7 Signs That You Have Over-Processed Your Photographs


Modern cameras give us great images without having to do too much to them. Many of us, however, realize that with a little post production we can make our images even better, make them pop to coin a popular phrase. Software like Aperture, Lightroom and Photoshop have become very accessible to enthusiast photographers as have plugins like Nik and Topaz Labs. The problem is, that if we are too carefree and slapdash with our techniques, we can easily over process an image, something that may not be apparent until you make a print of it.

So what are the signs of over processing and how can we counter them?

photo editing mistakes
Photo by Patrick Wittke

Let’s start not with a sign of over processing but with a way to control and avoid it. That is, to use non-destructive editing techniques. By default Aperture and Lightroom do not make any adjustments to the original file and plugins make a copy of the original before setting to work. In Photoshop however you need to use Adjustment Layers as this allows you to keep the original intact as the bottom layer. Where possible, shoot RAW files, these have significantly more tolerance to processing.

1. Blowing The Highlights

Blown highlights manifest themselves as areas of pure white in an image that can occur when lightening exposure, whites or highlights. It can also happen when you boost contrast too far. This looks very unnatural but so long as the highlights are not blown in the original, they are easy to avoid. The key is to watch the histogram. If your histogram is spilling out of the right end of the graph, the highlights are blown.

Most software also has a setting that allows you display the clipping as blocks of pure color in the image. In Lightroom for example this is found by click the little triangle on the top right of the histogram. If you have pushed your exposure slider too far, just bring it back until the levels are inside the right side of the histogram.

Blown Highlights

Blown highlights from moving the exposure too far to the right

2. Crushing The Blacks

This is very similar to blowing the highlights but in the dark areas of the image. It happens when reducing exposure, or blacks and shadows too far and shows as excessive areas of shadows and areas of pure black in the shot. Again the histogram is the key, avoid letting your histogram slide off the left end of the graph.

photo by huzaifa sheikh
Photo by Huzaifa Sheikh

3. Over Saturation

This one is quite a common issue, mainly due to the trend in highly saturated images. Over saturation makes an image look very unnatural and garish. Push it too far and you will get color clipping. This is where an individual color goes off the histogram scale. Saturating an image takes care and is not just about sliding the saturation slider up.

The vibrance slider is often a better option as it does not increase saturation in already saturated colors. Better still is selective saturation, this where you pick an individual color and saturate only that.


Oversaturated images look garish

4. Excessive Shadow/Highlight Control

This is another common one and occurs most frequently when you try to bring some definition into a light sky. The highlight slider brings back the very light areas of an image but bring it too far, not only will that light area look flat and unnatural but also where it meets darker areas of the shot, there will be an ugly look halo effect.

To avoid this use a combination of small adjustments to Exposure, Highlights, Whites and the Highlight/Shadow sliders. You can also try to liven the sky up by adding a graduated filter in Lightroom or Photoshop.

Over Highlights

Be careful with the shadow/highlights tool

5. Over Sharpening

First thing to realise with sharpening, is that you cannot sharpen an unsharp image. If your image has camera shake or is out of focus forget it. Sharpening should be seen as a way of improving the sharpness of a good photo, ready for output. The classic sign of an over sharpened image is a halo effect in areas of contrast.

Look closely and you will see these look like black and white jagged edges and they show up anywhere in the shot where there is a defined line of contrast. To avoid this, always sharpen your shots at 100% view and use filters like Unsharp Mask and Smart Sharpen rather than the original Sharpen filter. Make small adjustments and keep an eye out for the dreaded jaggies.


An over sharpened image

6. Noise

Even the best quality image can get noisy with over processing. Typical things that can introduce noise are lifting shadow areas too far, over saturating and over-sharpening.

If your original is noise free, rather than try to reduce the noise with post production techniques, avoid getting it there in the first place. To do this, simply dial back the adjustments that introduced noise to eliminate it. That said, noise isn't always bad.

photo by kevin laminto
Photo by Kevin Laminto

7. Vignetting

There is a certain irony to the fact that lens manufacturers spend years developing lenses not to vignette yet we introduce it again in post production. Of course, there is nothing wrong with vignetting, it is an artistic device that we can use to subtly draw the viewers eye to the subject.

The problem is that it can be very over done, looking more like a cheap 1970’s photo frame than a subtle compositional tool. It also doesn't work if you are not drawing the eye to a particular subject. So think about what you want to highlight and apply subtle discrete vignettes.


A pointless vignette

Careful post production can add something special to even a mundane image. However, careless post production can ruin the best of shots. With this tips, you can push your images to the limits but not beyond.

To learn more about editing mistakes, check out the links below!

Further Reading:

  1. 7 Common Photo Editing Mistakes
  2. 5 Common Image Editing Mistakes And How To Avoid Them
  3. Use These 4 Tips To Avoid Critical Editing Mistakes
  4. Don’t Over-Process Your Photo! – 10 Things To Avoid
  5. Are You Guilty Of These 5 Over-Processing Sins?
  6. 7 Deadly Photo Editing Sins That Could Ruin Your Images

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

I don’t see the point in post processing at all. You need to do the work at the camera, thinking about depth of field, exposure time etc.

The only real case I can see is for correcting the horizon. Even corecting converging verticals looks artificial. Cathedrals are supposed to soar into the heavens.

Post processing can be extremely useful when you don’t have full control of lighting, for example. I have been able to lighten shadows which otherwise darkened a person’s face to the point where the photo was useless. I have been able to change color temperature on photos shot on ugly, cloudy, rainy days, so that the photo looked better. I’ve been able to reduce contrast in photos where there are extreme whites and extreme blacks. I do a lot of traveling, and sometimes you just don’t have the ability to stop and spend time getting the perfect shot, such as shooting from a moving bus during an escorted tour. Sure, if you’re spending a week shooting scenic shots of Yosemite, you can wait for that perfect cloud at dawn or dusk. But that doesn’t apply to all shooting situations.

Every time I see someone say that they see no need for post, I draw one of two conclusions. 1. They are perfect photographers who are head and shoulders above the best who’ve ever pressed a shutter, or 2. They never worked in a darkroom. Actually I draw only one conclusion…

What the ” no processing, keep it natural ” guys seem to forget, is that everything that happens after the light enters the lens, is a process and the image they see whether on film or LCD screen, is a result of someone’s genius in inventing a process to capture light, using in film’s case ,light sensitive chemicals or electronic wizardry for the digital process. Each are not and can never be a true representation of the live image and are therefore just already processed versions according to someone else’s design. So why not get the image you want by adjusting the processing accordingly. Viva Photoshop.

Taking a photo in JPEG is also processing the photo, just that it is done in camera. When you take photos in RAW, you are basically saying to the camera, hey, just take down all the information so that I can work on it later (which is post processing, even the act of converting it is post processing).

So really it exists everywhere, I guess the objection is doing too much “work” on it, is what you mean … or is it?

yes. It’s easy to get carried away with post and that’s what the author is talking about here. Take a second look at your photos. Get a quality calibrrator (this is actually one of the biggest mistakes I see) and use it. You’ll be surprised how many photos you don’t need to touch in post, or just barely move one or two sliders (to open shadows for instance) and you’re done! And on top of that, just the fact spending very little time on you photos means you’re a better photog than you thought you were. congradulations!

There’s no one in the world that would argue what you just said. That said, Ansel was a visionary, could see things few of us can and manage to get them on film. But times change, and unless we want our photos to look just like Ansel’s we have to change too. I think the author makes some valid points that Ansel, with his equipment, could never even have achieved, let alone thought about shooting. Programs today allow us to do fantastic things, but like all things a little goes a long way. When I’m in LR, I like to take a section at a time in my workflow. Meaning, I’ll do what adjusting I need in basic. Then go get some coffee. When I sit down again, if I still happy with those adjustments in that section, I’ll move on. If not, I reset and start over trying to get in my mind what I want before I move a thing, close my eyes and try to see it. Of course, if you get it right in the camera you need very few adjustments. But Ansel never dreamed he would be able to say, over saturate the colors, his equipment simply lacked the capacity. Things have come a long way.

If you shoot raw post processing is a given. You have the ability to adjust your image to your liking, unlike JPEG that the loss when compressed after opening it is unreversable. Your raw file is always complete. Yes post processing can be overdone but if you like the results it’s what really matters.

Seriously? Post processing is absolutely necessary in most cases. This isn’t just about not knowing how to shoot, it is about recreating what the eye sees.

You do realize that almost all great photographers worked in post, right? Look up Ansel Adams and what he did, I don’t think you fully understand the process of what used to happen in darkrooms.

If you use a digital camera you can’t avoid post processing. The in-camera jpg has been post-processed in camera, using a recipe supplied by the camera maker to turn the 0s and 1s in the RAW file into a picture. Surely it is better to take control and “post-process” the RAW file for oneself in, say, Lightroom? “Get it right in camera” made sense with Kodachrome, it doesn’t make sense in digital!

But it is still somewhat true. In the sense that If you clip the highlights/shadows there isn’t much you can do about it in Photoshop, short of cloning over it from another picture 🙂

It is evident you know very little about photography. Correct the horizon? Wait. What? The ONE THING that one should get right “in camera” is the friggin’ HORIZON.!! Correct converging verticals? Ever hear of a VIEW CAMERA? TILT SHIFT LENS?
Ever hear of a photographer known as ANSEL ADAMS? He is famous for his darkroom work.
You buy a digital camera, read a few things on the internet and now you’re an “expert”?
Give me a break Bob.

You do know that there was post-processing in the lightroom before right? It’s not something new…

However some do go overboard and become lazy… Thay’d have a tough time doing film.

Digital cameras today have so many controls that sometimes you don’t have the time to make the better choice for that fast moment. Remember, once a photo is taken it is already being processed. And guess what… it can be badly processed by the camera!! If you correct just a wrong settled white balance, for instance, this will make all the difference in the world!!! Try it! Cutting photos for fining position tuning in the frame is sometimes a must! How about if the automatic focus failed? can you give a boost on that too?

Either you post process your pictures yourself, or you let the internal camera automatic algorithm that some Japanese programmer created do the post-processing for you by doing nothing. By the time you export your images, your camera has taken countless decisions for you. Editing your RAW files is your chance to take those decisions yourself.

This article about over-doing post processing was exactly what I needed to read. I have looked high and low for information concerning this topic and for instructions on using the raw editor. Great article and thanks very much.

Much of the need for over-processing comes from taking shots in a rush. The shots show are excellent examples, thanks for that. When taking a tripod-based shot, there is usually ample time just to take one shot. I often compare with my Rollei TLR with only 12 shots – each one had to count, so I still approach digiphotography in the same way.

Thanks Jason

The nice thing about digital is you can take hundreds of shots and if you don’t like them, erase them. I would advise shooting on burst as they author talks about. For instance, I’m shooting a wedding (and please excuse me but I don’t know what type of photography you do). I will burst shoot at say the wedding kiss. From the moment they start to move together for the kiss to maybe two seconds after the kiss my camera is firing away. the reason is simple, I’m looking for moments, by the time you see a moment it’s gone. If I fire all the way through I’m gonna get it, a lot of times along with the kiss I’ll get fantastic afterkiss shots, they have parted but they look into each other’s eyes just for a moment, where they are perhaps six inches away from each other, but the realization that they are married hits them. Wonderful emotion, and what a shot to catch. Then I just erase the rest. I hope this helps if not, just toss it.

With all due respect, where’s the art? Why not buy a really nice video camera and pull out the stills?

If you shoot action with your burst philosophy, at some point you’re bound to miss the shot. My boss shoots a lot of horse shows. She is amazing in her ability to catch the shot int the right moment. She watches and anticipates when it’s time to release the shutter.

Anyone can push a button … she knows when to release the shutter.

Dear Jason,
Excellent guidance.I am newbee.I am still on the way to learn retouching.
Thanks for your guidance as new comer has tendency to overdo editing-hence very timely guidance.

As your talents and understanding grow you’ll come to understand that even small movements that are hard to see are often all you need. The better the original pic the less you need to do in post. Ive had shots lately that literally, I bump the shadow slider up to 7 and I ‘m done. The rest is just if I’m feeling creative or want to play with something to see how it works, thus how I can use it when I need it. The author makes a good point about saving your layers, it’s different in PS than in LR though I don’t know why Adobe would do such a thing.Calibrate you monitor, #1, I did hundreds of great looking pics on my monitor, when I transferred to the internet or some website the looked terrible. These guys cost a few dollars but well worth it. Another thing I do in the field is check my camera and update the settings all day long. If I start in the morning in low light, maybe some fog, get the settings by taking a few test shots. Then consider what you’re shooting. Is it Bison standing there chewing grass without moving? Or are you in a blind catching flying and close ups of ducks? You need to tell the camera what you expect from it unless you just shoot on manual, which is ok too, that’s why it’s there. To give you a chance at learning the camera workings, how long does it take to focus? take note of what changes the camera makes as the light comes on in your display, it will give you an idea how you need to adjust your settings when you get to that point. Get a good book on how light affects photographs and read it, understand it, ask questions. Light may be the single most important factor in all of this. You will be stunned, (I was) at how the “golden hour” can make the colors on a common bird explode with color in almost a 3d manner or look flat like you just ran over it and then took the photo. The harsher the light (like at noon on a sunny day) the harsher the contrast (the battle of shadows vs light). Get a grasp of this too. there are still many subject to shoot at noon but they need to be handled a little differently. Light will have a huge impact on you post as you progress. But the biggest thing, by far, get out and shoot. And you don’t have to leave home. I was flat out amazed at the amount of opportunities right under my feet, if I just slow down and look for them. your backyard, what’s there? An old boat maybe? A hot tub with lights with would be great to experiment on at 1 in the morning? (shutter speeds to blur the splashes) Moss near a creek? These are entire communities of plants and no, you do not need a micro lens. Ideally yea but screw the normal way. If you buck the normal way and think about it who knows what you might come up with with a little cropping to make things larger……Try running you sprinkler or shooting early morn if you get dew, many insects are still “asleep” and easy targets cuz they are not moving until the sun warms them. There’s a giant learning curve, but use your imagination, have fun above all else, an shoot, shoot. The more you shoot they more you will start to analyze what’s in your shots and how to control them.

Thanks for drawing attention to this often neglected topic. If you “over cook” an image for artistic effect, that definitely needs to be an informed decision.

One area that may be outside the scope of your excellent article, but is perhaps the most a used technique is HDR, or High Dynamic Range photography. Combining 3 different exposures of the same frame to pull detail out that would other be lost is a wonderfully powerful tool, but is also very easy to unintentionally create a really garish image. As you advised for other tools, small changes may produce the desired effect.

Thanks again for a great article. Gene

Good point, I use a 7D and usually stick my photos together with PS, but instead of 3 i’ve been experimenting with perhaps 7. Just take smaller movements with the camera so you re photo more of the same areas more often. In some cases, you get more detail, but thats not always desirable, not always. but I have trouble with the pics looking more natural, its like I have bionic eyes or something. I’m doing everything right, maybe I need to be more careful with my subjects (make sure they are right for HDR or maybe my purist side is coming out? Limit the photo to 2 or 3 and just use then to accent what I can’t get with a single exposure. HHMMMM. Anyway, good point.

I like this. I do tend to oversaturate images but I am working on that. The problem is, I like very saturated images and also social media tens to appreciate the really saturated one. I do wath carefully and try to keep it tasteful. Your hints are very good; it has taken me a long time and many sourses to gain knowlege of many of these. Lucky people to get them all in one spot. Congratulations.

Am recovering from whacking head against the wall after reading this article! Very good advice given. After countless photos I find I’m still making all of these mistakes (amateur photog). It’s good to get a refresher course on what may seem like simple but isn’t.

Overdoing post-processing is more common than we think. I’m looking on myriads of photos every day either on fb, Flickr or 500px and it’s interesting to note that there’s a general trend to overdo in nearly every aspect. What I mean are not the basic steps cited in this article. The question is how long it takes that the general public i.e. accepts the overdone HDR appearance of a great number of photos presented as natural and positively eye popping. It’s simply a matter of cognitive psychology.

You are correct. People are getting used to non natural super saturated material. In social media this is called a trend, and you know how trends go lol. the hard part is do we go with it, like leaves flowing downstream in a creek or are we going to be the rock that breaks the current flow. Takes alot of nerve to go against the current. But there are great rewards for those who are successful. I like your social / psycho approach to the subject, ya don’t get to see much of that here. But in a very real sense the social acceptance or rejection of a “trend” in any field is what makes it or breaks it. Good point. I wonder where this issue will be in three years?

The whole world is overdoing……in theater thy shout all piece long…in muzic they do non armonious noise….in ballet they do abrupt ,jerky movements…making love means violence… in opera they lose their pants ……and so on….this is the “state of art “……everyone can say anything he wants…DEMOCRATIZE…
in photogr is it otherwise ???!
Anyhow ,your advises are perfect in time I hope they would have been understood in its meaning !
Perfection is inside outside is noise!
My english is not the best…..

I hate it when people quote famous people, but here I go. I thought I heard Ansel Adams in his last TV interview mention his approach to his processing an individual photo was to process it till he got it “perfect” or what he intended —- then back off just a bit ….done!

Raw is NOT unprocessed data! What comes from the pixels has to be heavily amplified and normalised for the variations in their light and colour response, and for the variation in image brightness from centre to edge of the image plane.
“Raw” is the end product of all this processing to get current levels up sufficiently to be output from the camera. What comes from the pixels is not available to, or usable by, the photographer!

I disagree with #3. My trademark is to bring my photos to the point of looking like surreal artwork, sometimes even a painting, printing on metal or metallic paper to heighten this even more so. This usually means deep saturation, among other post processing techniques.

I try to never allow my photos to be mistaken for a traditional photo. This doesn’t mean I don’t relish and admire the techniques and skills of the traditional “photographer.” I very much do. And I get great pleasure in viewing/owning them. It’s just not my way of working, and I don’t appreciate my techniques being referred to as mistakes when I spend much time and effort to get them to that point.

I think this is not the point. For sure he did not mean people who alter their photos to an extent which does not meet any longer “normal post processing” . Artists and what ever they do with their photos are not target of this discussion

You’re talking about the beautiful side of art, freedom. One photo viewed by say one thousand people, then asked to recreate that photo, or even just work on it in post, will end up with (I”ll say)nearly a thousand separate, distinct results. And that, is the true beauty of any art piece in any medium.

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Artistic expression is as individual to a photographer as each snowflake is different to the next. Oversaturate if you think it looks good, chances are someone else in the world will too. Vignette wherever the heck you want to vignette, someone else will like what you have processed. Do whatever the hell you want to do, express your feelings through your processing. Run with it and don’t listen to the “professional photographer”.

I have only been seriously into photography for three years, I have heard it takes five to make a photographer. about right I guess! The guy who said he uses burst mode for the wedding kiss, I hope he is darn sure the happy couple know about this and the vicar, some people would go mad about a machine gun in their left ear at the most important moment in their lives.
As for the article thanks very much, very helpful and some of the comments.

I’m no Ansel Adams…. But my “in camera” skills have improved over the years. Sometimes I browse my older stuff in light room and see opportunities to make the picture better through post processing.
Ideally, I wish I could travel back in time and reshoot….but a lot of the older photos are “moments in time” that can’t be reshot today. So yes, its wonderful to get things in camera….but sometimes you can’t

My father did ALL his carpentry work with hand tools. And he had his “measure twice…cut once” philosophy. (Which is the woodworking equivalent of “in camera”). Me? I use power tools, and learned how to measure right the first time.

My point? Nobody ever compliments me for getting it right in camera. I have a vision….I try to get it right in camera. But if its too fleeting a moment….I’m glad I have light room. Thank you Adobe 🙂

I like the article very much as this is seen all the time – over processing.

I also do digital art where my methods vary but in pure photography as it were, I definitely use Post Processing.
I started my photography by accident at the age of 17 in med school, and it happened, helping a friend get over a skin allergy. I made the prints while he did everything else. I fell in love and have continued for the past 45+ years.

Getting a shot spot on is great. A person can anticipate and do as much as he/she wants to get a straight correct exposure, but thats not always the end.

The finished product is either a print, (in the old days a “tranny”) or limited colour scale reproduction on the net. I cannot digress, or to go into detail on that.

Yes! Pure artistic and photographic taste is an acquired skill in most cases and only comes with years of practice, competition in salons or exhibitions and other experiences.
If you go Pro, you compete with other Pro’s, or most of the time – as it should be, with yourself.

I do not remember ever letting anyone else develop my negatives or make my prints except when it was too costly to use an entire colour processing kit by myself. Even then only transparencies such as Kodachrome or colour negs in Kodak Q labs, where controlled custom negative development was possible. I often pushed or pulled my negatives for effect.

My black and white films were always carefully developed by personally and only to whatever gamma I wanted and this required thinking of the subject being photographed, the kind of paper I would be using, the light my prints would be exhibited in etc. I have not included quite a few more details on purpose.

There are a multitude of processes involved and I do not think any photographer/printer worth his salt did ever go without burning and dodging his images. Besides this there was always cropping to be considered.
Shooting the square format on a Hasselblad or any other square format camera required it almost all the time.

While I think the article on over processing is very justified, particularly when there are oceans to learn on how to get a better image than what you see on your digital screen or immediate jpg, I find comments on getting it right first time being mooted as the best process not acceptable.

It is an excellent process, but only the beginning of a long process. A finished fine print is the ultimate end point, either sold or hung in a gallery for people to enjoy.

In the digital world, true a RAW file is the most detailed image/digital file one can get their hands on and while processing the image small changes in PS or LR can make vast changes in acquiring the actual dynamic range available in any exposure. After this one can set the white and black point and make fine adjustments.

Even after doing this there are still areas of the image that contain less detail than the others. To bring out the detail in the images, techniques such as HDR which in my opinion produce near artificial looks also add to noise with each additional frame. Then there are luminosity masks that help do the same with less artificial results.

I think learning to Post Process an image is an integral part of of photography right from touching up dust spots in film or paper to sensor noise in digital photography.

I think the article was excellent and that over processing produces photos of lower quality and taste. I like it.

For those who have arrived and can take it all with a press of the shutter button, I take my hat off. For me they are just shutter bugs. I did not really appreciate a photographer in the old days who did not process his own. I do the same for the shutterbugs of today.

But that is my own opinion.
Thank you,
Dr. Nicolas Rao

I do agree that there is over-processing is going on by lots of photographers. It is better if one concentrates on the photo at the time it is taken. Slight fixes are good and helpful, but can’t be obvious or unnatural.

//\\ As one who is coming from many years of manual-in the camera operations >> I still have never used LR — 🙂

It will always be in the pre exposure & settings ….then I have to do very little in CS. My trusty hand meter is administered for my commercial /wedding jobs. I use the Canon 60D ~ that has allows me to flip my screen closed.

Calibrated screen is must — RAW editor is 80% of processing . INFO/ Curves / Highlights- Shadow /INFO = my go to.

I shoot primarily in RAW which from the camera is un-processed. No sharpening, colour correction etc etc so my part is taking over from the processor built into the camera. Whatever you use to process your image you totally control the output. Every photo taken by a digital camera is post processed after the picture is taken in camera unless you set it otherwise. Settings for print are different for web settings.

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