Image Editing: From Potential to Impact

By Mark Schacter Back to


While the fun of taking photographs is the thrill of the hunt—the search for promising material—the fun of editing is translating the promise into images that have impact.

For my book, Roads, published in 2010, I shot about 10,000 photographs, of which 160 appeared in print. For my forthcoming book, provisionally entitled Sweet Seas, A Portrait of the Great Lakes to be published in October, I again shot about 10,000 photographs of which about 200 will probably appear in print. In order to go from 10,000 to 200, I had to decide which of the 10,000 had potential to be compelling images, and realize that potential through editing.

Gathering material for the books required thousands of miles of travel around Canada and the US. On some days I might have taken 300 photographs. Each night in my hotel room I reviewed the day’s photographs, discarding about two-thirds of them. I was confident doing this cull directly from my camera because even on the small screen I could spot two things I was looking for in each shot: “good bones” and a “story”.

“Bones” is about structure, or composition. I discard photographs where everything isn’t in the right place. I want the photograph to be welcoming to the eye; to entice the viewer to a main point of interest, then invite the eye to wander around before returning to the entry point. I’m not worried about fixable flaws: a crooked horizon or a distraction that can be cropped or cloned. I don’t care about non-major exposure errors because they too can be fixed. But if the “bones” aren’t there then forget it: digital editing can’t rescue a photograph from bad or mediocre composition.

“Story” is important too—because a photograph can be boring even if well composed. I want photographs that engage the viewer’s mind as well as the eye. Although it would be asking too much to look for a full- blown story with a beginning, middle and end, I do want to produce an image that hints at a story, leaving the viewer wondering “what happened/is happening here?” or “what does this mean?” or “what was the photographer thinking?”

Stone, Petroleum Coke and Salt, Lackawanna, New York

While still on the road I would have reduced a typical week’s output of 1500 photographs to about 500 “semi-finalists” that would in turn yield about 30 finished images. The 500 were reviewed again on a large screen at home—same elimination criteria, but with higher standards. The idea was to limit precious editing time to shots that are serious “contenders.”

Example: a shot of Veterans of Foreign War Post 3943 in Woodland Beach, Michigan on Lake Erie, 30 miles from downtown Detroit—one of about 200 photographs I took that day. Figure 1 shows the original photograph direct from my memory card, before editing. At this stage it is a shot with potential, but is still several steps removed from being a finished product. What caught my eye as I drove past that scene was the “story”: the stark, lonely, forgotten-looking meeting place for military veterans. Irony and pathos jumped out at me—it seemed a compelling visual commentary on how well (or not) we honor and remember military men and women.

Figure 1 – VFW Post 3943, Woodland Beach, Michigan
Figure 2
Figure 3

The scene also had robust compositional bones: the poles’ vertical lines beside the strong horizontal roofline and the slashing diagonals of the utility wires. The texture of the painted cinderblocks—multiple rectangles within the larger rectangle of the wall—added more stark geometry. The crowning touch—given the military story line that interested me—was the American flag. (It was a calm day; I had to wait for a puff of air to extend the flag!).

My first processing step was to use DxO Optics Pro to convert the RAW image file to a 16-bit TIFF. DxO Optics Pro’s powerful feature is its capacity to correct the unique optical distortions inherent to your own particular combination of camera body and lens. And it does a lot of other good things too.

I decided that color was a distraction in an image that was all about hard shapes, lines and shadows, so I converted it to black and white with DxO’s FilmPack add-on that emulates the look of 62 different black and white, color positive and color negative films. I used FilmPack’s emulation of Polaroid 672 black and white film, together with FilmPack’s digital red filter.

I made further adjustments with DxO Optics Pro:

• I used the “lens softness” adjustment to counteract the inherent tendency of lenses to distort what the eye sees as sharp points into small blurred circles; this feature of the software makes images look remarkably crisp without the tell-tale halos typical of the unsharp mask. DxO Optics Pro corrected the softness unique to my combination of a Canon 1Ds Mark III body and a Canon 24-105mm EF L lens. It also automatically corrected chromatic and barrel/pincushion distortions specific to that body/lens combination.

• I adjusted gamma and local contrast and stopped down the exposure slightly.

Figure 2 shows the black and white image produced by DxO Optics Pro. Now working with the TIFF file produced by DxO Optics Pro, I made final adjustments with Adobe Photoshop:

• I cloned out the distracting car in the parking lot; I cloned out sensor dust.

• I boosted contrast in the lower (lighter) part of the image with a curves adjustment.

• I brightened the VFW sign and the smaller flag behind the stars-and-stripes with levels adjustments.

Figure 3 shows the final product.

Sailboat, Toronto, Ontario

Gulls and Sailboat are a few of the other photographs to be published in Sweet Seas. All images were created with RAW conversions, and initial image adjustments were made with DxO Optics Pro. Final adjustments were done using Adobe Photoshop.

About the Author

Mark Schacter
Mark Schacter lives in Ottawa, Canada. His current book, Roads, is available through bookstores and online booksellers worldwide. Visit his website at