Don't Use Instagram Filters -- Here's How to Edit Your Pics Like a Pro

Published On 10/10/2016 Published On 10/10/2016
spotify filters photo editing
Oren Aks/Thrillist

In your rush to post the perfect shot of that #sinful stack of pancakes at #brunch, did you thoroughly check that your contrast levels were on point, and the glare from the windows in the background didn't totally blow out the details? Or did you just slap on a Valencia filter and call it a day?

There's nothing wrong with rushing through post-production in pursuit of those tasty, tasty likes, but ever wonder what you could be doing better? We asked our photo editor Drew Swantak (on Instagram, @drewswantak) for expert tips on how to get past Insta-filters, which often do more harm than good to your photos, by doing a custom edit job yourself. Time to turn your #nofilter into #profilter. 

To ensure you don't get lost in a jumble of photo jargon, here's a primer on what the Instagram editing tools actually do:

Brightness: Pretty straightforward, this can brighten up a dark image and darken a bright one
Contrast: When turned up, it exaggerates the darks and lights in an image, and softens them when turned down
Saturation: Increasing this adds strength/intensity to the colors in your image, and vice versa
Warmth: Turning this up brings out "warm" colors (oranges, red, and yellows, generally); turning it down brings out "cool" colors (like blues, purples, and greens). This tools can be used to change the mood of a photo, or to bring colors into balance.
Sharpen: Turning this up focuses and clarifies your image and makes everything a little crisper
Highlights: Adjusting this will affect all of the brightest parts of your image -- bumping it up will make the brightest parts of your image even more vibrant, and moving it down will bring down the brightness in those sections to reveal more detail in them that may have been washed out by excessive light. This can be a huge help if a particular section of your image is blown out by a too-bright light source or the sun.
Shadows: This does essentially the same thing as Highlights, but for the dark areas of an image. So turn it up to see what's hiding in the shadows, or turn it down to darken.

Oren Aks/Thrillist

Low-light portrait

Best filter option: Lark
The edit: For this image, we brought the brightness up about 40 points to compensate for the crappy lighting, brought contrast up 20 points, increased the warmth by 10 points, brought the saturation up to five, and sharpened it up to10.

Brightness and contrast do a lot of the work in a low-light edit. Also, it's important not to over-saturate. It can be tempting, especially if the lighting is poor, but a little goes a long way (especially when you're turning it up). An over-saturated image often looks like it's been over-edited, and you don't want that.

Oren Aks/Thrillist


Best filter option: Lark
The edit: For this we bumped up the contrast by 25 points, bumped up brightness by 20, and increased the sharpness by 10. We also raised the warmth by 30 in order to balance the image, which balanced out the colors of original image.

The warmth tool is particularly effective in enhancing certain elements of nature. In this instance, the greens in the original image looked too blue, so boosting the warmth added yellow tones to balance the green and make it pop more. With nature shots in particular, use the warmth tool to bring out the mood or season you're trying to capture.

Oren Aks/Thrillist


Best filter option: Clarendon
The edit: For this overhead ramen shot, we brought up the contrast and brightness 60 and 40 points, respectively. Additionally, we took the warmth down 20 points, and brought both saturation and sharpness up 10 points, to make details more pronounced and give it an overall more appetizing appearance.

As you can see, the original is sort of a mishmash of boring beige tones, which is no good when you're dealing with most subjects, especially food. Bringing up the brightness, plus adding contrast to dramatically differentiate between lights and darks, allows the details to pop and consequently makes it look a whole lot more appetizing. Opposite of what we did in the green-hued landscape photo, dropping the warmth accentuates the browns and beiges in the ramen bowl. Drew suggests that whenever possible you should shoot food pics under diffused natural light (e.g., light coming through a window), as it'll be much easier to get a decent shot.

Oren Aks/Thrillist

Daytime portrait

Best filter option: Juno
The edit: For this daytime portrait, we bumped up the contrast to 30, decreased the warmth and saturation by 10 apiece, and sharpened it by 10.

Drew reminds us that you should do what you can to compose the best raw image so edits are minimal. In this particular instance, that would have meant enabling the camera's HDR (high dynamic range) feature, which captures the same image multiple times at different exposure levels and combines them to create a composite image in which the darks aren't too dark and the brights aren't too bright. 

Oren Aks/Thrillist


The best filter: Clarendon
The edit: This one needed to be straightened up a bit, then we brought the brightness up by 30, the contrast up by 50, and reduced saturation by 30. Because of the dramatic ways the lights were hitting, we also took down the shadows by 10 and brought up sharpness by 10. 

To avoid the dramatic glare of the overhead lights, Drew notes that we could have used our hand's shadow like a shield to reduce how much of the light was hitting the lens when we initially took the photo. 

Oren Aks/Thrillist


Best filter option: Juno
The edit: For this architectural shot, we brought down both highlights and shadows by 30 to get a better picture of both the shadow and the glare inside the tunnel, brought saturation down by 20, and sharpened it up by 10. 

To the untrained eye, the differences between these three are negligible. There have been some subtle changes made, but the fact that it required very few edits speaks to the notion that a low touch is sometimes all you need. Obviously details are important in architecture, so sharpening does a lot to pronounce some of the faint elements here in the wood grain and stone.

Drew also noted that there were two ways to go with this image edit -- either try to pull out more detail from the highlights (the end of the tunnel), or do what we did here, keeping the highlights completely blown out/white. In the end, though, it's up to your personal preference. 

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist, and dreams of #instafame. Just kidding, they're nightmares.

Drew Swantak is Thrillist's photo editor. Follow his professionally edited Instagram feed @drewswantak.


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