Let's face it. Nature photographers probably spend as much time in front of a monitor editing as they do taking photos in the field. But have you ever wondered how much editing is too much? Have you second guessed yourself about over processing photos? I know I have. Every nature photographer must address how much post-processing is needed, how much is not enough, how much is too much, and where you should draw the line. It's a sensitive and controversial topic since there are so many varying opinions. In this article, I tackle the issue head on and provide a little perspective and history on how we got here.
The Essence of Photography
Photography in its simplest form is capturing a visual moment in time. In the very early days of photography, the sole purpose was to record gatherings, special occasions, and historic events for all to see. Photography was a new tool to capture a person, event, artifact, or location on film, forever preserving that exact moment in time. It served to create a visual documentary of life and events, much beyond what writings and textual recordings could offer. Photography was not considered art at that time. As photography evolved through the years, cameras became more mainstream and widely available for everyone to purchase. In the 1960s and 70s, pocket instamatic and polaroid cameras became the rage. Most families started taking pictures to capture their life events; birthdays, vacations, kids, parties, and such. But it was still not considered an art form yet.
Photography as Art
So when did nature photography begin? It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that landscape photography started to emerge as art. Of course the great Ansel Adams had been taking landscape images for decades prior to this, but his work didn’t become truly appreciated and widely recognized until later in life. The popularity of picture books, postcards, and travel magazines started to attract more and more photographers to landscape photography. New vibrant slide film like Fuji Velvia was announced, and bright colorful images of mountains and seascapes became the norm. As competition for beautiful scenic photos from around the world exploded and nature photography as a craft became more specialized, artists started looking for ways to alter their images for better effects. Colored lens filters were introduced and widely accepted, various types of slide films were produced for different effects, macro lenses were manufactured to capture small intricate scenes, etc. But even with all these new innovations to help photographers be more creative, the old adage that photography was used to accurately record a moment in time still applied. Once that shutter button was pressed, the recorded image still reflected exactly what the photographer viewed when looking through the lens. You could not or would not alter an image after the fact. That would be distorting reality, misleading, lying, cheating.
The Digital Age
Around the year 2000, the first digital cameras started to emerge. The digital revolution would change photography forever. Now photographers could review photos on the back of their camera immediately after shots were taken. Instant feedback became a reality. No more waiting a week to get the photos back from a processing lab. Images could be stored on cards that could be reused over and over. No longer was running out of film a problem, or the worry about wasting a shot. The quality of wildlife photography increased tenfold since dozens of frames per second could be shot in rapid succession. The bad shots could be discarded at no cost to the photographer, meaning an endless number of shots could be fired. This new freedom allowed photographers to experiment more, and try techniques they wouldn’t have dared attempted with film. Why not, there was no longer a cost for each time you pressed the shutter button. Digital was indeed a gamechanger. By 2005, it was clear digital photography was the future and fast becoming the present. The excitement was palpable, but this new technology would also bring a new and controversial phase to photography – post-processing.
Never before had photographers had the ability to alter an image after-the-fact. Many resisted this new realm of photography and criticized it as fraud, claiming any alteration in this manner invalidated the image. Critics of post-processing cried foul because changing an image on a computer was not photography at all, but more of a software skill. Advocates of post-processing would argue that these adjustments were no different than what professional photographers were doing in the field, which was using tools at their disposal to attain a certain look or composition. In their opinion, post processing could be used to return an image to how they remembered seeing it with their own eyes. And so the controversy was born.
There have been so many software applications developed over the years to allow photographers to enhance their images. But the tried and true tools are Photoshop and the more limited Lightroom application from Adobe. The initial post-processing changes started with relatively minor adjustments but were nonetheless controversial. Software allowed photographers to change exposure, contrast, saturation, reduce noise, add sharpness, dodge and burn specific areas, remove dust spots, and crop and straighten images. Basic fundamental tweaks like this slowly became more acceptable as more and more photographers started to shoot raw instead of JPG files, which requires some form of post processing. There were still those critics that demanded all altered images be labeled as such, and that standard seemed to take hold for a short period of time. However, once post-processing became accepted as an essential part of photography, the “digitally-enhanced” labels started to disappear. Now just assume every image you see is post-processed in some way or another. Even cell phones have decent post-processing capabilities these days.
Photoshop and Lightroom continue to evolve with new updates each month, with each version introducing more functions and advanced tools. There are so many sophisticated tools that photographers can morph almost any photo into a completely different image. Pin-point areas in an image can be targeted through sophisticated luminosity masks. Exposure curves and levels, color hues and saturations, sharpness controls, noise reduction, and much more can all be adjusted from very fine subtle amounts to major updates. Selected areas of an image can be moved and merged to a different part of the image. A new tool named content-aware-fill actually completely fills in a selected area with information it gathers from the surrounding areas using artificial intelligence, and it does an amazing job. Patch tools and healing brushes will brush away any minor defects in an image as well as remove people and large unsightly objects. Multiple photos can now be merged together almost seamlessly to take advantage of the best from each image. In astrophotography, one photo is captured of the landscape at dusk using a long exposure, then merged with the night sky taken later when the milky way is out. Just this past month a new sky replacement tool has been created that allows you to replace a bland sky with some other sky that has more drama and color.
What is acceptable?
So what is acceptable and what is not? What is real and what is not? Those are two very different questions even though some think they are one and the same. On one extreme side of the argument, all post-processing should be banned and any image that is altered should be declared as fake, since it does not reflect what was captured when the shutter was pressed. On the other extreme side, photography is an art form and anything goes. That group would argue the end game is the only thing that matters, and how many likes you get on Instagram or Facebook. Most opinions lie somewhere in between. Personally, I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. Every photographer has different goals, different aspirations, and different visions for what their photography means to them. While I don't begrudge any photographer regarding how much post-processing they choose to do, I do have my own set of guidelines and standards to live by.
Start On Location
Personally, I strive to do as little post-processing as possible. Not because I’m opposed to it. In fact, I do a fair amount of post-processing on every image posted to social media or that I sell on my web site. But I prefer to get as much right in the field as possible rather than spend time on the computer after the fact fixing issues that could have been avoided in the first place. When photographing on location, I chase the beautiful light, study compositions until I find the right scene that appeals to me, remove distracting elements that I'm able to, practice sound techniques like setting up my tripod to keep the image sharp, making sure the horizon line straight, and determining the correct exposure, depth of field, and shutter speed. Good technique in the field pays huge dividends. Plus I have found that no amount of post-processing can adequately overcome sloppy work or poor lighting conditions when the photo was actually taken. In fact, I would contend that “older” photographers who spent most of their career photographing with slide film are better nature photographers than many of their younger counterparts, simply because they have perfected these techniques in-the-field and have better habits.
My Philosophy on Post Processing
So what are my thoughts on how much post-processing is acceptable? My general philosophy is to always stay true to the scene. The image can only be altered to the extent that it portrays what I remember feeling and seeing at the time the shutter was pressed. Tweaking an image to enhance certain elements or convey my impression of that landscape is fair game. But I will never add components that simply didn't exist at the time or completely change the shot to the point it no longer represents what I saw with my own eyes. It's a fine line that can be difficult to describe, but I use my own judgement and standards to draw that line.
Post Processing - The Good
There are other reasons to utilize post-processing beyond our creative vision. Often our cameras do not adequately capture the lighting, the mood, or the feeling of the scene as I had intended. So I will shift the color hues, add or subtract light to certain areas, selectively sharpen or blur areas, and so forth to get the photo back to how I saw landscape when I took the shot. Often you will see distracting elements or dust spots in the image during post processing that you never noticed when taking the picture. These distractions are easily removed with software, and I take full advantage of that feature. Photoshop allows you to merge images together, so I will take several shots on my tripod and merge the sharpest parts of each photo so the final image is tack sharp across the entire image. This is called focus-stacking and I do that on a regular basis.
Another advantage of digital photography are composite images. This technique is similar to focus stacking, and done by taking two ore more shots of the exact same scene at different times of the day without moving your camera. The images are later merged in post-processing, with various parts of each shot used to create the final image. Most astrophotography images I sell are composite images, because that is the only way to adequately expose the landscape and also display the beauty of the milky way in the night sky. Now you may be thinking that I just violated my own standard, but no. When photographing at night, human eyes can easily detect both the landscape and all the glorious stars overhead simultaneously. But cameras do not come close to having the visual range of exposure and color that humans do. They simply can't detect and capture that much exposure difference in a single shot. In order to convey what I saw with my own eyes, the only technical approach I have at my disposal is composite imaging. I stay true to the scene.
Post Processing - The Bad
When does post-processing cross the line? In my opinion, altering an image to the point it looks fake is going too far. Many of my photographer friends over-saturate sky colors and city scenes to the point where they no longer look real. Those types of photos are usually created to get as many likes on Instagram or Facebook as possible, and that’s great. But that’s not what drives me, so I refuse to go that far. Plus I think over-processing hurts the reputation of all landscape photographers. I have seen beautiful landscape images over the years from professional photographers who have gone to great lengths to capture amazing light in exotic locations, only to see social media comments that the image is fake, when in fact it is not.
I’m certainly not a fan of wholesale changes such as sky replacements. Sure that might make for a more dramatic image, but if that sky never actually appeared over that landscape, it's fake. That's not staying true to the scene, and I refuse to go there. My aspiration is to capture wildlife and landscapes in the most beautiful light conditions as possible and then share those images so everyone can see how wonderful the natural world is at times. Post processing is a double edged sword. It certainly helps achieve my aspirations and goals as a photographer, but it can also badly hurt nature photography as a craft if over-used.