The Difference Between “Editing” and “Processing” in Photoshop

The Difference Between “Editing” and “Processing” in Photoshop

When I first began exploring the wondrous world of Photoshop, my “workflow” was a convoluted mess. Although I was learning different tools and techniques, steadily expanding my creative processing tool belt through my own trial and errors…each processing session became longer and more frustrating.

Here’s a typical scenario during my early days in Photoshop that you may find familiar:

STEP 1: Make initial raw edits in ACR and open up the image in Photoshop, and add a bit of saturation and contrast. However, shadows are now crushed…so you need to bring back some of that detail.

STEP 2: Jump back to ACR and recover more tones in the shadows, then bring the image back into Photoshop and continue your work.

STEP 3: Further evaluation tells you that the yellow hues in your sky could use a shift towards red….which is when you see how noisy the sky actually is. Also, this color shift now makes your dust spots very prominent….which you really didn’t notice at first.

At this point, it feels like you are taking two steps back for every one step forward…and each editing session seems longer and more overwhelming.

Before I established a structure for my workflow, I was feeling the overwhelm myself. The amount of processing does not bother me; I actually love spending time in Photoshop and look forward to the challenge of enhancing my images and expressing the creative vision I have for them.

This was the frustrating part: it always seemed like I was taking an unnecessarily long and convoluted route to the results I wanted. I would make an adjustment, but that would introduce two new “problems” that needed to be fixed.

This constant ping-pong back and forth became exhausting….and randomly jumping around with no real direction or structure was not making Photoshop a fun place to be.

If this sounds familiar, you are definitely not alone here…

I’ve received countless emails over the years from landscape photographers who have the exact same problem….and I love answering them since I know a VERY simple trick that will greatly speed up your workflow and make Lightroom and Photoshop much less frustrating.

The best part: it’s a method you can implement right now.

Editing vs. Processing

I soon realized that my processing techniques could be segmented into two distinct categories: corrective and creative. This separation became increasingly important as my processing skills evolved and my workflow became more advanced.

Techniques that purify or otherwise “fix” your images are corrective in nature (editing). This includes noise removal, sharpening, recovering detail (clipped shadows or highlights), correcting exposure, etc.

Techniques that correct your image have a structured “left-brain” approach, tend to be methodical in their execution, and are used to improve and refine your raw file before you get into the “creative” stage.

In contrast, techniques that strengthen the vision you have for an image are creative in nature (processing). These skills take a “right-brain” approach and are free-flowing and easily amendable…such as color grading, dodging and burning, or atmospheric enhancements (light painting, the Orton effect, or adding sun glows).

When I divided my digital darkroom techniques into these two distinct categories (editing vs. processing), I made a mental shift that completely transformed my workflow in Photoshop. It gave me the direction and structure I needed, and virtually eliminated all feelings of overwhelm and frustration that was constricting my creative vision.

Most importantly, this new mindset made my time in Photoshop much more enjoyable…and I found myself actually looking forward to enhancing my image because I was now having fun.

Let’s dive a bit further into how this works…

The Editing Stage

I perform the majority of my edits as soon as I import my image, and always before any creative processing. My focus for the editing stage is to create the best possible canvas for my photograph….to clean any impurities so that I can apply my creative processing with greater ease and without distractions.

Methods such as white balance adjustments, exposure correcting, panoramic stitching, clone stamping, and dust/spot removal would fall under the editing category.

To first clean, then create….allows me to concentrate more intently on one goal as opposed to switching back and forth from corrective mode (left-brain) to creative mode (right-brain).

At the end of the editing phase, I have created a solid base to build my image upon…much like how a contractor will lay a foundation before building a structure.

This makes it much easier to apply my color and tonal shifts later without being distracted by blown highlights, excess noise, dust spots and other impurities.

In other words, the photo is primed and ready…making it easier for me to materialize my creative vision and express the experience I had in the field.

The Processing Stage

The processing of a photo always comes after the editing and is where I can create freely without interruptions.

At this point, my photo is much like an unfinished painting – the canvas has been primed and the underpainting has been applied, but it’s rather boring and unfulfilling. My creativity hasn’t been infused yet….and there’s still a story for me to tell through my processing.

Color shifts, dodging & burning, and tonal adjustments are examples of the processing phase. This categorization allows me to focus more intently on creative techniques and loosen up my workflow….as I’ve already been through the methodical, rigid editing phase.

Why this method works so well….

Whether you use Lightroom or Photoshop (or hopefully, you use both like me)…. this mental shift to compartmentalize your workflow will make your processing much clearer, simpler, and a lot more fun.

Without this structure, you’ll be performing your edits as they come up….and this interruption can distract you from your creative vision and cause unnecessary detours….which can ultimately change the outcome of your final image.

For example, trying to correct for lens distortion or cloning out distracting eyesores after you have already applied your dodging and burning will completely alter the quality of your carefully applied shifts and adjustments.

A new crop or image rotation can throw off the balance of your focal points…

Correcting blown highlights after your color and tonal adjustments may affect the purity and hue…

Situations like this force you to either reprocess the image (wasting time) or settle with the altered result (unfulfilling to your creativity).

Either way, it’s a demoralizing and unnecessary side effect that can be easily avoided.

However, don’t think of editing and processing as two opposing workflows…but rather stages in the digital darkroom that work together cohesively and contribute to your final image.

For example…one goal of the editing phase is to pull in as much detail as possible from the raw file, which will give you more creative freedom. Processing an image that already has the correct exposure – meaning that there are no blown highlights or blocked shadows – allows me to use a wider spectrum of creative techniques that otherwise would not be possible if I had damaged pixels.

So in other words…my editing techniques directly influence my processing techniques, and vice versa.

Another example is noise removal: certain creative processing techniques (such as color grading) can enhance the appearance of noise…so by eliminating that noise at the beginning of your workflow, you are avoiding future frustrations and wasted time.

This also improves your in-the-field workflow

Photographers have told me that once their darkroom workflow became simpler and more streamlined, they found themselves looking at their subjects with a new perspective.

Scenes that you may have previously disregarded due to uninteresting light or stagnant atmosphere now draw your attention because you know what is possible in Photoshop once you bring those images home.

With this new perspective, you’re encouraged to look at landscapes longer, explore new vantage points, and pursue a variety of creative methods with your camera that you can later enhance through the darkroom.

By following this simple guideline and making that mental shift to separate your editing from your processing….you’ll find yourself having more fun in the darkroom instead of feeling overwhelmed.

The courses inside of the creativeRAW Lifetime Membership program are structured this very same way….to “purify the canvas” before any creative work. This is by far the easiest, yet most powerful change I made to my darkroom workflow…and has paved the way for years of fun in Photoshop.

I encourage you to make a list right now and separate your editing techniques from your processing. I guarantee that you’ll see a great improvement!

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