After the Picture
I have a newborn niece getting a lot of camera-time right now. It occurred to me recently that hundreds of people are often taking pictures of the same subjects and objects that I am. What sets mine apart? I've preached on the insignificance of gear over skill and intent, but admit there is increased quality between different lens and camera bodies that can carry over into pictures. So, let's say that better gear can be a factor in better pictures. Experience and a creative eye certainly play a large part, but with the availability of information in blogs and books on photography many camera owners are quite savvy about photographic fundamentals and are taking pictures from interesting perspectives and with sound compositions. What has struck me of late is the value of skilled post processing (PP) and it's ability to carry the message and feel of an image. I'm not speaking about the transparent attempts at using post processing as an unsuck-filter to save pictures lacking quality to begin with, but of PP's power to transform an image from interesting and competent to eye-catching and informative; to carry the intent of the photographer. The example below might exemplify my point a bit. The original picture was good: cute and well composed, but the processed image conveys the softness and innocence that I felt looking at my niece at the time. The work on this was relatively minor: some cloning, monochrome conversion, devignette-ing, a Gaussian blur and selective removal, and some slight skin softening. At other times I've used a heavier hand and extracted parts of an image or cloned more liberally, all for the clarity of my message in the image. Experience in PP and its use to improve the content of an image is, in my opinion, a separating factor between the basic photographer with a camera and the serious photographer with skill and experience. I'm sure this isn't a trade secret, but it seems rarely mentioned. Post processing almost appears to have a stigma attached to it from some corners; as if it's a cheater's trick or that the soul of photography is insulted through PP. Some of this is due to poor use and monotonous overuse of some processing. I've been guilty of poor use myself, but when done correctly, I think PP is vital to the final image and can set my pictures apart from the myriad of similar ones.
To be clear, in no way can PP overcome a poorly composed or uninteresting picture. The basics of composition have to be there for any PP to take the image to the next level. This is when experience with processing software is of importance. I'll often run a picture through a few different looks until I get the feel that I intend. Other times, I have the look and processing needed for an image pre-planned during my shoot; such was the case in the image above. Â A lot of my processing isn't as extreme as the example of above and typically includes just some sharpening, vignetting, color correction and minor tweaks; but if the image will gain from a heavier editing hand I go for it.
An overlooked aspect of PP experience (at least by me initially) is that a photographer's time and money invested into software should be a factor rolled into their pricing structure for clients. Most jobs have a pay-scale based on schooling and job experience, why shouldn't photography? A client might have little interest in the process that led to the final image, but it is up to us as photographers to present an image that meets a client's needs and this often involves at least minor PP work.
This can be a scary concept for some because it implies that anyone who takes the time can become skilled in processing software and produce similar images, that is, become competition. Primarily that's true, but such thinking can quickly get converge with the doomsday laments and cries of those complaining of a flooded market and the devaluation of photography. I've had my fill of such thinking and reading and have no interest in rehashing it this post. No, a successful image is a recipe of sorts composed of several factors, not just good processing, and it's up to us as photographers to market and improve ourselves to stand out from others.
What are your thoughts and practices on post processing? Are you a purist who leaves your images mostly untouched or someone who adapts their processing as the intent of the image dictates?