The importance of post processing

‘That’s been photoshopped!. We’ve all heard the phrase, haven’t we? It’s usually said in response to an obviously (and overly) retouched image shared on social media or a very badly composited image and it’s usually uttered by a fellow photographer. Somehow over the last 28 years then, ‘photoshop’ has become a verb and, to many, a negative one to boot.

What most casual observers don’t realise though is that nearly every image they view on a daily basis is ‘photoshopped’ or has otherwise had some form of post processing added to it. Not only the fashion adverts or celebrity captures we see, but everything from real estate and landscape shots to wildlife and wedding images.

If you’re anything like I was a few years ago then, you’ll find yourself comparing your shots to the Joe McNallys, Moose Petersons or Annie Leibovitzs of this world and be left feeling like yours are missing something or that your shots will just never be as good as theirs! If that is you, then it’s important to understand that almost all of the pros employ some form of photo editing software and that there is nothing to be taken away from a photo for doing so, but rather a vast amount to be added.

I’ve been shooting weddings and travel for a number of years now and whilst I’ve learnt that really getting to know how to get the best out of your camera is undoubtedly the first thing you should do, you’ll find that even a basic understanding of some of the features of programmes like Photoshop and Lightroom will be a huge game changer in terms of the quality and feel of your work.

As an example of why post processing is key in making an ok image a great one then, here’s a shot of a Mustang I found sitting on a derelict gas station forecourt whilst travelling through California earlier this year.

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Now, the out of camera shot is ok and will be a nice snapshot of one of the things I saw during my travels, but it isn’t really a ground breaking piece of art is it, so it definitely needs some work doing to it.

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I created this finished shot by adding two preset filters with the awesome Silver Efex software, part of the niw free to download Nik Collection of Photoshop and Lightroom plugins, and then added a very simple light burst, which is in fact just a brush spot that’s been enlarged. To be honest though, this edited version still isn’t a ground breaking piece of art but it certainly knocks spots of the original and will undoubtedly hold any viewer’s eye a little longer.

As further illustration of my point, here’s another shot I took around midnight in the Valley of Fire State Park just outside of Las Vegas.

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Ok, so it’s got a few stars in it, the near barren, rocky landscape is quite intriguing and, again, looking back on it in years to come, it’ll be a nice reminder of that night drive I took in to the Nevada desert but the image is just flat and lifeless. With just a little bit of work in Photoshop and with the simple use of adjustment brushes though, not only will it enhance the stars and brighten up the foreground, you’ll even find the faint beginnings of the Milky Way and with the light spill from Vegas some 60 miles away creeping over the craggy hill tops, the image starts to take on an almost Martian like feel.

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With regards the colour of the sky, you need to remember that this is all personal choice and also that you’re not making photojournalistic shots here but you are, in fact, making a piece of art that you’d be proud to hang on your wall. Who cares that the sky would never be that colour, or that you’d never be able to catch the stars and the landscape so brightly lit together then. No one gets to decide on how the scene should look but you! In fact the only people that will ever give less then glowing feedback in this regard are other photographers, but you likely aren’t editing your photos for them, as you’ll either be editing them to be noticed by potential clients or simply for your family and friends, none of whom will think anything less than ‘wow’!

Finally, post processing isn’t, and shouldn’t be, restricted to DLSR images by any stretch, because whilst phone cameras will likely never out shoot a larger sensor, such as that found in an SLR, they can still produce some fantastic results. Take this panorama of a rather run down looking gas station in the middle of nowhere in Death Valley that I shot on my iPhone.

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Again, it shows us a point in time and evokes personal memories of all manner of things, from how hot it was (48c/118f), to how long I’d been driving through that heat at that point (4 hours) and even how close I’d come to crashing the car whilst taking evasive manoeuvres around a juvenile coyote that ran across the road in front of me (Yeh, that happened!). However, it’s unlikely to hold anyone else’s interest for more than a second or two.

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With a plethora of mobile editing apps out there now though, including the aforementioned Photoshop and Lightroom, or even by exporting your phone image to your computer and using a desktop programme, with a bit of judicious cropping and some more use of those endlessly helpful adjustment brushes, you’ve highlighted the foreground features and made the mountains in the background almost jump out of the screen.

Now, I should say that I’m not suggesting that every image must be edited or that every image even needs editing, but with so many people out there pushing pejorative connotations of photo editing software, it’s easy to see why some new and learning photographers shy away from using it or deny that they’ve done anything to their images (much like every photographer denying their use of auto focus when that first came out, despite every photographer actually using it!).

So the next time you look at one of your shots feeling uninspired, will you condemn it (or yourself), believing you’ll never be able to make amazing photos or will you resolve to make post processing part of your image capturing workflow, maybe even having an idea of how you might process it before you ever press the shutter release?

Hopefully I’ve inspired you to the latter and that the next time anyone asks ‘did you Photoshop that?’, you can proudly answer ‘yes!’….. Just don’t forget to educate them as to why that’s not a bad thing.

Oh, and in case you were wondering…. no coyotes were harmed in the making of this article!

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