Once upon a time, I was one of those anti post-processing “purists”. “I love the natural look, I hate processed photos”, I bleated to myself. What I’ve since realised is that what I meant was, “I don’t know what I’m doing”.
This obviously doesn’t hold true for all photographers who keep their processing minimal. This wonderful presentation by National Geographic photographer Michael Melford taught me a lot about bring out the best in an image without serious post-processing – National Geographic have a policy of only presenting real photos to their customers and will not accept overly-processed shots from their photographers – and I have nothing but admiration and respect for his gorgeous images. But I’m not a National Geographic photographer.
And now I LOVE post-processing. I love playing with my photos. I love experimenting with colour and shades and shade and shading, painting my little adjustment brush all over the place, cloning out that distracting branch, softening the focus with low contrast and clarity or making everything razor-sharp with the reverse, tinging my highlights and shadows, cropping and flipping and and all and any combination of the above. The magic of those little Lightroom sliders… I love it. I may love it more than taking the photo, especially if taking the photo means getting up at 4am. I feel a little disappointed when I look at a photo that’s pretty fine with minimal adjustments and think, “Is this as good as it gets?”.
Lightroom is what turned me. It’s something you can play with without much knowledge, although youtube videos quickly helped me understand the magic. Lightroom is non-destructive, so I can layer change upon change then turn back time with a click in the History panel. It lets me take snapshots so I can capture a few of my favourite experiments then directly compare them. It’s a tool like any other in the photographer’s bag and skillfully wielded it can turn an ok image into a grand sight. I’m not all that skillful but I love it.
And that it’s hardly a new thing is something I knew but it only really hit home recently. For example, here is what Ansel Adams had to say about his famous “Moonrise” photo:
I decided to use dilute D-23 and ten developer-to-water sequences, 30 seconds in the developer and 2 minutes in the water without agitation for each sequence. By using ten developer-water cycles I minimized the possibility of uneven sky.
The negative was quite difficult to print; several years later I decided to intensify the foreground to increase contrast. I first refixed and washed the negative, then treated the lower section of the image with a dilute solution of Kodak IN-5 intensifier. I immersed the area below the horizon with an in-and-out motion for about 1 minute, then rinsed in water, and repeated about twelve times until I achieved what appeared to be optimum density. Printing was a bit easier thereafter, although it remains a challenge.
There were light clouds in a few areas of the sky, and the clouds under the moon were very bright (two or three times as bright as the moon). I burn-in the foreground a little toward the bottom of the print. I then burn along the line of the mountains, keeping the card edge in constant motion. In addition, I hold the card far enough from the paper to produce a broad penumbra in its shadow; this prevents a distinct dodging or burning line, which would be very distracting. I also burn upward a bit to the moon to lower the values of the white clouds and the comparitively light horizon sky. I then burn from the top of the moon to the top of the image with several up-and-down passages. – Taken from Notes On Photographs
He did what who where? There was no Photoshop, but while Photoshop didn’t exist photo manipulation did and had done for as long as photography has existed. Photoshop wasn’t born out of thin air, it was wanted by photographers to be the digital equivalent of all this work film photographers did (and still do) in the darkroom. You can see the difference between the straight from camera print and Adams’ post-processed one here.
I recently subscribed (I’m not that keen on the subscription model but the Black Friday sale won me over) to Photoshop. I used Photoshop a little several years ago but hardly any since, and just opening it is daunting. I don’t even know where to start. I really should get to grips with it, add this powerful tool to my bag for special occasions, but I feel I’ve been handed a chainsaw to peel an apple. I rarely feel the need to leave Lightroom… suspect I’m scared! Back to youtube I should go but this feels more like a chore than a pleasure.
Anyway, I’m completely on-board with post-processing now. It definitely helps to get as much right in camera as you can. But even when you do, sometimes there’s an extra je ne sais quoi you can add in Lightroom. The eleventh secret herb or spice. The touch that makes this photo mine rather than any other photographer’s who’s stood in the exact same spot, and I’ve stood in the same places as many, many photographers.
Am I misrepresenting the world? Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Sometimes I’m merely adjusting for the camera’s desire to average the world’s colour to grey (“no, lil camera, the sunset really was that red”). Sometimes I’ve flipped the world in a mirror, removed parts of it, changed the colours, lit it up… But while it might not end up the exact scene I photographed, it is what I felt.