I wanted to step back and take a very elementary look at editing, and try to convince you that the basics of editing are not hard at all, and definitely worth your time.
To do this, I want to show you how to use Google's free and amazing image organization and editing tool, Picasa. There's no fancy software or equipment required here, just a point-and-shoot digital camera and a free tool you can find on the web. You can download Picasa for the PC here or the Mac, here.
Managing Your Photos
Talking about managing photos has always seemed boring to me, but trust me, you'll appreciate what Picasa can do here.
Picasa is a superb tool for organizing your collection of photos. Some highlights are that it allows you to create 'virtual albums' which allow you to create a collection of photos without having them all live in the same directory on your computer. Also, it automatically creates backups of the originals of your photos so that you don't have to invent your own file naming scheme for maintaining original vs. edited copies of your files.
I want focus mainly on editing here, so to get you hyped about Picasa's many other cool features, I'll just point you to a video Google has created to show off Picasa, here.
On to Editing
When Jess and I first started managing our digital photos from trips we had taken and outings with our friends, probably 6 years ago now, we used a Windows tool called Microsoft Office Picture Manager. It had an 'auto-correct' button, and we'd go through all of our photos and auto-correct them. Usually the result was great, but if it was horrible we'd just undo it and move on.
Picasa has the same feature, but with a bit of a Google spin to it, as it's labeled the "I'm feeling lucky" button.
If you're someone who likes to take and share pictures (and of course you are), but doesn't want to learn a lot about editing, just hit this button. You'll be blown away by the results on many of your photos.
Here are a few before-and-after images that have been auto-corrected by Picasa. I honestly only had to hit one button. These are snapshots we took on a trip to Italy in 2005 with a 4 megapixel Olympus point-and-shoot, so nothing fancy here!
Eventually you will come across some photos where the auto-correct seems to do more harm then good. I think the "I'm feeling lucky" button is often just the same as hitting both the "Auto Color" and "Auto Contrast" buttons that are right next to it. Typically if you feel like Picasa didn't auto-correct the image well it's because it didn't get the auto color right. Try just hitting Auto Contrast and leaving it at that.
Ready for a little more control, eh? There's a few other simple corrections you can make.
1. Fill Light
On the basic tab, notice the "Fill Light" slider towards the bottom. This is a handy, seemingly magical tool that fixes a common problem with photos. When we take snapshots, we rarely put much effort into getting perfect, even lighting on the scene. Your eye adjusts to different lighting conditions easily, so you don't really notice when, because of the direction or source of light, your subject is actually much darker than everything around it. The result is that your subject looks too dark in the final photo. Fortunately, the fill light tool can help. Push the slider towards the right and you will see your subject lighten up, as if someone had placed a "fill light" on the ground in front of you to brighten your subject.
This picture was taken in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome. The fountain's in full sun, but we're sitting in the shade. I auto-corrected the image then added some fill light so you could still make out our faces. Man, we look young there!
Go to the Effects page and click 'Saturation'. Most photos can benefit from a bit of a saturation boost, which will give the photo's colors some more punch.
Show some restraint, though! It's easy to get carried away with saturation and end up with some electric colors that don't look natural. Watch the areas of your photo that already have bright colors. If boosting the saturation causes you to lose a lot of detail in those areas, you're going too far.
Picasa doesn't include a contrast slider, but if you look at the 'Tuning' page you'll see a 'Shadows' slider which allows you to darken the shadows and a 'Highlights' slider that allows you to brighten the highlights.Giving each of these a bump can add some extra contrast to your photo.
Experiment on your own
Picasa has a lot of other neat features, but I don't want to overwhelm you. Just play with what you've seen here, and eventually you'll be comfortable enough to start exploring.
For those of you who are already fairly comfortable doing some basic editing, I wanted to point out a couple other tools in Picasa that I think are really neat. One is the 'Retouch' tool, which allows you to easily remove dust marks and blemishes. The other is the 'Sharpening' effect, which applies some sharpening to your photos and can really help your photos look more crisp. Both of these features are things you usually only get in more powerful editors that you have to pay for, so it's really cool that Picasa includes them. I should say, too, that Picasa implements them very well and they're very simple to use.
Picasa's tools for helping you organize and play with your photos are a good enough reason to use it alone, but it also makes editing your photos so easy that there's really no excuse for not doing it. So go download it and have some fun!