Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Post processing and editing is not cheating.

Let's talk photography. Photography as a craft has the characteristic that it requires both artistic and technical skill. A consequence of this is that it gathers a huge amount of hobbyists to it, attracting all different kinds of people. A lot of these people end up in general groups.

There are the pixel peepers, who spend all their time reading about, writing about, and testing gear, from sensors to lenses to straps. There are the photography bloggers (the irony), who spend more time writing quips about photography and doing workshops than they actually spend taking photos. There are the fauxtographers, who recently got a DSLR, and now think that they are professionals. Then there are more fauxtographers, who think that 3 months of practice equal 5-10 years of experience and education. And then there are the purists.

I cannot explain how much I dislike the purists. They are everywhere in photography. They are professionals, they are amateurs, they are experienced, they are beginners. And they think that they're doing it right, and everybody else is doing it wrong. They will tell you only to use primes. They will tell you to always use full manual control. They will tell you to shoot JPEG, and never edit your photos. They will tell you exactly how you should shoot a certain photo, because their method is the "right one", and everything else is wrong. And they are limiting themselves and those who heed their advice, by never exploring the possibilities present in new technologies or methods.

This post is about post processing. The main reason I will talk about this is that a large portion of people I know are purists when it comes to post processing. Some photographers are too. These people believe that post processing or editing a photo is some sort of cheating. They will take pride in their photos being SOOC (straight out of camera), meaning that they shot in JPEG and didn't do anything to the file afterwards. There are many good reasons that post processing and editing are essential parts of photography. Here are some of them.

In-camera processing

Here's a photograph of a waterfall, actually taken SOOC:

Waterfall, straight out of camera.
It's grey, there's no contrast, the colors are boring. This is a raw file, put through the smallest amount of processing needed to turn it into a valid photograph (processed Bayer array, adjusted to a neutral white balance).

Here is the same photograph processed by the camera:

Waterfall, JPEG straight out of camera.
The difference is obvious. The contrast is much higher, the white balance is much warmer, the colors are more saturated. The image has even been corrected for lens distortion, which you will notice if you compare the two photos closely. So what's going on?

When a camera saves an image as a JPEG, it puts it through a bunch of processing. This photograph was taken with a Nikon D5200, but all cameras do post processing. Here are some of the typical things that cameras do other than the essential processing:
  • Adjusting white balance (temperature can be manually set, but not tint). 
  • Correcting lens distortion.
  • Applying noise reduction.
  • Applying level curves.
  • Increasing saturation.
  • Applying sharpening.
  • Shifting hues.
  • Increasing contrast.
  • Putting image through a bunch of proprietary processing.

Auto settings

It's amazing what cameras can do these days. But if you're a photographer, letting the camera do all the processing is alike to setting your camera to "Auto"; you're not taking control of your photo. Partial auto modes are great. Things like auto ISO, auto focus, priority modes, they let you focus on the important factors of your photograph, while handling the rest for you similar to what you would've done anyway. Of course, they should always be used with care, but they are guided auto features, where you still dictate the main factors of the photograph. Full auto modes, on the other hand, are only good for consumers. They just need the camera to snap a photo when they press the shutter button. If you use full auto modes, you are letting go of all control over your photo, except for how you point your camera. You might as well get a point-and-shoot, hence the name.

Saving an image as a JPEG is like using one of these modes. You take no control over the processing of your image. You let the camera figure out things for you completely. When your camera comes with post processing software for your computer, when Darktable is free, and Lightroom is cheaper than it used to be, there's no excuse. Simply setting the color temperature isn't enough either. You gotta do things yourself to express your creative vision.
"But if auto settings work fine for me, why should I use manual mode?"
Because your camera is trying to guess what you want to do. It doesn't read your mind. It can be wrong on the focus, the shutter speed, the white balance, the level curve, the amount of saturation, the hue shifting, the sharpening, every thing you let it do. Your camera is not your eyes. It will not reflect what you see with them, nor will it reflect what you thought when you pressed the shutter button. It is an amazing machine, but it is not sentient, and it can only make bad guesses. And every guess it makes steers the image away from what it ought to be.

What do you see?

For example, taking photographs in the moonlight is tricky. It requires a tripod, manual focus, manual settings. There is too little light to focus, so you have to guess (an old lens comes in handy with its focus ring). You've put up your camera in a position you like, you've adjusted the exposure, you've focused, pressed the shutter, waited for half a minute, and then your camera gives you this:

That was not what you saw. You saw cold, grey colors the moonlight washing through the wet landscape, vignetting in your vision due to the darkness. Not this. Your camera has no idea that it's capturing moonlight. It has no idea that your eyes are in night vision mode, that colors are gone, and contrast is high. It just puts the image through its usual processing, which is, to be brutally honest, designed for taking tourist photos in daylight.

Adjusting the exposure, the levels curve, the white balance, and the saturation gets you a lot closer to right photo.

This is what you saw. This was the light. By taking the post processing into your own hands, you reflect what entered your own eyes. This is an extreme case, but your camera will always be off, of course only slightly sometimes. But there are so many situations that your camera cannot account for, like forest photography, night time photography, artificial light, overclouded days. Other than your cameras guesses, you want to correct things like your lens distortion, lack of contrast in either lens or sensor, lack of sharpness, etc. These are done in post processing as well.

A photographer has to take control over the photo, and do the post processing. The photo should look like what you saw, not the cameras guess.

Moving from correction to interpretation

Now, post processing has been elaborated on and somewhat justified, but most of the time, post processing will go beyond this. Somewhere it crosses a line and becomes editing. A lot of people feel like editing a photograph is cheating. I hate looking at the disappointment in peoples faces when they discover that, by the gods, I edited the photo! Suddenly it loses its value, and it's "just an edited photo".

Now, there is some reason behind calling it cheating, but it depends on the photo. We return to the start of this post. Photography is an art, but also a technical craft. Some photos are meant to represent reality as seen by the human eye, others are meant to be an alternative interpretation of reality, reality represented from a certain angle.

The latter is usually the case for photographers. When photographing as a form of artistic expression, a photo will be meant to stand by itself. Yes, the theme of a gallery or a larger piece may set boundaries, but a photo by itself is meant to be seen while out of context. The photo is not bound by reality, it is a piece in itself. The photographer is using editing as a tool to create his piece. Just like a painter would paint the sky redder, a photographer might increase the saturation. A sculptor might exaggerate shapes, photographer might slightly warp the photo. Art is often about creating something from an idea inside, not about representing reality. There are so many photographic styles, so many ways to express oneself, and they all rely on the way the photo is taken, moreso the way the photo is processed. Already by pointing the camera, a photographer is taking an angle on the scene, choosing what to leave in, and what leave, what to focus on. There is not reason to limit oneself to that first step. This is art.

The opposite is true for consumers. A photo of a relative, a photo of an event, a photo that will be taken out and viewed many years down the line. Be careful with these, especially when photographing for others than yourself. Editing a photo meant to convey reality is the same as distorting our view of reality. Here, the photographer must be careful and make a conscious decision for the editing. Can you justify your edit? Can you justify your cameras view on the situation as well?

I see my photography as an art. I do not wish to represent reality. I wish to make photos instead of taking them. If you take pride in shooting just JPEG, or let people know that you didn't edit. If you think editing is cheating, if you dislike it, ask yourself: Is it art or objective? Should it be?

My edit of the waterfall photo.