Editing Images

Editing seems to be a bit of a contentious issue amongst some people, especially those who either don't understand what it's about or have the misconception that editing consists of sticking one person's head on another's body, "airbrushing" (whatever that is) and adding people into photographs who weren't actually there. Whilst one can do these things, it doesn't mean that they are the sole focus of editing in the broader sense.

Editing, post-processing or post-production starts by downloading images from the camera, then viewing, sorting, tagging and rating them. From there, the best will be taken forward for further processing – setting black and white clipping, assigning some sort of tone curve, boosting saturation, cropping and then sharpening, to name a few tasks. I'm a firm believer in ‘less is more’ – cutting the number of frames down to the best 10-20% has far more impact than showing someone several hundred. It's then down to the viewer to trust that they're not missing anything by not seeing the other 80-90%!

Digital cameras capture what comes through the lens and store it as a series of pixel intensities. It is raw data that is unprocessed and untouched in any way. This is what gives rise to the RAW format, and what most (although by no means all) photographers work in. From this point, some sort of processing must be applied. When shooting in JPEG mode, the camera does this for you, making all the decisions on the spot and committing you to those decisions then and there. But this misses an essential part of photography, which is not just capturing directly 'what is there', but giving the viewer and sense of 'what is was like to be there'. The brain works in interesting and complicated ways, and what we 'see' in a given situation is far more complex than a direct rendering of the scene.

So the essence of working in RAW is the ability to delay this processing until after the fact, allowing the photographer to make an informed decision about how their photograph should look, what feel it should have, what features are important, and what are not. There is no 'right' way of rendering a (RAW) image, merely many different interpretations which can be applied through a RAW converter of some form. In this sense, what your camera creates as a JPEG is no more 'correct' than what you can create via editing. It is just one option that a computer has decided upon. RAW is meant to be played with, which is why they generally look so flat and dull 'straight out of the camera'.

All of my images are edited to some degree. Here are my thoughts on what I do, adapted from those of Scott Kelby:

  1. I have no qualms whatsoever with removing any distracting element in my photo. If thereís a distracting telephone wire, or a sign, or a piece of rubbish on my beach photo, itís gone, no questions asked.
  2. Although I donít think twice about removing an object from a photo, I donít like to add anything to a photo that wasnít there when I took the photo. For example, even though I know how to replace a bad sky in my photo, with a sky from a different photo, I have to be really desperate to do so. The reason I hate it is that personally I know ďI cheatedĒ, and Iíll never look at that photo the same way again.
  3. I feel like I should make the final image look as good as it did when I took it, but if it winds up looking a little better than the original, or a lot better than the original, Iím fine with it. In fact, Iím happy with that. So, if the grass wasnít as green as I remember it (or I would like it), it suddenly becomes greener. If the sky was kind of gray that day, it wonít be when you see my final image.
  4. I think nothing of: double-processing my images (exposing one version for the foreground, one for the sky, and combining them in Photoshop), or making creative choices with White Balance after the fact, that might turn a dusk photo in a dawn look. I also donít think twice about creating a ďlookĒ using Photoshop, but I donít like to use effects filters.
  5. When it comes to retouching people, I have a simple guideline: Make them look as good in print – a medium where each and every flaw will be magnified – as they do when I met them in person, and if need be, Iíll use each and every Photoshop retouching trick I know to reach that goal.

Obviously, different rules apply to photo journalism, and the editing that I do for such photos will be much less than for fine art. Overall, I feel that as long as the viewer is not being mislead, editing is not a problem. What constitutes being 'mislead' clearly changes depending on the type and purpose of photo.

There is an excellent white paper on this topic by Karl Lang from Adobe, entitled 'Rendering the Print: The Art of Photography'. I thoroughly recommend reading it.