The mere act of processing images seems to easily cause debate. There are those that feels it’s an “anything goes”-game. Others that feel it’s an unmissable part of photography. And finally those that will call all of it ‘photoshopping’, with a clear negative meaning that any change to a photo after the fact is faking it. Finally, a lot of people somewhere in between these 3 points.
The underlying and more interesting question is when a photo is really done. At what point in the chain of events is it complete?
This is a topic that is food for thought for any photographer that is serious or halfway serious about his or her craft. When am I done, and what does it take to get there?
It is all about intent. As with the selection of the gear you use, the way and extent to which you use tools available is driven by your intent. Post-processing and software is one of those tools, and certainly one of the most versatile and capable tools.
Fine, intent. What kind of intent?
Frankly, I think the main driver should be the final presentation. An all-digital presentation requires different optimisations than a print might need. An audio-visual presentation requires different thinking than a web gallery. For those shooting raw files in their camera, you’ll always need software to share your image. For those shooting film and wanting to make prints, moving to computer files and software post-processing might be an unnecessary detour. The level of post processing you can achieve in the dark room may be a bit less than you can in software, but it’s not zero.
Intent is also related to the content of the image, and photography styles.
The content always matters. Content in the widest sense of the word, in this case. The subject of the photo, the framing, the colours, the elements, the parts in focus and parts out of focus. All the content.
Content often drives the choice for a style of photography, a ‘look’. But the way the image will be presented and the content also interact with each other.
A highly saturated photo can work well on a LCD screen or projected with a beamer; in a print, it quickly becomes too much. Same for high contrast, high levels of sharpening or very deep shadow areas. Prints simply require a different touch than a screen-based presentation.
But perhaps a simpler example. Some photos cry out for black and white, but they happen to be in colour. The obvious next step is conversion to black and white. Matching the content to the desired final outcome (the intent).
Cropping out undesired elements at the edges of an image. Changing the image from 3:2 ratio to a square ratio. Adjusting colours to better match the next image in a series that will be displayed as a slideshow. Content and intent do go hand in hand.
Which again begs the question: when is the image complete? The answer seems rather obvious: when the maker feels it is ready to be presented in the way the maker envisioned it. When content and intent align.
This assumes an end to end vision, and honestly, I think most amateur photographers (definitely me included) do not always plan this far ahead. But I also think that most who are somewhat serious develop a sense for what to do when we see the first results: is this image good enough, and if yes, how do I get the best out of it? Will I ever print it?
That’s content driving intent, but it still means that the work on the image will aim to align the content to the intent.
The issue with Photoshopping
The negative connotation with photoshopping is fairly wide-spread; I can’t say I’m not guilty of it.
For me, it seems driven by two elements: photographers that start editing images without a clear idea where they want to end up, and photos where the used effect is the main reason for existence. HDR landscapes with lots of tonemapping come to mind. The first is missing intent, the second is all intent without any consideration of the content.
In both cases, it’s content taking a backseat to the tools. The tools are not at fault here. It’s the intent, or lack thereof, with which they are used.
But what often happens is that these results are seen as the fault of the tools used. Outcry follows, and we should all abandon these tools. A rather silly conclusion, yet I’ve heard it more often that I’d like to count.
The non-issue with Photoshopping
There is no issue with using Photoshop (or similar tools). Really, none. As long as you use them with a goal in mind, with a purpose and restraint. Just because you can do anything, doesn’t mean you should do anything.
These editing tools are also an enabler, allowing photography to expand in areas that were more complicated to achieve with old (chemical) processes. Consider things like abstract photography, or conceptual art. Here we’re getting into areas of ‘heavy photoshopping’. But that high level of processing ís the making of the image. The image that formed when the camera clicked – that’s just an ingredient. The editing software is a key element of the creative expression. Keep in mind what the intent is.
A far more common example, though, is what I’d call optimising the image. This is not heavy editing work in the sense of changing the content in a clear way, but rather bringing out the content better. It’s the kind of post-processing that is easy to undervalue (“putting a dot on the i”). Like seasoning a dish. And it’s a huge misunderstanding to throw on the same heap as those HDR landscapes (which is more like hiding the dish in a pile of seasoning).
Simple actions, like adjusting white balance or contrast, removing blemishes or converting to black and white. Simple actions, like conversion of your raw file to a format you can share or print.
This is for most photographers post processing. It’s not vastly different from darkroom techniques like dodge, burn, split grading and so on. Purists who condemn all post processing, take note: good post processing is invisible to the viewer. It just ensures that intent, content and final presentation align.
I guess it’s clear where I stand. No, I’m certainly not against using post processing tools. But it’s not an “anything goes” game. It’s also not unmissable in the vast majority of cases, but like a good dish, adding the right amount of salt and pepper matters.
The keys are restraint and knowing where you go. Post processing is not a goal in itself. It fits the larger scheme of making your photos work and getting the best out of them. A mighty handy tool in the toolbox. Not to be dismissed, but still, just a tool.
P.S. as in Post Scriptum. Not as in PhotoShop.
So far, I’ve liberally called it all Photoshopping and used Photoshop as a synonym for image editing software. Truth is, I think for the vast majority of photographers, tools as Photoshop are a wrong choice. Personally, I own and use Affinity Photo, but I use it for a very small percentage of my photos. Yet, nearly every image I decide to keep sees a level of post-processing.
Affinity Photo, Photoshop or Photoshop Elements: they’re the complete toolbox, with every screwdriver, chissle, hammer, drill you could ever need. Most of the time, you just need a Philips screwdriver, and the rest of the toolbox just gets in your way.
Tools like Lightroom or Capture One are far better optimised for the job. They do less, but what they do, they do easier and generally quicker. Most photographers, in my humble opinion, are much better served with these tools. They restrain your post-processing, and make you focus on the necessary, not the possible.
If you really need Photoshop, you know you do. If you don’t know whether you need it, then full-blown Photoshop or Affinity Photo are most probably not your ideal choices, no matter how good they are.
Personal post scriptum…
My personal preference for 98-99% of what I do is Capture One. I much prefer it over Lightroom because I find the user interface a lot nicer, cleaner and more focussed. That’s pure personal preference, no more. I’m not an expert user of Capture One by any stretch of imagination. But even so, in my hands, it’s a far more effective tool than Lightroom. Your hands aren’t mine, so your mileage may differ.
Instead of Photoshop, I use Affinity Photo. Costs a lot less, and what you sacrifice isn’t functionality I particularly miss. I really like the Affinity products for the great value-for-money they represent, so if you never heard of them, worth taking a look. But, as much as I like Affinity Photo, I use it only on a very, very small percentage of my photos.
In any case – invest time into learning your tool of choice, so that it brings you the best benefits. Invest time in selecting the tool that works for you. The only one who can decide what works for you, is you. Use trial software to make your choice; you don’t need to use a tool just because all others use it too.
And no, nobody is paying me for my opinion. No affiliate links or advertising on this page. I use these tools because they work for me, that’s it.