11 contemporary photo editing styles to learn to keep your feeds fresh

Man at his desk with a monitor.

The photo editing capabilities at your fingertips are more amazing now than ever. Whether you are crafting Instagram stories to pop off the screen, enhancing images for your portfolio, or transforming flamingos into clouds, there is a photo editing solution for you.

Powerful post-processing techniques and filters — or presets — define modern photography regardless of genre. Nature photographers and pet photographers rely on editing to help their subjects shine despite unpredictable environments. Wedding photographers use filters — such as black and white, or vintage — when their client wants striking photos in a setting where the lighting is anything but. And sports photographers use filters in bright gyms or outdoors

The sheer number of filters, presets, and editing techniques out there can be a little overwhelming. By beginning with the list below, you’ll set yourself up to inspire and impress regardless of your chosen field of photography.

1. HDR editing

HDR stands for high dynamic range — as opposed to short dynamic range. An HDR preset allows you to capture more of the details visible to the human eye. Your camera will take at least three photos at different exposures. Then, you use photo editing software to merge the exposures. Next, with a customizable HDR preset you can bring out the colors and deepen the shadows to your specifications.

HDR image of nature.

If you are shooting a river photo on a sunny day, for example, your standard camera lens won’t fully convey the piercing intensity of the sun’s glare on the water, nor the depth of the willow’s shade onto film. But with HDR editing, you can produce a photo that comes closer to the stunning contrasts of that dynamic scene.

2. Retro and vintage

When you think of vintage or retro photography, you may think of an old 35mm SLR (single-lens reflex camera) or an antique camera from the 19th century. These cameras and their accessories are no longer readily available. Digital editing enables you to achieve a throwback feel without sacrificing the convenience and versatility of a modern camera.

Retro style photograph of a woman and a horse.

Photo editing software, such as Photoshop and Lightroom, can achieve retro looks using a multitude of vintage filters — or “actions” — that impart predesigned monochromatic or saturation effects to photos. Or, you could use a preset that gives you more room to customize and work with the color balance, allowing you to dim things down, add grain, and create your own light leaks.

3. Black-and-white

Black-and-white photography is a timeless art form and so is the process of deciding which of your photos will look better in black and white.

Black and white style photograph of a ballet dancer.

You could shoot with black-and-white film, but it will limit your range during a photo session. What if some of your images belong in the full-spectrum world of color and others don’t? A black-and-white filter or preset gives you the best of both, letting you transform images that benefit from grayscale and leave others that come most alive in color.

Selecting a black-and-white preset is only the first step, however. Next comes altering the color values of an image, creating striking contrasts in grayscale.

For example, if you are shooting a portrait against a leafy backdrop, turning up the yellow filter will expose your subject’s skin tone, while turning down the green filter will underexpose the backdrop, allowing your subject to stand out with a lighter shade of gray. Ultimately, a black-and-white preset enables a surprising dynamism in photos that otherwise appear flat.

4. Clean editing

When you clean-edit a photo, you return the image to its natural state. Every photographer has been in a situation where, due to lighting issues or interruptions, their subject is distorted in the final photo. Nature photography, with its reliance on the unpredictable, is particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. With clean editing, you adjust things like sharpness, color temperature, and clarity to eliminate artificial distortions.

For example, say you are shooting a hummingbird. In the background, the light glints off the hard metal surface of a passing boat, which causes your camera’s focus to shift. You snap the photo, and the bird flits away.

Photograph of a woman bathing a child.

With a clean edit, you’ll allow the viewer to see how the hummingbird looked hovering in the air, because you can eliminate the distraction that caused the camera to alter the subject’s image.

5. Matte effect

The matte effect is particularly in vogue now thanks to its emphasis on softening the contrast of light and shadow in images. This in turn reduces the photo’s sharpness and glare, bringing out the textures and allowing photo editors to adjust the mood to suit the moment.

The matte effect is popular in modern photography because of the history of matte painting in movies and TV. Painters create matte paintings as set pieces in scenes, which provide stylized backgrounds, such as futuristic cityscapes or immense, distant landscapes. Similarly for your photos, the matte effect can help you stylize to evoke emotion just as the movies and TV shows do.

For example, using the matte effect, soft-serve ice cream can appear even softer, and a dreamy, post-sunrise meadow landscape even dreamier.

Photograph of a kitten on a bed.

6. Natural and soft

Another hot photo editing look comes from smoothing over light’s harsh edges. Popularized by smartphone camera settings like “vivid warm” and “dramatic warm,” these cozy images are all over Instagram and easy to create. Just apply a filter or work with the tone and presence in post-edits.

Photograph of a woman standing on a road in the wind.

For example, the polarizer filter allows you to lessen the amount of glare. Doing so won’t fully alter the image you are shooting — it will still look natural — but it will soften up the lighting. In this way, you can diffuse the light and lower its polarizing influence so that a viewer’s attention goes to the subject of your photo instead of the unfiltered image’s bright, abrasive tone.

7. High contrast

High-contrast photo editing is all about vibrancy — vivid colors, rich textures, dark blacks, and bright whites. When you edit an image to increase the contrast, you make the colors pop out at the viewer. In landscape photography, for example, this creates edgy and exciting photos — think deep-purple mountains with sharp white caps, well-delineated ridgelines, and powerful, bold shadows. This captures the vitality of nature.

Photograph of female swimmer.

The difference between high- and low-contrast photos is that low-contrast creates warmer and softer photos, while high contrast images encapsulate the extreme variance between darkness and light. If you want the stars to be sharp pin pricks in the black blanket of night, go with high-contrast editing.

8. Collages

Photo collage editing is a fun and accessible form of connecting images to tie together a sequence of events. You can combine all of last summer’s camping shots onto a memory board, for example, and memorialize your trip’s highlights on a living room wall, or narrate a birth story on a nursery wall. Collages can also take digital form, such as a short compilation video of images to post on YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook, or any other social platform.

Collage of a cityscape.

9. Artistic effects

As we mentioned at the top of this post, you can indulge your inner artist by using photo editing software to blur the lines between imagination and reality.

Illustration of a buffalo in the forest.

One particularly popular example of this kind of work is composites. By using Photoshop to piece together separate images, today’s photo editors are generating fantasy-like worlds that range from the whimsical to the surreal and provocative.

Graphic illustration of a woman with flowers.

Other ways to incorporate artistic effects include adding thematic shapes, colors, and text, over-saturating a photo to bring out colors that are otherwise barely perceptible and adding a splash of color to a single object in an otherwise black-and-white photo.

To begin, use filters and create presets to achieve the tone you are looking for then dive into the huge array of software effects and manipulation techniques that are available.

10. Cross processed

Traditional cross processing is the practice of developing photographic film deliberately in a chemical solution intended for a different type of film. This does unexpected, strange, and even beautiful things to the contrasts and colors. You will see otherworldly tones or muted shades — a red sky that was once blue, a sickly green subway corridor. There are digital methods for achieving these effects as well.

Photograph of a beach.

You will not get an unpredictable result as you would with traditional cross processing, but the cross-processing preset in Photoshop gives you similar artistic control. Simply apply the preset to saturate the dominant color in an image. Or adjust the red, blue, and green channels separately and curve them as much as you want to take the image into wild realms.

11. Damaged film look

Similar to vintage/retro editing, the damaged film effect takes a standard, everyday photo and makes it look grainy, scratched, blotchy, or distorted. Many downloadable film textures morph a crisp digital photo into something that looks old and degraded. You apply the texture to your photo, blend the texture and the photo to your specifications, adjust the exposure, and your photo looks damaged but the subject remains intact.

Photograph in a damaged film style of a man with a parachute.

How to find your own photo editing style

Nailing your own style that differentiates your photo edits from everyone else’s can be difficult. The key is to play around. You will often hear professional photographers say you shouldn’t overdo it with photo editing. Nothing can replace proper use of composition and lighting when it comes to giving you the best images to work with.

However, there is still the fact that photo editing is part of every professional photographer’s arsenal and the pros do not get where they are without experimenting. Start with an easy and fun mobile tool like Photoshop Express. Learn by making mistakes and when you go back to correct those mistakes, do it with an eye for detail.

Here are some quick tips on capturing your vision using Lightroom:

As you get deeper into Lightroom, you will discover that nearly every photo deserves its own level of attention. Your presets will come in handy, but you’ll be tweaking things as you go.

Once you are familiar and comfortable with Photoshop Express and Lightroom, you can get granular and access premium features with Photoshop. Whatever program you decide to use, the fact that you are having fun and exploring the possibilities means you are developing your style.