The Post-Processing Debate

An interesting article over at Outdoor Photographer about post-processing of images. This subject comes up time and again and I think, for the most part, that it’s a load of nonsense. If there was a way of accurately recording a scene such that it was a perfect facsimile of the landscape in front of the lens, then fair enough, we could debate the issue of post-processing. But there is no device and I suspect there never will be.

Every camera (and I mean every individual camera, not just every model) is different. Every individual lens is different. Every CMOS sensor in the back of every camera is slightly different, every mirror slightly different. Two photographers standing side-by-side with identical cameras and lenses and with identical settings will take slightly different photos. To put it simply there is no way of totally accurately recording a scene photographically.

So bearing all that in mind – isn’t it slightly ludicrous to suggest that post-processing is somehow changing the veracity of a scene? Surely changing the exposure and aperture on a lens is changing the scene in how it differs to its equivalent on the back of our own retinas – how is that any different to performing some touch-up work in Photoshop? Sure it’s great to get an aesthetically pleasing image straight out of the camera, but does it really matter?

One Last Breath

I took this photo with my 50mm prime lens, while lying on my stomach on the riverbanks of the Shoalhaven as the sun set in front of me. This is exactly how it came out of the camera and has had no post-processing applied to it whatsoever.

Ever since the invention of photography, photographers have been playing fast and loose with the images they capture. Dodging and burning are not terms dreamt up by the Adobe Photoshop team, they were the invention of photographers who manipulated the negative an enlarger was shining through in order to increase contrast in an image by brightening (dodging) and darkening (burning) areas on the photographic paper. Ansel Adams, one of the most celebrated photographers of all time, used to labour over his images in the darkroom.

And what about the paper that negatives were printed on? Every paper was chosen for its unique traits – Fuji Velvia for instance for its saturated colours. Surely that is no different to tweaking the saturation in Photoshop? And of course the film that was used had a huge bearing on how an image turned out – some worked well in low light, others didn’t. There are such a huge number of variables that govern how a photo turns out, that to suggest that any particular recording of a scene is somehow more truthful than another is slightly bizarre. It seems to me that it’s the old analog versus digital debate – if you do it the old way with an enlarger then it’s fair game, but using modern tools like Photoshop is verboten.

This photo might look like I've gone a bit over the top with the sliders, but it is actually completely unprocessed. The saturated colours are the result of an ND filter with a purplish colour cast and a polariser and a soft 18-55mm kit lens.

This photo might look like I’ve gone a bit over the top with the sliders, but it is actually completely unprocessed. The saturated colours are the result of an ND filter with a purplish colour cast and a polariser and a soft 18-55mm kit lens.

Can you go too far with processing? I don’t think so. Any photograph is only an approximation of a scene and all photographers decide how they’d like to present it – I think it’s up to the viewer to decide if they’ve gone too far. Some photographers desaturate images, some crank up the vibrancy – it’s just a matter of taste. We who view photos are not stupid – we can clearly see when a photograph has been worked on. Personally speaking I try not to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, I’m always very clear about the use HDR in my photos, or tone-mapping and I also say when an image has not been altered. I also think that we should never presume that a photo has been heavily worked on – some images really do come out of the camera perfectly.

Even those photographers who claim to produce their images only ‘in-camera’ inevitably do some touch-up work in Photoshop. I’m not going to name names, but one particularly famous photographer did a video about getting all his shots right in-camera and then a month later released a video showing him tweaking contrast, saturation, white balance and cropping in Photoshop. Well which is it mate?

Then there’s the whole issue of RAW files. As you may or may not know a RAW file is the unvarnished data from a camera sensor with no modification by processing chips at all. Photographers prefer to shoot in RAW for several reasons, but the main one is usually that they want to decide things like saturation levels, contrast and white balance; if you shoot JPEG then the camera has made all those decisions for you. RAW files should be considered like digital negatives – a starting point to begin post-processing.

When I originally processed the photos from my Drawing Room Rocks sunrise shoot, I used HDR software.

When I originally processed the photos from my Drawing Room Rocks sunrise shoot, I used HDR software. Later on I learnt how to use luminosity masks and sharpening techniques to bring more out of the image and I went back and reprocessed them all. The end result is a photo that is far far more truthful to the scene I saw with my eyes – but it’s also one of the most processed images I’ve yet made. My point being that processing can also be used to move closer to the truth of a scene, rather than further away into a world of imaginary landscapes and alien sunsets.

All RAW images get processed using an intermediate application like Adobe Camera RAW which enables you to set white balance, exposure, contrast, white and black levels, clarity and vibrance. They also have profile settings for most cameras and lenses and can correct the visual distortions inherent in most camera/lens combinations. I’d say that about 50% of my photos receive only Camera RAW modifications, but I certainly don’t shy away from Photoshop in case my images are considered less ‘serious’ than those of some pretentious areshole who only shoots on film using pre-1960s lenses and antique camera bodies during blue hour. My tastes and work practices do change though and quite often I return to an image I’d previously processed and try new techniques on it. That is one of the beauties of RAW files – that you can return to the original and start from scratch as you learn new skills. Lately I have been ditching all the HDR shots I did and replacing them with manually combined images which I vastly prefer.

My photographic philosophy is simple – I want to get the best out of every image I shoot and I will use any tool I can to get there. That might mean using in-camera trickery such as polarisers, ND-grads and flash fills or it might mean combining a triple-exposure shot in Photoshop using luminosity masks or a filter package like Color Efex Pro. That’s what I do and it’s then up to the viewer to decide whether what I have done works.

By |2018-06-14T13:39:58+00:00February 13th, 2013|Articles, The Low-Down|5 Comments


  1. Peter February 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm - Reply

    Interesting note about the return to processing images originally done as HDR’s. About 3 weeks ago I started to do something similar. I also went back to old photo’s I had not really done anything with and started working on some of them.

    I started using TK Actions luminosity masks and Piet’s Dodge and Burn actions recently. They make good starting points and save me the time of making selections for masking. I also use the Nik products and started using onOne’s Perfect Suite 7, especially Perfect Effects for post processing.

    In all I have managed to convince myself that I can, in most instances, process without using some sort of HDR and get what I want, but the HDR debate is a whole other ball of wax.

    Software tools are beneficial and as you pointed out everyone, in one form or another enhances what comes out of the camera 99.999% of the time.

    By the way, I’m impressed with your Shoalhaven shot, I’ll have to set that as a benchmark target of my own some day.

    • Andy Hutchinson February 27, 2013 at 8:45 am - Reply

      Thanks Peter. Agree on all counts. Hadn’t heard of Piet’s actions – they’re very impressive.

      • Peter February 28, 2013 at 2:04 am - Reply

        Yes those actions are great, although I use Tony’s Luminosity Masks even more than Piets Dodge and Burn.

  2. Damien February 12, 2014 at 12:51 am - Reply

    I think you can absolutely go too far with processing. Looking at 500px confirmed me that. Most photos are, to me, over-worked and far too processed. Just like for movies, I think editing is known as “the invisible art.” “It’s hard to articulate what editors do, but when it’s bad, you’ll know it,”
    “When it’s good, you’ll never know.”

  3. Thibault Maillard (@thibmaillard) February 14, 2014 at 4:45 am - Reply

    Just discover your blog with the article about 500px and I was not disapointed ! This article reflects exactly what I think and what I am always trying to explain to non photographers who claims post-processed pictures are fake ones… I’ll share this article, thank you !

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