Where to Start with Photo Editing

October 3, 2010
f/4.0; 105mm; 1/100 sec; ISO 400

f/4.0; 105mm; 1/100 sec; ISO 400

When I first decided to download gimp and start editing my own photos, I was intimidated. I knew there were so many options when it came to editing photos because I’d see what others had done to their photos. So… where should I start?

To be honest, I don’t know where the best place to start is – maybe some people learn best by diving right in and following complex tutorials, but I prefer the little-by-little approach, and if you’re the same way, here are some basic tips when it comes to editing photos for the first time.

Disclaimer: I use Gimp to edit my photos, I’ve always used Gimp, so I’m writing from that perspective, but many of these tips apply to whatever editing program you decided to use.

Pick a Photo You Already Like

The first step to editing photos is selecting which photo you’re going to edit. I think it’s very important to pick a photo you already like. First of all, it’s much easier to improve a photo that you already like than to try and “fix” a bad photo – in fact, I personally frown upon trying to fix any photo by editing unless it’s the only photo you have of a particular subject and there’s no way of getting another. But I suppose that’s an entirely different topic. The other reason I think it’s a good idea to start with a photo you alredy like is that you’re probably going to spend a lot of time in Gimp (or the editor of your choice) as you start trying different things, and I’d hate to have you staring at a photo you don’t even like that entire time!

For this entry, I’m going to start with this photo, from a recent vacation that I went on – this is the photo completely unedited:

Pretty, but a bit bland

Pretty, but a bit bland

Create a Duplicate Layer

I mention this one in almost every Gimp tutorial I write, but I think it’s especially important when you’re new editing Think of layers as a stack of papers – some can be semi-transparent, some are solid layers, some of stuff cut out of them so you can see the piece of paper below it, etc. When you first open Gimp, you have one piece of paper with your photo on it, and you could start making changes to that piece of paper, but then if you wanted to compare that change to the original, or get rid of that change completely, the only way to do that is to undo. If you create a duplicate layer first, you now have two pieces of paper with your photo on it, you can make changes to the top piece of paper and make it invisible in order to compare it with the original, or just delete it if you don’t like the changes at all.

To create a Duplicate Layer in Gimp, you can either press Shift+Ctrl+D, go to Layer –> Duplicate Layer, or right click on the Layer in the Layers dialog and select “Duplicate Layer”.

Start with Levels

I first talked about levels a long time ago, and you can read more details there, but the quick version is that you can use levels to make the dark part of your photos darker and the light part of your photos lighter. This is a great way to add some contrast to your photos, and is such a great thing to start with if you’re new to editing photos because all you have to do is move some sliders, and you can see the changes to your photo as you slide them.

To bring up the Levels dialog, go to Colors –> Levels.

For this particular photo, I wanted to make the darks darker, but left the light part of the photos alone. Here’s what my Levels dialog looked like:


Making the photo look like this:

A good first step, I like the freshness of the colors more now

A good first step, I like the freshness of the colors more now

Play with Layer Blending Modes

Remember how I said layers were like pieces of paper all in a stack? Well, that analogy falls apart a bit when I start talking about Layer Blending Modes. I can’t seem to put into words what Layer Blending Modes are, but the idea is basically that you can take a layer and make it have an effect on the layer below it. Different Blending Modes will have different effects. I reviewed all the different Layer Blending Modes in this post, but I’m only going to mention the two right now – Overlay (or Soft Light) and Screen.

Overlay and Soft Light always give me the same result. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not.

So, try this with your photo – create another duplicate layer and then switch the blend mode to Overlay like so:

Change Blending Mode

It should add even more contrast to the photo, and in particular for this photo, I think it made the details in the flower really stand out:

Even the background colors look deeper now.

Even the background colors look deeper now.

Now switch the blend mode to Screen. This is going to make the photo much lighter. The only reason I really mention this is because if this is your first attempt at editing photos, I’m going to assume you’re not shooting in RAW yet, and the easiest way to make an underexposed photo look properly exposed with shooting in JPG is to use the Screen mode. It’s making my photo look really washed out (as you can see below), but keep this in mind for some of your too-dark photos!

Oh my - a bit washed out now!

Oh my - a bit washed out now!

opacity sliderIf you change the Blending Mode, and like the effect, but think it might be a bit too much, play around with the opacity slider (shown on the left), to make that layer a bit more transparent, which will then decrease the overall effect it has on the photo.

As for this photo, I’m going to use the Overlay blend mode at 75% Opacity.

If playing with Layer Blending Modes is really getting you excited (and I don’t blame you – I love ‘em!), I suggest you check out these two entries on iffles.com – Using Duplicate Layers and Using Solid Color Layers.

New Layer from Visible

Let’s say you liked the look of your photo with a duplicate layer set to Overlay at 75% opacity, but you still wanted to do something else to the photo – like sharpen it, which is what I’m going to talk about next. If you were to do it to the top layer, you’d only be sharpening the layer that’s at 75% opacity. If you were to sharpen the layer below it, you wouldn’t be sharpening the Overlay layer. So, if you want to sharpen everything that you see now, you’d want to create a new layer that looks like exactly what you see now. To do that go to Layer –> New From Visible

Note: This will put the new layer directly above whatever layer you currently have selected. So if you happened to have the base (non-Overlay) layer selected, it’s going to put it below the overlay layer, which is going to make what you see change because you’ll be applying the overlay to the new-from-visible layer, so it’s like applying the overlay twice. If this happens, just drag that layer to the top! Did that make sense? If not, just ask… I’m not sure I worded that well…


There are about 5.3 million different ways to sharpen a photo in Gimp. Or at least it feels like that sometimes. For your first time, I’m going to suggest the oldie-but-goodie “Unsharp Mask”. To pull it up, go to Filters –> Enhance –> Unsharp Mask. If you care about what all the values in this dialog stand for, check out this post. If not, just throw in the same numbers I usually use, which are 2, .85, and 4, as shown below:

Unsharp Mask

Now watch your photo as the filter completes, because often the difference is so subtle that you won’t notice it unless you actually watch it change. Or, if you have a duplicate layer (or a New from Visible) layer, you can just make the layer invisible/visible to see the before/after.

You can see my final sharpened photo at the top of this entry.

Next Steps

If you’re using Gimp, I would definitely suggest downloading some scripts. You can search the gimp plug-in registry or, if you’d like to see which ones I’ve reviewed here on iffles.com, check out the Gimp Script Showcase category. Gimp Scripts are very much like Photoshop Actions (I’m assuming, as I’ve never actually used Photoshop) – they’re just things you can run on your photos in order to give them a certain effect – like vintage, cross-processed, warm or cool the photo, etc.

The next thing I would suggest is to search for gimp tutorials. Just searching google will bring up a bunch, but if you’re into the video kind, I highly recommend Meet the Gimp.

Finally, if you’re ever curious about what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis, you can follow my flickr stream – as I write down the editing process I use in every single photo I upload. In the interest of saving me some time, I don’t upload the originals, too, but if a process every sounds interesting enough that you’d like to see the original for comparison, I’m always willing to upload it.

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  • HI it is a clean article , which i was reading through the minute information.
    We are a team of artist , in case of any editing requirement, visit us on www.veditphoto.com

  • Beth Hays

    i'm assuming this works with pixlr, too, right? That's what I have... Thank you! The layers analogy was very helpful.

  • Sorry about the double posting there - not sure what I did!

  • Gimp is great - I love it! Another clear step-by-step post, thanks!
    I think I asked this before, but can anyone recommend a website where you can view examples of photos edited with different Gimp Scripts (apart from our own dear iffles of course!) - it would be helpful to be able to see the various effects that can be created - or is it just a question of experimenting and seeing what happens?!

  • I haven't found anything yet :( But hopefully it's out there, and someone knows about it, and that someone reads your comment and responds!

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