All digital images are post processed (and why that is OK!)

My good friend Andy wrote a great blog entry recently about post processing.  We've had a lot of long talks on the subject and I read his article with great interest.  Our styles differ somewhat and I always enjoy talking with Andy and kicking around our thoughts on all things photography.  His thoughtful writing on the subject of post processing got me thinking and inspired me to share my own thoughts - or perhaps just rant a bit!

There are some people who view "straight out of camera" (SOOC) as the purest form of modern photography.  Some folks make a big deal out of it and take exceptional pride in posting images straight off their cards without any post processing.  Except...that those SOOC images ARE post processed!  Huh?  Yep, that's right.  

News flash: All digital files are post processed!

 If you're not doing it, you've simply entrusted your camera to do it.

SOOC JPG - not bad, but a bit drab.  I think I can do a little better in post.

Raw file lightly processed in Lightroom.  Pops a bit more, don't you think?

Technically, digital camera sensors don't take pictures - at least not the way our eyes perceive them.  The sensor in a digital camera really just takes the photons hitting it, collects them in tiny buckets, and stores that data so that software in the camera (or external software if you're shooting in raw format) can extrapolate an image from the collected data.  When you take an image SOOC in the form of a JPG that the camera's software created, you are trusting the post processing decisions made by the engineers who designed the camera.  There's nothing wrong with that.  If you're happy with the result, go with it.  Heck, it's darn convenient when you can use an image SOOC!  I love it when I can use a SOOC image!  However, using an image SOOC doesn't make the photo any more "pure" in my book and any smugness about doing so is just not called for.  The problem is that if you always rely on that approach you may be missing out.  Maybe you could do a better job of figuring out what is best for your image than your camera did!  Why not find out?

A quick word about file formats here.  I shoot in raw and it's the only way to fly for me.  That's not to say that you can't greatly improve a JPG file.  Your options will be limited though.  Set your camera to raw format and you get every bit of information it recorded about the scene, not the compressed data subset of a JPG.  It's never a good idea to throw away perfectly good data in my book.

Raw file with default conversion in Lightroom.

Very minimal post processing, just a bit of adjustment with Curves in Photoshop - a subtle improvement.

A common argument against post processing outside the camera is that there is too much over-processing going on out there.  Yeah, I can agree with that to a large extent.  Technicolor clown vomit is never a good thing (and sure I've created some in my time!)  Whether or not an image is over-processed depends on the context and what your goals are.  I've come to see photography in two general categories.  You're either documenting something or you're creating art.  There are many styles of photography but that's where I make draw my boundary, at least for the purpose of post processing.  Is the image primarily documentary or artistic?

A documentary photograph to me is simply a reasonably accurate representation of someone or something in an image.  It could be journalistic or editorial in nature.  It could be a regular portrait or a fashion shot.  It could be a landscape or architectural shot.  Whatever it is, the main purpose of the documentary photo is to record a reasonably accurate image of a person, place or thing.  That's not to say it can't be artistic, that's just not the primary purpose.  An artistic photo is anything that you take a picture of primarily for the sake of art.  There are going to be areas of overlap, of course, but one or the other is going to be your main reason for taking the shot.  The methods you use to process an image will vary according to your primary purpose.  What is over-processed in a documentary photograph might be perfectly acceptable in an artistic photo.  How much post processing is acceptable in art?  Ah, who is to say?  Is there anything so subjective as art?

Documentary or artistic intent?  The post processing should give a clue!

This isn't to say that there isn't bad post processing out there.  I know I've been guilty of over baking some shots with ham fisted post processing (and some will surely argue that I still do from time to time!)  Still though, heavy post processing isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Last year, I attended a workshop taught by David Nightingale that changed the way I think about post processing.  We photographers spend a lot of time behind the camera composing, posing, and lighting shots.  David challenged our class to put as much thought into post processing BEFORE we take the shot as we do into capturing the shot.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with thinking of post processing ahead of time.  There is also nothing wrong with post processing techniques that deviate far from what the camera produces and what the eye sees.  Dramatic and tasteful can coexist!

It has been about a year since I took David's class and my techniques are still very much a work in progress.  Those who follow my work know that I typically do a good deal of post processing work.  It comes (most of the time) out of a predetermined vision and plan.  More and more, I know what I want the final shot to look like after post production before I take the shot.  That's not to say that I won't do some experimentation and some of those experiments might fail.  However, I do know that the direction is going to take a documentary or artistic path and I've got a good idea of what I'll be working toward in post production.

Raw file converted in Lightroom.  Not what I envisioned before I took the shot though.

Heavily processed?  You bet!  I knew the look I wanted before I snapped the shutter.  I couldn't get there SOOC.

For some photographers, the click of the shutter is only the beginning.  The main event happens later in front of a computer where their art really comes to life.  I'm not sure I'm willing to say that is entirely the case with me.  I'm much happier being out "in the field" with my camera than sitting in front of my computer staring at raw images late at night.  Capturing images is very much a creative process but for the most part - and maybe this is the engineering side of me talking - I see the act of taking a picture as gathering the data that I'll use to create an image later with my artistic side.

The point I want to drive home is that there is nothing wrong with post processing and it in no way waters down the art of photography.  Rather it is fundamentally at the core of digital photography and it happens whether you have a hand in it or not.  Unless you are a photojournalist or otherwise have time critical deadlines there is no reason to settle for what the camera burns to a JPG file.  As a photographer, you train your eyes to see the composition and read the light to create that perfect exposure.  Your talent shouldn't stop once you click the shutter button.  You can do better than what the camera gives you by default.  If you don't believe me, set your camera to record both a raw file and a JPG if you can.  Take a look at what the camera created and then take a stab at tweaking the raw file.  I'm not talking about fixing a bad photo.  If it's a documentary style photo, chances are you can improve it.  It it's an artistic style photo, you can carry the creative process forward and create something really cool.

One of the raw files from a bracketed set.  It probably documents the scene well enough.

My artistic side decided on extreme post processing through HDR!  Too much?  Are you kidding?  It's freakin' aluminum foil dinosaurs!