A debate many photographers hold within themselves and with others is To Post-Process or Not To Post-Process. Or How Much Is Too Much? This is especially true of those who began their photographic adventure using film and of those who find comfort in defining and clarifying subjects for sake of better understanding. I fall into both these categories and have discussed it with many. There is no correct answer nor any superior opinion and though this topic is raised regularly (some may refer to the beating of a dead horse) it is always relevant. Recent events have brought it to my forefront again.
One month ago all my possessions were packed up for a move from the United States to Japan with the exclusion of what I could fit in two suitcases and a carry-on bag. My custom-built-for-photography desktop computer did not make the luggage cut and hence is months from arriving. My basic camera equipment, my back-up external drive and my old laptop computer fit into a backpack and never left my side.
After a trip to a local castle last week I anticipated problems with my laptop while working with the photos. First, dumping the RAW files from my SD card onto the hard drive would quickly fill up what little space remains, therefore I copied them to a thumb drive until I can move them to my back-up. Second, the computer's screen is horrible; even after calibrating it with Huey's Pantone package the color is disturbingly inaccurate. Last, my old processing software files have corrupted rendering it unusable, and, of course, the software disc is somewhere between Tokyo and Texas. Fortunately, my shots SOOC (straight out of the camera) were crisp enough to hold their own because all I could do was use the basic built-in Microsoft photo tool to resize. For me, posting a photo unprocessed feels like I'm leaving the house without clothes, and I mentioned that caveat online in my comment, unknowingly sparking the classic debate.
I first struggled with the pro/con post-processing (PP) issue the year I began using a digital SLR. I realized that so much of the amazing photography I admired used more PP than I thought. Although I felt disillusioned I also better understood why my newbie photos SOOC didn't look anything like I wanted them to. Just as I had taught myself to use an old, film Minolta SLR twenty years ago, I read books and practiced tutorials to learn and understand what my starter Canon DSLR could deliver. Then I slowly introduced simple PP techniques. I discovered how much software could significantly alter an image and began questioning it's effects on a photograph's integrity.
I discussed these concerns with my modern-renaissance-man of a brother who is a photographer as well. Most of his final images are SOOC; he even changes his camera's picture setting to monochrome when he wants to shoot black and white. According to another family member he and I share very similar thought processes and reasoning techniques, though I didn't (and don't) utilize them as academically as he. The details of our conversation escape me but we basically concluded that a photograph is art and art doesn't have a rigid definition.
Whether or not you alter a photograph you are sharing an image from your point of view. Sometimes when I spot something visually appealing my mind sees it differently than my eye and in order to share my version of it I must alter it with PP; or I may have a creative concept in mind that can only be achieved though PP; or maybe I simply want to clean my skin and clone away my spots; and sometimes I don't do anything but resize it.
I wouldn't call myself a heavy PP user because, frankly, I am not fluent with the software. I began with Corel's Paint Shop Pro for small adjustments with contrast, white balance, noise reduction and the like. When I finally began shooting RAW I started using Adobe's Lightroom (LR) and discovered a huge learning curve which I still haven't overcome. I have no idea how to use most of the features yet, including the oft-discussed layering. I love working with RAW files in LR and find myself using less noticeable PP because you can make such small adjustments. Some photos I work on more, some less, it depends on how I saw the original image and whether the intended mood is conveyed.
I don't fall back on the “I'll just fix it later” mindset. I try my best to record the desired image in-camera using my skills and gear at hand. But sometimes you get home and realize the image you saw on the camera's tiny viewing screen does not look the same on your full size computer screen. I feel no guilt or shame in using software to adjust it until it meets my satisfaction. It's my art and I'll present it such.
To the question, “At what point does it stop being photography and start becoming digital art?” I respond, as soon as you press the shutter release on a digital camera it is digital art. What you choose to do with it (or not do with it) is part of your creative process and for that there are no rules.
Here are some examples of how I use PP.
(I am unable to access the unaltered, original images at this time. Once I can, I will add them for comparison's sake.)
My most recent example of straight out of the camera, I only resized for posting.
By the Rattlesnake Inn.
After driving past and admiring these lamp posts for a year I finally brought my camera to capture the essence of central Texas as I see it. Being Texas in July, the sky was bright. In order to properly expose the subject of the scene (the lamp posts, buildings and terrain) the sky was completely blown out. To balance the sky with the earth I brought the exposure down for the sky and upped the contrast. When converting it to monochrome I played around with the filters until the the desired colors were accented.
This Foggy Morning photo was taken the very first time I took my first DSLR outside for a shoot, I think I'd had it a week only. Needless to say my PP knowledge was practically non-existent. Most of the curbs in this parking lot were painted bright yellow and detracted from the beautiful, blossoming trees, so in PP I used a tool and carefully desaturated the color on every, single one. And that's it.
My self portraits are usually experimentations of a concept I'm playing around with. This one did not unfold as I planned, allowing me to play around with another technique that I'd been pondering. Without my access to LR I can't say exactly what I did to this one, but I certainly did a lot, The allover exposure was brought up as well as the contrast with a slight black increase. I cleaned up my skin and my eye whites, then I pulled the down the red saturation and a bit of yellow. I really like the results but it certainly received mixed critiques.
Finally, the most processed image I have ever done. I have no idea exactly how I did it. I think it involved posterizing, contrast and color, but beyond that I have no clue. It took forever and I would love to know an easier way. The concept came from the funny cartoon post cards people share online.