Monday, January 5, 2009

Tweaking Your Photos

Every once in a while some one decides to make me feel special and ask me about my photography workflow. Inevitably this leads to a conversation about what photo software I use for my pictures.

Without getting into what software I use for the moment I wanted to take this chance to talk about what post processing is and my own opinion on you can and can't do before you can no longer call some thing a "photograph" and have to start calling it art more in the sense of a painting or collage.

There are purists out there for whom no amount of digital post processing is acceptable. Let me tell you first of all that I am not one of those purists. People seem to think that if you present anything but exactly what came out of the camera as a photograph that you are being dishonest in some way. This has never been the truth. Even in the days of film and dark room, the choice of papers and chemicals, the method you chose for development, and any number of other decisions that I don't know about, had a huge effect on the end result of the print.

Today any single digital capture can result in many many different variations. Changing the color balance, the contrast, or anything like that can all be done after the capture to create the image the photographer wants. The purist scoffs and say's that in the old days it had to be done right the first time. He idealizes the past without knowing the truth.

The truth is that photographers in the dark room had many tools at their disposal to get the images the wanted. They had dodging and burning, filters, different papers, all kinds of things like that. In some cases photographers would take an exposure for the sky, and then another for the real subject, and then insert the sky from the first exposure into the second in a process called "combination printing". Does that sound familiar to anyone? This is the same thing by more controllable means.

What's the difference between then and now? Really it's just the ease with which we can accomplish our adjustments. Sure I can change the color balance, add sepia tones to black and whites and all sorts of things like that, but really you have to respect the amount of work that it took to do it in a dark room don't you?

So in this day and age when an innocent portrait can be so easily manipulated into a scandalous embarrassment, where is a person to draw the line?

Well if you ask me (and thanks for asking) I think it all comes down to the comfort level of the photographer and how original he is representing his work to be. I have no problem adjusting white balance, tweaking exposure a bit, even getting rid of dust spots, and I feel no need to give a disclaimer that a photograph is manipulated. If you are shooting RAW like I do (I know I know, its not necessary, but I do) you have even less reason to warn anyone about it as I'll talk about some time.

What I won't do is add or remove anything that changes the content of the photograph, or makes it look like I am significantly more skilled than I really am. I don't like to remove bystanders, swap out a dreary or over exposed sky for a better one, or do anything else that would make the scene that I saw unrecognizable in the final photograph.

Thats not to say that I don't do some light digital art, I do, but I don't try to pass it off as photography in the normal sense.

So why am I saying this? What does it mean for you? It means that you should feel confident taking your pictures and then adjusting them to taste as you please. Don't let any one tell you that you are some how less of a photographer because you like to adjust them how you like them. I certainly prefer to get them as close to my final goal in camera as I can, but thats because I take hundreds of images at a time and adjusting them all would be a pain no matter how good my software was.

I just wanted to point out one last thing before I wrap this up. There is another reason to get photo's as close to right the first time as possible. Take a look at this image below.

This is a picture of the cathedral inside the Chateau De Versailles in Paris. As you can see it isn't very good. You can roll your mouse over and see what I did to try and fix it. The results are underwhelming, and for one important reason. Lightroom doesn't have a crappy composition tool. I can crop out whatever that is the upper left, but that won't fix all the incomplete columns or the slightly disorienting tilt it has going on. I show you this picture as an illustration of the fact that no amount of software can replace the skill of the photographer in taking the right picture. Sure you can fix color in some cases, and you can fix exposure some times, but the software doesn't decide when to press the shutter button.

At the bottom of this post you will find the version I chose to post online. Sure I tweaked the color balance, and the camera didn't actually see the scene that brightly, but I took that photograph and I don't hesitate to call it original.


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