Is post production bad?
I am going to write a series of short articles about some of the post production techniques I use, but as part of that I thought I’d start off with a debate on the use of post production in general.
Is post production bad? The argument will run and run that’s for sure. It’s between the people who think that to be a good photographer you have to get it all exactly right in your camera, and in the extreme, those people who think that you have a free reign to process the hell out of RAW file!
I guess I sit somewhere in the middle of the debate. I’m not into processing an image to death – to start with I’m not skilled enough! I have a huge respect for people who have this skill and can make an image look fantastic (without being obvious) in post production. I like to get as much right in-camera as I can, but I don’t have a problem doing some editing and manipulation if I feel it improves the image, and I will often shoot with the post-production ideas already in my mind.
When you shoot video it is generally clear to people/clients that you have to spend time away from the location editing the video, but when shooting stills a lot of clients think that you press the button and then just send them the image. It isn’t apparent that editing stills is as much a part of modern photography as actually being on site taking the images. It is a process than can take as much of your time (sometimes more) than you do actually shooting the images.
I used to shoot film, I used to develop film, and I used to do my own prints. Any photographer who shot film and cared about their work didn’t go to a high street print shop to get their prints done! They often didn’t even do it themselves, they used professional printers and developers – much like today’s professional retouchers, these professionals knew what to do to get the best out of an image and would employ ‘post production’ techniques to do that.
I spent a long time trying to understand why I couldn’t get my digital images to look as good as others I’d seen around until it slowly dawned on me that I needed to work on my post-production skills. So I’ve been working on improving those skills and I’m getting better – I look back at my early efforts and wonder what on earth I was doing! It is very easy when you start to play with post production to go way over the top and make something that looks really ‘cool’ instead of realistic looking. See the HDR Hole! I’m not going to post examples as I don’t want to pick people out or offended anyone, but we’ve all see it and most of us have done it (or at least tried it) at some point too! Making an image that doesn’t look like it’s been processed is a highly skilled process, and I don’t pretend to be good enough yet to call myself an expert, but I’m learning and getting better all the time.
I had one early morning (I started on site at 5am and had to be finished by 8am) to do the exterior shoot for the hotel in the images below. Do I present the images to the client as the weather dictated on that morning, do I waste money returning day after day until I get a bag full of perfect in-camera images? I knew I could make them look good for them to use as promotional material from a single shoot, and using post production techniques I was able to keep the cost to the client down by shooting all the images in one session. I don’t condone a spray-and-pray attitude, I had done a reccy a couple of weeks before so I knew what to shoot and where to shoot from. I chose a morning that I knew I could work with. I didn’t just turn up at random one morning and shoot everything in sight thinking I’d edit whatever came out of the camera into something I could use! The shoot was planned to take place when there was the best chance of getting good images, but things are very rarely perfect. I find it hard to see what is wrong with giving the images a tweak to make them look better, especially when I’ve gone through the process of planning it.
In the shot below I have taken the focus off the brighter background and moved it where I wanted, to the foreground. By highlighting the chairs with a ray of sun that wasn’t there before it draws the eye to the front of the frame. I’ve also warmed up the image to give it a sense of being inviting, something that in film days you could have done with a filter on the lens. There is nothing stopping you with digital cameras from using lens filters, but if you’re one of the purists, isn’t that manipulating the image? Or is that somehow ‘allowed’? The only time I tend to use a filter on-camera is occasionally when I’m doing landscapes I’ll use a graduated filter to bring the sky down. I do that because I’m not a fan of HDR, and sometimes the dynamic range of your camera just isn’t enough to record the entire range present in a scene. No matter how much post production work you do you won’t be able to either recover enough detail from the sky or the shadows to achieve an acceptable final image.
A shot of the hotel’s jetty didn’t look all that great, but not having the time or the budget to return every day until the sunlight fell exactly as I wanted I exposed for the sky because with my Fujifilm cameras the highlights are more difficult to work with than the shadows. I knew I could work out the rest in post – including my terrible habit of not getting landscapes level! (actually I do have an excuse for that this time because I was soaking and up to my knees balancing in a bog trying to shoot it!).
Given a few days planning, a boat, a set of lights, modifiers, and a couple of assistants I could have got pretty much the same result in-camera. Would it have been worth it though? Would lighting the scene with flash have been any different? It could be argued that by lighting the scene I would have been introducing an artificial element to the image anyway. Did I cheat, or did I use what I had within time and budget constraints? Does it matter if I got the look I was after? I guess that depends on your point of view. For me personally I knew what I wanted in advance and I knew what I was going to do and how to achieve it within the constraints I had.
Lightroom 5 is my main tool, and version 5 introduced a couple of new features that make things a whole lot nicer for me to use and easier to process images. The improved healing/clone tool means I don’t have to export to Photoshop anywhere near as much as I used to (something I appreciate greatly!) and the new radius tool is fantastic for dodge and burn, as well as a little enhancement technique trick that I use.
I think it is important to know what you intend to do with an image before you shoot it, before you pick up the camera. Sure, there are times when you are shooting on the fly – street photography, family events, holidays etc you’re not going to spend too much time planning what you’re going to shoot, but at other times you can do that. As a commercial photographer I do get the chance to plan things in advance, and spend time at locations thinking about the way I’m going to shoot it and what I’m likely to do to the image in post production once I’ve shot it, and shoot the image with that in mind.
Here is an example of one interior shot I took and how I processed it.
I shot this image deliberately underexposed, not only to give the outside some definition, but because I knew what I was going to do with it afterwards would work better with a slightly underexposed image than either a correctly, or overexposed image. Now had my client looked at the original image they would probably have thought I wasn’t very good presenting them with an underexposed image. Perhaps aside from the lens correction, I’ve done nothing to this image that couldn’t have been done when I developed film, played with the colour balance settings and being creative with my enlarger, yet film shooters never (or very rarely) get called out as ‘cheating’ for doing the same thing in an analogue way rather than digital.
©2008 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
The above diagram shows the developing notes for an Ansel Adams image (Moonrise) and just goes to show that the person people think of as one of the ultimate film photographers did plenty of work in post production and would often produce tens of prints before getting the look he wanted. The advantage we have now is that we don’t have to wait for the results. I would argue that to get it right you still have to be just as skilled.
The example below gives the room much more warmth and makes it look far more inviting to guests. I could have achieved the same look by compositing several different images each lit differently, but the room was occupied later on that day and I didn’t have the time to spend to do the work involved in doing that. Shooting a flat image and manipulating it in post meant I was able to achieve the same sort of effect. A well-lit composite image will result in a slightly better quality image when viewed at 100%, but I suspect most non-photographers would be hard pressed to tell the difference when presented in the size below on a website.
I’m not going to pretend here, in the image below this isn’t exactly the reality of the scene as I was a little late for the early morning “golden hour” due to time constraints, so I’ve (hopefully) made it look like it was shot just as the sun rose! Again, is that cheating? I don’t know! I do know that is the vision I had in mind when I shot it, and if I didn’t have that in mind at the time I wouldn’t have bothered taking the photograph in the first place because I knew it would have been quite a plain flat image.
I did do some Photoshop work on this image to remove some of the branches that I just couldn’t keep clear of when shooting. I recognised that at the time and tried to get them into a position I knew they could easily be cropped or cloned out. It is important to pay attention to the whole frame and if you see a problem, try to place the problem somewhere you know you can correct it later on. I have also removed the telegraph pole (the bane of a landscape photographers life!). Hopefully the final image doesn’t looked over edited and could potentially be a ‘real’ scene to anyone who wasn’t there. I know landscape photographers often move the camera to place any lens flare into a position they know they can clone out afterwards. Post production is all about thinking ahead, in my mind it isn’t something you should do to a poor image to try to rescue it.
Before anyone says that it wouldn’t be possible to ‘clone’ or retouch things out on a film negative has to know that Kodak used to sell tools, dyes, liquids and pencils specifically aimed at retouching and manipulating negatives, so it was absolutely possible for someone with the right skills! I think the difference now is that we all have much greater access to do it. The software is available relatively cheaply, there are tutorials everywhere, and because you can see the results immediately what you’re doing is much more apparent meaning you can easily undo it if you’ve gone too far or it doesn’t work.
Not all post production has to be so involved, in the image below all I did was crop slightly and move some of the sliders in Lightroom, but the effect is a punchier image.
Having said that I process images, at the same time I don’t think it’s an excuse for being lazy and not getting things as close as you can in-camera. I never press the shutter and think it’s rubbish but I’ll Lightroom/Photoshop it to look good later – for me the two are intertwined. Have the final image in your head and shoot for that. You eventually learn to envisage your final image when shooting, be it the filter [preset] you intend to apply or the post production technique you want to use. You slowly start seeing things in a different way and then place your camera, or adjust the settings when shooting to achieve the image you need to get the look you want.
If I could paint I would! I can’t, so I take photographs. Is an Expressionist’s painting of a scene less honest in the mind of the painter than that of a perfectly reproduced painting of the same scene? Does my own vision of the scene through the lens of a camera make my image less honest?
I’m not trying to preach here, I’m not pretending to be some sort of expert I’m just saying what works for me. What do you think about post production? Let me know in the comments below.