Photographic Myths and Platitudes: No Post-Processing!

Posted on 30 January 2014

(The following is another (more or less stream of consciousness) post that I wrote in reply to a comment I read somewhere else, in this case suggesting that photographic history implies that post-processing or manipulating photographs after the shutter has been clicked is ethically questionable and should be avoided. I’ll start with a modified version of the message I saw.)

…it is invalid to claim that Adams was a modern photoshoppe[r]… 

I… recommend to every beginner to do film… to develop a better feeling for composition… The most difficult in digital is to restrict yourself to [taking] a limited number of photos… in the beginning…

…I want to leave my photos as natural looking as possible…

This is an important conversation, for the beginner and for people who have been making photographs for a long time.

When people make pronouncements about how photography is supposed to be done or has been done based on notions about what great photographers do or have done, it is important to check those notions against reality. In photography there is a frequent mantra about “no post processing” and “get it right in camera” that has been, in my view, perverted to suggest that photographs are created in certain ways that do not correspond to reality – and worse, that other photographers should adhere to these false “rules.” It obviously is important to develop an eye for composition and an ability to operate a camera, but that is most certainly not the end of it, nor is there much of any evidence to indicate that great photographers have felt that photography is limited to what happens in the camera.

Did Adams ever make a “bad” negative look good in post? That depends on what you think of as bad. I’m can’t think of photographs that were poorly composed and where post-processing compensated for this. (However, there are some negatives that were damaged in the fire at the Yosemite studio very early on, and in which the composition is affected by this. I’m pretty certain that “Monolith” was burned along its top edge, which is partly responsible for the crop with which we are familiar today.)

Adams did, by the reports that I have heard first hand from people who knew him, make a good number of banal and boring exposures. In fact, like photographers today, he made far, far more uninteresting and forgettable photographs than great ones. His famous statement about a dozen successful photographs in a year being a good crop is a partial acknowledgment of this truth about photography.

Some of Adams’ most famous, most successful, and most universally admired photographs would have been forgettable without extensive work in post. It still surprises me how many photographers don’t know this and, in fact, believe that the opposite is the case. A number of other photographers who knew and worked with him regularly point this out in their presentation on Adams. One of their favorite and most compelling examples is the iconic “Clearing Winter Storm” photograph of Yosemite Valley. There are three powerful pieces of evidence in this case: the straight prints of the negative (which has been printed by others), Adams’ own shorthand instructions for his extensive dodging and burning of the image when producing prints, and the profoundly different appearance of the print we all know, in which clouds that were almost uniformly near white become a dramatic mixture of very contrasting tones. Further, Adams made a number of exposures of this exact composition – most of which are not as spectacular – but he selected one from which to create the brilliant print in post that became so famous.

“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” is another clear and obvious example. I won’t place the image on this page since I do not have permission to reproduce it, but you can easily find copies of the contact print from the original negative online. The story goes that Adams saw the scene only at the last minute, and almost frantically moved to set up the camera and make exposures before the light was gone. He did not have time to meter the scene, but apparently just went with the exposure that he knew from experience would work for the moon, the one constant in the scene. He apparently made one exposure just as the last light glowed on the foreground buildings and then it was gone.

If you have not already clicked that link, go take a look at the contact print – and if you need to reacquaint yourself with a more typical Adams interpretation of the image you will find that there, too. As you can see, the contact print – what was natively on the negative – makes a fairly awful photograph. If that were the image that Adams had presented to the world… well, it would have evoked astonishment of the worst kind! Or laughter! Or something else not very good.

But here is the key. When Adams exposed a negative (as when a skillful and talented and visionary photographer makes a digital exposure today), getting it “right in the camera” did not mean “looks good straight out of the camera!” “Right in the camera” means, essentially, that scene data was captured that provides the material necessary to produce a beautiful and effective print in post. And this was not (completely) accidental stuff for him. He generally knew that sometimes a negative had to be “overexposed,” or “underexposed” (or pre-exposed) or or would have to be processed in all sorts of different ways in, ahem, post in order to produce a “score” that would allow him to “perform” his print. And what a performance “Moonrise” is! The print looks almost nothing like the contact print. The sky is burned down to almost black – and in later realizations, it really is black, with the upper clouds eliminated – and contrast is dramatically increased throughout the image.

I would argue that the capture here is perhaps OK but nothing amazing in and of itself. You or I would have come away with a similar capture. But Adams took that and in post processing turned it into a thing of power and beauty.

When it comes to post processing, Adams’ “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine” may provide an even more shocking example to those repeating the “no post-processing” mantra. This is another powerful image with (in the print, but not so much in the web version at the above link) very strong light and dark tones, and a remarkable beam of light on the horse in the foreground. (Here the story goes that the horse stood resolutely with its rear end pointing at Adams, until – another miraculous gift from the photo gods! – the horse turned just as the beam of light arrived.) But a really interesting story lies elsewhere in the photograph. See that very dark hillside above and to the left of the horse? It is probably that dark for more than one reason – not just for dramatic power or the cloud shadow – but because the large letters “LP” are outlined in light tones on the hillside, put there by the students of Lone Pine High School. (You can find numerous articles about this and photographs that show the pre-modified scene.)

This just explores a few images by one photographer, but there are many, many other examples.

As to the idea that one somehow learns composition better with film than with digital, I don’t think there is really any evidence of that at all. There are a lot of different ideas concerning how learning takes place. Among them, one is that you should do a thing a very few times, always do it perfectly, and understand all of the theoretical concepts about the thing before you try to do it. (Anyone been to graduate school recently? ;-) Another point of view is that people learn by trying a thing, assessing what did and did not work, considering how they might do it differently the next time, then repeating in a continuous cycle of doing, assessing, responding, planning, and doing again. One of the advantages of digital technologies is that it is possible to complete this cycle much more frequently, increasing the number of iterations and more quickly applying what is learned to the next cycle.

But in the end, the photographic evidence shows us that the ability to compose is essentially completely unconnected to what image recording technology is used. Some learn it by painting. Others (like me and perhaps others in this forum) on film. Still others have learned via digital capture. Many have used more than one. I can’t see any evidence that learning these things on film today is going to be any more effective than learning them with digital.

Regarding the third point about “looking as natural as possible,” I tend to sympathize with that to an extent… but then what are we to make of brilliant photographs (like the Adams examples and many others) that actually do not look “natural,” but more likely hyper natural, or which even use photographic processes to produce works of visual art that extend and bend and push far beyond the real. (Readers who are not familiar with the brilliant and imaginative film photography of Jerry Uelsmann should take a look.)

A photograph cannot tell us the objective truth about a subject. I like to say that “all photographs lie.” A photograph is the result of how a photographer saw something – and it can certainly express something true and honest about the vision of the photographer. And if I have a choice between photography that simply shows what already exists and photography that conveys the creative vision of an artist, I’ll always choose the latter.

Part of a series of posts:

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.


6 comments to Photographic Myths and Platitudes: No Post-Processing!

  • Edie HoweNo Gravatar says:

    While there is a definite advantage to “getting it right in the camera”, it’s important to remember that photography is yet another form of art; art is supposed to reveal the artist’s vision, which is not always in line with reality. Even photojournalism, which is supposed to tell us what happened, is really more about what the photographer is trying to convey than about what is happening in front of the lens.

    Alan Ross– Ansel Adams’ assistant and his designated SEP printmaker– told me recently that Uncle Ansel’s prints would vary from day to day depending on his mood.

    BTW, I happen to agree with the second comment quoted here; trying film has definitely been a creative and technical education, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to develop their own skills and vision.

    Hope you’re well and happy, Dan. Do give my best to Patty!

  • Great post, Dan, and I wholeheartedly agree. Photography isn’t, never has been, and never will be a craft OR an art that happens exclusively in the camera. Photographers are photo-creators, not camera-users or shutter-button-pushers. Like every other form of creative expression that involves the use of tools, materials and techniques to create something, photography is an end-to-end creative process that involves a ton of options and choices.

    It begins in the imagination, starts to get traction with the selection of camera equipment, takes hold with seeing a subject of personal interest, continues with framing and composition choices that lead to exposure choices, sees judgment exercised when certain frames are selected and others disposed of, switches gears into the post-processing work (whether chemical or digital, light or heavy) to develop the potential of the raw take, gains a new form with the realization of the latent image into some visible medium (my preference is prints), and culminates in the minds of viewers who bring their own imagination to the experience of the image. Creative choice is exercised at every one of these points, and more.

    I don’t subscribe to “get it right in the camera”, but rather to “get it right, period”. Which is really just shorthand for “get it the way I want to show a visual design or tell a visual story from my creative imagination using some elements of the real world rendered through my craftsmanship into a tangible image that’s as much about what I want to show as it is about the reality of some material objects.” :)

    Post-processing is not just about being too lazy to wait for the right light, or fixing mistakes because a photographer doesn’t know how to work a camera, or whatever else. At it’s best, it’s about mastering the entire end-to-end creative process to achieve the desired results, using any and all tools that help that happen. The most masterful photographers, I would argue, are the one who consciously or intuitively grasp this, and bend the whole process to their purpose.

    I admire and support any creator’s personal decision to impose constraints upon themselves as part of their creative process. One may shoot film, another may choose digital. Some may heavily load their creative decisions towards in-camera process, others may load it towards post-capture work. Or any combination… really, the possibilities are endless. The place where people get off side, in my opinion, is not when they declare their personal choices. Rather it’s when they decree that photography is or isn’t some particular combination of tools, materials and techniques; or that people should or shouldn’t do things a certain way in order to be “real” photographers.

    Re: your comment that “all photographs lie”, I like to point out to people that it’s not photographs themselves that have integrity, but rather photographers who do. (Or don’t.) There are countless examples of unmanipulated images that portrayed something false. Regardless of their process, if photographers imbue their created works with some form of truth then that’s far more important than whether they’ve satisfied some checklist of permissible processing steps. (Setting aside, for example, photojournalists who may be additionally bound to a code of conduct that requires them to do certain things or restricts certain other things. That’s a separate issue, called playing by the rules that you’ve agreed to be bound by.)

    I like the thought-provoking quote attributed to Picasso — “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” For photographers, that manner of convincing includes far more options than strictly what happens inside a camera box.

    So long live the creative vision of the artist… :)

  • DavidNo Gravatar says:

    Certainly.

    I have a little story.

    I used to go fly fishing with a guy who thought the only pure and proper way to catch a trout was with a dry fly on the surface. Many times there is no active hatch or interest on the surface. In order to catch a trout you sometimes need to put your flies under the water. To make things worse, he had a daily quota on number of fish he had to catch. All told, he was frequently miserable on the rivers and streams. Occasionally he would give up and want to go home while I was catching plenty of fine trout. I think he lost the whole point of fly fishing, consuming himself by a contrived process instead of simply enjoying the outdoors, nature’s way.

    Anyway, back to getting it perfect in camera – to each their own. Even for paid work, one needs to produce the desired result, the process is irrelevant to the client.

    Like you, I believe, I capture an image such that I have all the data I need to process it later to produce what I felt and saw at that moment. I would guess most find this approach appealing. However, some will only use dry flies.

    For those who want to get it all done in the camera and not process it, great, as long as their enjoy themselves. That’s what it’s all about anyway, as a hobbyist.

  • I am not a photojournalist…

  • You hit the nail on the head with this well written article Dan. From the beginning Adams coined the phrase that the negative is the score and the print is the performance. In numerous interviews he repeated this mantra. The final image, whether a print or a digital file, is the end result of the whole process of photography. Adams spoke a lot about pre-visualization of the scene before him and what he would need to do technically to achieve the final results in a print. Post processing is just part of the path we take to “make” our image come to life and render our intent for viewing.

  • Thank you for these reflections Don
    every photographer is an artist and every work need some post-processing, even minimal.

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