Getting Lost in the Post-Processing Shuffle?

Post Processing

A member on our forums recently brought up the interesting and sometimes controversial topic of photography when it comes to “shooting it right” vs “post processing to make our photo look right.” It’s a good question that we must all ask ourselves as photographers. I myself, am guilty of shooting photos thinking, “I can make this look better in Photoshop or Lightroom…” Sometimes I can even catch myself saying that I can “fix this” in post processing. Why do we take photos that need to be “fixed” in the first place? I don’t attribute it to a lack of photographic skill on anyone’s part, but perhaps (and I say perhaps) we are just lazy when it comes to photography… or I should say DIGITAL photography.

In the past with film, more care was taken to make sure our shots were just right. That, of course, is because most of us didn’t have any ability or choice when it came to post processing a film image, and we wouldn’t want to take any “wasted” shots. This could very well be seen as one of the strengths of film photography, but it’s also a strength of digital photography – The ability we now have to take as many shots as we would like, and the ability to “fix” them later. What are we really doing as photographers of the digital age? Are we really trying hard to get our best shots done correctly “in-camera?” Are we snapping away like mad knowing that we can adjust and fix them in post processing? Or both? Our member made a good point by saying that in order to do a good job in post processing, you need to know your software well (which takes time to learn), and you need to HAVE the time to do the post processing. This takes away from our shooting time, even though it can be another enjoyable part of digital photography. However, given the time, you can truly get lost in the digital photography post processing shuffle.

As I’ve grown in my own journey as a photographer, I can say from experience that it’s become my goal to get my photos perfectly composed, focussed, and exposed correctly in camera. There’s nothing (even in post processing) like a well photographed scene, at the scene. That’s not to say that we should shoot more diligently and completely throw post processing out the door. As digital photographers we need post processing, and here’s why…

Photographers of the digital age have two choices when it comes to our images. We can shoot in JPEG, or RAW, which both have their advantages and disadvantages. With JPEGs, your photos are technically post processed for you by the software inside your camera. Things like sharpness, contrast, colour correction, and even exposure compensation are things that are done transparently to your images, without any additional efforts on your part. As a result, your JPEGs come out looking quite nice in most cases, and ready for print. However, as we all know, the JPEG format is a compressed form of your photograph, and therefore much data is lost from the original image which limits the amount of processing you can do without creating JPEG artifacts or pixellation in your images.

RAW images on the other hand, encompass the full range of data collected by your digital camera, allowing you the most flexibility when it comes to post processing. No matter how perfect a composition, RAW photographs will almost always need some form of basic post processing because an image captured in RAW is just that – the raw data from the camera, with no in-camera processing. This is one of the reasons why beginners to camera RAW find that their images used to look better in JPEG, and come out looking a little flat in RAW. We are given the most flexibility with RAW, and for that single fact we need to decide which is the best shooting format for us?

Quick and Easy RAW Processing:

Can we have the best of both worlds when it comes to photography vs photography + post processing? Absolutely, and it won’t eat up much of your time either. Whether you are using Adobe Camera Raw (found in Photoshop and Elements), Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, or your own camera manufacturer’s RAW converter software, try this: The next time you are out on a shoot, take a photo of your subject in both RAW and JPEG formats. Compose your shots as best as you can in-camera, pay attention to exposure, and capture the best image that you can in-camera as if there were no option of post processing. When you get home, try these simple steps in your RAW processing software of choice:

  1. Adjust the Exposure slider to your liking, to suit your image
  2. If you find that by increasing your exposure, you now have some blown out highlights, graciously increase the Recovery slider to bring those blowouts back.
  3. Increase the contrast to your liking. You can either do this with the contrast slider, or the curves option (preferred) by making the darks darker, and the lights lighter.
  4. If you are shooting a colourful scene, you can try to increase the Vibrancy slider modestly, and even the Saturation slider.
  5. As a final step, all digital photographs do require some sort of sharpening. You can do this either in your RAW converter (under the sharpening options), or in Photoshop/Elements (which do a great job), or any 3rd party sharpening tools that you prefer.

Doing these simple steps takes about 3 minutes once you get used to them, and will bring out the best that your perfect photo has to offer. In certain RAW programs you can even do this once and have the same settings instantly applied to all the images in your shoot, saving you even more time. Once you have done this, compare your newly processed RAW image to the JPEG of the same shot, and evaluate which looks better to you. At the very least, we can all admit that post processing even the slightest amount can improve a digital image.

At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to have the best photo possible. I’ve personally tried to wake myself up and consider my photography more than my post processing abilities. As a result, I’ve seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of my work, along with a significant decrease in the amount of time I spend post processing my work. Ultimately we each have our strong and weak points, and as long as we’re honest with ourselves as to what those are, only then can we improve. I’ve learned to do my best to get it right in-camera, and apply some basic post processing which takes but a moment, and the results are dramatically better than my older work where post processing was king.

Every photographer is different from experience level, to technological savvy, to style and genre, so I leave you all with this question: Can we live without post processing? Absolutely yes, but the real question is… Should we?

Click here to read and participate in the thread which inspired this posting.

About the author

Dave Seeram is the Editor of PhotographyBB Magazine, photographer, Canucks fan, Lostie,  fanboy, Dad, blogger, entrepreneur, and part-time superhero. Dave is the owner of this blog, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the PhotographyBB Magazine and CLARITY: PHOTOGRAPHY BEYOND THE CAMERA
2 Responses
  1. I’ve a very simple rythem that I’m telling my self over and over when I photography:

    “The better I photograph, the less I need to use photoshop…” 🙂

    I think that we all need to adopt this way of “life” (photography)

    – Yaniv

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