Modifying images after capture. Do it or not? That is here the question.
“Get ready for the rumble! In the red corner, the new kid on the block, twenty-year-old ‘Po’ S.T. Processing, from the digital trenches; And in the blue corner, the grand old grandfather of photography, ‘All’ I.N. Camera, are preparing to battle it out!” — The MC puts down the microphone and leaves the ring, satisfied, as the crowd gets on their feet, furiously shouting R18-rated phrases across the stadium to intimidate the opponent.
Sometimes is feels like that if the discussion among photographers turns to post-processing, especially the question if you should do it at all.
There is the notion that digital post-processing is cheating, an inappropriate thing, it does not belong to photography. Why is that so? Was Ansel Adams cheating when he spent hours in the darkroom to get the desired result? Dodging and burning his way to glory? What is the difference to us modern mouse-pushers in the digital darkroom, honing our image post-processing skills?
Let me phrase the topic a bit differently: “What makes photography photography?” That is a philosophical question. We can declare boundaries by drawing a line in the sand until the ocean of new technology washes it away and draws a fresh one — or leaves no line at all.
Photography freezes a moment in time (or a finite time span) and captures it on a medium designed to transport it into the future, for us to re-visit after the original time span is long gone. A time machine. But the time machine is not perfect. The result of photography, the thing we observe, the image — it is always different from what the photographer’s eyes saw and her brain thought when taking the image. It is robbed of the third dimension. It does not smell like the air smelled when the photographer took the image. You can’t hear what the photographer heard when she pressed the shutter button. The human eye and brain work differently than a camera lens and lens iris and shutter work.
The finished photograph (When is a photograph finished? When someone prints it? On what paper, with what process?) is a result of what the camera body and lens and film/sensor and in-camera-software or chemicals and human skill and software developer and printer ink and LCD screen technology and calibration and color spaces and individual capabilities to see light and process creates. That sentence (was that even a sentence?) could even be a lot longer, so many things impact the final image we see. We have the most important part to play: we decide what is in the frame.
So why do some people think photography should stop after the shutter finished the exposure?
What is the difference between the photographer deciding about what is in the frame at the time of the capture or later in post-processing?
I think it is the intention. What do we want to express with the image? What is the purpose?
If we produce art, I would allow for a lot more change in post-processing than if we tell a nature or photo journalism story. Some kinds of photography have a moral obligation to produce a result as close to the reality as possible. Forensic photographers. News photo journalists. Scientific photography.
But the further we dive into the deep water of art, the more freedom is involved in what we leave of the original pixels.
If the purpose of the photograph is to document a fact, to record it as truthfully as possible, then any manipulation which deceives the viewer would be problematic. That could be adding things to it, or leaving important things out. That is sometimes a tough decision. When the photographer presses the shutter button, she decided what is in and what is out in the original frame. That has meaning for some types of photography, but others use the image merely as a template to start the artwork from.
It is a moral question, and every photographer has to decide for himself if what he is doing is OK or not. Even if the image would exactly show what was there, you can still cheat if you want by e.g. staging the scene and pretending it was naturally happening. That is the responsibility of the photographer.
If you post-process only to correct image issues you could have avoided at the time of capture, there is an argument for ‘getting-it-right-in-camera’ is the better option, as it is more efficient and often produces the better result.
And then there is always the personal taste. You can’t argue over taste or personal feelings. There is nothing wrong with a feeling of accomplishment when you find that the image is perfect with no post-processing on the computer. But there is also nothing wrong with using post-processing in your process of creating art.
If you condemn post-processing because you don’t know how these image processors work, then I would suggest you try to learn one. It might surprise you how fun it can be.
I am using the digital darkroom to the best of my abilities, because my images are mostly not meant as truthfully records of what was there. I try to use all available tools to touch the viewer. To (re)create an emotion, to create a pretty image, to invite the viewer to be intrigued, be curious, to discover details.
How much post-processing do you allow?
Have fun taking images! But don’t cross the line, if there is one clearly visible.