Photography 101: The Post Processing Bugaboo

Stephen F. Dennstedt

To post-process or not to post-process is not the question. The question is how much to post-process and who or what should do the processing. Everyone has an opinion on this based on their goals and experience.

All digital images are post-processed. Let me repeat that—all digital images are post-processed. JPEG files are auto post-processed in-camera using OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) algorithms; those can only be tweaked a little.

RAW files, on the other hand, are uploaded and processed using software like ACR (Adobe Camera RAW), Lightroom, Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or something similar. To over-simplify it a bit it simply means that the OEM processes your JPEG files for you based on predetermined formulas and that your RAW files are processed by you the photographer. There are some grey areas—you can tweak your camera’s internal JPEG algorithms and further manipulate your JPEG files using the software packages mentioned earlier (LR, PS and PSE) or have 100% control in RAW.

Great Egret in Flight – Monterrico, Guatemala

How your digital files are post-processed is up to you based on your goals, artistic abilities and experience. I am not an expert when it comes to post-processing digital files but I am competent (at least I hope I am). I always shoot RAW files and post-process using ACR and PSE15 software. Why did I choose those particular packages? Primarily for convenience and price. Photoshop Elements includes 90% of the features used by photographers without all the other features enjoyed by graphic artists in the full-blown version of Photoshop. And for a fraction of the cost.

Northern-crested Caracara – Yucatan, Mexico

It’s also a standalone package that you can download to your Apple or PC without having to subscribe to anything (I don’t enjoy being forced to tether my process to someone’s subscription mandate). The process for most photographers is to convert and adjust their RAW files in Lightroom and then further enhance them in Photoshop if desired (Camera > Lightroom > Photoshop = Final Image). My process is the same but using Adobe Camera RAW and Photoshop Elements 15 (Camera > ACR > PSE15 = Final Image). Admittedly, I have no experience with Lightroom or the full-blown version of Photoshop.

Male Cinereous Harrier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

My goals are my goals and not necessarily your goals (and that’s the way it should be). I am a photographer and not a graphic artist though I do have an artistic background. I don’t often blur the lines—my photographs typically look like photographs instead of commercial art (my preference – my choice). Also, I primarily like to shoot (photographically) wildlife, scenics and real people doing real things so the natural look works best for me. If I’m going to take an artistic flyer it’s usually with architecture, florals and abstracts. I post-process every image but I only get Artsy-Fartsy with a few.

Female Cinereous Harrier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

Most new photographers over-process their images in my opinion—they just jam those adjustment sliders to their maximum pegs without any finesse at all. In my opinion adjustments should be subtle like the Zen approach to making love to a beautiful woman. No woman (or at least not too many) wants to be brutalised during lovemaking wham-bam-thank you-ma’am style. If you wouldn’t treat a woman that way why would you intentionally treat your photograph that way? They’re both worthy of tenderness, love and respect. Sorry if my metaphor makes you uncomfortable. Not.

Spectacled Owl – Cali, Colombia

I call an over-processed image crunchy, like a heavily starched piece of clothing, and both are equally uncomfortable (there I go again with those uncomfortable metaphors). An over-processed file has usually been over-sharpened, over-saturated with way too much contrast. When I first started processing digital images I became addicted to colour saturation, sharpening and vignettes (oh yeah—I put a dark vignette on every damn image I had). Thankfully it was a phase that I eventually outgrew but it’s still embarrassing. In conclusion I’m going to give you a helpful tip free of charge.

Roseate Spoonbill – Yucatan, Mexico

A very simple rule of thumb goes a long way to overcoming this tendency. It works. I can’t explain why it works but it works. I didn’t invent it but I will share it with you. The rule, simply stated, is this:

Move your adjustment slider to just where the effect is over the top and then dial it back to 1/3 

Using the saturation slider as an example: slide it to the right (more saturation) until it just reaches the point of looking somewhat weird (you’ll know it when you see it). In this example we’ll say this occurs when the slider reaches 36. Divide the number 36 by 3 (basically 30%) and you have your new adjustment number 12. Dialling it back to 12 is better.

Field Notes: I’ve written about the subject of over-processing digital files many times before (it’s a pet peeve of mine). But I think it bears repeating—often. We’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another and you have to push the limits to learn anything valuable. This post has been written from a photographic perspective and not the perspective of a graphic artist—there is a difference. Don’t do things my way, do things your way—but know how and why you’re doing those things. As photographers we’ve never had so much control so lets not abuse it. Violence, domestic or photographic, is not a good thing. SFD

3 responses to “Photography 101: The Post Processing Bugaboo

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