How much editing?

How much is too much when it comes to post-processing of photos?

There are a few purists who believe that you should get everything right in camera and that you’re not a real photographer if you edit your images. At the other extreme, there’s the anything goes approach that includes composites such as replacing the sky or even adding models into scenic shots.

So what’s my line?

All photos are processed. Black and white film photography, in particular, has always been a combination of getting the right negative and then doing extensive post processing in the darkroom to get the final image.

With digital photography, if you only use the jpegs that come straight from camera, all you’re doing is accepting the post processing choices made by the camera manufacturer.

Most cameras have a variety of preset profiles, often with names such as “Vivid” and “Natural”, that you can use to influence the end result. If you take your time to experiment with those presets and take care over exposure and white balance, you can get great results straight from the camera. Those settings affect the whole image, and are analogous to a film photographer choosing different film stocks to get different looks. If you shoot RAW, you can change those settings for yourself and make your own choices later in post-processing.

I think that’s perfectly fine. All you’re doing by making global adjustments to RAW files is making those choices on your computer rather than at the time of shooting. I’d much rather do that than fiddle around changing presets between each shot and trying to assess the result on the small screen on the back of the camera.

The vintage look, for example, is quite popular, as are looks that replicate classic films stocks. For example, here’s a shot straight from camera:

And now edited with the “Kodachrome 1960s Warm Contrast” preset by Ted Forbes:

The differences are subtle, but you can use more extreme effects for a real vintage look:

So what about other types of editing?

Let’s start with selective adjustments to exposure in different parts of the image, a technique known as dodging and burning. This has always been a part of photography. Ansel Adams applied it extensively to his prints, both to overcome the limitations of film in capturing a wide range of light levels and to make artistic choices. I don’t think anyone would claim that Ansel Adams wasn’t a real photographer.

I remember seeing the “Ansel Adams at 100” exhibition, held on the 100th anniversary of his birth. One of the things that it showed was that he changed the way that he printed his negatives over the course of his career. When he made prints from his older negatives, he would change the way that he chose to apply dodging and burning. His later prints were often more dramatic. For Ansel Adams, then, post processing, in the darkroom, was a key part of his creative process.

Just like global adjustments, I think selective dodging and burning is simply getting the most out of what the camera can capture. In this example, I exposed to protect the highlights in the sky from burning out:

I then worked on the sky and foreground independently to balance the exposure to something closer to what I saw when I was there:

OK, so dodging and burning is fine, but what about cropping? Shouldn’t you get the composition right in camera at the very least?

Again, if you do that you’re stuck with what the camera can do. In this case the limitation is aspect ratio. Although some cameras do allow you to shoot at different aspect ratios, you’re usually restricted to a limited set.

I suppose some real purists might choose to restrict themselves to the camera’s native aspect ratio and compose accordingly, but for as long as there has been photography, photographers have been cropping from the native aspect ratio of their film. Sometimes that was to fit their desired vision, and sometimes it was just required for the intended use. You wouldn’t be able to get an A4 magazine cover from any camera without cropping the image.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with cropping to overcome the limitations of the equipment that you own. You might, for example, crop in on a wildlife image to get a tighter shot because you don’t own an extreme telephoto lens. This is a very tight crop, and while it wouldn’t hold up for larger prints, it’s OK for the web:

Right, so assuming we’re OK with cropping, let’s get to the most contentious type of editing. Is it OK to remove things from the image?

I’m not talking about editing out things like dust spots on the sensor, which is obviously fine. I’m talking about doing things like removing some litter that you hadn’t noticed in a landscape shot, or even removing people from your photographs. It’s something that was also done in the darkroom, so I don’t think you can argue that it isn’t part of photography. It always has been. Just look at the purges that saw out of favour officials airbrushed out of photos of Stalin…

I think, for me, the answer is that it depends on the intended use of the photographs. What might be acceptable to tidy up a fine art landscape would not be OK for a journalist presenting something as the truth. I was happy to remove the sack of rubbish and the dog waste bin from the photo at the top of the blog, although it was a very quick and dirty editing effort to demonstrate each of the types of editing I’m talking about. If I was doing it for real, I’d have spent a lot longer on getting it to look a bit more realistic.

The line I usually draw is that I’ll remove things that are temporary. If I miss a piece of litter in a landscape image, I’ll remove it in Photoshop. If a model has a spot, I’ll remove it, and I’ll also do a bit of skin smoothing to iron out blemishes. It’s easy to go too far and create a plastic look, and I’ve certainly been guilty of that.

Anything beyond that takes the image out of the realm of photography. I won’t call it digital art, as techniques such as composites were used with film. I don’t think it matters what you do with your photography as long as you’re open about what you’re creating. If you use photographs as elements in an entirely composited scene, that’s great as long as you’re not claiming that the shots were created in camera.