How to Shoot Tack Sharp Stars

By David Johnston

The dawn of the age of technology has given way to a ton of new types of photographs that weren’t necessarily able to be shot before. The leading companies in camera sensors have developed the tools necessary to shoot unbelievable images in some of the most difficult situations. My guess is that if Ansel Adams had the capability to photograph with the current cameras we possess today, he’d take some of the most incredible photographs ever seen. In his place, however, are a sleuth of experienced photographers that do their best to fill his void… respectfully of course! 

There is a flip-side to technology, though. 

The more detail that these amazing camera sensors produce, the more apparent photography errors can be. 

So, due to the difficult photography conditions such as night photography, it’s important to know how to shoot sharply so your mistakes don’t stand out. You want to be able to shoot your stars tack sharp!

The Importance of Tack Sharp Stars

I want you to think through a scenario with me to understand just how important tack sharp stars in your night photography are. Believe me, they are of the utmost importance! 

Let’s say that you’ve come a long way in your ability to photograph the beauty of the night sky and you’re renowned enough to be offered several employment opportunities to do so. You are hired by a very well-to-do gentleman who would like to grace his huge living room wall with a large print of the night sky. 

You are beyond excited to have the opportunity to accept this project and you immediately plan for a clear night to provide your client with the work he desires. 

The sky is clear and you drive to a remote location to work. You set everything up and take multiple exposures during different points in the night to ensure that you have captured the most compelling image possible. 

Next, you spend hours editing and manipulating the select image to create a jaw dropping piece of artwork that will be sure to please your client. You finish, print the enormous copy of the image, and deliver it to your client. 

All is well until he hangs it up only to notice that the stars in the image are out of focus. You’ve now lost the job, the time, the money, and your career as a photographer is over. Surely you’ll never work again! 

Alright, it’s very dramatic. But, I needed to drive home the importance of getting your stars tack sharp and perfectly in focus.

Razor Thin Decisions

When you are setting up and thinking about how to photograph stars for perfect focus, you need to remember that when you’re shooting stars you’re shooting moving objects. Now, it can be difficult to think of stars as moving objects when you first get into night sky photography, but the distant balls of burning gas actually move a lot faster than you think. 

Photographers need to select an exposure that will compliment both sharp stars, and movement best. 

You’d be surprised at how razor thin that decision can be. 

I’ve read countless articles about settings to use to shoot the night sky that tell aspiring astrophotographers to use an exposure of 30 seconds. 

Let me tell you from my experience that if you’re shooting an exposure of 30 seconds, you might as well shoot multiple images and make it a star trail photograph because a 30 second exposure will absolutely show the star paths on large prints. Star paths are different than images with tack sharp star points. 

It’s imperative in my experience to keep your exposure at a maximum of 20 seconds. The 10 second difference may not seem like much, but if makes a world of difference if you want pin point stars in your night sky photograph.

How to Execute it in the Field

There is no other option than to get your sharp stars correct in the field. Many times there can be alternatives or tricks you can use in post-processing to overcome mistakes that occur in the camera, but when it comes to focus issues you MUST get it right in the camera. There is not fix-all for focus in post-processing. 

So, the natural question is, “How do I shoot tack sharp stars in the field?” 

I’m glad you asked! 

The assumption that throwing your lens on focus to infinity to create tack sharp star points is inaccurate. In fact, all lenses have different exact infinity points. It’s not always directly on the infinity icon on your lens barrel. 

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To be sure that you’re moving your focal ring to the correct infinity point in manual focus (you should always shoot the night sky in manual focus) go out to any location during the day and focus on a very small object that is far away. When it comes to setting up your focus, remember the saying, “Aim small, miss small.” The smaller the object you’re setting your infinity point to, the more accurate it will be on star points. Once you lock onto your target, zoom in on it in live view and fine tune your focus for 100% accuracy. 

After you’ve dialed in on your small target, remove your hands from your focal ring and look at your infinity point. It may or may not be directly on the infinity icon on the lens.

The next natural question is, “So, how do I find this point again in the dark?” 

There are a couple of different ways to do that. One solution is to tape your focal ring in place. This will keep everything right where you left it so you know that your focus is on your focus to infinity point at night. 

The other solution is to mark your focal ring with a grease pencil at your infinity point. If your focal ring gets knocked around, your pencil mark will be the indicator of where your focus to infinity point is so you don’t have to do this whole process again. 

Once you’re sure that you know where your focus to infinity point is located on your lens, you can be sure that your stars, which are very far away, will be within perfect, pin-point focus. 

Now, I also want to put this section in because I don’t want anyone to assume that the very first time you try this you’ll shoot the best night images ever. Just like with other photography techniques there will be room for error and the more you practice, the less margin of error there will be. 

A great way to practice is to perform the focusing process over and over until you know exactly where your lens is going to focus to infinity. 

If you want to practice focusing for tack sharp stars in the field at night, you can do the exact same process. It doesn’t even need to be a clear night. Simply perform the same steps, except focus on a distant light instead of a distant object like you would during the day. Using a distant and small light on earth will simulate a small star in the sky when you’re ready to photograph the real thing.

Hopefully I’ve poured out the importance of photographing tack sharp stars into your mind so much that you never shoot a photo of the night sky out of focus again. Just remember that as technology gets better and the quality of images increases, photographers must take the seriousness of image quality to another level.

About the author: When David Johnston isn’t leading photography workshops and tutorials or hosting his popular photography podcast, Photography Roundtable, he can be found traveling the world taking photos to awe and inspire his viewers. David has a passion for sharing his knowledge of photography and has many educational offerings designed to help photographers improve their work. Visit his website at

12 Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before You Release Your Shutter

In my personal quest to improve my digital photography skills, I am constantly seeking guidance.

Recently I ran across what I consider to be a very important guide.

Twelve very important questions I think all photographers should ask themselves before each shot.  Considering these questions can and will improve your photography skills.

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Utilizing these questions has greatly improved my effort to produce impressive imagery.  You should consider:

  1. The Purpose 
  2. The Story You Wish To Tell
  3. The Position You Should Take
  4. Orientation
  5. Background
  6. Is the composition Straight? 
  7. Framing
  8. Light
  9. Focal Point
  10. Eye Flow
  11. Movement Within The Frame
  12. Color/Contrast

Commit To Memory

Excited about the expected outcome from my next photo adventure, I immediately committed them to memory in the order given.  

Eager to see the outcome from my newly acquired knowledge, I began using them, in the exact order given.

So, after trying this for a while, I realized that I was struggling to get through the process.  At first, I could not understand why the process was so difficult for me.  Suddenly, I realized that the order in which the questions were given did not fit my slowly developing style.  Causing, my shooting process to become slow and difficult.

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Make Adjustments

Even though each question needs to be addressed, the order just didn’t match my style.  So I decided to experiment with the sequence.  

My new sequence looks like this:

  1. Purpose
  2. Story
  3. Light
  4. Position
  5. Orientation (Landscape or Portrait)
  6. Framing
  7. Focal Point 
  8. Eye Flow
  9. Background
  10. Color/Contrast
  11. Streight
  12. Movement

This is my personal sequence, and so far it has served me well.  Now, I am beginning to see a dramatic improvement in my photography.

For a final note, I must interject two thoughts.  First, I sometimes let light lead me to my story, after all, photography is all about light.  And finally, I have learned to always shoot both orientations.  You will be surprised at what you may come up with.

So, go out shoot some pics and play around with these questions, find your sequence and see if it improves your skills. 

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Photoshoot checklist: One more tool to help rock your photography sessions

Written by Teresa Milner

Improve your consistency and confidence with a photoshoot checklist

Are you looking for ways to improve the flow of your photo sessions, your post-production workflow or your consistency? Consider developing and following your own photoshoot checklist! 

Have you ever finished a photography session that felt awesome at the time only to feel disappointed later with the actual images? Maybe your focus was off. Maybe there were crazy shadows you missed on your client. Or maybe you ended up with a really ugly set of trash cans in the background that are taking hours to clone out in Photoshop. For whatever reason, you HATE them. 

Friend, I’ve been there. It’s frustrating and can be such a time killer if you end up spending hours in post-production trying to fix it. Those oversights are honest mistakes. But they sure can wreak havoc on our confidence and our time.

The best photographers have one thing in common…a consistent workflow during their sessions. They might not even realize it, but they perform largely the same tasks in the same order for each and every session. This photoshoot checklist, whether physical or mental, helps ensure accuracy and consistency.

In this tutorial, we’ll talk through some elements of a photoshoot checklist, helping you build a consistent workflow for your photography sessions. Feel free to add elements or change components of this around to suit your style and personality and adapt it as you continue to grow your skills. But until then, you can also use this checklist to help you mentally and physically work through your sessions.

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Photoshoot Checklist Overview

New photographers often spend the most time thinking about camera settings when it comes to their photoshoot. 

Here are the elements you need to think about having on your photoshoot checklist

  • Prepare your camera and equipment
  • Prepare yourself
  • Evaluate the light
  • Evaluate the background
  • Greet and prepare your subjects (clients, family, objects, etc.) 
  • Position your clients
  • Check the background and light relative to the subjects
  • Dial-in your settings
  • Confirm your settings
  • Pose or prompt your clients
  • Start shooting!
  • Pause to confirm a few images
  • Repeat for different settings or major pose changes

That sounds really simple. And it can be. But I’ll break down each element in detail so you can get an idea of just what a session looks like for me. This is the formula I follow for each photoshoot I have, whether it’s an outdoor or indoor session and whether it’s a family or personal branding session. Having a consistent workflow gives me confidence and improves the client experience because we have a known roadmap to follow throughout our time together!

Step #1 – Prep my camera and equipment. What equipment do I need for a photoshoot?

Before I load my gear into the car for a photography session, I do a mental walkthrough of the session and jot down some notes on what I need. What lenses will I want? What props will I take? Should I take external lighting or a reflector? Once I have those items listed, I gather them up and prep my camera.

To prep my camera, I check my battery, put in and format memory cards and double-check that my lenses are clean and in my bag. Then I reset my aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to the same settings every time. I use f/5.6, 1/200 of a second and ISO 100.

Why do I do this?

First, I want to make sure I don’t have some goofy settings still on my camera that I forget about at the session. For example, one time I had my ISO on 10000 for some a nighttime session with flash. I didn’t catch it and thought my ISO was at 100 and had about a dozen really grainy family images before I caught it.

Second, I like to have my camera ready to start shooting the minute I pull it out of my bag, just in case. If I need to grab my camera quick, I know immediately if I’ll need to adjust my settings one way or the other. I don’t have to stop to wonder what my settings were and think about how I need to fix them. It’s a trick I learned a long time ago from a professional wildlife photographer that has served me well for some quick captures of a session or candid images of my own family.

I also make sure I have the bracket for my tripod or harness in my bag, along with my gray card and my notes on the client session.

Once my gear is ready, I head to the photo session!

Step 2. Prep yourself!

How should a photographer prepare for a photoshoot?

I use a lot of mental rehearsal to get ready for photoshoots. I read through my questionnaires and notes on the client. My shot list gets a few more read-throughs. Then I do a mental run-through of the first five or ten minutes of our session. I literally talk out loud as if I’m speaking to the client. I practice their names, practice my first setup or two and rehearse how I want the session to go.

This imaginary convo usually happens in the car on my way to a session. It might sound a little crazy but it’s helped me tremendously. I get to a session feeling like I’ve been there before because, in a way, I have! Try it for a session or two and see if it helps you!

Remember to prepare your body for the session, too! Use the restroom. Make sure you are hydrated and fed. Wear professional but functional clothing. Apply sunscreen or bug repellent, if needed. Tuck gloves and a hat in your bag if the weather is cold.

If you aren’t worrying about your physical needs it’s much easier to focus on the session!

Step 3. Evaluate the light

The next item on my photoshoot checklist is to evaluate the light. Light is always my first priority because it’s the key component of a quality image. You can make a crummy location look amazing if you have the right light. But a poorly lit image is a poorly lit image no matter how pretty the backdrop.

So look around. Where is the light coming from? What’s the quality and color of light?

If it’s an overcast day, for example, I might use the area differently than I would on a bright afternoon with no clouds. Where’s the best light in your location at that moment? Is there a location that will give me even lighting from head to toe?

Take note of things like open shade, dappled light or natural reflectors you can use to bounce light back into your scene.

Step 4. Evaluate the background.

After you understand the light you have to work with, then it’s time to evaluate the background. The key is to examine the background as it relates to the places with good light.

Look for elements of the background you want to use, like objects for natural framing, layering, leading lines or bokeh. Next, scope out those areas and make a note of parts of the background you want to avoid. Things like power lines, trash bins, tree branches, etc. can all ruin an otherwise great shot.

In the image above, my clients had requested a picture by the property’s gate. Immediately upon arrival, I notice the gate is huge and the powerlines in the background. (We did a few shots here but we moved their first look to a different location…see my tips below on accommodating clients AND giving them great images).

Whenever possible, I complete steps 4 and 5 BEFORE my clients arrive. I get to a location early and have a look around before a client gets there so I can work out my plan by myself. If I’m working in clients’ homes, I greet them, ask for a few minutes to scout out the space and then reconnect with the client to start the session.

Step 5. Prep your clients

I like to welcome my clients and then give them a brief rundown of what they can expect during the session. I remind them of how long we will shoot, explain my posing/prompting technique briefly and make sure they don’t have any last-minute requests. We complete a quick wardrobe check (look for cell phones or keys in pockets or hair ties around wrists!) and then start getting ready to take pictures.

If you’re photographing something other than people, this is where you’d gather your subjects. Make sure you have the products or items you want to photograph ready to go as well before you start shooting. If you’re shooting a location or space, like real-estate photography, do a quick walkthrough to prep the home or building.

Step 6. Position your subject

By now you should have a pretty good game plan in your head about how to use your location. So grab your subjects and position them in your scene for your first series of shots. Don’t worry about posing or prompting just yet. Just get your subject about where you want them and take up your shooting position.

Step 7. Bring it all together.

This is the last double-check of lighting, background and subjects on our photoshoot checklist. How does the light look on your subject? Where is the horizon in relation to your subjects? Anything look wonky in the background? Don’t be afraid to reposition your subjects if necessary. Sometimes all it takes is a step or two in either direction and you make a ho-hum image really pop!

Let me illustrate the importance of why this final check is important with a little story.

I’d been shooting some formal wedding portraits just outside the reception hall. I’d scouted the area, found great light and started shooting. When I started editing, I could have kicked myself. There was a stump with an ax handle sticking out of it in the background. It hadn’t been distracting at the time, but the way I’d positioned the bride and groom, it looked like the ax handle was coming out of the groom’s rear end.

So. Not. Cool.

I’d rushed my workflow and hadn’t taken the time to evaluate my subjects in the background. It was fixable in Photoshop with the patch tool. But had I taken my time and looked at the entire scene one more time, I could have saved myself a lot of time in post-production.

If you look closely at the photo below, you’ll see the fly-swatter in the upper right-hand corner. That was a detail I could have easily taken care of if I had done a better job of looking at my clients in the scene. I delivered the image to the clients after some cropping. But it would have been better had I taken three seconds to scan my scene and remove distractions.

Step 8. Dial-in your settings

Now it’s time we talk settings!

See, we’re all the way to step 8 and I haven’t mentioned settings once. That’s because while settings are important, they aren’t the only thing that makes great images. Yes, the wrong settings can wreck your image. But even the perfect settings can’t overcome skunky light, squinty eyes or a tree limb through someone’s head.

But I digress.

Now it’s time to read your light meter and dial in your settings. I usually start with my shutter speed. What is the minimum shutter speed I need to keep any motion blur or camera shake from my images? Then I select the aperture I want based on my subject and focal plane. Then I set ISO as needed.

Don’t forget about setting the focus and white balance. I will generally set a custom white balance or use daylight. Use your preferred setting or set your own custom balance.

When good auto white balance goes bad…Read our white balance tutorial.

Step 9. Review

Go ahead and take a quick look at your camera screen. A quick visual confirmation that everything looks a-okay never hurts. If something if off, better to adjust it now!

I check for blown highlights, shadows with no texture and the balance between the light on my subject and the light on my background. What looks okay to our eyes, even with good settings, doesn’t translate well to the camera.

“Chimping,” or looking at the back of your camera, got a bad rap there for a while with photographers. You don’t need to do it after every shot, but it’s a valuable tool that you can and should be using during your sessions.

Step 10. Pose or prompt your clients

Now that you are ready to go, it’s time to focus on your subjects!

I wait until after I’ve dialed in settings to pose or prompt because it’s less pressure on everyone. The client doesn’t feel pressured to pose or hold a smile while I adjust settings. And I don’t feel like the client is staring at me, silently screaming, “JUST HURRY UP ALREADY!”

This is also helpful if you’re shooting pets or children. They aren’t going to hold a traditional pose for very long. Keep their cooperation for when you are ready!

Give your subject your posing suggestions or prompts if you’re more unstructured. Then start shooting.

Step 11. Complete your session.

Finally, we’ve arrived at the last item on our photoshoot checklist. It’s time to simply move through the workflow of the session you planned in your head earlier. I’ll take whatever photos I want at this location using this lighting. Then I move on to another area I might want to use. At that point, I start over at step seven and again evaluate the subjects in the new background and light and double-check my settings.

Any time I switch the number of subjects I’m shooting, I double-check my aperture. If I was taking pictures of the little sister at f/2.8, then I switch to the whole family in two rows, I adjust my aperture to give me the depth of field I need.

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Best Tips for Improved Photography Sessions

Tip #1. Slow down!

My number one tip for improving your photography sessions is simply to slow down. Slow down! Take time to think through what you are doing. Getting things as close to perfect in-camera should always be the goal!

I know how intimidating it feels fiddling with settings while my client waits. But do not rush. It really is better to take an extra 15 seconds now to get things correct than spend hours in post-production trying to fix bad decisions, or worse yet, have completely useless images.

Remember, what feels like an eternity to you is just a few seconds to the client. And they trust you, so the extra time isn’t a big deal to them.

If you feel your clients getting anxious, simply say something like “I’ll take just a few seconds here to make sure I have everything dialed in. I want you to really love these images!”

Seriously, just slow down the whole process and think through your decisions. I’d estimate that 95 percent of my “bad” images are because I was rushing, NOT because I didn’t know what I was doing.

Tip #2. Walk away from bad lighting, backgrounds or poses.

Sometimes I try new things and I don’t love them. Admit that to yourself (and maybe even your client) and then try something else.

If I have a background or lighting scenario I hate, I will tell my client something like “You are rocking it! The light right here just isn’t doing you justice. Let’s walk around the corner and use that area instead.”

If it’s a pose I tried and it isn’t flattering for my client, I keep my mouth shut, snap the picture, then fix the pose. If, after demonstrating and tweaking the pose it still isn’t working, I again snap the picture and move on to another pose. I give my clients lots of praise and find something that works better. You don’t need to tell the client “Oh that doesn’t look good.” Just move on to something more flattering.

Tip #3. You do you.

Shooting at a location where there are lots of other photographers is intimidating as a new professional. You might look around and think “Why are they over there? Should I move? What do they know that I don’t? Her stuff is going to turn out so much better.”

Nope. Don’t even play that game. Focus on executing YOUR plan and flattering YOUR clients, not worrying about the other photographers.

First, everyone has a different style and goals for their images. Her goals and style may not be your goals and style. Your client’s personality might not match her client’s personality!

Second, that other photographer might not even know what in the world he is doing! There are a lot of photographers out there who haven’t put in the time, effort and energy you have to really study photography and light. Copying those photographers isn’t going to help you one bit!

Tip #4. Don’t’ be afraid to take a break to fix something!

If something is wrong with your settings, camera or other equipment, stop and figure it out.

Too many times I think we as new photographers lack the confidence to say “Something’s wonky. Give me a second to figure it out.”

It’s as if saying that out loud confirms our worst fears…that we aren’t good enough to be “real” photographers.

Friend, real photographers have equipment failures. Real photographers have things go wrong. But real photographers also know when to take a break, figure out the problem and fix it.

A stylist isn’t going to keep cutting your hair with dull scissors. Nor will a waitress give you the wrong food and expect you to eat it. Instead, both practice a pause, fix the situation and resume their work. That’s the mark of a professional!

Tip #5. You are the expert. Be accommodating but don’t let the client tell you how to do your job.

My client requested a specific background or pose but it just won’t work. What do I do?

Clients often pick a location that is a gorgeous setting without understanding how important light is to a session. They see a pretty lake or mountain and think it will be a great backdrop for their location. But often, the light in that area just won’t work. Or she REALLY wants to recreate a pose but it’s that is not flattering for her body type. What do you do?

Educate your clients on using great light and posing! This starts during your initial consult, obviously, by talking about why you will shoot when and where you do. But sometimes we get to a session and a client has an idea for a background, pose or setup that is less than ideal. Then what?

I accommodate the client but still work the session my way.

I say things like “Oh I love that idea. Let’s capture a few here where this light is so soft and beautiful, then we will try that one.”

Then, I’ll work in a few shots with the backdrop or pose they’ve requested. I do the best I can with what I’ve got and give them SOMETHING with the specific scene they hand in mind. I give them what they think they want, then go right back to working my way through my photoshoot checklist my way.

Here’s an example…

I was taking senior pictures for a local family this summer. We were working on her grandparents’ cattle ranch in the mountains in Wyoming. One of the locations she really wanted was these big beautiful rocks. The problem was, the rocks were on a west-facing hill in full sun and there were exactly clouds in the sky. To shoot them really well, I should have been there at 5 in the morning, not 6:30 at night. And we couldn’t wait to shoot there until the sun was low in the sky because we needed golden hour for pictures with her horses.

But I knew they were important to the client. These rocks were the same pile of rocks that her great, great-grandparents used to build their first homestead back in the early 1900s. They had tremendous personal significance to my client. So we used the rocks.

But instead of shooting tight portraits, I took a more editorial approach. I used a wider lens and incorporated more of the background into the shots. My client got instructions to look down and away from the sun or close her eyes and be a bit more dramatic. For the photo below, I told her to give me her inner pioneer bad-ass. I did do a few close-ups, knowing I was blowing my highlights but demonstrating I heard my clients request. Then I got back on track with my internal photoshoot checklist.

In this situation, the client loved the final (if non-traditional!) images. But just as often, the clients never purchase those images because they like the ones I created using my knowledge of light and photography better.

So be accommodating. Make the most of a bad situation, then move on and rock your plan. You might surprise yourself with your creativity, the client feels heard and you’ll still deliver amazing images in the end.

Here are some more great family photography tips!

Ticking boxes

Having a photoshoot checklist helps improve your consistency which will ultimately give you better images in the end. It also helps your confidence because you have a roadmap to follow during your sessions.

If you are brand new to taking clients, don’t be afraid to have a physical photoshoot checklist for your first few unpaid practice sessions. Keep it in your pocket or taped to the wall in your studio so you can refer to it as needed. Soon, you’ll find you can keep track of where you are and where you need to go without that map. I still ask my family to volunteer when I want to try something new. And I write down a photoshoot checklist to follow the first few times I implement new methods.

And don’t underestimate the power of mental practice and preparation. Visualization exercises aren’t just for athletes. It can work for photographers, too. Does it sound absolutely crazy to treat your daughter’s stuffed animals like a pee-wee basketball team? Probably. Does it work? Yes! Practice handling sessions from start to finish, including what you’ll say to clients, how you’ll say it and how you’ll move through your workflow.

Sessions feel overwhelming and scary right now. But creating your own photoshoot checklist helps alleviate your fear, improves your confidence and ultimately helps you become a better photographer. Give ours a try or create your own. Rock your list, rock your session and rock your business!

Teresa Milner is a portrait and events photographer in Southeastern Wyoming and the creative drive behind Dirt Road Wife Photography. Teresa traded life in the fast lane as a public information officer to raise her family in her native rural Wyoming. Today, she lives on a commercial bird farm with her husband, daughter, a neurotic border collie, a lovable yellow mutt and more than 20,000 pheasants! A self-proclaimed country girl, she loves farm life, wildlife, fishing, hunting, wildflowers and singing loudly with the radio to any George Strait song she hears. Meet Teresa at Or follow her on Facebook or Instagram!

The Most Important Steps In Digital Photography

Written by Kent DuFault

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on our sister website,

This is a fact that you may, or may not, be aware of- At this point in time, a digital photograph “REQUIRES” a number of Fundamental Editing Steps to become the gorgeous photograph that you intended it to be. The Fundamental Editing List, discussed in this article, includes the most important steps in digital photography.

Why? Read on.

Let me begin by stating, “There is a caveat to the above statement…”

If you’re still in the digital “Stone Age” and shooting only in the .JPEG format- well there’s little that I can do for you here.

By shooting .JPEG, you’re letting the camera decide how great your image processing is going to be. Yes… When a digital camera creates a .JPEG image file, it is “processing” the file inside the camera.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the term, “post-processing”?

With a .JPEG, I guess you can call it, “pre-processing”.

Okay! I concede that you can make “selections” on your camera to skew how the camera will record the scene.

“YES”, I know that you can still alter the image in post-processing after downloading the file from the camera.

However, you are starting out with a tainted original- (Tainted? Is that a nasty word in this circumstance?) The camera bias is already locked into your image file.

Why paint a picture on a canvas that already has paint splattered on it? (This is a metaphor for you visual learners.)

Why not begin with a clean canvas?

This is the important point to grasp; the camera settings, for creating a .JPEG image file, have no truly measurable system for the photographer to control what is happening to their image output. The camera software is taking over. These settings might include such terms as: Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Faithful, Landscape, Portrait, or Monochrome.

I’m not saying that you should never shoot a .JPEG image or use these settings. (Although personally, I never use these settings. I leave them as neutral as possible.)

I always shoot .JPEG images. There is a place for them in the photography world. I shoot them for those moments when I need an image quickly: to send a sample to a client or upload to social media.

But my important work… that’s all coming from the raw file format.

I set my camera to shoot both raw and .JPEG.

Why does my important work always come from the raw file format? Because the raw file format is a clean canvas; it’s a digital negative. The camera created a neutral image with the full recording power available to it, and now (similar to film- where a color printing technician must pull the visual energy from a piece of film), you must post-process the beauty of the original scene back into your image file.

Why do cameras still have the .JPEG option? It is still the file format of choice for many applications. Photo labs use that format. The Internet is primarily set up to use the .JPEG format.

Important Point: Shoot and post-process in the raw file format, and then convert to .JPEG for distribution. Set your camera to shoot raw & .JPEG simultaneously if quick turnaround is a factor. Set your camera to the raw file format only if trying to conserve memory card space.

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There are 14 primary post-processing steps that virtually every raw file should receive and 2 “semi-optional” steps.

I believe the 2 “semi-optional” steps are mandatory as well. However, that is my personal preference, and those 2 steps are included in my “workflow”, or what I call my “Fundamental Edits List”.

I don’t know about you- but that word “workflow” has always been kind of scary to me. Or maybe scary isn’t the right word? Useless? I came from the film days where the idea of workflow hadn’t been created yet.

Before, we get further into this idea of workflow in post-processing. (Because as it turns out, workflow is super-important.) I would like to share a couple of excerpts with you.

One is from Nikon, and the other is from Canon.

NIKON: “Nikon’s unique RAW (NEF/NRW) formats let you get the complete Nikon image creation experience, while fully exploiting the high level of image quality produced by Nikon cameras and NIKKOR lenses.”

CANON: “If you consider your RAW images files as digital negatives, then like traditional negatives, they need to be processed in order to reveal their true colors and tones.”

BINGO! (Those two above quotes were for the naysayers out there.)


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This is a fact that you may, or may not, be aware of- At this point in time, a digital photograph “REQUIRES” a number of Fundamental Editing Steps to become the gorgeous photograph that you intended it to be. The Fundamental Editing List, discussed in this article, includes the most important steps in digital photography.

This article is not going to spew forth on the wonders of the raw format (any more than it already has).

If you’ve read this far- there are two things that I hope you truly understand. (Soon, you will discover the MOST important steps in digital photography!)

  1. You should be shooting the raw file format for maximum quality, and control, over your photographic product (pictures).
  2. All raw format image files require at least 14 post-processing steps to reveal their fullest potential.


Let’s talk about the 14 post-processing steps. (I’m going to leave out the 2 optional steps due to article length.)

I call them, “The Fundamental Edits List”.

Side note– If you want to get a complete breakdown of my Fundamental Edits list. Including step-by-step ‘how-to’ instruction in Lightroom, Photoshop and Elements. I’ve published an eBook on the topic called the Ultimate Guide to Fundamental Editing » Go here now to take a look.

There is a story behind my writing about my Fundamental Edits List.

This topic came to mind when I remembered a conversation that I had with a newer photographer several months ago.

She’d been into digital photography for about 3 years.

She was telling me about her frustration with her photography.

She said that she had studied the guides on composition, exposure, ISO, lenses- yada yada- but her photos still didn’t spark like all the others that she saw on Flickr and 500px.

I asked her, “What kind of editing are you doing?”

Her response stunned me.

She said, “Oh. I don’t do that editing thing. I’m a purist. I like shooting landscapes and capturing the beauty of nature just the way it was presented to me. I like light…”

I must have had a strange look on my face because she asked me, “What?!”

I asked her, “What do you think editing is?”

She got a little indignant.

“It’s like when you change the color, or add texture, or remove something that you don’t like… or put something in that wasn’t there-”

“Whoa!” I said. “Look me in the eyes. It’s virtually impossible to have a great shot in digital photography without doing some fundamental editing, or what people refer to it as post-processing.”

“That’s not what my uncle says, and he’s a retired professional photographer,” she responded.

“He is? Does he shoot digital photographs now?”

“No. After he retired, he took up fishing.”

(Folks, don’t take photography advice from someone who hasn’t been active in the industry it for at least the last 3 to 5 years. The industry is changing that fast.)

I believe that in fundamental editing there are three goals.

  1. Fundamental edits should take your original concept, as designed in-camera, and bring them to life within the digital realm. Fundamental editing restores depth, color, saturation, and contrast etc. to something closer to what your original vision was when you snapped the camera’s shutter release button.
  2. Fundamental edits should make your file as “printable” as possible. If you were to go 
to a photo printer and have a print made from your original digital file, as it emerged from the camera (raw format), chances are the print would not look very good. The fundamental edits whip your file into shape so that you get the best possible photographic print.
  3. Fundamental edits should be used to fine-tune your composition.

What is the Bottom line? Fundamental Editing, (or post-processing if you prefer that language), isn’t about big changes. It’s about the subtle changes that mold your image file into what you originally intended it to be.

Here’s an example-

The image on the left is the raw file that came out of a Canon 6D camera. The image on the right is my final shot, as I pre-visualized it, when I snapped the shutter, and after conducting my Fundamental Edits List.

As you can see- the basic tenor of the photograph has remained the same.

It seems logical, at this point, to mention some examples of what Fundamental Editing IS NOT- (in my opinion anyway)

  • It isn’t HDR
  • It isn’t converting to black and white (or any monochrome tone)
  • It isn’t high contrast
  • It isn’t super-saturated color
  • It isn’t muted color
  • It isn’t selective color
  • It isn’t adding textures
  • It isn’t applying any funky filters or apps

It’s about restoring the raw file to a digital photograph that more closely resembles what your eyes saw and your memory recalls.

Now, let’s go back to workflow.

Having a Fundamental Editing List really requires a “workflow” to have predictable results.

If you’re an aspiring pro, or just have the desire to create the best possible images that you’re capable of- then you must take post-processing workflow seriously.

Completing a Fundamental Editing List in an established pattern will create predictable results.

What can happen if you go about applying fundamental post-processing steps in a willy-nilly manner?

  • You can increase the noise
  • You can create destructive edits that can’t be reversed
  • You can blow out your highlights
  • You can turn your black tones into inky blobs or grayish muck
  • You can throw your color off
  • You can over-sharpen and create ugly artifacts
  • Etc.

Let’s take a peek at the items on my Fundamental Edits List:

  • Opening the image (How- you open the image can have significance)
  • Crop
  • Noise Reduction
  • Global Exposure Adjustment
  • Clipping on the Shadow End – Black Point
  • Clipping on the Highlight End – White Point
  • Color Temperature
  • Color Tint
  • Clarity
  • Vibrancy
  • Saturation
  • Efex – Vignette (optional)
  • Efex – DeHaze (optional)
  • Localized Exposure Adjustments
  • with the Adjustment Brush
  • Localized Sharpening with the Adjustment Brush
  • Global Sharpening (always- last)

I can’t cover the “how to” on each of these edits here. Quite frankly, it’s too much information to fit into a blog post. (Which is why I wrote a whole book about it)

However, let me give you some highlights.

Opening the image can have a significant impact on how you’re going to work on the file. It can also have an impact on how you will find the image at a later date. Depending on which program you’re using, it can affect images that you open up “after” a particular image. A key phrase here is workflow. Develop a pattern as to how you’re going to open your images. Complete the same steps every time. Those steps may vary depending on the editing software that you’re using. The steps for Photoshop won’t be the same as they are for Lightroom or Adobe Elements.

Crop in a non-destructive manner, this means in the ACR camera raw window or directly in Lightroom.

Do noise reduction early in the Fundamental Edits List. I do it right after my cropping. The reason for this is that the noise reduction process might affect some of the other steps. My noise reduction policy is to try and get it done outside of Photoshop or Elements (in the ACR camera raw processing window).

Use a very light hand in any global exposure adjustment. If you wish to become a real pro at post-processing, you need to master the Adjustment Brush. Professional use of the Adjustment brush will help you to eliminate sweeping global changes across your images that are the hallmark of amateur photography.

Clipping is a term that Adobe adopted to indicate lost image detail. In order to understand clipping, you need to have a working knowledge of the Histogram. It would also help you to study up on the Zone System. Clipping on the shadow end means that you’ve lost details in your black areas. If you look at your photographs, and the deep black areas tend to look like black blobs (with no detail); you’re likely clipping the shadows. On the reverse end is highlight clipping. If your highlight areas look like white blobs (with no visible detail) this means you’re likely clipping the highlights.

Clipping is a problem that I see all the time with photographs on the Internet.

Many of you digital photographers probably don’t remember Dean Collins. Dean was one of the original Photography Instructor Gurus. He was a true master of the photographic medium.

I took one of his workshops many years ago.

It was there, that I first truly learned that in a photograph there is “white” and then there is “WHITE”. The perception of “white” varies widely. When a bride is wearing a white dress, the dress should look “white” but not “WHITE”.

Do you get what I’m saying?

There should be texture and tone to the white dress. If it looks “WHITE”, (if it’s a white blob), then your highlights are clipped.

The reverse is true with shadows. A black cat on a black silk scarf should look “black” not “BLACK”. There should be tonal variations in the shadows. Those tonal variations should include texture and detail. If you can’t see that in your photograph, you have shadow clipping.

I’m not going to delve deeply into the Histogram and the concept of tonal range. However, it might help you to know this…

The number 255 on the Histogram is “WHITE”. Any number from 254 to approximately 230 is somewhere on the scale of “white” (with tone and texture).

The number 0 on the Histogram is “BLACK”. Any number from 1 to approximately 30 is somewhere on the scale of “black” (with tone and texture).

The photograph of the bride shows you “white” (with texture and detail), there’s no clipping.

Color temperature and Tint
 represents the Wild West of post-processing. Why? We all see color differently. But, (and this is a big “but”), if you’re creating photographs for a customer, someone who isn’t going to see the world through your eyeballs, then an expectation of accurate color is pretty mandatory. This is a huge “workflow” step. Managing accurate color. Develop a system for color adjustment, and stick to it for predictable results.

Clarity is your friend. Use it wisely. Clarity helps to give your photograph the impression of sharpness without adding noise. Caution though- don’t go too far with the Clarity setting.

Vibrancy and Saturation are the most abused Fundamental Edits outside of Sharpening. If you’re shooting strictly for yourself, then you have free reign over these bad boys. However, if you’re taking on assignments, or wish to move in that direction, you must learn how to “accurately” set these two Fundamental Edits.

In order to do that, you must be able to accurately read and understand a Histogram. You must also develop the skill of evaluating “what is happening to the Histogram” as you make changes throughout your Fundamental Edits List.

This is important.

You must learn how to read a Histogram, and develop the skill of judging how the Histogram is changing as you make Fundamental Edits.

Vignette, DeHaze, and the Adjustment Brush aid in the altering of the composition in post-processing; I’m only going to discuss the Adjustment Brush here in this article.

In my opinion, the Adjustment Brush is the single most powerful Adobe tool in post-processing.

It doesn’t matter if you’re using Lightroom, Photoshop, or Elements (known as the Smart Brush in Elements). This tool allows you to completely change the composition and mood of a photograph. If you don’t know how to use this tool, learn it. I’ve written about it extensively.

Finally, we have Global Sharpening. This step is always last in my workflow, and I believe it should be in yours as well. If you’ve done a good job with the Clarity setting, and with localized sharpening using the Adjustment Brush, you likely will have to barely use this setting at all. That’s a huge advantage for you, because so many photographers abuse this setting and create obvious artifacts in their images.

Proper fundamental editing, with an established workflow, will push your efforts above your competitors!

I’ve got something special for you on the next page…

If you’re unsure about your Fundamental Editing, or you would like some guidance from me on how to apply a Fundamental Edits List properly. I have written a comprehensive guide on the subject.

It covers all three Adobe products: Photoshop, Lightroom, and Elements. Plus it includes a free printable step-by-step editing checklist with that you can pin-up, or leave next to your computer.

If you missed out on your copy last time. It’s available again, and on sale right now.

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Kent DuFault became a photographer in September of 1974. He took a “Basic Photography” class in high school and was hooked for life. His best-selling guide, Fundamental Editing has helped more than 10,000 photographers learn and

The Top Five Lessons I’ve Learned about Blogging

But there are many things I had to learn along the way. Here are the top five:

  1. Build relationships. Networking with other bloggers and with destinations is important. I joined several travel-writing and blogging Facebook groups from the start. Today I’m active in only two of those groups–the ones that include bloggers I have the most in common with. We bounce ideas off of each other and sometimes work together on collaborative articles. I also keep in touch, through social media, with destinations that have hosted me. In fact, I’ve become Facebook friends with many destination staff members. Building relationships has brought me many opportunities, including requests for paid writing assignments outside of my blog.

  2. Write multiple articles about a destination. When I visit a destination, I don’t stop at one article that lists everything I did there. Instead, I first write focused articles on each attraction I’ve visited. Then later, I write a round-up, a summary of each attraction, and I link back to those focused articles. This practice has gotten me many invitations for return visits to destinations.

  3. Don’t procrastinate. After dreaming about travel writing for years, but not doing anything about it, I took Great Escape Publishing’s blogging course to learn the basics. Then I jumped right in. Blogging is a good way to get into the travel-writing world because you don’t have to write query letters and keep your fingers crossed, hoping an editor will like your ideas. You write about what you want, when you want. And you get your writing out there immediately for the world to see.

  4. Populate your blog, but take a break when you need it. I began posting article after article, about three a week. This was a good thing, at first. After all, the more content you have in your blog, the more page views you’ll get through Google searches. But writing so many articles became a burden. It didn’t leave enough time to market my blog on social media. I was stressed. Eventually, I cut down to two articles a week, and then one. I’ve even skipped a week occasionally. And you know what? It hasn’t affected my stats at all. In fact, my page views have continued to increase.

  5. Use SEO. To get onto the first page of a Google search, you have to use Search Engine Optimization. That means you include words in your article and title that match terms that people might search for. At first, I guessed at terms I should use. A few years into blogging I discovered there are helpful tools available, like Yoast, that guide you on SEO usage. Today, about three-quarters of my blog’s page views come from search engine searches.

Learn from my experiences. Incorporate these tips into your strategy for quicker blogging success.

[Editor’s Note: Connie completely reinvented her life at 60, with a part-time blog about her local region. You can do this with your own locale… with your favorite hobbies… or with international travels and adventure. Whether you love luxury spas or cultural immersions… history or shopping… all you have to do is pick what you love and get started.

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