Photography editing – How much is OK?

Some say a picture never lies,  yeah right!  There are a lot of lies in photography!

 

Of course we all know this but it’s not a subject that a lot of people openly talk about, unless it is someone famous on the cover of a magazine.  I’m not saying that there are a whole load of photographers out there actively over editing every single image they have, but more that most of us (me included) tell ‘little white lies’ about our images.  The subject most open to interpretation in photography is the amount photographers post process their pictures.

 

No Biggie?

Most of the time all we are really talking about is cleaning up an image which is ‘rough around the edges’.  So what’s the big deal? It is not a problem as such, however a great image now can be a reward for hours of post processing rather than the actual skill of the photographer. A great example of this is photographer David Byrne. In 2012 Byrne was awarded the title Landscape Photographer of the Year by the organization ‘Take a View’, but it was later revealed that the shots that Byrne took were so heavily edited that the title was  stripped and awarded to another photographer (You can read more about the Bryne and the award on the article here ). 

 

Post Processing in Modern Photography

 

A common view is that photography post processing is a phenomenon that has only come about with the age of digital photography.  To a certain extent this is true however we need to be careful not to include all forms of image manipulation into the same category.  In the age of film photography it was still possible to alter not only the basics of your exposure  i.e aperture, shutter speed but also things like ISO, white balance, cross processing the negative and the overall aesthetic of the final image.   It’s true to say that these adjustments were less convenient than they are today (you had to physically swap out your film etc) but we shouldn’t confuse the convenience of modern technology with any form of deception.  It has always been necessary to ‘adjust’ the final image to achieve something more like reality and despite the capability of todays cameras and equipment this remains the case.  The reality is that even the best photographers make at least minor adjustments to their images.

 

So How Much?

 

How much processing really depends on the type of photography you do,  and the images you are editing.  A packshot for advertising will require many more processes than a lifestyle image of a person.  To give you a sense of a typical photographers workflow here is a quick summary of my typical post processing routine for non packshot images, and a few examples of how my images typically look before and after.

 

My Basic Workflow

 

My basic advice is this; only do as much post processing as necessary to achieve the look you want.  The terminology of “get it in camera’ is as true now as in the days of film.  Editing is a necessary part of my life, but if when shooting the subject if I can eliminate some time in the edit – I will!  If your goal is to achieve an image that is realistic to real life then assuming you have a decent initial image you should be able to do this fairly quickly.  If however you want to achieve a more artistic result then you may need to take a bit longer.

For portraiture and people photography my basic post processing workflow is relatively simple.  Pretty much every image I take goes through the following five-step process, although for specific effects I will often do more.  Just so you know, I shoot all of my images in RAW with Lightroom being my editing software of choice.  I only use Photoshop for specific editing tasks.

 

  1. Crop & Straighten – To clean up and correct any issues with composition.
  2. White Balance – To correct any colour casts and ensure the image colour is as accurate as possible.
  3. Exposure – To improve the overall tonality and dynamic range of the image.
  4. Contrast & Clarity – To bring back any missing punch and bring out emphasis and detail.
  5. Sharpening – Where necessary the last step is to apply selective sharpening to bring out any key details.

 

To give you an idea as to what this really looks like in the real world, an example of a wedding shot using the above steps before and after processing.

 

Example 1 –Wedding Image

Before and after  editing wedding image
Before and after editing wedding image

Example 2 – Advertising Image

Before and after image
Before and after editing PR image

As well as the basic adjustments I have applied HDR & Desaturate filters in Lightroom 4

 

 

Example 3 – Studio Image

Before and after Image
Before and after editing studio Image

This is an example a heavily retouched image.  I split the image into layers,  Editing the slice, front and back seperetely.

 

 

For many being a “magician’ in photoshop is an appealing thought,  but I’ve always thought that the joy of photography is getting out and about to capture the image in the first place.  I love to be in my studio creating images.  The flexibility of the digital darkroom is fantastic,  but at the same time I do not want to be tied to my mac day in day out.

 

Like all things in photography it’s a question of balance,  and once you get that right you can lie with your pictures too!

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