In the days when film reigned, most people thought that once you took a photo, the image was completed. They thought that clicking the shutter was the end of the process (They obviously didn’t know much about darkroom manipulation). But, as photographers know, that “click” is only a small part of the photographic process. The rest lies in forethought before taking the image, and the way in which it’s processed after it’s taken.
With modern digital photography, most people know about Photoshop and that most images are manipulated, but they have varying degrees of knowledge about the extent to which images are changed from the “original.” Some know about the saturation slider and making the colors “pop,” while others know about how supermodels get liquefied and smoothed over.
But there’s a middle ground to processing images, and that middle ground is where we photographers use post-production techniques to translate what we saw in real life into a final image that depicts the vision we had when it was created. What makes it an art is not only what was in the image to begin with, but what the photographer does to it after the fact to fine-tune the details.
Mustang, Nepal, 2008
When I saw Patrick Beggan’s blog post about post processing, it hit the spot. I’ve seen too many people on the “#nofilter” kick, thinking that by not processing their images any further, they’re some sort of purist, or that their images don’t need any more work. Or something. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As Patrick points out, “There is truly no way to capture an image without some kind of refinement happening whether you like it or not.” By not processing the images, you’re just letting the camera’s sensor collect data and throw it through an algorithm into a JPEG (which has certain processing steps like exposure, saturation, contrast, etc. built into it) and letting it decide what the final image should look like. And most of the time, that won’t be what you saw through the lens, or how you saw it.
Shanta Golba, Ethiopia, 2016
I asked Patrick why he decided to write the blog post, and his answer reveals why a #nofilter ideology is flawed:
“I wrote this to share a realization I've had about photography with others who might be struggling to understand their own creative photography process, or just getting started. I've had this realization over and over again -- almost every time I go out shooting and then load the photos onto my computer. When you are out capturing photographs you are only completing half the act of artistic photography. When you see those photos larger and in detail, you begin to realize that what is automatically generated by your processing software isn't quite what you've seen. This article is about the second half of photography -- getting back to what you saw from the data your camera collected.”
Now, I’m not going to get into a debate about how much processing is too much. I only want to point out, like Patrick did, that every image needs something done to it to finish the product. To make it more like what you actually saw versus what the camera spit out for you. To make it fit the mood you were feeling that day. Something. This is also why most professional photographers are incredibly reluctant (or simply refuse) to hand out unedited raw files to clients: these files are only templates for a final product. They’re unfinished. They’re just blueprints. They don’t convey the artist’s final vision; letting someone else edit them (or not edit them!) would be like a painter handing over an almost-completed commissioned work with the paintbrush still wet with yellow, saying, “Why don’t you finish it?” to the client.
Taquería Guanajuato, Springdale, Arkansas, 2016
Seattle, Washington, 2013
Fayetteville, Arkansas 2016
What are your thoughts on the needs for processing images to match your vision?
All images by Stephen Ironside.