When is post-processing unnecessary, and when does it become just too much?

It has been an age-old debate when the precise moment a photo is created happens. While some purists argue that the moment occurs upon the click of the shutter, others maintain that it’s after some basic adjustments like curves, levels, and saturation, whether in the darkroom or in Lightroom. Still others say that it’s after you’ve gone through the whole gamut of photo editing possibilities and narrowed it down that you’ve truly achieved the photograph’s full potential.

What it comes down to is the photographer’s style and vision, and the process he deems fit in order to realise what he wants to see. It can’t be denied however that there are moments when post-processing just becomes too much, not only in terms of aesthetics but also in terms of ethics.

In some cases, especially in the field of photojournalism, editing a photo becomes a very sensitive topic. When a frame is meant to convey a truth, then it should show the whole, unadulterated truth. Thus editing should be done at a minimum, if at all. Cropping is a huge no-no in photojournalism, which means that the perfect composition must be achieved during the click of the shutter. Only levels, curves, and colour-balance are usually the only details to be touched, and it’s usually to achieve the best quality for publication.

On the other hand, advertising photography begs for some, if not a lot, of editing. When a product is required to be appealing, then a certain gloss is given to the photograph, and a certain level of perfection must be attained. And then of course you have your photos for cosmetics or fashion featuring flawless faces and figures which have constantly been under fire for too much use of the pinch tool and bloat tool in certain areas.

These days though (except again for photojournalism) it’s only too easy to come across a photo that’s overly edited. While it may be subjective upon the viewer what is too much, there are still some general guidelines and overall factors in a photo that makes them good or bad.

For instance, over-saturated photos which lose details and end up looking flat are normally considered damaged. It’s the same for photos that are too contrasty, have overexposed highlights, and have no details in shadows. It’s easy to get carried away when editing the photo’s contrast to make it seem more sharp and punchy, but losing details really does more harm than good. In addition, overly done HDR photos, especially when it comes to landscapes, have a tendency to look posterized and fake. It isn’t really a problem if the photographer does it intentionally, but whether it presents the truth of the subject or does it justice is debatable.

When it comes to retouching portraits meanwhile, it’s not just about how realistic the photos look. It’s also about how close to reality the edits actually are. Removing blemishes is one thing, but editing the skin so much that it looks plastic isn’t flattering either. Outright changing the shapes of features or pinching and bloating body parts so the subject looks plastic-surgery-perfect are also generally deemed to be too much.

Apart from the obvious effects too much processing has on photos, being in that mindset also has effects on the shooting process itself. When a photographer is in the mindset that he has post-processing to fix his photos anyway, then there’s a higher tendency to be lax when it comes to settings and composition. The problem with this is post-processing doesn’t fix bad photos. Bad photos are unusable and unsalvageable, period. Post-processing is there only to enhance an already good photo and turn it into something even better. In the end, it’s all about seamlessly executing a vision from the moment a scene is captured to the moment it is shared. It isn’t about making the photo look fancy or the subject perfect; it’s about doing justice to the appearance and the essence of whatever it is that’s been captured.

Julia Escano – Shoot The Frame

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