Photo Editing: When Does it Get to be too Much?

Photo Editing: When Does it Get to be too Much?

Editing photographs in itself is an art. It is what has made so many great photographers legendary. The ability to take the limits of a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world, exact it onto a type of film or digital sensor, then, and only then, to craft the image into one’s liking.

Indeed, it is an art, which raises the question – where is the line drawn for too much editing?

Like art and how to define it, that answer is not straightforward. We each have our interpretation, but let’s take a look at some parameters. There are three questions you may want to ask yourself the next time you dive in to edit your images.

What is my intent?

In the days of film, you had to have intent. Even if your intention was “to mess around and learn some things,” you realized there was a direct cost to that learning. That cost was film, paper, chemical solutions and time — moreover, money.

Now, experimenting is so dang easy, any kid with an iPhone can do it. I think that’s a good thing. Experimenting is a vital part of artistic expression and is especially true with photo editing.

Having intent is important when coupled with experimenting if you hope to learn, grow and progress.

Intent lets you know when your experimentation goes too far, and your edits are too much. The intent is a wonderful guide, with plenty of latitude if you bestow it.

My suggestion here is to have intent with your editing experimentation. Know what you hope to gain from experimenting and have a general direction.

Have I stayed true to my vision?

Vision is where your intent takes you. Having artistic vision helps place boundaries on your work that is often needed, lest everything turns to chaos.

Maybe a portrait photographer’s vision is to portray each subject in a subdued manner with soft lighting and harsh details. They want to show that side of each subject, and that leads to their intent, over and over again. It is repeatable.

This is one edit the author now admits was too much editing, even if it was fun at the time.

Alternatively, perhaps you’re a landscape photographer who envisions your work being a truthful depiction of what you experienced, not some fanciful ‘perfect world.’ You put effort into recreating the scene when back at your computer and employ tools to your end vision.

Without having a vision of what you want to produce, it’s easy to be swayed by the siren song of really cool editing tools that pull you toward the rocks of editing ruin.

Is this sustainable?

I don’t mean to say all art, all forms of editing you choose, need to last forever. We all go through phases. This struck me most profoundly on a trip to Barcelona recently and a review of Goya’s work through the decades he painted.

Firstly, there were Goya’s early career phases where he exacted reproduction in a French and Italian style. These were the most important. Beautiful portraits!

Then, later, he had a more simplistic style. Filled with easy colors and a looser interpretation of the world around him with all its players.

In one of the last room were exhibits of Goya’s “Black period.” Charcoal and dark tones, and dire scenes of hardship. Nothing like what he had been producing before.

Most of us move through periods. That does not instantly disqualify any one of them as art (in an editing sense), but it does give us a good mirror.

We are our own harshest critic, and we alone can look back at work we did one, five, or twenty years ago and deem it art or not. If we see a style, a thread that runs through all our works, it’s easy to say we have crafted art. However, if we find through the benefit of time and distance, that something we thought was the bee’s knees is now, to our more experienced eyes, rubbish, we can cast it aside.

The HDR craze as an example

Some years ago, as digital photography was catching on with the masses, came the HDR craze. It was a time when anyone could use a particular technique to achieve what is known as High Dynamic Range (HDR) images.

For some, it was a fun departure from their normal routine. Others saw it as a chance to show everything in a scene; maybe not the same as their eyes saw, but better than the alternative.

Some of us had our stomachs turn every time we saw one of those photos.

It was new, and it was novel. Moreover, it didn’t fit into many photographers’ visions. Today, it’s hard to find any examples of those early attempts still being reproduced. It wasn’t sustainable.

Although, it was fun for a while. Particularly for those who enjoyed the departure from reality.

I would profess that it was a case of too much editing and that it met its likely demise because of it.

Conclusion

While deciding what dictates too much editing is subjective to the viewer and their experience, I hope the questions I posed above help guide you in future endeavors.

I’m not here to judge your work or to say you might be wrong. That voice, and what your art means to you, needs to come from inside you.

Develop your vision. Stay true to it. Focus your intent toward it. Then you will scarcely have to worry if you’ve gone too far in your editing work.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.