How to Edit Your Digital Photos Using Adobe Photoshop Elements

In an earlier post on editing photos, I outlined the ten basic steps that most digital camera (or camera phone) pictures can benefit from. In this article, I provide a detailed description of how to use manual adjustments in Adobe Photoshop Elements to edit a JPEG file. I'm using Elements 12 on a Windows computer for the screen shots. If you work with a different version, your screen will be different but the tools and commands are the same.

If you have captured your image in a RAW file format (e.g. Canon's CR2 or Nikon's NEF), then you would need to first open it with a raw conversion program such as Adobe Camera Raw or Adobe Lightroom to turn it into a JPEG file before following these steps. 

Before editing

After editing

1. Select
Always start with the best photo you have. Take several frames so you have choices. The picture with the best exposure, best color, best focus, and best composition or expression is the easiest to improve with the least amount of effort and time. Import your photos into Elements' Organizer so you can easily compare several similar pictures side by side to choose the best one.

Best shot of the series selected in the Organizer

2. Copy
This is the most important step in the whole process. Make a copy of your photo to edit. Do NOT work on the original. If you make a mistake, you want to be able to start over. If you have saved over the original file, you can't do this. Use File > Save As to give the picture a different name than the original photo. I like to include the file number the camera gave the image so I can easily find the original version in the future. 

In the Save As dialog, Elements provides the option to include your edited photo in the Elements  Organizer. If you also turn on the Save in Version Set with Original check box, Elements preserves the original file name and adds "Edited-1" to the end of the name. Of course, you can modify this name as you like.

Windows Save As dialog with Include in the Organizer and Save in Version Set selected

3. Rotate and Straighten
If you made a vertical photo, you may need to turn it right side up before continuing with your editing process. Use Image > Rotate and select the appropriate direction.

If the picture is tilted, now is the time to straighten it so everything is perfectly horizontal or vertical. Select the Straighten Tool in Elements and drag along the line you want to fix. You can use either a horizontal or vertical line as a reference. If you want to use a vertical line, first click the starting point, then press the Ctrl key (Mac: Command key) and hold it while you drag. If you don't use the Ctrl key (Mac: Command key), your photo will rotate 90 degrees! 

Original photo
After using the Straighten Tool along the top of the metal fence

If you have a building picture in which the structure seems to be leaning over backwards (called "keystoning"), you can use Filter > Correct Camera Distortion to straighten it.

4. Crop
Use Elements' Crop Tool to remove unwanted background or edge details and better focus attention on your subject. You can also use cropping to fit the picture to a specific print size, such as 4x6 inches or 8x10 inches. I generally leave cropping to a specific size until after I'm finished with the overall edits. (See step 7.)

After using the Crop Tool

5. Expose
Adjust how light or dark the photo is. Darkening a slightly bright picture makes the colors richer. Brightening a slightly dark photo makes the colors more visible.

In Elements, the best way to do this is using Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Levels. This dialog displays a histogram (looks like a mountain range) of your image's brightness. There are three triangle sliders below the histogram. Black and shadows are to the left. White and highlights are to the right. The gray slider controls the brightness between black and white.

Levels dialog showing the histogram with three triangles below

If there is space at the black or white ends of the histogram, drag the triangles to where the graph begins. Then move the middle slider left or right to lighten or darken the picture overall.

After moving the middle gray slider in Levels to brighten the image slightly

6. Color correct
If the photo has an unwanted color cast (maybe too orange for an indoor photo or too blue for an outdoor photo), adjust the color to something more neutral. 

In Elements, use Enhance > Adjust Color > Remove Color Cast to fix color problems. If the first click doesn't give you the color you want, click the Reset button and click on a different part of the photo. Best results come from clicking on a neutral gray or white area with details. 

Remove Color Cast dialog

After clicking the Remove Color Cast eyedropper on the white garbage can

Also consider making the colors slightly more intense by increasing their saturation. For the opposite effect, remove all the color for a black and white version. 

Using Enhance > Adjust Color > Adjust Hue/Saturation in Elements allows you to make colors more vivid by dragging the Saturation slider to the right. If you drag the Saturation slide all the way to the left, you can create a black and white version.

Hue/Saturation dialog

After dragging the Saturation slider to the right to intensify the colors

This is also a good time to repair any red eyes in your portraits. Elements' Red Eye Repair Tool also lets you fix unnatural colors in your pet's eyes.

7. Size
If you did not crop to a specific print size in Step 4, now is the time to do this. Using the Crop Tool lets you set both the dimensions and the quality in one step. If you are making a print of your photo, use inches as your measurement (e.g. 5x7 inches). Also be sure you have enough pixels for a quality print. Usually 200 pixels per inch (a "resolution" setting) is sufficient.

Elements provides Tool Options for the Crop Tool. Here you can select a specific print size from the drop down menu and type a resolution number in the appropriate box. I've sized this image for a 4x6 inch print at a resolution of 200 pixels/inch..

Crop Tool Options set for a 4x6 inch image with a Resolution of 200 pixels per inch

After cropping to 4x6 inch size

If you are sharing your photo by email or social media sites such as Facebook or Flickr, use pixels as your measurement. I recommend limiting your web photos to 800 pixels on the longest side. This ensures that the file is small enough to upload quickly and small enough to be seen all at once, without your viewer having to scroll. 

The easiest way to do this in Elements is using Image > Resize > Image Size. In the top section under Pixel Dimensions, change the largest number to 800 and click OK. (You do not need to specify a resolution for screen photos.) This will shrink your photo on the screen but make it an appropriate size for the Internet.

Image Size dialog with the largest Pixel Dimensions set to 800 pixels for a web image

8. Sharpen
After sizing your photo, you want to be sure the edges are crisp. Use the minimum amount of sharpening necessary; an over-sharpened image looks worse instead of better.

Start by displaying your photo at 100% view so you can accurately judge the effect of your sharpening. In Elements this is View > Actual Pixels. For the best result, use Enhance > Adjust Sharpness. Leave all the choices at their default settings and move the Amount slider to increase or decrease the sharpening effect. It is helpful to go too far with the slider and then back off to achieve an appropriate amount of sharpening. Also use the Preview check box to see a before and after version of your change. When in doubt, use less sharpening rather than more. An image you size for the web needs much less sharpening than one you size for print.

Adjust Sharpness dialog with the Amount slider changed

After sharpening with Adjust Sharpness

9. Save
Now that you've finished improving your photo, be sure to save your results. Use File > Save to apply all the changes to the copy of the picture you have been working on.

10. Print or Email or Upload
The improved version of your picture is finally ready to share! Put it on a CD or thumb drive (jump drive) to take to a photo lab for printing. Attach it to an email message. Or upload it to your favorite photo sharing site. Then sit back and wait for the compliments to come in!