It's Your Concert
There is no right or wrong way to progress from image capture to final print.
I was asked recently about the "straight out of the camera" school of thought by an individual who was concerned he might be managing his images incorrectly. If you're unfamiliar with it, here's the concept: "Why spend time sitting in front of a computer when you can pull a properly-rendered photograph right off the card?" The implication: You're doing something wrong if you're not going directly from camera to print.
You should certainly strive to create a complete photograph in-camera. Thoughtfully compose the shot. Pay attention to the edges of the frame. Get your focus correct. Expose properly. Use a polarizer to remove glare, etc. Avoid thinking of post-processing as a crutch with which you can correct mistakes. Images shouldn’t require an inordinate amount of time in post.
That said, there is nothing wrong with post-processing. You aren't doing something "wrong" if that's how you prepare your images for print.
If you shoot in RAW format, you know files come off the card looking flat; RAW files contain source data which is meant to be processed. At the most basic level, Lightroom and Photoshop are simply tools which enable you to adjust the file in such a way that the photograph renders the scene as you saw it. You might tweak contrast or vibrancy. If a certain area requires exposure regulation, you can either dodge or burn as necessary. Tiny spots resulting from dust on the lens can be removed. Certainly many other things can be adjusted, but in terms of the fundamentals it often doesn’t take much to bring a RAW file to life.
Beyond that, post-processing enables the creation of images which otherwise would be difficult – or impossible – to achieve. Two examples: subject matter containing range of contrast too extreme for the camera to handle, and stitched panoramics. These types of scenes are easy for your eye to see though the camera is unable to reproduce them without some help. (The image pictured below is such an example. Without switching to a wide angle lens – which would have rendered the immense sandstone fin known as The Organ much too small – my camera couldn’t capture the beautiful expanse of clouds at Arches National Park. Nor would cropping have been a solution, since the resulting file would have been too small. Instead I shot it as a series of verticals which were then combined in Lightroom.)
What about black and white? Not all bodies are capable of monochrome shooting. In that case, unless you’re using film, you’ll be shooting in color and transitioning to black and white in post-processing.
Perhaps realism isn’t your thing. You might want to go beyond recreating exactly what your eye saw and instead render the image more artistically or abstractly. If that's your vision, there's nothing wrong with doing so.
Don't forget: post-processing is nothing new. Film couldn't be pulled "straight out of the camera." Neither could glass plates. The darkroom was a necessary stop.
The negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print is the performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.
It was in the lab that Adams completed his vision. Not only that, he'd re-visit images, sometimes many years later, and process some of them differently. Perhaps his taste had changed, or he wanted to try a new concept. This is the performance to which he refers.
By all means, aim to capture images correctly in-camera. After that, though, you’re the maestro. It's your concert. Don't let anyone else take the baton!
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