Monday, 15 July 2013

A Note On Post-Processing

I just thought I'd add an insight into what goes on after I've taken a photograph and the reasons behind it.

The debate within the photography world about the use of software to post-process is as old as digital photography, and in other forms the argument has raged as long as people have been waving cameras at things. When does a photograph stop being a photograph? It's a tricky one because we all use some sort of post-processing to bring out elements of a shot.

I think that one of the major aspects of the debate is the question of how long you have been taking photographs. I started taking photographs at the tail end of the film era - I started off with an Olympus OM-10 and eventually moved to an early Canon EOS film camera. Thanks to my Dad building a darkroom in the loft I regularly processed and printed my photographs. Consequently, I'm used to working with what the camera has given me - and that can be a fair amount. Something that some digital-only photographers that I've spoken to are consistently surprised about is the amount of work you can do on an image with a darkroom - probably the best known examples come from Man Ray (, who, very interestingly from the point of view of this post, was an artist rather than a photographer. So, from my point of view at least, I don't see any technical or artistic reason to not go crazy in Photoshop, as most of the crossovers between digital photography and digital art already have precedent in the film photography world. However - and this is why the larger debate will never be settled - personal taste, bias, and familiarity with the different processes all have to play a huge role here.

As a landscape photographer, I'm caught between two stools - on the one hand, I have a desire to record a location faithfully. I regard a scene as an organic whole - so no sky replacement, no removal of inconvenient twigs. If it was there, it's part of the shot and I work with what I've got. On the other hand, I'm trying to create an artistic photograph that evokes feelings in the observer. It's a feature of human observation that we tend to exaggerate certain features of what we can see based on our feelings at the time. Now, because of the first conviction mentioned above, I can't take a rock feature and make it bigger in Photoshop, the majority of the work has to be done on location through choice of lens and point of view. So the compromise is to turn the computer, and Photoshop, into an old-fashioned darkroom.

I always shoot in RAW, never jpeg. RAW is called a digital negative by some and rightly so - I certainly treat it as such. Photoshop's RAW importer has recently come back into favour with me so the first step of post-processing is to open my RAW files in there, and to start the first phase of tweaking. Modifications at this stage are few and simple. I'll convert to black and white and identify which areas need to be emphasised and which ones need to be knocked back. If possible, I'll do this using the colour balance controls - to my mind this is the equivalent of using a coloured filter but with much more control. I'm probably stretching the analogy here, having minimal familiarity with colour enlargers, but I suspect that it's similar to printing a colour negative, with a colour enlarger, on black & white paper.

Having tweaked the colour balance, I'll then work on the overall tone and contrast of the photograph, still within the Adobe RAW plugin, using the exposure control and the black level control. At this point one of two things happens - I'm happy with the picture (rare, oh so rare!) and save it as-is, or I open the photograph in Photoshop proper rather than the RAW importer. Here, I'll use five tools at most - dodge, burn, crop, some extra colour balance work, and very rarely, the clone tool. Again, dodging and burning are direct analogies of darkroom techniques and are very useful to bring elements of the scene forward or to knock them back. The extra colour work is to take advantage of a very useful feature of Photoshop - the ability to tweak the properties of a colour selected from the scene itself whilst leaving the others alone. As to the clone tool, I regard cloning as cheating even though photographs have been retouched since the dawn of time. It's a personal view and not based on any real logic. But sometimes it's useful for getting rid of the odd spot of unwanted flare, or - a common occurrence in my house - removing that stray cat hair from my lens.

At this point, I make a judgement call on the photo. If I find myself thinking impure thoughts (sky replacement! Tree removal!), I regard that as a sign that the photo isn't good enough, stop working on it, and forget about it. If the photo looks good at this point then it's mission accomplished and it gets saved in my "Finished Edits" folder.

On a good day the post-processing phase can use up very little time, my personal record is around ten minutes for one of my Derbyshire shots.

So the short version is, I have nothing against the use of Photoshop in principle, but from a personal point of view I'd rather my photographs were made in the camera rather than through endless tweaking. It just feels more honest and natural that way.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Movement at last, lights in the sky, and microfocus adjustment

After a lot of hard work, endless image resizing, and staring at the wall wondering how people write about themselves, I've finally got my website up and running - here it is (fanfare please): 

In other news I've been approached for some video work, and I'm firming up some plans to hit Scotland in October to hopefully get some shots of the Aurora during the solar maximum - weather permitting of course, which could be interesting in Scotland! 

I'm also closing in on what I'd like to do with the shots of the White Peak that I'm slowly accumulating - the obvious route is a coffee table book of some kind and a gallery exhibition but I've got a few ideas that could make things a little different. Of course, ideas are completely different to reality so it will be interesting - and useful for future reference - to see how the things-sticking-out-of-the-ground-in-Derbyshire project evolves.

I've finally got round to adjusting the focus on the 7D, and I can safely say that if you own a 7D and haven't done this, drop whatever you're doing and get adjusting! I found a significant difference in focus points between the three lenses I use the most, and a quick trip to some local woods after adjustment yielded some vastly improved results. If it seems a bit daunting there are plenty of tutorials on the web that describe the process far better than I can.