Image post-processing, a necessity or cheating?
I just finished reading Kirk Tuck’s blog post Hard work is hard. Everything changes. in which he compares the traditional photojournalist’s, get everything in camera, no post-processing allowed philosophy verses the more recent modifications are good, the more post-processing the better movement. That got me thinking about my views on post-processing images. I don’t have the years of experience that Kirk has in photography. If anything, I’m a newcomer, just getting seriously into photography less than 6 years ago. While I’m certainly old enough to have shot film, I never did any serious photography back in the film days. Back then I shot my point and shoot film camera and mainly took snaps during vacations. It wasn’t until digital that I really got interested in photography.
I must admit, I have a split perspective on this debate over post-processing. While chronologically, I’m now considered in middle age, at least according to Wikipedia, photographically, I’m more like a teenager. I’m old enough to appreciate the old photographic masters and the beautiful black and whites that I remember from my youth, while never actively participating in its creation. I find it very amusing that people younger than me, that grew up with film, wax poetically about how wonderful the film day’s were. I am a digital photographer. I have no true historic context and have no desire to return to the days of film. I am puzzled when people still seem to be stuck in the notion that images should not be post-processed. I see people brag that there was no post-processing done on the image and I think “Why?” you have a wonderful image, it could be so much better with post-processing. Why this hangup with no modifications after the shutter is clicked?
Ok, I’m not completely ignorant. I know there are still valid reasons to do things in camera without any (or much) modification. Photojournalists have a set of ethics that allow only minimal changes, if any, to their images. Their world is tricky because allowing changes is a slippery slope. What can they ethically change that doesn’t compromise their sense of journalistic integrity. While adding additional missiles and smoke trails to war footage certainly crosses the line, isn’t there some post-processing that improves the image and does not distort their message? I understand that high volume commercial photographers and event photographers need to get it right in camera so that they can minimize post-processing time. They run a business and any time spent cleaning an photograph or fixing things in post, takes money away from the bottom line. But how about the others. Artistic photographers, hobbyists and amateurs that have the time to craft each image. Why do some of these people get stuck on the notion that post-processing is no good or somehow is cheating? To me, creating the image starts with the camera and is only finished in post-processing. I feel the image coming out of the camera is still half-baked. Its potential is there but not fully realized.
That said, I see some of my fellow contemporary photographers take post-processing to a whole different level, and not all of it is very good. I understand why Kirk thinks HDR photographs are “Technicolor Vomit”. Yes, there are some truly horrific HDR images out there. And if it isn’t gaudy HDRs, then it’s their close cousins, which feature heavy textures on images, adds grunge and relies on retro cross-processing effects. Adding all this post-processing to a bad image does not improve the image, of course. So why go to extremes. There is a certain level of post-processing that can dramatically improve a good image but one does not have to resort to extreme HDR or other post-processing shenanigans to make an interesting image.
I remember when I first got into digital photography and I saw some spectacular imagery with rich colors that were tastefully done. I was perplexed because none of my images came close to what I saw. My images seem dull and flat in comparison and it wasn’t the lighting. There was something tangibly different. What I discovered and what is usually not talked about as openly (at least back then) was the amount of post-processing that goes into the best images out there. I’m not talking about radical changes or body and face sculpting done in fashion magazines. I’m talking about tasteful but dynamic changes that greatly enhance an image. What some people out there may not realize is that a digital image, particularly when taken in RAW, is purposely dull. It is up to the photographer to alter or post-process the image to bring out its full glory. That would include some sharpening to counteract the built-in blurring filter (the anti-aliasing filter) that purposely designed to make a digital image less sharp. The saturation of the image needs to be increased to bring out the true colors that were locked in the digital negative. So, when people take pride in the fact that their image is SOOC (Straight Out Of the Camera) they are actually short-changing their selves and their image. Color from film is different from digital color, but have you ever seen how vivid an image shot in Fujifilm’s Velvia really is? I was really surprised how dull much of the digital images are in comparison to film. Much of this, I contend, is due to the lack of good post-processing. I not proposing that we need to emulate the exact look of film, but I am saying that we should unleash the potential of digital.
I have improved my post-processing over the years, at least I think so. I know there is a lot more to learn and I’m sure the look of my images will change and evolve over time. But I realize that there is a middle ground between the old-fashioned no post-processing stance and the throw every crazy effect in the book point of view. I enjoy vibrant color but I also don’t want some trendy over-processed, over-hyped image. I realize the line between tasteful and gaudy is not always clear and its interpretation varies with the individual. I know at times, my image may step over that fuzzy line, though sometimes it is on purpose. I am gratified that even Kirk acknowledged that my HDRs weren’t too crazy. The photograph at the top is something that I recently posted on mostlyfotos. It is an example of my most recent post-processing style. Colorful but not crazy. I took a single RAW photograph with my Olympus E-PL1 with no HDR processing. For comparison, the image below is what the untouched original looks like. Life is too short to have dull, unprocessed images.
Make sure to click on a photograph to see a larger image. Hover over the photo to see the exposure details.
Here is a sample of my work. I’ve posted them on my one-photo-per-day photo blog, mostlyfotos. There are a lot of images so click the << Previous Photo link to see more. You can also hover over the photos to see the exposure information.