ;)


Rebecca February 19, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Great new feature! I know that most (if not all) professional photographers edit their work and it’s considered just another step in the job these days. One suggestion for future posts on this new feature: when you show the final edited image at the bottom, might be good to also put the “before” above or below it so you can compare easily (rather than scrolling back up to the top of the post). Just a suggestion!


Sarah Wu February 20, 2011 at 11:21 am

Such a great article. I love lightoom too. I have been using it ever since I discover the wonder of it. I still use photoshop everyday beacuse of work but when it comes to RAW… my herat goes to lightroom 3.


wes February 23, 2011 at 8:19 am

Thanks, Sarah!


Priyank February 23, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Hi Wes,
Besides the technical tips, it was nice to see your overall approach to photo editing. Aperture doesn’t have a wide range of options in comparison (e.g. the Adjustment brush) but I believe one can download extra plugins. For me, the biggest hindrance to photo editing is not the knowledge of the tools, but the time. :D Thanks for the post!


Elise February 24, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Great tips. As always, really easy to read and understand. Thanks Wes


Laura February 26, 2011 at 8:58 am

I have been a Photoshop user for years but hear great things about Lightroom. I’m fan of high contrast photos so these are great tips! Love the series and looking forward to the next photo :)


Claire February 27, 2011 at 10:32 am

This is very timely for me, as I’ve just started playing around with Lightroom. At the moment I’m using the trial version, but I think I’m definitely going to get it… I guess that was their ploy :)

Look forward to the rest of the series – picking up things as I go.


Angie Orth March 4, 2011 at 10:40 am

This is just the sort of post I was looking for! I’m a few months in to my RTW, so photo editing is getting more and more important. Amazing what a few clicks can do. Thanks so much for these tips… now back to editing =)


wes March 5, 2011 at 10:08 am

Glad it helped! I’ll be doing another one soon.


Corina Hart March 6, 2011 at 4:09 pm

is there a FREE application that is like Adobe Lightroom?


wes March 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm

I haven’t heard of anything of anything, to be honest. Gimp is one of the best-known free editors, but it’s not as able as Lightroom (


Lanna March 22, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Most of the images in your post are not showing correctly.


wes March 23, 2011 at 8:42 am

Thanks for the heads-up. I’m still trying to figure out why — it doesn’t seem to work with Opera and Chrome. Seems fine in Firefox and such. Sorry!


Jess April 3, 2011 at 11:29 am

I have been looking for a free site to edit my travel pics with. Thanks for the heads up on I need to stop being cheap and invest in some nice software! Any other sites like gimp?!


Vincent April 9, 2011 at 2:54 am

There’s a problem with your great tutorial it seems.. All the pictures after step one don’t appear. Tried in FF & Chrome and result is same.


Lanna April 9, 2011 at 7:07 am

I peeked at your code and I think the reason the images aren’t showing is that you have this little bit in the img tag: ;=””

That bit needs to be removed for the images to display correctly.


wes April 9, 2011 at 8:22 am

Should be working now. Sorry about that, a div tag wasn’t closed properly. Or something…


Adam Pervez April 24, 2011 at 3:40 am

Loved this post. I’m also an amateur photographer. Lightroom’s interface seems simpler than Photoshop CS3’s and I think that’s exactly what I need. Photoshop can be intimidating! But your tips are great and I hope you continue this series. Your pictures are what drew me in to your site in the first place, so learning how you do that would be great :)


Katherina May 13, 2011 at 1:14 am

What a useful tutorial! Myself I have no Lightroom yet… I’ve been thinking about purchasing the package, but I’m just not quite sure how it is different from Photoshop. I’ve been a Photoshop user for quite some time now… is it somewhat complimentary?


wes May 13, 2011 at 10:18 am

Thanks, Katherine. I use Photoshop every day for graphics work, but for photography I think LR is just easier and faster. It also helps you organize your photos and the entire workflow is in RAW. Cheaper than Photoshop as well. Unless I’m doing compositing or such, I really don’t need PS.


Darcy Tara November 19, 2011 at 4:04 am

Hi Wes
This was a very interesting article even for someone with no photography background. I think it it very motivating. You How-To posts are just as valuable as your hilarious posts.
Take care,


Stephanie - The Travel Chica December 23, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Awesome tips! The one thing I’m having trouble with is the mask overlay. It seems that if I do not draw the line perfectly on the person, I get a weird result where it changes the exposure on the bit of background too. Any tips for this, or do you just have to be perfect and drawing along the border of the shape you want to highlight?


wes December 24, 2011 at 2:25 am

If you hold the alt/option key, you’ll get the eraser which will allow you to trim off the extra bleed. Also, if you keep your adjustments under +-1 stop, it’s usually not as noticable. If you’re trying to make a drastic change in brightness, you’ll have to get the mask perfect.