Note: I have released a free ebook called Post-process Smarter. This blog post is a bit of an introduction to the ebook and hopefully, some food for thought.
Post-processing... I’ve blogged about it. I’ve made videos and ebooks. I've made one just recently. Post-processing is something that I’m constantly experimenting with. Even today, a decade into focusing much of my energy and attention purely on photography, I still devote a good amount of time to fine-tuning my post-processing techniques.
An extension of the creative process
You could argue that post-processing is not even photography, but I disagree. It's a part of photography, just like the darkroom. Some photographers didn’t process their images in the darkroom and some still don’t on the computer. Of course, not everyone is in a position to hand their images off to someone else to process. More importantly though, for most of us it should be a deeply personal matter.
I see post-processing as an extension of the creative process that carries incredible significance. In essence post-processing is how you present your vision to the world. If there's a break down, at best you end up misrepresenting what you tried to communicate. At worst, you create something truly awful and completely turn the viewer off looking deeper into your images.
Who's asking questions?
What surprises me a lot is that with the abundance of educational material that exists, few educators are encouraging anyone to ask questions like “Why should I post-process? What am I trying to achieve through my post-processing? How can this help me communicate what I want?”
Sometimes the answers are obvious. An image like the above doesn't work without post-processing. There's too much contrast between the bright elbow and the rest of the man. Through post-processing I'm trying to make up for the camera's shortcomings and bring the image closer to what the scene looked in life.
Other times the answers to why you need to post-process a photograph are not so straightforward and that’s when you should really pause to think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. I touch on this in more depth in the ebook.
The importance of a foundation
When I began my photographic journey I was often guilty of some horrendous post-processing myself. The problem was that I never asked the questions. Maybe it’s because when I started out, it was so unbelievable to have the ability to do things to photographs that I was just doing them to see what can come out of it. There was no foundation behind what I did – a bit of this, a bit of that. It was like experimenting with cooking. Sometimes the ratios of ingredients work, other times, you end up with a disaster.
Eventually though, after hundreds of post-processing disasters I did develop a foundation. This foundation is vital. That's basically what I think the ebook is – a foundation, something that helps you start off properly, a push in the right direction.
With a foundation in place you can make logical post-processing decisions. This way post-processing is seen as a means to a final “product”. It's not the purpose in itself. You might give your images a distinct look with post-processing, but if the technique or the effect is overshadowing the image, you've failed.
The obsession with idealised beauty
Some of the catch-phrases in post-processing tutorials online and in photography magazines remind me of the catch-phrases in glossy magazines like Mean’s Health. “Perfect abs for the summer” must be the equivalent of “Make your images pop!” They’ve become ubiquitous and banal.
I often see articles on how to transform a bland-looking landscape into, well… something completely unrecognisable. If you photographed a landscape on a cloudy day and it looked bland, bring out the blandness, what it felt like to be there. There's value in showing and recording what things are really like.
The photo of the Soviet block above is a little depressing, but that's quite characteristic of the Soviet blocks. I know because I was born in one just like that. Turning the shot into an over-saturated, vivid HDR image would be make no sense. It wouldn't look beautiful. It'd just appear silly and obviously fake. There would be no value to the photograph as a record either, because it’d be a lie.
If you don't like a particular subject – photograph something different in those circumstances. Why turn to post-processing to transform a photograph into something it's not? You'll just get The Photoshop Police screaming "That's PHOTOSHOPPED!"
Perhaps as a society we’re so obsessed with idealised beauty and making things appear perfect that we forget about substance or the beauty and the value of reality. We end up doing what the advertising industry does. It’s a little like airbrushing and transforming photos of models and actresses. Only if you’re not selling a product - what exactly is the point?
A matter of purpose
I don't have the slightest problem with making images pop, contrasty, punchy, vivid, whatever. I do it all the time. If someone wants to completely stray away from reality with their post-processing – that’s fine too. But, I do think that things should be done with a certain level of taste and very importantly, there should be a purpose behind it all.
If something is done to look “cool” or “awesome", I suppose you could say that those are purposes too, but the level of thought behind them is that of a teenager. That's also fine, if you are a teenager, but as an adult it eventually seems very naive or even shallow.
What’s the point of this article?
There comes a time in life when we become a little more self-reflective and start questioning actions that we might have never thought about questioning before. We want to do things that have meaning. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t do the same with photography and post-processing.
The point of this article is to get you thinking and asking questions about why you post-process images the way you do. Perhaps you'll reconsider some things. Do some completely differently. Obviously these aren't the profound questions about life, but if you love photography they are important ones.
A free ebook
I've already mentioned at the start of the post that I've created an ebook. It's free and it's called Post-process Smarter: Improve your visual communication through post-processing. The ebook touches on the sorts of questions and issues I’ve been talking about. If you ask me, the content inside it should be compulsory knowledge for everyone who photographs digitally. I made it free because not everyone might realise the importance enough to pay for it, but everyone should know these things.
Join the discussion & invite your friends
As always I am really curious to know your thoughts on the topic. Where do you stand in regards to post-processing? Do you feel the same, in terms of the important questions being forgotten or never asked? What is the primary reason that you post-process images?