"...he was something of a pioneer in the artistically suspect field of color photography, which he developed with his painter's eye for color and his father's habit of an insistent, personal vision"
"Do You Edit Your Images?"
I often get asked whether I edit my photos, and I find the question surprising every single time. It seems to imply that an “unedited” photo would be more authentic, and therefore more valuable as art. This goes to the heart of one’s perspective on photography - and fine art photography in particular. It is important to distinguish between fine art photography and photojournalism. Photojournalism has to abide by stricter editing standards, as it is inherently tied to the credibility of news organizations which pride themselves in reporting facts. Even so, photojournalists have always edited their images, it comes down to just how much editing is considered acceptable based on a particular context and personal preferences. In photojournalism, this amount is usually described as minimal, yet the actual parameters vary greatly and always seem to leave room for interpretation. This expectation of purity and lack of manipulation has led some photographers to distance themselves from the photojournalist tag. This includes big names such as Steve McCurry, who now defines himself as a visual storyteller in search of greater creative freedom and to keep the authenticity police at bay (Steve McCurry - Not a Photojournalist).
"...photography becomes more rewarding and authentic if the photographer takes control of the whole process of creating the image..."
Fine Art Photography Editing
In fine art photography, many people say that anything goes in regards to editing, and each photographer draws a line as to how far they are comfortable manipulating their images. So, going back to the original question; the answer is yes, of course, I edit my photos. I would argue there is no such thing as an unedited digital image (only RAW data captured by a camera sensor). I approach the process of making an image as intentionally as I can from start to finish. I pursue photography as a creative process encompassing artistic and technical skills which are applied to the conceptualizing and scouting of an image, the composing of it, knowing the ins and outs of camera equipment and settings, and finally taking the sensor data captured by the camera and turning it into the exact piece that you are trying to create. I am interested in photography as art and am trying (not claiming that I am succeeding) to create art with my images. In that sense, I feel a sense of responsibility to own as much of the process of creating as I can.
I want to elaborate a little on images that many would consider to be unedited, for example, JPG images shot with your compact camera or phone. Even if you didn’t do anything to them, your files are automatically enhanced with contrast, tonality, sharpness, saturation, and other adjustments to produce an image that someone else decided would be pleasing. You are effectively leaving decisions to software presets designed by a camera or software company. In my opinion, photography becomes more rewarding and authentic if the photographer takes control of the whole process of creating the image, all the way from capturing it to making as many decisions in the editing process as the tools at our disposal will allow. Hence, mastery of the editing software should be celebrated rather than questioned - maybe even expected, in the same way that mastery of the darkroom was expected in the past. It’s been repeated so much that it sounds cliché, but I believe that Photoshop is indeed the new darkroom.
It also seems that many people assume that no significant manipulations are made in the development of film photographs. In fact, the best film photographers know exactly what they are doing in the darkroom, and treat the development of the images as part of the artistic process. Take for instance this fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the darkroom editing of some iconic images: Dark Room Edits (image on the left is one example from the linked article). All of those hand written notes and lines define zones in the photographs being targeted to print brighter (“dodging”) or darker (“burning”), to achieve the desired effect.
"I don’t use software that makes me feel like 'I ran my image through something to see what I got'."
These “local adjustments” (applying edits to specific areas of the image) are the kind of editing that you might expect the authenticity police to scoff at now in the digital editing age. I personally don’t see this kind of manipulation as “faking” an image or reducing its credibility, but I can understand those who argue that in photojournalism, targeted image enhancements are a questionable practice. As art, on the other hand, it’s hard to deny that these darkroom techniques make a huge difference and significantly enhance the visual interest of these photographs. Nowadays, targeted and thoughtful edits can be made digitally without being heavy handed, to similarly enhance the final image. In fact, many of the techniques used in digital editing are inspired by darkroom techniques. I frequently dodge and burn (the same terms are still used) areas of my images “by hand” using a pressure sensitive pen and tablet. The image on the left shows one of my Glacier Lagoon images with the dodge and burn edit layers turned on (bottom) and off (top). As you can see, it's a subtle effect as I am careful not to over edit, but the technique helps the ice and water streaks stand out better from the black sand. The fact that digital editing can be easy doesn’t mean that you’ll get the best results by following that path, and I feel particular satisfaction in learning and trying to master digital editing to a similar level as the masters of film processing have done. In short, there are a lot of quick solutions out there, but there are also advanced techniques which require lots of time and practice.
"Where Do You Draw The Line?"
So how much editing is too much? What kind of editing is or is not acceptable? This, of course, is a personal matter. I don't do digital compositing (taking a scene and combining with a sky from a different place, for example). I try to minimize cloning (removing things from an image) to elements that are minimal and secondary. I do not use digital filters or commercial presets on my images, nor do I use HDR software or similar pre-packaged solutions. Even though I could get decent results faster, it would feel to me like outsourcing part of the artistic process. I don’t use software that makes me feel like “I ran my image through something to see what I got”. I use Lightroom and Photoshop, and I have learned to avoid doing quick edits that may be impactful but lack in good taste (see my previous blog post: Image Editing - Halos).
There are surely many photographers out there who take a more old school or conservative approach to editing, some may even consider film to be the only way to shoot. There are many others on the opposite end, who may call me uptight for refusing to use some of the many popular photo editing packages out there. I might cordially invite the former down from their high horse; while the latter may ask me to get off of mine.
Comments or Questions?
So what do you think? How much editing is too much for you? Please leave questions or comments below.
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