“You don’t know you’ve gone far enough until you’ve gone too far.” – John Paul Caponigro
This very insightful quote by Mr. Caponigro has become important to me. But before getting too far into it, I need to deal with a basic assumption it is based on. It assumes that you will be processing your images heavily. Not everyone believes or practices this. I didn’t either for a long time
Do I need to process images?
Yes is the basic answer. The bits that come out of the sensor that you load into Lightroom or whatever you use to process your images are not just RAW, they are “raw”. It is a faithful data capture but it is not what you remembered or want to see.
Any image needs basic sharpening, contrast adjustment, color correction, and usually tone mapping. In addition there are esthetic changes like removing distractions, cropping, vignetting, etc. All this is usually necessary just to create a “straight” version of the image that faithfully matches the scene you saw.
Once you have bought in to the need for processing, now the question becomes “how much?”
What is the picture?
Every artist must be able to answer for themselves what their goal is for an image. Is it a faithful rendering of the scene as they remembered it? Or is it to create an interesting piece of art?
The answer has a lot to do with the type and amount of processing they will allow themselves. The answer is a personal and artistic decision. There is no right or wrong.
For me personally, the further I go as an artist, not just a photographer, the more tolerant I become of serious modifications.
On the other hand, in an article in the September 2019 issue of Photoshop User Magazine, Ramtin Kazemi states “I will never change the permanent subject matter of a scene”. His self imposed limit is that he will not move a tree or remove a boulder, although he may make dramatic changes in lighting and color. He will also change “impermanent” things like clouds. This is his decision as an artist. I will not criticize his choice. That does not mean it binds any boundaries on my artistic vision.
How far is enough?
When you give yourself permission to dramatically alter the basic image it opens up significant artistic opportunities. The digital tools we have today are marvelous. Artists today can do far more post processing than ever before; vastly more than chemical darkroom users ever could.
We have such an embarrassment of riches that it can be a challenge to know when to stop. This is part of what Mr. Caponigro was talking about. How do you know you have taken your artistic vision to its limit?
You do it by taking it beyond your limit and them backing off. I believe you will only know what your personal limit is in any dimension by going to the point where you say “too much”. Now you have found a limit for this image for where you are right now. In other words, the limits are moving targets and you need to keep pushing to find where they are today.
And that is just talking about post processing. The same applies to how we approach all of our art. Push the boundaries. Keep trying new things.
Use the tools
The marvelous tools we have usually allow non-destructive editing. Most of the tools have a workflow that can be adopted to allow us to remove or modify changes and make different decisions in the future.
For instance, Smart Objects in Photoshop allow most adjustments to be edited at a later time. Using new layers and adjustment layers prevents making permanent changes in the basic image information. Lightroom is inherently non-destructive for al its adjustments.
So assume you do your basic image correction in Lightroom. Push all the adjustment to the point where you say “I don’t think so”, then back them off to the point that seems best. This works for all the controls in Lightroom. You can come back to an image months later and visualize it differently. You can re-process it with no loss of fidelity. I do this often.
I occasionally see artists doing tutorials who still do destructive editing. That is, they do things like making a couple of adjustments in Photoshop and then merging them down. This commits them as a permanent, uneditable part of the image. Their work is beautiful. They must have such confidence in their artistic vision that they know they will never change their mind.
I admire them, but that doesn’t work for me. I am forever learning and seeing differently. I like doing “what if” exercises, where I take an old image and try new things with it. I am sometimes amazed at what I discover.
Is there a “too far”?
If there a “too far” point, it can only be decided by each individual artist. I know I lean towards a lot more processing of my images now than I did a few years ago. I also realize it is a moving target for me.
On any individual adjustment I can usually find a “too far” point. But in the larger sense, I do not believe there is a fixed point beyond which we should not go. There is no edge of the earth point where we fall off into chaos. The limit for any image is determined by my current artistic vision and my intent for the image. It is fair game to use any and all of the tools available to create the art I visualize. Ultimately, the far enough point is a personal judgment.
Your mileage may vary.