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Business / Philosophy of Photography Taking pics is one thing, but understanding why we take them, what they mean, what they are best used for, how they effect our reality -- all of these and more are important issues of the Philosophy of Photography. One of the best authors on the subject is Susan Sontag in her book "On Photography."

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Philosophy of digital photo post-processing: contrast, dodging / burning, etc.
Old 01-14-2014   #1
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Lightbulb Philosophy of digital photo post-processing: contrast, dodging / burning, etc.

I shoot mostly film and edit film scans in photoshop before having them printed.

My question is this: how much post-processing is considered "acceptable"? I realize that this is a hugely personal, subjective decision, and hinges on the type of work you want to produce etc.

But also, there seem to be objective ideas floating around too about what is considered acceptable to remain within the bounds of "pure" photography. Take these guidelines for National Geographic photo contests for example:


Only minor burning, dodging and/or color correction is acceptable, as is cropping. High dynamic range images (HDR) and stitched panoramas are NOT acceptable. Any changes to the original Photograph not itemized here are unacceptable and will render the Photograph ineligible for a prize.
I'm pretty good with photoshop. I could alter an image drastically, but I do not like to. I like the idea of "pure" photography. When I process my photos I only adjust the following:
  • brightness
  • contrast
  • dodging (only a bit, and try to not use it at all)
  • burning (same as dodging)
  • color correction (for color film, and no crazy saturation changes. I try to leave as much of the color "mood" up to the film I've chosen)
  • sharpness (I use smart sharpen, a fairly light treatment, but varies between photos)
  • dust / scratch removal

I sometimes feel like I'm cheating, especially when I alter the contrast of the photo. I like contrasty B&W. I try to have the same level of contrast (consistent style, which I'm still developing) with all my photos. Sometimes I just hate the way a scanned negative looks, if the contrast sucks.

So is that cheating? What are the limits?

I've been trying to tell myself that even if I printed in a dark room (which I haven't done yet, but want to try soon) I could make the print as contrasty as I like, which I'm not sure is true, but I suspect it is.

A good example of consistent style of contrast in B&W photos are Sebastiao Salgado's. He definitely has a very consistent, high contrast style. I am guessing it is the work of his printer. Apparently he has all his stuff printed by a master in France.

On the one hand, I'm beginning to see the final print as a total separate work of art from the negative, but on the other hand, I feel compelled to not stray too far from the image I captured on the negative. I'm really wrestling with this.

What do you guys think?

And what's your personal philosophy on this?
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Old 01-14-2014   #2
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I wouldn't consider any method you use as cheating. I too like contrasty B&W and use all of the methods you have listed plus a few more in my digital photo processing. I don't think it is anything to be concerned about. There are a few things I do consider to be important. First is to get the image right in the camera and not to rely on PP to fix it. The limits are whatever you place on yourself. I don't get hung up on the "purity" of photography. I could go on about my likes and dislikes, but it doesn't really matter to anyone else but me. To me the visualization of an image is important and that guides me more than anything else in my photography. I strive to make the final image as true as possible to that visualization. I guess I am more impressionist than realist. My advice is to be yourself and enjoy your photography whether digital or analog or a mixture of the two.

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Old 01-15-2014   #3
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Coming from a traditional dark room background where I used to try my hand at all sorts of wizardry, back in the day, I don't mind if someone post processes to the umtenth degree, but, and it's a big but, they should be fully open and frank about it. Also, it kind of depends upon the circumstance - is the image defined as 'art work', or a piece of documentary pictorial journalism?

For me personally, I post process my 'personal' scanned images only very minimally:

- Tone curves
- Levels (if required)
- Minor rotation if my framing is out of whack
- Minor cropping (see above)
- Dust busting

and I never, ever, remove (or add) elements from (to) an image nor make other higher level image manipulation.

Now, working for someone else, on their digital images, I will throw those 'personal rules' out the window and do whatever the 'client' requires....

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Old 01-15-2014   #4
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There is no such thing as cheating IMO. Ethics, sure – such as airbushing historical figures out of photos for political purposes. And yes, of course, there are grey areas.

But for photography's sake, not at all. Some of the 'giants' of the photography world have been altering images since it was invented. Brassai, for example. Some even more dramatically. And what about neutral density filters, wide angles, zoom lenses? Are they cheating?

In fact, using black and white film in the first place, already dramatically changes whatever 'original' we thought we had in the viewfinder anyway.

Taking the photo is just the first step, in my book. In fact, I often visualise how I'm going to post process the image before I've even taken the shot – but I've got 20 years pro experience with Photoshop, so I play to my strengths .

That said, I do try and ensure that I've got a half decent composition in the first place. Grabage in, garbage out and all that. And, I tend to divide my images these days between photography (with minimal post-processing) and photographic artwork (where I don't hold back). But that's purely for current aesthetic purposes, not for ideological ones.

By the way, the National Geographic rules are no more 'objective' than anything else. It's just their rules.
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Old 01-15-2014   #5
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Whatever works is fine.

I would only say you need to know how a proper photo should look so you do not create something outlandish.
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Old 01-15-2014   #6
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This obsession with "Purity" is a common one among hobbyist photographers; it is not one that has ever greatly concerned professionals, be they artists, commercial photographers, or wedding and portrait photographers. To refuse to do things like dodging and burning does not make you a better photographer. It makes you someone who lets the equipment and materials control you, rather than you controlling them.
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Old 01-15-2014   #7
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Originally Posted by Chriscrawfordphoto View Post
This obsession with "Purity" is a common one among hobbyist photographers; it is not one that has ever greatly concerned professionals, be they artists, commercial photographers, or wedding and portrait photographers. To refuse to do things like dodging and burning does not make you a better photographer. It makes you someone who lets the equipment and materials control you, rather than you controlling them.

I've had the privilege to have been tutored by Mark Power - the Magnum photographer - for the past 2 years, and wondered how he got his exposures so perfect (like these), especially as he still shoots a lot 4x5 film.

I expected some Zen-like answer, but was told that the hell is Photoshopped out of his scans and digital images! He tries to get as much right in front of the lens as possible - but it's more important to avoid burnt-out highlights and blocked shadows, so he aims for usable images, then dodges and burns as much as needed later, in post-production.

Made me feel so much better knowing Mark works the same way I do - if it's good enough for Magnum, it's good enough for me!


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Old 01-15-2014   #8
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Originally Posted by Chriscrawfordphoto View Post
To refuse to do things like dodging and burning does not make you a better photographer. It makes you someone who lets the equipment and materials control you, rather than you controlling them.
I agree. Well said.
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Old 01-15-2014   #9
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i think you mean the religion of digital post-processing, because philosophy is not about dos and don't.
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Old 01-15-2014   #10
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Personally, if I look at any image and my attention is first caught by the photoshop technique employed, then it's gone too far for my tastes. It should be used to strengthen an image, not create one.
That said, for my wedding work, where I have two images with different people blinking in both, I have no problem swapping heads around to make one shot. Or for that matter removing exit signs and the like.
One thing I have begun to notice of late, advertising images seem to be becoming more obviously photoshopped, I wonder if as a generation of digital background photographers comes in, it's becoming more acceptable. A few months ago I saw a movie poster mainly featuring young kids and they'd all had their faces heavily worked on. I thought it looked dreadful, but then I'm not the target market.
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Old 01-15-2014   #11
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I'm pleased to read so many pragmatic answers/opinions on this subject.

Those photographing for themselves can impose any set of restrictions/rules or 'philosophy' they like. Return business requires pragmatism.

Some disciplines may require integrity within the images but still allow some level of post production, as recounted with the Mark Power story above.

There's a wedding photographer locally to me who set up as a documentary style service that he was adamant would have no PP at all. Last I heard he was still waiting for a third job to be booked.

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Old 01-15-2014   #12
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I try to keep in mind what in my eyes makes photography special in the realm of the visual arts: its mimetic character. "At one moment in time that's the image the photographer captured in his frame" is what gives photography its reasons to exist imho. Adding stuff, and cloning out stuff alters that special quality and reduces its impact immensely. I prefer paintings, drawings and etchings and its poetic license for illustrative art.

So that's what directs my post-processing too: don't alter (add/clone etc) what's framed, but using the editing possibilities to improve (contrast/curves/dodge/burn) your frame seems fine with me, as is cropping. It does not diminish photography's impact.

There are no absolute truths of course. What about that bright red light on a guitar's amplifier on a dark stage, distracting from the musician? That ugly green exit sign top left in a environmental portrait? Meaningless details that ruin the balance of a good photo and could not be avoided while shooting? It's up to your personal sense of ethics then, and will mainly depend on the purpose of your photo.
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Old 01-15-2014   #13
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For me, the image/content is first indicator if its a keeper, assuming yes then I do very minimal PP after film developed/scanned, typical dodging/burning/contrast & minimal cropping in Aperture. Images shot digitally I do occasionally use SilverEfex for B&W PP. don't own photoshop….
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Old 01-15-2014   #14
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I mean some people really like historically informed performances.

me, I think they suck, and Id even rather listen to Karajan glass over details.

if you wanna be a purist go right ahead that isnt my issue but try not to tell me what to do unless youre actually good and frankly most everyone, myself included, sucks.
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Old 01-15-2014   #15
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Originally Posted by Chriscrawfordphoto View Post
To refuse to do things like dodging and burning does not make you a better photographer. It makes you someone who lets the equipment and materials control you, rather than you controlling them.
signature worthy.
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Old 01-15-2014   #16
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Post processing is part of photography since it was discovered. It was always more than just adjusting dynamic range of one medium to the next one in the process of producing a photograph.

I have one rather nice 4x5" E6 slide from new Zealand that I heavily underexposed (mistake). Imacon X5 scanner managed to pull enough data from the shadows, that I can actually make a photo. It of course requires a lot of work with Photoshop to get all the curves, layers, color adjustments to produce a semi-acceptable image. Does it look like an original scene? Of course not. There is no process that can do that anyhow.

There is no 'cheating' in post processing. Cheating would only be to add or remove relevant elects from the scene (I do not mean spotting dust here) and declare it to be an original shot. If you start removing or adding elements from or to the image, or you use heavy color/contrast adjustments, than at some point you turn it to graphical art.
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Old 01-15-2014   #17
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In my job, I see people taking this to extremes. They always write notes saying that the images are straight OOC and unretouched. They don't remove sensor dust or chromatic aberations, rely on autofocus and exposure, etc., and bitch and moan when their images are rejected.

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Old 01-15-2014   #18
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From about 1885 to 1915 the Pictorialism Movement applied analog darkroom methods to significantly modify, combine and manipulate photographs. Their main motivation was to counter the thought that photographs were not art

When Pictorialism faded, photographers manipulated photographs by numerous methods. Very different looks from the same film emulsions are possible by using very different development techniques.

Today we obviously can modify images more quickly and efficiently. However these advances do not necessarily result in aesthetically attractive images. Anyone who spends $3,000 can lift shadows and recover highlights. The question really is how much thought and purposefulness is behind the process.

Deception or misleading manipulation is unethical and even illegal. If I photograph a home and remove overhead utility wires and poles in post , I can be sued. If I stand in a different place so the wires are not in the frame, then I'm not in jeopardy.

By contrast digital art, where image components are removed, supplemented and replaced is entirely ethical when you label the work as digital art.

Did Ansel Adams cheat when he dodged and burned his landscape photographs?

Does Sally Mann cheat when she develops her wet collodion plate-glass negatives to produce ethereal images?

Are photographic cheaters curated repeatedly in world-class museums?
Basically, I mean, ah—well, let’s say that for me anyway when a photograph is interesting, it’s interesting because of the kind of photographic problem it states—which has to do with the . . . contest between content and form.
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