To Alter, Or not To Alter…

Sorry, Bard:

Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer / The Slings and Arrows of outrageous underexposure and other errors / Or to take Arms against a Sea of photographic problems, And by using Lightroom, to end them…

I often wonder, and I am often asked, how much manipulation is too much. Should you do “stuff” in Lightroom (say), or not? Like the “desaturate” or “desat” effect in this depressing building-under-construction half a mile from my home:

And that is a good question. To answer it, here’s my take why not to do post-production (“post”), followed by my opposing take on why to do it. The last word will never be said on this – things evolve. But today, I think this is a fair summary of how things are:

Why not to manipulate in post:

  1. You are faking it – you are not a photographer, but an illustrator!
  2. You are going to be a lazy and incompetent photographer if you always rely on post work to save your work.
  3. If you work in journalism, altering is lethal: you will never work in the press again. This, I think, is valid: we need to be able to trust our news.
  4. Many effects are “fashionable” – meaning they go out of fashion. Careful.
  5. You can easily end up looking “like everyone else”.
  6. It can be manipulative, i.e. it is sometimes done to manipulate your audience (e.g. poor children in a charity ad are often in contrasty, depressing grainy black and white).

However… the “you may not alter” approach is way too black-and-white (pun intended). The real world is far more nuanced. Here why you should feel free to do post-processing:

  1. It is, I think, best to shoot in the camera, not on the computer. That said, many famous photographers of the past did a lot of darkroom work!
  2. Cropping, exposure adjustments, minor sharpening to compensate for camera limitations and for reduced-size output, white balance, colour space choice: these are surely fine in all cases!
  3. As for fixing mistakes: what, you are always perfect? As long as it not a substitute for learning, Fix in post what you get wrong in camera, by all means.
  4. Sometimes it is better to shoot wide, say, and crop later.
  5. Surely converting to black and white is OK, just as “choosing a colour or B/W film” was in the past?
  6. And anything else you can do with a filter is surely all right?
  7. Ah.. but in that case, surely it’s also OK to do any manipulation that mimics a particular film type?
  8. Quoting Frederick Van Johnson: “pixels were born to be punished”. If you are creating art, who cares how?

On balance, I say do what you like in post, as long as you:

  • Keep in mind the “not” reasons above (photojournalists may only adjust exposure, crop, white balance, colour space: and I think that is right).
  • Do not use to unduly manipulate.
  • Promise to learn to do “what you could have done in camera” in camera.
  • Remember that your effect may go out of fashion and that you may look like everyone else.

I love the desaturated effect in the above photo, but the hospital-under-construction looked like this in real ife:

And I could surely make it a little happier, even on grey day like this:

So I think you are allowed to do what you like if it is art. That said, do learn how to do everying possible in camera, in camera!

POSTSCRIPT note: the “desaturate” effect is my favourite this month. But it can make people look more rugged. Like this wonderful gentleman at yesterday’s Photography course I taught at the Toronto Digital Photo Club:

(Shot with available light, 1Dx at 12,800 ISO at f/2. Yes, 12,800 ISO!)

Now, use a “desat” setting, and you get art, but also exaggerated and less flattering facial features:

Tip: If you do want to manipulate women this way, take the following steps:

  1. Expose well – expose “to the right”.
  2. Carefully apply the “desat” effect.
  3. Show your subject the altered image.
  4. Prepare to meet your maker.

Have a great day/evening, everyone! I am preparing for tomorrow’s course.


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