OK, I’m going to come right out and say it … there are a lot of lies in photography! It’s out there now and I suggest we all take some time to let it sink in before we do anything rash.
Of course we all know this but it’s not a subject that a lot of people openly talk about. Before I say any more let me be completely straight. I’m not saying that there are a whole load of photographers out there actively seeking to deceive you, more that most of us (me included) tell ‘little white lies’ about our images. Of all the subjects open for favorable interpretation is the amount photographers post process their pictures.
I’m not saying for one minute that anyone is looking to be intentionally deceptive, most of the time all we are really talking about is the omission of a few minor finishing touches. So what’s the big deal? Well there isn’t really any big problem as such, however I remember as a beginner how frustrating it was trying to work out how much of a great image was due to gear, processing or falling that the skill of the photographer. Becoming a great photographer takes time, patience and practice and its understandable why more experienced photographers might want to protect their trade secrets.
Post Processing in Modern Photography
A common view is that 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 lump all forms of image manipulation into the same category. In the age of film it was still possible to alter not only the basics such as aperture, shutter speed but also things like ISO, white balance 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?
So as a beginner what you really want to know is how much processing do most people and how do you know if you are doing too much? When I started to get serious about photography this was a question that took up far too much of my time. To give you a sense of a typical photographers workflow here is a quick summary of my typical post processing routine 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. 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.
The majority of my images are either travel or portraiture and therefore 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.
- Crop & Straighten – To clean up and correct any issues with composition.
- White Balance – To correct any colour casts and ensure the image colour is as accurate as possible.
- Exposure – To improve the overall tonality and dynamic range of the image.
- Contrast & Clarity – To bring back any missing punch and bring out emphasis and detail.
- 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, here are a few examples of images I have taken and how they looked like before and after processing.
Example 1 – Travel Landscapes
Example 2 – Street Portrait
Example 3 – Studio Work
The Two Minute Rule
Obviously when you are starting out its important to spend time developing your processing skills, however as you start to get a handle on this its also very important to get efficient. Not only will doing so stop you from wasting hours in front of your computer screen, but its also the best way limit the potential for over processing. The ‘Two Minute Rule’ is the probably the best ‘pro tip’ I have ever heard and is something which has fundamentally changed my approach to photography. The basic idea is to limit the time you spend processing any image to no more than two minutes. Imagine that, just two minutes to do everything you need to get an image to look exactly as you want it to? Basically you should be asking yourself if an images needs more than two minutes of work in post, is it worth the effort? I’m not going to try and convince you that I follow this rule religiously but it is a really powerful way to focus your post processing efforts and I would certainly encourage you to consider building this into your own routine. Limiting the time you spend in post will stop you from trying to rescue dud images and also give you a rough guide as to when you may have gone too far.
The ‘So What?’ for Beginners
If you are a beginner or someone getting started in post processing, what am I really telling you? Simply it is this, most of this images you see will be post processed. Whether this is to overcome the limitations of our equipment, correct mistakes or achieve a specific ‘look’ most photographers will process their photos. The important thing is not to worry about what others are doing, rather on if you are doing the right things to create the images you are looking for. Focus on learning the techniques which will help deliver the photograph you want and use this as a way to hone your individual style and workflow to become an even better photographer. If you get this right, then it won’t be long before you can start fibbing about your photographs too!