Guide to common photo editing tools and techniques

Dec 1, 2011 at 7:04 a.m. ET

Looking back through pictures from your childhood usually turns up an image or two that looks as if it could have been the opening shot from the Blair Witch Project. Luckily, technology has come a long way since Polaroid Instamatics. Here are a few tools and techniques for making the most of digital photography.

Photoshop screen

Editing software can pick up where your point-and-shoot camera leaves off in the creativity department. Most photo editing software has editing techniques and tools for doing what your camera can't -- from removing that giant zit on your teenager's chin to creating a vintage look with sepia tones. You're not limited to pricey software such as Photoshop, either; photo editing software is available in all price ranges -- even free. Picnik or Photobucket are both free and have an array of editing tools that tackle the most common problems; they even allow you to make decorative scrapbook pages.


No matter which tool or technique you use,  always save a copy of the original just in case your editing doesn't give you the results you want. When you're finished, save your edited photo under a different name than the original, such as original-photo-2.

Tools and adjustments offered by typical photo editing programs

Color and exposure

Most programs make it easy to adjust shadows, highlights and midtones to create the best exposure possible. Colors can be faded or intensified to create a clear, colorful shot.

The clone tool

Use this to erase imperfections or unwanted people and objects in a photo. It works by copying (or cloning) a desirable part of the image to cover an undesirable one. For example, you can cover up a blemish by cloning from an area of clear skin. You can clone people and objects out of the scene using the same principle. If only it were that easy in real life!

Red eye removal

Getting rid of that demonic red glare that often shows up in eyes is easy. In a program like Picnik, which caters to novice photographers, you merely click on the tool and then on the eye. The red is covered by the natural eye color, and everyone looks normal again.

With a more sophisticated program such as Photoshop, you can get a little more detailed. Simply enlarge the eye to make it as big as it can go and clone the desirable areas of the pupil and iris. This makes for a perfect match and is best for large images. You also can pick up color from the surrounding eye with the eyedropper tool and place it specifically where you want it for even more color control.

Blur tool

You don't need a fountain of youth to look younger in photos if you practice a little with the blur tool. Use a small brush or radius and paint over areas you want to soften. This removes harsh lines and shadows and creates a more youthful appearance.


Make your images look old, painted, pencil-sketched and more with filters and tools included in just about any photo editing software. Just try the various colors, textures and other effects until you get a version of your photo you like. Don't worry: You can always go back. Most programs allow you to undo any command; typically, you'll find "undo" under an "edit" menu. Plus, you've already backed up your original photo file... right?

Add text

Most programs enable you to add text to your photos. This is great when you want to create cards, invitations, placecards and the like. Just open or upload your photo, pick a font, and add your message.

Today's photo editing tools make great photos possible -- and fun -- for everyone.

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