Why The Process Should Be Irrelevant

Recently for some reason I’ve come across more than the usual amount of comments online complaining about photos being ‘photoshopped’, often it seems to be based on a complete assumption and in reference to shots with no actual photoshop work, just basic and tasteful adjustments. One instance of it seemed fairly insulting to the photographer in question and made me rant a little bit to my wife, I’m not sure why I thought she’d be interested but I just felt like having a moan, so reckoned I’d try and write up my thoughts on why these comments and the ensuing arguments wind me up so much.

At the basis of this seems to be a group of people that see an image that’s come straight off the camera as being more pure than one which has undergone processing. My stance has always been to do what you want to make the image you want to make, I tweak all of my photos to varying extents depending on the individual photo and the look I’m after, every other photographer I follow will do similar. If you choose not to do that then fine and if you don’t enjoy processed images that’s fine too, but I think holding that choice up as the bastion of photographic integrity is ridiculous.

There are plenty of photos I dislike which in my opinion have had very heavy handed editing to the detriment of the image – I don’t like the look of obvious HDR or replaced skies etc, but others like it, so why would I go around stating my opinion on photos that I don’t like. People will form their own opinions on photographs but the thing that really gets to me is when this seems to be based more on the process than the actual image, or when they refuse to look past an ingrained belief that processing is bad.

One of my biggest reasons for disliking this attitude is that photography is a creative pursuit, whether you consider your work as art or not is irrelevant, you’re making images and creativity and experimentation should be encouraged in that. Why should photography be constrained to a completely accurate recreation of what you saw?

Leading straight on from this is the myth that a photo straight off the camera is a factual depiction of the scene. For a start camera sensors are nowhere near the dynamic range of your eyes, ever taken a photo and wondered why the sky was too bright and the foreground almost silhouetted? If we want to recreate what we saw then we have to work around this to start with. Taking a JPG straight from your camera isn’t what the sensor sees either, it will have applied some adjustments from the RAW file which the sensor captures which you normally have some level of control over in the camera such as sharpening, contrast, saturation, a black and white option. Isn’t it better that the photographer makes the decision on how to develop that RAW file?

Let’s assume the camera could output the exact image that we see in the split second when we press the shutter, is this always the best way to convey what made you take that photo? We have four other senses which affect how we feel when we’re out in the landscape and we don’t see in freeze frames, photographs to start with are unnatural. This is where creativity comes into it, trying to show something which you experienced but only using one sense and a single moment of time. Some of this leads to in camera techniques such as long exposures to show movement, these seem to attract similar criticism but in what way is a freeze frame of a waterfall with droplets suspended in mid air realistic? That’s not what we see, a long exposure isn’t either but arguably better represents the movement we’re seeing. This is slightly off the topic of editing, but some of the photos I’ve seen these negative comments on have been fairly natural looking, just were taken early morning in dramatic light, using a grad filter to tone down the sky and a long exposure to show some movement, a lot of work put in to the initial shot, which is what these people are supposedly advocating.

Lots of critics seem to draw an arbitrary line in the sand on what is and isn’t acceptable editing to them, I’ve seen people hold up the good old film days as their reason for having this anti-editing attitude, even citing Ansel Adams – one of the best known landscape photographers ever – as an example of how proper photography should be done, without realising that none of his images are ‘straight off camera’. In the film days photographers like Adams were still making significant adjustments in the darkroom, you could still locally adjust the levels of different parts of the image, you could replace parts of an image with another, it took more time and skill than it does now, but it was still possible and it was still done.

At the extreme I’ve seen one commenter freely state that they changed from liking a photo to disliking it once they found out it was created with a technique they didn’t approve of, this is incomprehensible to me as it’s a complete admission that how the image is created is more important than what the image looks like. The crux of the issue from my perspective is that all of this is subjective, both in terms of the end product and the process, there is no right or wrong in the final image and there is no right or wrong way to get there.

No matter what your thoughts are on any of the above I’ll never understand why people feel the need to publicly go out of their way to put down others work at all, let alone when it’s not even based on how the image looks but based on how they assume that look was created.

2 thoughts on “Why The Process Should Be Irrelevant”

  1. I really enjoyed this article, particularly the insight about the photographer being affected by all the senses when experiencing a scene. I live in the ar north of Scotland and like to photograph empty, desolate coastal scenes among other things. There’s no doubt that the cold, the smell of the seaweed and the sounds of the wind, the sea and the passing whooper swans all impact on the “look” I subsequently try to achieve when working on the image in post.

    1. Thanks for the comment Mark, it’s great to know it resonated with people, I think it would be difficult to not let the feel of being there influence the image you create, whether it’s a conscious or subconscious thing. I’m all for any technique which we think can help give the viewer the impression we were after when standing there taking the photo.

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