Post processing is as much a part of photography as composition and it always has been. It is one of the things that elevates a snapshot to art. It’s why I say I create photos instead of taking them. In my own post processing I always strive to find a balance between the fact and the fiction. Finding that balance can be a challenge.
My grandfather was a professional photographer. He started in the time of wooden view cameras and wet plates and worked until the 1970’s. Much of his later business came from school portraits. “Post processing” to him was dodging and burning prints and getting out his inks and fine tip art brushes to fix a scratch or high school senior’s blemish. He was finishing the final photographic product and compensating for the limits of camera technology. We do the same thing now.
HDR techniques overcome a digital camera’s limited dynamic range, the range of light from where shadows turn pure black to where highlights turn pure white, and help us create images more like what our eyes can see. Focus stacking expands a camera’s limited depth of field letting us see everything in focus as we do when our eyes quickly adjust to our surroundings. Blending multiple exposures of the same scene lets us reduce sensor noise. In some ways it’s easier now than it was for my grandfather. The undo button may make digital post processing seem trivially easy to some people, but the breadth and complexity of modern image processing software make it a skill like any other. No one is born knowing Photoshop. It takes practice and perseverance to do it well.
Having all these digital tools available leads to the temptation to use them all. You end up with a focus stacked, HDR, panoramic time lapse with a replaced sky. Maybe I’ll add some sunbeams. Oooh, and a unicorn! Now you have an image that barely resembles the scene as you saw it standing there.
I make a distinction between post processing photo enhancement and photo manipulation. There is some overlap, but enhancement is making the photo look like the best version of the scene and manipulation is making a new scene. Removing distractions like sensor dust or a blurry bird is enhancement. Replacing a sky is manipulation. Adjusting the contrast, vibrancy and sharpness is enhancement. Replacing the colors is manipulation. Spot healing is enhancement. Clone stamping is, in many cases, manipulation. White balance is a tricky one. It can be either enhancement or manipulation depending on how it’s used.
White balance is usually where I start post processing RAW files. Unless I’m photographing the night sky, I tend to just leave the camera white balance set to ‘Daylight’. Below is a shot of Conkle’s Hollow in Hocking Hills, Ohio. To create the final image I blended four exposures into an HDR. This is just one of them. On the left is the SOOC (Straight Out Of Camera) shot. On the right is that shot after some basic RAW adjustment of white balance, exposure, contrast and sharpening. In this case the ‘Daylight’ setting on the camera didn’t capture the sunlit warmth of the scene so I increased the warmth from 5000K to about 6200K. This is an enhancement. 5500K would be about where the scene was as I stood there. To convey the sense of warmth the scene gave me, I exaggerated it.
There isn’t a bright clear line that separates enhancement from manipulation. Where one becomes the other is something each photographer and photo viewer decides for themselves. My definition, outlined here, may not match yours and that’s a good thing. After processing the RAW image to exaggerate its warmth I was curious how far I could enhance the image to convey how the scene felt rather than how it looked.
There was some humidity which created some barely discernible crepuscular rays so I exaggerated those. The tonal contrast was adjusted and highlights were warmed further. Finally I added some cross processing. Perhaps because of my long history with film photography, I love adding a bit of cross processing to landscapes. It adds depth and expands the range of colors and even brings a little nostalgia to a scene. Arguably, cross processing jumps the line from enhancement to manipulation, but its use in film developing gives it just enough gravitas to let me, cough, grandfather it in.
For more info on the history of post processing the age of film, check out this article on petapixel.com :