The Most Popular Photo Editing Styles and How to Use Them

Are you looking to understand the most popular photography editing styles today (and how to achieve them)?

We’ll take you through the top photo editing styles in today’s photography – and how you can use them to create beautiful edits.

How Are Photo Editing Styles Created?

Photo editing styles use three broad adjustments:

  • Tonal (lighting) adjustments. 
  • Color adjustments.
  • Special effects (such as grain, blur, and more).

Literally any photography style you encounter can be broken down into these three constituents.

In other words:

By mixing creative tonal, color, and special effects adjustments in different ways, you can end up with images that look radically different (i.e., they have completely different editing styles).

Some of these creative mixes are popular, and are used by photographers around the world.

Others are not so popular, and are used very infrequently.

And others are popular among certain groups of people (e.g., smartphone photographers often prefer a grungier look, whereas landscape photographers aim for more natural results).

Of course, this article cannot cover every editing style in existence; there are literally thousands.

But I will take you through plenty of the more popular styles, including methods of editing used by nature photographers, portrait photographers, street photographers, and more.

What You Need to Produce Beautifully-Styled Images

You’re probably wondering:

Can anyone create the edits that this article talks about?

Or do you need special software or camera equipment?

Software Recommendations

The truth is that these styles can generally be done by most popular editors today, including Lightroom, Luminar, ON1 Photo RAW, ACDSee, and more. 


If you want to be especially successful in applying a style, you may sometimes need to fine-tune your results with a program such as Adobe Photoshop or Affinity Photo

Is Photoshop a requirement?

Absolutely not. 

But it will let you hone in on certain aspects of your photos in a way that’s simply not possible in other editors. 

Camera Equipment Recommendations

In terms of camera equipment, I have two recommendations:

First, you need a camera that shoots in RAW.

Without RAW files, you just won’t have enough flexibility when editing your images. 

And your editing results will suffer. 

Fortunately, most cameras these days offer RAW files, including smartphone cameras (though you’ll need an app for this).

Second, I’d recommend using a camera with a decent-sized sensor.

What counts as decent-sized?

Go for a camera with at least a Four Thirds sensor. Anything over this is fine, including an APS-C sensor and a 35mm full-frame sensor. 

But anything under a Four Thirds sensor size (which includes all smartphones and some point-and-shoot cameras) is going to give you subpar results, especially when it comes to noise.

And if your images are full of noise, you’re not going to be able to get the clean edits that you’re after.

Related Post: The Best Noise Reduction Software

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the most popular photography editing styles today:

The Natural Style

A natural editing style is the most popular style of all – because it involves very few actual editing adjustments, and mostly relies on the beauty of your original photo. 

As the name suggests, it gives you a look similar to what your eyes saw when you took the photo, like this:

But the term “natural” is a bit misleading because creating a natural style does require some editing. 

Specifically, you’ll want to boost the contrast until your image starts to pop.

And you’ll want to increase the saturation or vibrance until the colors are in-line with what you saw when you took the photo. 

That way, you’ll get an image that looks natural, and also looks good.

The Matte Style

The matte style is popular among portrait photographers, some still-life photographers, and plenty of street or travel shooters.

It involves giving a faded look to your images, particularly in the shadows, like this:

And it’s very, very simple to produce. 

Simply head to the tone curve tool in your favorite editing program.

Then click and drag up the point at the bottom:

This will raise the black point, adding a nice fade to your image. 

Note that it’s possible to create a weak matte effect or a strong matte effect. This will depend on the extent to which you raise the black point, as well as the existing tones in your image. If your photo already has very dark tones, boosting the black point will be very noticeable. Whereas a photo with mostly brighter tones won’t experience much of an effect at all.

The HDR Style

The HDR style involves bright colors, plenty of visible tones, and increased crispness throughout an image. 

Like this:

You see, “HDR” stands for high dynamic range, and it refers to images that contain lots of detail, even in the dark and bright parts. 

Now, it’s possible to create a relatively natural-looking HDR image. And this “weak” HDR look is favored by landscape photographers, because it allows them to bring out details in dramatic skies as well as darker foregrounds. 

But you can also create a stronger HDR look by amplifying the HDR effect. 

If you’re after an HDR style, you can follow one of two approaches. 

First, you can capture multiple images of the same scene (using a tripod to prevent any movement from frame to frame), and ensure that they offer different exposure levels. In other words, you’ll want to capture a dark version of the shot, a mid-level version of the shot, and a bright version of the shot.

Then you can blend them together in a program such as Lightroom, Photoshop, or Aurora HDR

Once you have your blended image, you can boost the shadows and drop the highlights to give a weak HDR look (by bringing back detail into the bright areas of skies and the dark areas from everywhere else).

And if you want to take the HDR style to the next level – and get a stronger HDR look, as in the sample image above – you can crank up the shadows even more, while boosting the texture or clarity of the image and increasing color saturation. 

But while you’ll often want to use a blending technique to recover detail from high dynamic range scenes, you can also create an HDR look with a bit of clever editing. 

Simply boost the shadows significantly while dropping the highlights to prevent any overexposed skies. 

Then boost the clarity and the color saturation.

The image may turn out looking pretty garish…

…but if that’s the look you’re after, then go for it!

The Cinematic Style

These days, everyone wants to be able to create a cinematic style with their photos–so that it looks like their entire portfolio is made up of movie stills.

But how is this done? How can you produce consistently cinematic edits? 

First, you’ll want to drop the exposure of your image, for a darker, moodier look. 

You’ll also want to use your tone curve to boost the black point just slightly.

Then desaturate your image and add an orange/teal split tone for a nice finishing touch.

Easy, right?

The Vintage Style

Thanks to the prevalence of Instagram and VSCO filters, vintage edits are all the rage these days. 

They combine fades and light leaks with interesting color grades. 

To achieve a vintage photo editing style, start by slightly reducing the saturation of your image. 

Then boost the black point via the tone curve:

Add a yellow, red, blur, or purple look via the white balance tools, split toning tools, or with a photo filter. 

Finally, for an even more vintage effect, pop in some large grain, and throw in a low-contrast light leak or two.

The Bright and Airy Style

Bright and airy editing is great for upbeat portrait images and happy occasions (such as weddings!).

Plus, there are plenty of lifestyle photographers that use this editing style all the time to give their images a cheerier mood.

Here’s how to do it:

First, boost the exposure of your image so it’s slightly overexposed (without clipping the whites).

Then use the tone curve to boost the shadows, while keeping the highlights mostly intact.

Finally, add a light leak effect with some sort of gradient/graduated filter tool; use the filter to boost the exposure at the top of the image and add a bit of haze.

The Dark and Moody Style

The dark and moody style is great for photographers looking to give their photos a more mature look.

Here’s what you do:

First, drop your image’s exposure and highlights to get a darker effect. 

Then boost the whites to bring back some of the lighter tones.

Next, desaturate the image for a less colorful, moodier look.

And add a dark vignette around the edge of the frame. 

Cool down the white balance, then add blue in the shadows for an even heavier effect. 

And, as a final touch, add some grain.

You should end up with an image that’s deliciously dark and moody.

The Grunge Style

If you’re looking to make your images feel more intense, a grunge style is the way to go.

Now, some photo editors do have grunge filters, or grunge tools of some sort. So creating a grunge look is often as simple as boosting a slider. 

However, if you don’t use one of these editors, don’t worry; getting a grunge look isn’t hard!

First, boost the contrast of your image substantially. Then drop the saturation and boost the clarity or texture.

Next, add lots of large grain to your image. 

And if you want to really take things to the next level, add a grunge texture via an overlay tool. Open the texture, blend it with your image, and–voila!–you’ll have grunge.

The Black and White Style

While black and white editing isn’t exactly a style–in fact, there are many black and white styles – a black and white look can give your photo a timeless feel, so it’s worth mentioning. 

Most editors have a dedicated black and white conversion option. 

But note that you can also create a black and white image by completely desaturating your shot.

And if you’re looking to give your black and white photos a more unique look, you’re always free to add a color tint (via a split toning or color grading tool). 

This is an easy way to create a warmer feel, a colder feel, or something else entirely.

The Split Tone Style

Split toning is very common these days, especially when aiming to create a cinematic effect (described above).

But split toning, when done heavily, can create a look of its own. 

Specifically, the yellow highlights, blue shadows split tone is pretty common to see in photographers’ portfolios…

…which is why it’s a great look to try out!

Simply find the split toning option in your editing software of choice. 

And dial a bit of blue into the shadows while pushing a bit of yellow into the highlights. 

(You can also try orange highlights and green shadows; depending on the colors in your image, this may work better.)

You’ll end up with a result like this:

The High Contrast Style

High contrast images are pretty eye-catching.

Which is why you should absolutely know how to pull off this style. 

Fortunately, it’s easy to replicate. 

Simply boost the contrast in your photo. 

And, if you’re after a stronger look, drop the blacks while increasing the whites. 

Once you’ve done this, if you find your image seems to be lacking texture, you can always increase the clarity to make it pop more. 

Finally, I’d recommend dropping the saturation slider–because increasing the contrast will often make your colors pop an unpleasant amount.

Photography Editing Styles: The Next Step

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should know all about the most popular photography editing styles out there – and the editing that you can do to give your photos plenty of interesting moods. 

So open a photo and try applying some of these styles. Have fun! Experiment!

Eventually, you’ll even find a style of your own.

What is a photography editing style?

A photography editing style refers to a particular look, or theme, that you create in all of your photos. An editing style can be simple, such as a “bright and airy” look, or more complex, such as a “cinematic” look. You can also create a style by adding certain overlays to your work, or even by adjusting a single editing slider.

What are some popular editing styles in photography?

Popular styles include the matte style, which involves faded blacks; the cinematic style, which involves cool shadows (often teal) and warm highlights (often orange); the dark and moody style, which uses cool tones plus vignettes to create a somber feel; and the high contrast style, which involves really punching up that contrast for an in-your-face look.

How do photo editors create their own unique styles?

Photo editors create their own unique styles after years of practice and work. Developing a style is usually a gradual process. Once you’ve learned plenty of editing techniques, you might find yourself gravitating toward a handful of them, which you start applying to all your photos, which keeps your images looking similar and leads to a unique style!

How do you create a consistent editing style?

Consistent editing styles generally rely on a specific technique or a particular set of adjustments when post-processing. For instance, you might like to create flare in all of your images; that’s a way you could create a consistent style. Alternatively, you might desaturate all your photos, or you might increase the brightness of green colors, or add blues into the shadows. Really, you can experiment with all sorts of edits until you find one that you like, then start applying it to your photos more regularly!

Do you need a photo editing style?

That depends on your goals as a photographer. Plenty of photographers–especially hobbyists–don’t really having an editing style; instead, they edit their photos on a photo by photo basis, and experiment happily with different styles and looks. However, professionals do tend to have their own style, which stems from their vision: What is it that they want to convey in their images? What is it that they would like to show the viewer? Editing styles can also be useful if you wish to make your work seem cohesive; a portfolio with a single editing style can often seem much more striking than a group of individual photos that are good individually but have nothing holding them together.

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