How Much Processing?

I guess this implies several possible questions. How much is too much? How much am I allowed to do? Should a final image look as “close” to the original photography as possible? This has been a dilemma for me until recently. I’ve come to the position that any amount of processing is OK, as long as I like the result.

My history

I started out my creative journey with the mindset of an engineer. Photographs should be an exacting match to the scene. This led to an emphasis on technical skills, warmly liked by engineers, emphasizing precision. Creativity was finding the right scene, not something that might be developed in later processing. In fairness. these were the days before Photoshop.

Later on, I became heavily involved in my local camera club. Our club was great – better than any I encountered in the surrounding communities. But still. there is a collective think that tends to permeate these. One of the mantras in our organization was “no hand of man” in landscape shots. I was generally OK with this, but I thought sometimes that some shots could actually be improved by relaxing that constraint. But I played along.

It came to a head for me at one contest where I got rebellious and submitted a photo that had a bit of a Photoshop twist in the clouds. I had Photoshop by them and was getting frustrated that “Photoshopped” images were generally disapproved in our contests. After winning the blue ribbon I let them know how it was created. There was a lot of discussion, ranging from it should be disqualified to what’s wrong with that? I kept my blue ribbon, but that was about the end of my involvement in camera club. I needed to stretch, not be constrained.

I bring these up to let you know that I came from a background of avoiding heavy post processing. It has taken me a long time to give myself permission to get creative or even liberal in post.


I never had a darkroom, so I never internalized how much manipulation took place there. As I learned about it, one of my reactions was “they’ve been cheating all this time”.

My investigation of darkroom capabilities brought me to finally understand Ansel Adam’s famous quote that “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.” I began to see that famous photographers had always felt free to bend and modify their images in post production. Some of Ansel Adam’s assistants say it usually takes many hours to print one of his images. This is because he requires such extensive work in spotting, bleaching, burning, dodging, etc.

One of the most extreme examples is his famous image “Moonrise Over Hernandez”. He had to capture it very quickly and the negative is flat, low contrast. It require a lot of work to print to his expectations. Ansel removes clouds and greatly changes the tonality and contrast of the print. So the takeaway is that the print is an interpretation of the negative. Anything is fair. I have come to believe that if Ansel had Photoshop he would do much more than he did.

A new understanding

So in my own journey, I have come to a place where I do not feel so constrained by the original image. An image is raw material. What is important to me is what I can visualize it becoming. As I become more skilled at tone correcting and color enhancement, my vision is being extended. If I don’t like that building or person in it, take them out or move them. If the sky is weak, replace it. Maybe this isn’t a great image on its own and it needs to be composited with one or more other fragments to create something new.

I finally discovered – or allowed myself to accept – that this is art, not reality. The reality of the scene need not be a hinderance to what I might envision making of it. What becomes even more important is my vision as an artist and my skill in working with the image. An image is not just what it is, it should be what I want it to be.

The image at the head of this post is an example. It is made up of 2 images and the final result does not look like either of the originals.

Never believe a photograph. It is not truth. It is always subjective, if not outright modified.

Let me know what you think, and check out my online gallery for more examples.

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