From a cartoon I saw that had a group of surgeons gathered around a screen in an operating theatre. One of them is leaning over to tell the patient “we’ve fixed your leg in Photoshop”.
I hear a lot of people saying “I’ll fix it in post” and an equal number insisting that one should get it right in-camera. So what’s the right answer?
I’m not sure there is a single right answer. I can tell you my experience, and it’s tied to my gradual learning of how to use Photoshop. I started with something like Elements 5 and progressed to Elements 7, which does most of what I need.
Apart from the obvious learning curve (cliff) of using Photoshop itself, I realised that what I have been learning are the skills that a good darkroom printer would use. I have also been building a library of effects: how to obtain the look of certain types of processing or film, such as lith printing. And yes, I have also been rescuing mistakes such as poor exposure, poor background, poor framing and so on.
And while I appreciate that one should endeavour to get it right in camera, even Ansel Adams recognised that post-processing was required to finish the job. He called the negative the score and the print the performance. In his case though this wasn’t fixing it in post, this was developing its full potential. Another example – in the digital world we are supposed to expose to the right: to capture as much light as possible short of blowing the highlights. But to avoid the result being high key, we then darken the final image to get back to what we saw.
So perhaps we should separate ‘fix it’ from ‘develop it’? As I said, I’ve done my share of fixing. Sometimes you grab a shot with less than ideal exposure or you make a mistake or the lighting is too contrasty. The dynamic range of a raw file can be your friend. Recover those highlights, put some detail back in the shadows and remove that colour cast. Ideally though, you would get it right at the time. Otherwise you might a well swap your camera for your phone and reduce your input to pointing it in the right direction.
Developing the image though, that’s a completely different game. I’ve spent a lot of time reading articles on improving images in Photoshop, or methods of obtaining a particular look. Some things are really simple and make a big difference, like midtone contrast using an unsharp mask (amount 20% radius 60 threshold 0, since you ask). This isn’t a fix – it’s something I might have been able to do in the camera or darkroom if I knew how. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that I made the effort to capture all of the tones and range in the subject and then used my post-processing to interpret the captured data in a way that pleases me. Like Ansell Adams, except he was good at it. Having all of the information present in the original file or negative means I can re-interpret it any way I want. There is a picture of a motorbike in an earlier post that is mostly shadow and a few highlights. The original negative shows all the detail you could want, but who wants an accurate picture of a bike engine when you could have moody darkness?
It’s the same as when I learned that I could dodge or burn only the highlights or shadows. What a difference it can make to do some tiny local adjustments that would only have been possible in-camera under studio conditions. Or I would have had to do something clever in the darkroom with cotton buds and bleach. And the joy of having shot for maximum detail originally is that I can go back each time I learn a new trick and improve on my previous version. And the joy of something like Photoshop is that I can experiment, go too far, wind it back and learn.
So now I have my very own cookbook of editing methods so that I can recreate things that worked. Nothing fancy or wordy, just a brief description and a diagram of the various layers and settings. Most of the techniques don’t get used – who needs posterisation or cross-processing in every shot? But it makes things much easier that I have just one place to look when I do want to pull a trick out of the bag.
Coming back to this idea of doing it all in camera and not relying on post-processing, what do you think of the film photographers who make prints showing the entire image area of the negative plus surrounds? These are the prints that say “look, I framed it perfectly and I can prove it”. I wonder if their prints were made as straight enlargements onto grade 2 paper, or if there might have been a bit of dodging and burning? Surely if you can compose perfectly in camera, you can expose perfectly too? Unless it’s art, of course. Or perhaps what they are saying is “I spent some serious coin on this film, so I’m printing even the bits with sprocket holes in”?
This all makes me sound horribly smug. I have honestly bent, broken, burned and generally cocked-up everything at some time. Photoshop has both saved my arse and, more often, helped me drag at least a cotton purse out of the pig’s ear I started with. But I do believe I should be using it to develop the potential of a picture rather than saving it from the bin. And I do try hard to get it right in-camera. If you are doing the wrong thing, then getting better at it with practice just makes your results wronger. It’s better to make the effort to do something right, as then every improvement you make to your methods will make things righter. The problem comes when you are getting reasonable results even though you are doing it wrong. You have to cross the ditch of awful to get to the other side and this can hurt. But if the majority of your shots don’t need to be rescued, it leaves you a good margin of safety for the odd one that does.
By the way, the Photoshop cookbook is a real thing. It’s quite terse, as it is mainly reminders on how to get particular effects. But if there is any interest I could post it online. Let me know in the comments.
Up the revolution!