You're Adjusting Your Adjustment
Digital editing has gotten easier over the years. So much so, it can sometimes be hard to know when to stop.
Although I can't find a shred of evidence to confirm it on the Google machine, I have distinct memories as a kid seeing a commercial on TV for an unknown brand of floor polish. That's always the case with ads — we remember the storyline but not the product. Anyway, a housewife in the ad was feverishly trying to achieve that perfect kitchen floor with a mop and bucket. The voiceover informs her, "you know, you're polishing the polish." The gist of the ad was that dirty wax from previous cleanings would build up on your floors, making the job increasingly difficult with each successive attempt.
A similar problem can complicate your efforts to edit and adjust your digital images.
There are countless programs out there that let you edit photos. Many follow a paradigm similar to what painters have done for untold centuries. With a brush, you can apply colors over top of whatever may already be on your canvas. Stroke by stroke, you build up edits until you achieve a satisfactory result. If you don't like what you have, you can apply more color at any point, but there's no way of undoing changes. All you can do is continually make changes to areas until you get what you are after. Adjust, adjust, and adjust some more. If you think this sounds primitive, it is. But it's surprising how many Photoshop users still employ this strategy. They merely continue painting over the top of what came before. Not everyone takes the time to learn about Layers and all those other Photoshop bells and whistles. And to be honest, you don't always need Layers. But it's often only too late that you realize you did.
Even Photoshop didn't have Layers in its initial releases. It wasn't until Version 3 in 1994, fully five years after the first versions were available commercially, that Adobe added Layers. It was the last version distributed on floppy disks, so we're talking about ancient history here. Layers let you peel away changes to return to what lies underneath. But it wasn't until the mid-nineties that computers were powerful to support Layers. And notably, it wasn't until then that anyone came up with a better paradigm for editing than paint on canvass.
Two years later, Version 4 added Adjustment Layers. Not everything lent itself to being done on traditional layers. Tools such as sharpening, levels, and saturation are supposed to modify the existing pixel values, not replace them entirely. And for those edits, we had to revert to destructively changing image pixels. Instead of more pixels, Adjustment Layers contain instructions that modify pixels. If you tweak the sliders in the Levels dialog on a pixel layer, it changes the values in that layer. Do the same thing on an Adjustment Layer, and it saves the value of each slider and setting on a layer and dynamically reapplies them as the image is displayed or printed. If you change your mind, you can freely modify those sliders until things look right, and it will be the result that gets reapplied, not each iterative change in between.
There are still limits this way, too. Every one of those layers takes time to render, and they all occupy space, both in memory and on disk. And while you can change Levels this way, you can't do sharpening and several other edits on Adjustment Layers. And then there are Smart Objects, but those can become a rabbit hole of a different type. If you work on an image lovingly enough and long enough, you can accumulate quite a few layers piled on top of each other in a rickety stack. Eventually, you find yourself thankful Adobe provided a scroll bar on the Layers list because you no longer know precisely what all those layers do. A minor tweak here, a masked adjustment layer there, and at some point, you lose track. And it becomes easier to add another adjustment layer at the top of the stack. Hopefully, Photoshop will be able to sort things out
Raw editing applications such as Lightroom generally don't support layers, but they employ a similar paradigm for non-destructive editing. The underlying raw data remains unaltered, and any adjustments you make are applied dynamically to provide the monitor display. They don't get baked in for good until you export an image to something other than a raw format or send the resultant data to a printer. And even though the appearance of those outputs is thereby fully committed, you still have your raw file intact. You may find yourself reprinting your print, but at least raw lets you tame most of your adjustment problems.
But even if your computer and software are finally up to the challenge, you can still have problems. In the end, you can become the problem yourself. The miracles made possible by technology can become so addicting that it can be hard to know when to stop. If an image looks somewhat better after a couple of changes, it's tempting to assume it will look even better with a couple more.
You can make a good image better with digital editing, but no amount of work can guarantee that you can save a bad one. Ultimately, adjusting your adjustments doesn't end until you are ready for it. Even with the best computer and software, my best advice is to get things right in-camera. I like it when I don't need to make many adjustments.