Fixed it in post

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.

Aysgarth Lower Falls

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!

FIlm is dead, and so is your phone

Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements is 150 years old. Hurrah!

Film is back. Hurrah!

Film cameras are no longer made and will die out. Boo!

Some people are planning to make new film cameras. Hurrah!

Some people sell new film cameras. Hurrah!

Silver is running out. Boo!

So our revival could be short-lived. Silver is less abundant than uranium (surprise) but more abundant than gold. Part of the problem is that people don’t dissolve gold in photographic fixer and pour it down the sink. The main risk is probably mobile phones though. Everyone’s gotta get their upgrade. There is an estimate of over one million phones traded-in every month in the UK, ten million in Europe and twelve million in the USA. That’s where your silver is going, along with all the other rare elements.

What will happen is that the price of silver will increase rapidly before it finally vanishes. If you think film is expensive now, wait until it’s competing with smartphones.

I suppose the one light in the looming darkness is that, come the apocalypse, at least we will know that we can excavate the landfill sites as a source of raw materials.

What can you do? Keep your phone longer. Recycle. Pour your old fixer onto a wad of steel wool and let it stand before pouring it away. This plates the silver out onto the iron or drops it as sludge. You will be pouring less of a precious and rather toxic metal down the sink. What to do with silvery Brillo pads I’m not sure, but given enough silver sludge there will be a metal recycler who would handle it.

But enjoy film while you can. Before long we will all be shooting cyanotypes.

And if you shoot digital and are feeling smug, have a look at the number of rare elements used in screens, processors and lenses.

Think of the money I saved from those holes

Landscapes… yawn

I’ve wasted more film shooting portraits of grass than almost anything else. It took me years to realise that a view that was magnificent, deep and structured to the eye looked small and insignificant to the camera.

It was all down to me of course. If only I had shot from lower down with a Joe Cornish rock ®️ in the foreground things would have been so much better. If only I had cooked the colours more (like a well known local calendar photographer who shall remain nameless). If only I had been there at Hernandez.

Instead I was usually on holiday with no specific intent to shoot landscape, it was just the thing that was in front of me at the time. There is also that thing where your partner is going “isn’t this fantastic?” and the correct answer is not “sure, but I’m not wasting film on it”. I lie: it was never my partner’s fault. I had it in my head that if I could see it, I should photograph it. And how do we learn but from our mistakes? Or rather, reflecting on our mistakes.

So yes, I’ve sure shot a shedload of shoddy snaps. The worst of these have got to be my landscapes. My only redemption is that I have tried to avoid the tripod holes and footprint grooves worn by previous generations of tourists. Seriously, if the picture is on every postcard you could buy, why are you making the same picture? Oh, I see, it’s because the picture is of you with the landscape/ edifice/ train crash in the background. Alien landing? Yep, that’s it just over my right shoulder. The picture is proof I was there. Otherwise you might think the camera went on holiday without me.

Saying that, I have a picture that I like very much indeed. It’s a landscape and I didn’t take it. I saw it in a gallery and my lovely partner remembered and bought it for me. It’s some smudgy shadows and a few dark shapes. It is also a brilliant evocation of a Dales farmhouse hunched in a hollow against the rain. That’s the kind of thing I would take, but the photographer has done it better. (Farm in Farndale, by Alan Clark)

There seems to be a canon of landscape photography that we all have to do to be a real photographer, like reading the classics. You’ve seen it and you’ve probably done it. You know the thing: long exposure of a river or waterfall, or waves. Trees alone and in groups on the skyline. A low-angle wide shot with flowers in the foreground expanding to the horizon beyond. Boats drawn up on the beach. With lobster pots if possible. Mountains seen from the car park. A jetty protruding from the point of view out onto a lake, preferably with long-exposure water. Yawn.

Brown water
Foamy water? Check.
The Rhine
View down the river? Check.
Aysgarth Lower Falls
Aysgarth Falls? Check.
Fewston Reservoir
Trees on horizon? Check.
Sunset
Overcooked sunset? Check.
Angel
Angel of the North? Check.
Poppies
Low and wide? Check.
Alpine moon
Moonrise over Hernandez? Nah.

So what is the point of landscape photography? Is it to record what was there, or the nice weather at the time, or to see something that others didn’t? My worst landscapes are a poor record of what was there. Occasionally I’ve got what I saw in the scene and captured something more than just a record. Never forget the Filmosaur Manifesto though: a photograph has no meaning but what the viewer sees.

And why is the landscape category usually the most subscribed in any kind of photography competition? Is it because we think they make the best photographs, or that they keep still? Or are landscapes less challenging?

So what does the viewer want? What do people like about landscapes? My partner thinks that photos without people in are boring. I might have a superb moody, contrasty shot looking down Wast Water from the top of Great Gable and she will flick past it for the snaps of us gurning at the summit or holding hands in fear as we descend through Hell Gate.

But seriously, what makes a good landscape? Is there a difference between pictures of places you might never get to see, places that you might see but are rendered in a way that you would never find yourself, and pictures that just look nice? That picture of the Earth taken from the moon counts as both dramatic and rare. Ansell Adam’s pictures from Yosemite are places that I could one day visit, but never in the conditions that he saw them and rendered them. They are dramatic, and I would class them with my picture of the farm in Farndale: I like what the photographer has done with light.

And then there are the calendar shots. The calendar shots are the ones you see on posters and from stock libraries. These are the standard shots from the landscape canon above. You might see them on a calendar, but you’d never take one, right? You know what? Take the postcard shot; fill your boots, but then see if you can find the unseen or expressive view. Or just be honest about it and say “it’s nice to be here and look at this stuff, but I don’t need a picture of it”.

OK class, discuss…