Some photographers feel strongly that if you don’t get it right in the camera, you’ve failed – “real photographers don’t need Photoshop”, or words to that effect. Whenever I hear this, I think of Ansel Adams. He was a perfectionist in the shooting moment, well known for exposures that resulted in the best film capture. But he was also a perfectionist in the darkroom – well known for spending an entire day there to produce one print. Here’s Adams in front of before-and-after prints of his iconic Moonrise Over Hernandez (the one on the left is printed straight from the camera, the one on the right was printed with hours of manipulation):
(I don’t know who took this photo. It appeared in Jack Dziamba’s terrific blog post Ansel Adams, and Photography Before Photoshop.)
Adams didn’t resort to the darkroom because he failed to capture the image properly; he did it to overcome limitations of the camera and film (more on that later), so that the print more accurately showed what he saw and felt in the moment. The darkroom tools available then are blunt instruments in comparison to today’s digital darkroom tools (Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.) – were he alive today, I bet he would have embraced them.
Many great photographers didn’t or don’t print themselves, but very often behind a great print of the their work is a great printer. Here’s Dennis Stock’s famous image of James Dean in Times Square, as printed by Magnum Photos’s master darkroom printer Pablo Inirio. On the left are Inrios notes on a test print, showing where he dodged and burned with different exposures.
(For more examples, see Michael Zhang’s post “Marked Up Photographs Show How Iconic Prints Were Edited in the Darkroom”, which is where I copied this from.)
Of course there’s one type of photography where, aiming for accurate reporting, getting it right in the camera is paramount and post-production is anathema – photojournalism. Not that eschewing post-production is a ticket to accuracy. For one thing, photographers can manipulate the scene in advance (pre-production!), or frame the image in a misleading way, intentionally or not. For another, despite a photographer’s best intentions, the camera’s presence can change the scene. (In quantum mechanics, this is analogous to the Heisenberg effect, wherein the act of measuring changes the measurement. In photojournalism, this is sometimes called the CNN effect.) Moreover, in fact the camera does not see what the eye and brain see (again, more on that later), so one can argue that few photographs accurately depict what a human sees and feels in the moment. Nevertheless, you have to draw the line somewhere, and since pretty much everything in post-production risks subjectivity, that line is best drawn at the camera.
There are other reasons to draw the line at the camera. One is that it requires greater focus in the moment – proficiency improves and there’s a higher rate of good images that don’t beg to be fixed in time-consuming post. And not just technically good – although it may sound contradictory, strong constraints often foster creativity (poetry, music, etc.). There’s a reason why some great photo workshop instructors insist on fixed (non-zoom) lenses and no cropping or other post adjustments.
As for me, I shoot a lot of live music, and I spend a lot of time in post – many hours for every hour of shooting. Why? One reason – per the above – is that I’m not good enough! I know that I’d spend less time if I were a better shooter. Yes, it’s a vicious circle – relying on post encourages lazy shooting. (And, yes, I do occasionally try to improve by forcing constraints on myself.)
But even if I were super proficient in the moment, I’d still spend a lot of time in post. One reason is that the camera doesn’t see things the way the eye and brain do together. Among the differences:
- Dynamic range (gradations of light to dark): Cameras can only record across roughly 10 f-stops in a scene, while the human visual system (by constant adjustments) can do more than 20 f-stops. That’s the primary reason for dodging and burning in post (among other techniques).
- Focus: Cameras focus uniformly across a plane of view, with resulting uniform resolution, but humans see details only around the point we’re looking at; the details degrade quickly off center, and at at the edges we only detect large contrasts and minimal colors.
- Simultaneous contrast: This is the ability of the human visual system to break colors apart from their surroundings (it’s believed that this evolved as a survival mechanism).
There’s a vast literature about these and other differences (if you’re interested, Google “human eye vs. camera”). The point is that cameras do in fact lie about what humans see! As a photographer, what this means to me is that if I want the viewer to see and feel what I did in the moment, I should use every trick in the book to compensate for the camera’s deceit.
Another reason I embrace post is to compensate for things that I couldn’t control when shooting, i.e. to rescue a decent image from a bad capture (OK, including bad captures that result from incompetence or poor judgment.) Lighting is a particular challenge when shooting music – it can change drastically, unpredictably, and too fast for me or the camera to react (and regardless can just plain suck). Shooting location is another challenge because you often can’t choose it – you’re often in the wrong place for a good shot and have to stay there because you’re not allowed to move or you can’t (too crowded). So you take the shot from the wrong angle with the wrong lens with all kinds of stuff in the way, and hope that you can extract the image you want from within the capture you got.
This often involves cropping. Ah, cropping! That’s a hot button for many photographers, even photographers that embrace the traditional darkroom. Their view is that, while the camera may be deceitful about what they see framed in the viewfinder, the frame is a fact and (almost entirely) under their control. So choosing what is and isn’t in the frame is rightly part of the creative process, something to be done in the shooting moment.
That makes sense, and it’s always a great pleasure (and time saver!) to make a photograph that doesn’t need cropping or other adjustments. But what if you can’t control the frame (which is frequently the case when shooting music)? And even if you can control the frame (shoot from where you want with the right lens), the ideal frame for the shot may be impossible because the aspect ratio of your camera forces you to include things you don’t want or exclude things you do want. Moreover, if it’s acceptable to give yourself leeway in post by bracketing exposure, why not give yourselves leeway in post by shooting wider?
Then there are cases where after the shoot and edit you need versions with other aspect ratios – e.g., a HD display (16:9) or Instagram (1:1). It may be that any such re-crop would yield a lousy image, in which case you give up screen real estate and live with those annoying black bars. But often within the image there’s a decent image with the desired aspect ratio. Photo editors crop without hesitation. You should too. Certainly don’t leave it up to the app!
I like returning to a good image and continuing to working on it. Writers, musicians, printers, and other artists commonly revise what starts out as a draft; why shouldn’t photographers?
I could go on and on. Basically, it comes down to this: I admire (and envy) photographers who consistently make great photographs by a combination of technical and artistic proficiency in the moment – choosing appropriate lens and camera settings, and then knowing exactly where and exactly when to point and shoot. But I’m glad that both the technical and artistic proficiency can continue in post; that’s what I do, and I enjoy it. .
I’ll end with three before/after examples. The first two are relatively extreme. It took considerable post-production (in Lightroom) to make an image that I can honestly say I saw in the moment but couldn’t capture well.
Alabama Shakes at the 9:30 Club, Washington, DC:
SOJA at Innsbrook After Hours, Glen Allen, VA:
And here’s an example where in post-production I rescued an image that could have been shot properly in the moment, but I blew it.
SOJA at Pier 97, NYC:
I’m not a purist about this. In my view, there’s no wrong or right – just artistic and editorial choices. For me, what counts is the photographs you make, not how you make them.
(For albums of recent shoots, please see jshorephoto.com.)