I cannot count the number of times I have been asked “have you photoshopped your photo”, including recently at a basic photography workshop that I am co-leading, where I was asked, “is processing your photos cheating?”.
I completely understand where this concern is coming from as when I started my photography journey a few years ago I was adamant that I would not process my photos. I wanted the photo to look exactly as taken by the camera. As I began to better understood photography, the limitations of a camera and artistic vision, my views on processing changed. My goal in this blog is to explain my current views on photo processing in the context of my artistic journey.
Let me start by answering the question in the title – NO, processing photos is not cheating unless you are in photo journalism or crime investigation. In those instances, there are rules on what you can and cannot do that must be followed. In the art of photography, photo processing is a great tool to use to achieve your artistic vision.
A bit of history in photo processing. It is not a new development as a result of digital photography and computers. Photo processing began in the dark room. In fact, a number of the basic digital processing concepts were derived in the darkroom where, through the use of various techniques and chemicals, film developers were able to change brightness, contrast, make small retouches, remove things, etc.
For me understanding photo processing history was important as it provided proper context for editing photos. It helped me focus my reasons for processing my photos. Here are the main reasons I process photos.
Technical limitations of the camera vs. human eye
The human eye and brain are still the most complex computer in the world. Because of this, the human eye’s dynamic range (difference between the lightest lights and darkest darks) is a lot better than even your best cameras. Our human eyes can resolve as many as three stops more light than the best cameras. Post-processing can help compensate for this by adjusting the darks or lights in isolation of each other depending upon the photo. In this photo, I had to reduce the shadows/blacks in Adobe Lightroom in order to make the reeds in the foreground stand out a lot more. I recall when I stood taking the photo that I could see the reeds a lot better than in the camera.
Control of the end product to match my vision.
In this photo I wanted to draw the eye of the viewer to the winter storm along the ridges and highlight the blowing snow, so I had to significantly increase the contrast and decrease the exposure to enable this to happen. I was able to do this because I shot this photo in RAW which is literally a file that does not have any processing done to it by the camera. It gives the photographer full control over how he or she wants the photo to look without loosing quality. The other format I could have chosen was JPEG. In shooting JPEG the camera actually does some of the basic processing for you by increasing the contrast, saturation etc. It however compresses the image to reduce the file size (main advantage of JPEG). But in doing so, the file loses a lot of data resulting in losing quality in the photo when processed. The algorithms used by the camera to process the photo are based on averages and cannot read the minds of the photographer. So, often the processing does not achieve the photographer’s artistic vision.
The rotation of the earth creates opportunities and challenges in astrophotography, both of which can be overcome through post-processing.
The first is creating an opportunity – a star trails photo.
Start trails are created through the rotation of the earth. In the film days, the photographer would set up facing the north star and leave his or her shutter open for an extended period of time, up to three hours. The time was solely dependent upon the length of the trail desired. In the digital age, you are restricted to a lot shorter period of time because of a high risk that the digital sensor will overheat and create a lot of digital noise (grain) and/or artifacts in the photo. As a result, to create the same effect, the photographer sets his or her camera up set up facing the north star and takes a large number of 20 to 30 second exposures and creates the trail through a post-processing computer program. In taking this photo, I set up for more than 100 exposures, but after about 50, dew rolled in and started to cover my lens so I lost all the photos after 50. Had I left the shutter open for 1 exposure, I would have lost the whole photo and not been able to create the star trails.
The effect of the rotating earth can create the opposite effect if the photographers goal is to create a photo with completely sharp stars in very dark lighting conditions. To properly expose the fore and mid ground, you will most likely need to set your shutter speed for 20 seconds or longer which will result in stars starting to create a trailing effect. The stars will look like sausages vs. the point of a pin. To overcome this, the photographer would create two photos – one to expose for the fore and mid ground (keeping the shutter open longer to properly expose the fore and mid ground) and one for the sky (shorter to keep the stars sharp) and then blend the two in post-processing. This will create the more realistic image that you can see with your eyes.
Expanding my creative vision
There are a number of post-processing techniques and tools that can be utilized to help a photographer expand his or her artistic vision. The ones that I have used are:
Blending to create a composite photograph.
This image is a composite of two images. In my test shot, I was able to capture the beautiful dragon like figure in the sky but it did not have me in it. The second shot had me in it so I felt a beautiful artistic image would be created if I combined the two by blending in Photoshop.
Composites have perhaps become the most controversial aspect of post-processing because it goes against everyone’s understanding that a photo is documentation. However, if you think of photography as an art form, the camera and a photo processing tool are not that different from a paint brush and canvas. They both help the artist achieve their artistic vision. When a photographer creates an image that is not physically possible (e.g. very large moon as a background of another photo), it is incumbent upon the photographer to be transparent that it is a composite. If you are interested in blending photos, there are many great video tutorials online.
I took this panorama this past summer at Forgetmenot Pond in Kananaskis country. It is a group of 4 photos stitched together in Lightroom. Panorama’s allow the photographer to get a real wide perspective on a beautiful scene.
A large depth of field is extremely important to macro and landscape photographers. However, often photographers are limited in the amount of depth that they can get when the object is very close to the lens, even at f22. To overcome this challenge, multiple photos are taken at different focus points and blended together in a post-processing program to get a large depth of field from front to back.
There are likely many more reasons why post-processing can help a photographer create his or her artistic vision. In creating art, the camera and photo processing are tools that can be utilized like paint brushes and canvases. One thing to remember is photo processing cannot transition a poor or good photo into a great photo. That is still up to the photographer in how he or she composes the photo.
Finally, in the end, the amount of post-processing you want to do is really up to your artistic vision and what you are comfortable with in terms of your views it.