A friend linked to this story in her Facebook feed today:

Why do Photo Contest Winners Look Like Movie Posters?

Post-processing is obviously not a new topic … and it’s one that’s been evolving alongside digital photography and darkroom skills. This particular piece questions the lighting on the winning image in the World Press contest, citing photojournalistic ethics in the critique. (The World Press winning image and other entries are here: World Press Photo.)

I’ve started a few discussions in my blog about wildlife photography ethics (field practicesmanipulated shots).I haven’t, however, talked much about the post-processing issue or how much PP I do on my photos. Today’s story about the World Press Photo contest made me think I should.

I work hard to frame and expose shots correctly in camera. But I admit, I’m not yet expert enough to always get it right or avoid post processing.  Photography instructors like Scott Kelby would say that you shouldn’t avoid digital darkroom software … that it’s an amazing tool available to us these days. I have friends who believe they’ve failed if they use PP. I have other friends who grant themselves a lot more leeway than I do, often using Ansel Adams as an example of how PP has always existed in nature photography.

From a post at No Cropping Zone entitled The Ansel Adams excuse:

“People will resort to an incredible degree of photo manipulation in Photoshop and when questioned about it will claim that they are only doing what Ansel did. Or if Mr. Adams had a copy of Photoshop then he would have used it too.

On the surface they are right … But Ansel wasn’t just a master of the darkroom; he was also a master of light and composition.”

Here’s my personal [post] process and work flow:

  • I often shoot RAW, which implies a degree of post-processing, although I do shoot JPEGs, as well.
  • After importing into Adobe Lightroom, I cull (“x” key) any obviously bad photos (out of focus, etc.).
  • I mark the photos I “might” like with star ratings.
  • I go back through again, do another cull, scrutinizing pictures more carefully and getting rid of additional shots. I also pick (white flag) my favorites.
  • The tools I frequently use on RAW files are: sharpening, contrast adjustment, dodge-and-burn (if needed) and a little noise reduction in high ISO images (I don’t like smearing that heavy NR tends to produce). I’ll also fine-tune WB.
  • The tools I use sparingly are: color adjustments, curve adjustments, light vignettes
  • Tools I use to rescue images where I screwed up exposure, but don’t want to chuck the photo: exposure + contrast, highlight and shadow control, noise reduction
  • Tools I use when a photo is a starting point for a creative image: Nik ColorEfex Pro and Nik SilverEfex Pro. If I use textures, for fun, I often layer them with varying degrees of opacity in Photoshop. From there, I apply layers of effects in Lightroom or Color Efex. I will sometimes create composites, layering two images (see the cormorant below). I always note that it’s a composite, in the caption. I found another app that makes simple, if limited, collages … PicFrame. In the past I used a comic book app to play around with photo stories, and I may delve into that again.

Here’s an example of light processing on a RAW image of a Bald Eagle (Lightroom). I cropped, adjusted exposure, sharpness, WB and applied a light vignette. It could probably use a bit more PP, actually.

Pre Eagle

Post Eagle

Here’s a photo I rescued from bad exposure decisions, shot on a cloudy day on Puget Sound.

Pre Exposure

Post Exposure

And here’s a black-and-white image I created from the photo in SilverEfex Pro. Where not obvious, I’ll make a note about dramatic creative changes like this.

BW Heron

I created the composite image below from two photos I layered in Photoshop. One was focused on and exposed for the cormorant, the other for the moon. The size/perspective of the moon did not change.  (Composite noted in photo caption.)

Cormorant Moon

Here’s the single shot of the cormorant and out-of-focus moon, before I blended the two images:

Unlayered Cormorant

The triptych below is drawn from three barely-adequate shots of Northern Flickers. I used textures then added creative adjustments in ColorEfex Pro, including the frames. I then put the three together in PicFrame. I think it’s pretty obvious this is a PP’d image. :)

Art created from Northern Flicker Photo

Your Post-Processing Methods and Ethics?

I’m interested to know how you view post-processing from both an ethical and practical standpoint. I know some of my friends here are judicious about getting images right, in camera. I strive for that, but don’t always succeed. Your perspectives will help me reframe and perhaps change my own methodologies. Your responses to any or all of these questions are greatly appreciated.

Edited on 2/22/13 to add: I received a comment from a reader who personally doesn’t like to respond to surveys, which I understand. I definitely don’t want this list to come across as a survey … more, a series of optional questions. Answer one, none or all — just to help me better understand the larger spectrum of what people like to do in their digital darkroom worlds.

  1. Shoot RAW or JPEG? How much PP do you prefer to do?
  2. Will you apply dramatic PP if you’ve under-exposed or otherwise mucked up the settings?
  3. Do you ever clone out elements from your images?
  4. In general terms, do you think basic dark room or digital darkroom adjustments like dodge and burn should always be disclosed?
  5. At what point do you think image manipulations go beyond what’s acceptable in nature photography — and should be identified as fine art or creative images?
  6. Lastly, do you think any creative application is okay, as long as it’s disclosed and doesn’t violate ethics, like journalistic ones?
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