Camera to Print Series: Do I Post Process my Digital Photos?

Testa River in Sikkim

A very common question some people ask me after seeing my photos is – “how did you get these colours? Why can’t I get the same? Do you Photoshop them (referring to the popular image editing program, Adobe Photoshop)?” In all likelihood, they want to know if the image they see is straight out of the camera, or if it has been ‘tweaked’ to look pretty.

The most simple answer to this question is – yes. I process every image individually. I enhance colours, sharpen edges, adjust contrast, and crop the frame – all in an effort to make the image look good and as close as possible to what I saw. The reaction to this answer generally is  – “ah, that explains why I don’t get photographs as good as yours”. Or, “you are more of a photoshopper than a photographer” (usually said with a sneer).

I am fine with both responses. Because both are true to an extent.

From a technical standpoint, no camera can give a photograph so wonderful that it doesn’t need post-processing. Especially when the camera is set to capture in a format called RAW.  Those who discredit an edited image should probably take the time to know that there is always more to a good image than just Photoshop. A good photograph is a result of right shooting techniques, choice of filters, lenses and lighting conditions. Photographers spend a great deal of time just waiting for the right light. They also tend to intricately plan their shoot to make different elements come together.

Here are examples of before and after photographs:

a sample photo before and after post processing in Lightroom in Bangalore

Using lightroom to post processing photos in Bangalore

A photo of Vidhan Soudha processed using Lightroom

If you like what you see, read on to understand the truth about five post processing myths.

Myth 1: The Camera Captures What your Eyes See.

Cameras are very imperfect devices. They can never match the sophistication of the human eye but most people don’t know that.  This is one reason why non-photographers look down on Photoshop. They believe that a camera can capture what they can see. If you are of the same opinion, read up on this article that explains in technical terms why a camera does not see the same way our eyes do.

Myth 2: Processing a Photo is Unethical

The ethics of processing needs to be understood based on what was done to the photo. Digital artists use Photoshop to add artificial elements and create an image that looks too good to be true. No doubt, such things are widely done (and requires talent to be done well). Digital art tends to be shared on the same platform as digital photos. Many such digitally manipulated images would have at some time landed in your mailbox, forcing you to be suspicious of anything too good to be true.

Because the distinction between digital art and digital photography is thin, it is not uncommon in today’s digital age to question the credibility of a photo. But to think that Photoshopped images are all unethical amounts to ignorance of the nuances of photography. Perhaps, one can only think of  photographers masquerading their digital art as photos, and digital artists doing vice versa, as unethical.

Myth 3: Film Photographers did not Process their Photos.

Traditional film photography was no doubt more hard work and technically complicated than modern day digital photography, but that does not mean that today’s photographs are not worthy of the effort that it takes to create them. Film photographers didn’t have the convenience of doing it non-destructively using a computer, nor did they have the kind of options that we have today. Film shooters used a lot of  manual enhancement techniques – a fact that lay-people don’t know because they used to give their film rolls to labs who did the processing for them.  In case you are interested, here is a video of how Ansel Adams processed film. Processing a photograph after it is captured on film or digital is not a new practice.

Some photographers like to declare that they are not in the habit of processing their photos, and use that as bragging rights. If you thought that the photo that came out of your digital camera is unprocessed, you are wrong. The camera does a whole lot of processing, which when photographers shoot RAW, choose to do themselves.

Myth 4: Photoshop is Magic.

Post processing requires skill, patience, and creativity.  Just like how a good camera does not automatically take good photographs, Photoshop does not automatically make photos look awesome. It takes years to master Photoshop. Adobe, the company that makes Photoshop, also offers certifications in this area.

Unfortunately, the goal of post processing is very diluted in today’s times. Ideally, you don’t post-process a photo by randomly pushing sliders, but it could be just as easy as that. In these times when digital cameras have become so very cheap, anyone can chance upon an award winning capture just by shooting many frames or applying preset filters in not-so-sophisticated image editing software.

The true test of a technically good photograph would be in print, which unfortunately not many are investing in on these days. Part of the problem lies in the hype that surrounds photography on social media. All the focus on ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’  has lead to people forgetting how to critically evaluate a photo. Personally, I keep archival printing as the end goal of my processing routines. Every step in the workflow is deliberate, and I like to evaluate my photos on print.

Myth 5: Processing Makes Anything and Everything Look Good.

Post processing follows a fundamental law of computing – garbage in garbage out. If you have a bad image to start with, you cannot make it look great in post. Photographers do not generally go about adding stuff that did not already exist in the scene. They also don’t change colors without a reason, unlike how instagram filters do. More often not, photographers only bring out colors that already existed in the scene, but which the camera failed to capture. So if you have a poor quality photo to start with, there is not much you can do in post processing. Sure, you can distastefully jazz it up and grab eyeballs, but that is not the kind of photography we are talking about here.

Learn how to correctly process your digital photographs instead of arbitrarily pushing sliders. I conduct post processing classes in Bangalore. If you are interested, check out www.Darter.in

9 Comments

  1. Manish
    September 5, 2014 @ 3:52 am

    I don’t see problem processing under some software, earlier days of film, people used to do lots of creative work in processing lab and now after taking RAW (digital negatives) images you do same kind of processing on computer. 

    Reply

  2. Parimala
    September 5, 2014 @ 5:07 am

    Good one Pratap! Gives more clarity to some of them who think that if we use LR or Photoshop the photos are manipulated.

    Reply

  3. Arun
    September 6, 2014 @ 3:24 am

    Well said…  I still keep my ‘sneer’ on for poorly done PP jobs…

    Reply

  4. Manish B. G.
    September 8, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

    Nice one Pratap. Would also like to add and let the critics know, that above all creative vision is most important ingredient in creating anythin, whether a photograph or digital art. Without vision, even with all the tools and technologies no one can create anything worth of value. I suspect this is why most critics are just busy critiquing and criticising others work and process, rather than spend their time on creating something of their own. End of the day if something looks great it’s great, as simple as that. No two ways about it. And creating good work does take effort. And the problem is that most people are not willing to put in that extra effort in learning the tools and techniques of post processing. 

    Reply

    • Pratap J
      September 10, 2014 @ 8:30 am

      Absolutely, Manish. Consistent creative vision is what I would measure the worth of any artist.

      Reply

  5. dinesh maneer
    October 7, 2014 @ 5:51 am

    Nicely written and must for todays generation of photographers
    rgds

    Reply

  6. Sudheer dharmadhikari
    November 8, 2014 @ 8:11 am

    Very well written and an answer for those who only criticize that using pp is not an art but gives artificial look to images, there is very thin line to ascertain, one has to use PP as it should as it was seen while shooting. I like your myths an write up.. Thanks

    Reply

  7. Kona Srinivas
    February 25, 2015 @ 4:25 am

    That’s a fantastic reveal by ace photographer. Actually, I was looking for how to protect images and ended here. However, there’s nothing here about protection of the images but really happy to find a note on post processing of photos.

    Reply

    • Pratap J
      February 26, 2015 @ 9:59 am

      Thanks, Kona. Right, this article is more about the ethics of enhancing images. As for protecting images from theft, I am yet to find a foolproof method. But you have given me an idea to write an article about a few tips around this.

      Reply

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