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Ten Simple Retouching Techniques That Will Make Your Photos Pop

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What are some of the easiest photo retouching techniques to learn for amateurs? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Archie D'Cruz, Editor, Designer, Writer, on Quora:

My weapon of choice when it comes to photography is Lightroom, but for this post, I'm going to start with the assumption that you have the more widely used Photoshop, inexpensive software like Affinity Photo or even the free GIMP.

I'll define "easiest techniques" as something that can be accomplished within a minute or so. So if anything below seems complicated, stick with me and give it a try; you might be pleasantly surprised to discover how easy it is.

We're also not going to be touching various effects filters you have on your phone, nor the many Actions you can get with Photoshop. While some of them can be impressive, these aren't really "techniques" you can learn from and re-use.

Here then are my top 10. (Unless otherwise indicated, all pictures below are taken by me).

1. Straighten the horizon.

This is probably my number one beef with many landscape and architecture photographs I come across. Unless there is an artistic reason to do so, a slanted horizon is about the surest sign of sloppy editing.

What's the best way to straighten the horizon? Look for something in your image that should be either perfectly horizontal (like the shoreline or a sidewalk) or vertical (lamp post, building). Use the Rotate tool, available in all photo editing apps (including the one on your phone) using that object as a point of reference.

Here's an example of a before and after (the after is rotated by just one degree and also cropped, see tip 2):

2. Crop the image.

Not every image you take is going to be perfectly framed. Take a critical look and decide what the focus of your image should be; then crop it to give that part of the image the prominence it deserves.

Here's one, for example, of a model getting body-painted for a shoot. Pretty model, yes, but a pretty average image.

Crop in tight on her face, though, and (with a few color tweaks) the image holds a lot more interest.

I love the sunset glow in the skies, but I'd really like your eye to go to the sun peeking through the cage on the baseball field. The cars in the foreground and house rooftops in the back, though, are elements that detract from the image. Also, the horizon cuts my picture in half (read up on the Rule of Thirds to learn why this makes for boring images).

So here I've cropped it to bring the key focus of my image into the bottom third of my grid.

This is a great technique that will raise the level of many of your pictures. In this particular case, I'm not done yet; see below.

3. Use Levels and Curves.

Stay with me now, don't let the jargon throw you. This is easier than you might think.

Does it seem like most pictures you take tend to be somewhat flat and lifeless? It's time you discovered Levels and Curves. This is something I use for pretty much every image I work on.

Start with Levels (in Photoshop, use Command-L to bring up the palette). That hilly graph you see is called a Histogram. At the base of that histogram are three sliders - black, grey and white.

Drag the black slider to the left edge of the histogram and the white slider to the right edge. What this does is it boosts the lighter areas and deepens the darker areas, often significantly improving the overall contrast.

You can take this one step further by using Curves, which also improves contrast, but offers more control over individual parts of the image. To bring up this palette, hit Command-M, and you will see a diagonal line across a graph.

To keep this tutorial simple, all you do is reshape that line into a slight 'S' curve. Do this by clicking on the line to create two points -- one near the bottom third and the other in the top third, and then dragging them out just a touch to form an S shape.

Here's just how big a change Levels and Curves can deliver to your image:

The original (after cropping):

After using Levels:

After using Curves:

4. Eliminate or Reduce Noise.

I'll start by saying that there are many superior ways of reducing excessive grain or noise in an image. Since these are supposed to be quick, one-minute tips, try this:

In Photoshop, go to Filter > Noise > Despeckle, or to Filter > Noise > Reduce Noise. The second tool offers more control than the first.

Here's my image above after using Despeckle.

5. Remove dust spots and blemishes.

It's easy to get rid of dust spots on your images or unsightly zits on your subject's face. Photoshop's Spot Healing Brush is built just for that.

To access it, find the brush in the tool palette (or keep hitting Shift-J till it shows up, it looks like a little Band-Aid strip). Adjust the brush size so it just about covers the area you want to fix, and click on it. Poof, the spot is gone.

Here's a before and after from a stock image I had. Fixing all those spots took me less than thirty seconds (and yes, I timed it).

6. Remove Distractions.

How often do you see this: a fine photograph of an architectural landmark, ruined by a lamppost that you couldn't avoid getting into the frame. Or a piece of trash that you didn't previously notice in the grass. Your image would be better without them, but how do you get rid of these?

Photoshop has a couple of tools built just for this: the Patch tool and the Content Aware Move tool. As in the tip above, hit Shift-J until the tool you want shows up; then select the offending element by drawing loosely around it and move it out. Photoshop does the rest. If it's a large-ish element, you might want to work using smaller selections.

This one's not the greatest image, but good enough to demonstrate the Before, how to select, and the After when using the Patch tool.

7. Make it Black & White.

Sometimes a photo might appear just really boring. There's very little you can do to rescue it from the reject pile. But wait! Before you do that, try converting it to B&W and playing with the Levels and Curves as explained in Tip 3. You might be surprised at the number of images that somehow seem to get transformed when you do this.

Here's one that I took in Washington DC a couple of years ago. Nothing to write home about, right?

Use the trick I mentioned above, though, and it's something that could just have come out of some old photo archives.

8. Fix those red eyes.

I couldn't find any red-eye shots in my image library, but this one from Wikipedia is perfect for this tip. Here's the original image.

From the toolbar in Photoshop, access the Red Eye Tool (or hit Shift-J until you see it come up), and drag from the top left corner of the eye to the bottom right. That's it. This is literally a five-second fix.

9. Dodge, Burn and Sponge

This is especially useful for images that can do with some color saturation or desaturation in small areas - boosting the color in a bowl of fruit on a dining table for example, or to reduce the color in an over-saturated neon jersey.

You'll find all three in the same area of the toolbar (hit Shift-O repeatedly till the one you want shows up).

In this before and after, for example, you can see how using Dodge and Sponge to saturate the foreground elements, while using Burn on the rest, helps to focus your eye on the primary subject and creates separation from the background.

10. Sharpen your image.

Sharpening of an image should always be left for the very end. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the tool best suited for this is called Unsharp Mask. Look for it under Filter > Sharpen.

Pretty much every image can benefit from sharpening, and the palette sliders give you a lot of control on just how much (or how little) you want to do this.

Here's one example of a shot I took from inside a wigwam. Here's the before:

And here's the after:

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