One Size Does Not Fit All

March 28, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Some photographers like to spend a lot of time in the digital darkroom. Others prefer to streamline post-processing and aim to do as little as possible.  

Which approach is correct? 

The answer, as with so many issues related to photography, is both. There's no right or wrong way to process your images. 

One size does not fit all.

My personal preference is to get things done expeditiously. That doesn't mean I won't devote extra time to an image in order to create the best result. Each photograph gets the attention it deserves. As a rule, though, I'm not interested in routinely spending long hours processing. There's a limit to the number of layer masks and the level of intricate detail I'm willing to mess around with. But that's just me.

The way you choose to achieve your vision is completely up to you. 

Besides, there can be more than one way to execute some functions. All roads lead to Rome, as the saying goes. With Photoshop and Lightroom, sometimes that's true - so if you've discovered a shortcut or alternate methodology that works, use it.

Two other points about processing are, I think, important:

Don't expect to fix a flawed photograph in post. Processing isn't a crutch or a band-aid. If you messed something up in the field, the computer won't come to your rescue.

That said, processing images is not "cheating." It doesn't mean you're doing something incorrectly at the time of capture or are less skilled as a photographer. It's simply the final step in the creation of the photograph. 

I know an instructor who preaches the straight-out-of-the-camera theory to students - as in, "You should aspire to zero processing."  

If someone suggests that to you, consider this: there's a creative element in the processing of film, too. The concept predates digital photography by many, many decades. 

"The negative is the score, the print is the performance"
Ansel Adams

It was not unusual for Adams to produce different interpretations of his work. A single negative would be rendered in a variety of ways based on decisions he made regarding cropping, dodging, and burning as well as overall brightness and contrast.

Straight-out-of-the-camera? I don't think Ansel Adams would buy into that concept.

Fast forward to today.

When shooting in RAW format, images require processing; they look flat right off the card. What you see when you look at the LCD is not what the RAW file looks like; it's a JPEG rendering created for immediate viewing. The data is pure, though, and there's a lot of it - which is the beauty of RAW.

If the photograph has been captured correctly (i.e. avoiding clipping highlights and shadows), you'll have the tones required to recreate what you saw with your eyes. Even when the scene is difficult for the camera to handle - such as high dynamic range - you'll have the information necessary to process the photo.

Shooting in JPEG, the images appear much closer to what you might consider "finished" when pulled off the card - but only because they've already been processed to some extent by the camera. In JPEG format, the camera is limiting color information and compressing the image: deleting a good deal of the data originally captured. Even if you don't do anything to process the image, the camera has already manipulated the file. 

I'd suggest, then, there is no such thing as straight-out-of-the-camera. Either the camera is doing some processing, or you are, or it's a combination of both.

Processing is simply one in a series of steps taken to create a photo.

Whatever your preferred workflow, however much time you take to process your images, and whatever decisions you make about each photograph, it's your concert. Your interpretation of the score is the one that counts.

CARVED BY TIMEQUIET MOMENTSEarly morning at Balanced Rock

Arches National Park, Utah
By the way, if you've been reluctant to make the switch from JPEG to RAW, I encourage you to consider it. The photograph above is an example of what I touched on earlier. It's a high-contrast situation which, at one point in time, you might have had to process in HDR. (Going further back, you might not have been able to make the picture at all.)

I exposed to avoid clipping on either side, which insured I'd have all the information I needed to recover shadows while properly managing the brightness of the sky.

This is what the file looked like coming off the card:

The camera viewed that scene much differently than I did, but that's okay. I used the information captured to recreate what my eyes saw. Incidentally, it didn't take much time to process this image.

Of course if you're shooting subject matter that requires quick turn-around (like an event), it makes sense to choose JPEG; you will likely not have time to process your work. 

If you don't have a "big" camera you might be thinking, "Wait a minute; my phone can capture a high-contrast scene like the one above." That's sometimes true, but not always. And a mirrorless or DSLR camera gives the photographer much more control. We make the decisions about choice of lens, settings, and processing. Our cameras also capture much more detail, and in RAW format there is no file degradation.  

In Local News

Though we've had repeated snowstorms over the past week, now that the vernal equinox is behind us spring is on the way - even in the high country. Mountain bluebirds have begun to appear in both Yellowstone and Jackson Hole. Elk, mule deer and antelope will begin their migrations soon.

The park service reported having spotted the first grizzly of the season in Grand Teton National Park on Monday. They didn't identify which bear it was, but it would have been a male since they come out of hibernation first.  

Season-to-date snow totals at the summits:

Grand Targhee - 399 inches
Jackson Hole Resort - 416 inches

It's snowing today, and there are still a few weeks of skiing to go before they call a wrap on the season.

Happy Easter!


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