Post processing – the other (better?) half of photography? Or a whole new art?

You can take a picture and then you can make a picture. Are they one and the same or is photography just the first stage in a two stage process?

Back in the days of B&W film photography, the photographer would go into the dark room to develop a roll of film and somewhere along the process, he or she would have the chance to intervene on the final result by retouching the image. This was done mainly in order to remove blemishes like dust or unwanted details like one’s mother in law or Stalin’s fallen out of grace ex-comrades. It was a difficult and strenuous process which yielded results altering the image somewhat (but not that much).

Fast forward to today where retouching – editing – post processing is something completely different, a lot more involved in terms of tools, time and (most importantly) results. Today, one can take a digital image (or a scanned copy of an image shot on film) and they can open in it one of several dedicated applications, such as Adobe Lightroom, Skylum Luminar, Phase One Capture 1 (not to mention a whole bunch of others less complicated apps and some that are free to download) and that is where a whole new different art form begins.

To begin with, one has to think what they want to accomplish with their photography. If it is to capture and record life and reality as it is, then the only use one has for post processing is the old-school notion of removing sensor dust or other minor (double underline – minor!) adjustments. Actually, there is a big discussion going on about “ethical photojournalism” and it centers around this very issue.

If one is taking pictures as a hobby, to share with friends and family, to showcase physically or digitally or to sell as fine art, then the use of post processing is a very powerful tool to achieve the desired result. The combination of camera technology and post processing apps can create images that not only take care of blemishes, but are enhanced to the point of no recognition, for better or for worse.

First off, let me say that a lot of the adjustments that can be made using a post processing app can actually be dialled in the camera a t the time of shooting or afterwards in some cases. Cropping, for example, can be done in-camera (in some cameras) after shooting. White balance, contrast, saturation, sharpening and other such tweaks can be preconfigured for each shot. Yes, that will take time, but one can create profiles of desired settings and use accordingly.

But the post processing apps go way farther than that. An experienced user can change the image extensively and, as mentioned before, in conjunction with modern camera technology, the resulting image can be something completely different. For example, with some cameras’ huge dynamic range (spectrum from pure white to total black and everything in between) exposure can be off by quite a few f-stops and still one can bring details back from the dead in post. What was black when shot, after tinkering with the knobs and sliders a bit can be in glorious color. Another example has to do with modern sensors’ incredible resolving power. Shooting with such a camera, composition can be off too, because then you can crop very aggressively during post and the resulting image can still fill the frame with enough detail to post on social media or even print.

So, two of the major building blocks of photography, exposure and composition, can be manipulated in post processing to the extent that it almost doesn’t matter how you expose and what you frame while you take the picture, because you can make the picture later.

To me, post processing allows the photographer the luxury to think less while taking the picture and gives him or her unprecedented degrees of freedom to create whatever they have visualized. Now, is this a good thing, is it a bad thing? Who’s to say! One thing is certain: post processing “shrinks” photography into a more cramped space. At some point, photography occupied the whole space between the photographer’s mind and the finished image, allowing for some minor dark room retouching and that only in B&W. Today, photography is a part of the process somewhere in the middle. The vision of the finished image may be something imagined with post in mind and realized with the use of it. Somewhere there in the middle, lies the glorious art of photography, the medium through which vision and image come together.

Epilogue: I don’t know how I feel about all this at the end of the day. I use post processing as do most photographers. Most of the “tweaks” I use can indeed be dialled in camera beforehand but I never do that. I take great care no to feel too smug while taking a picture, knowing that if my exposure and composition is off, I can always bring it back. I see it as insurance, nice to have if things go south. This is not to say that I haven’t flirted with the Dark Side myself. At the privacy of my own home, I fire up Lightroom or Photoshop and go crazy with sliders, filters, presets, you name it. I just take care not to call this “photography” and then the world order is restored again.