How much post-processing is too much? Is less better? Is there some magic boundary you shouldn’t cross? Over-processing is a controversial topic for many photographers.


Ah, purity, respecting reality, make no changes. This concept and value system is instilled into many photographers, especially landscape artists. I still follow Nature Photography Network. The images are often very lovely. But there is generally, to me, a sterility to them. Most photographers who post here are afraid of departing from literal reality.

In this group, as in many landscape forums I have seen, there is a real negative feeling about cleaning up distractions, adjusting color to be anything other than the actual original, compositing, or anything else that is not strictly faithful to the original scene. It reminds me of some film photographers who used to make prints with the film rebate showing to prove the image was not cropped.

The problem I have is the fear to depart from reality. Fear is not a good guide for art.

What is photography?

Is photography to be a literal recording of reality? Some people believe that it is. I used to be in this group, way back. As a matter of fact, the camera club I used to be a member of went further to say that a nature image must not show any “hand of man”. That is, there could not be a trail, a contrail, an old mine, anything not completely natural.

But what is photography, really? I see it as an art medium. Composing interesting images from “real life” scenes in front of a camera is just as valid an art as painting scenes that exist only in the artist’s mind. Just as the painter only includes what is necessary to further the image, the photographer eliminates what is distracting, either in camera or in post processing. The goal and only real measure is the final image.

In impressionism or modernism or post-modernism or any of the other isms, the artist freely pushes the medium to its limits to give his preferred interpretation of reality. And that, to me, is a key thing that makes it art – it is an artist’s interpretation of the world.

What prevents photography from doing the same thing? A modern sensor can record a scene in very high resolution, and our software tools allow us to “correct” color and noise and other artifacts to a high degree., Does that mean it is the place of photography to create images that are constrained to faithfully depict reality?

Is there a line you shouldn’t cross?

Is there a line, a limit, not to cross? Probably, but it is different for each of us. As an artist, we need to be able to figure it our for our self.

Our post-processing tools are amazing. They allow a level of control unheard of a few years ago. There is sage old advice, though, that says just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Anything can be misapplied to create garbage.

It is easy to go to the computer and over-saturate and over-sharpen and re-mix colors in garish ways to make an image into something I would never show anyone. But that line where I have gone too far is personal to me. It would be different for you.

Go for it

As I mature, I find the line is moving our toward the horizon. That is, I am finding interesting ways to express my vision using post-processing “excesses”. Is my vision moving or am I learning to use the tools better? I don’t know for sure, but it is probably both. What we discover we can do influences the notions of what we want to do.

The image with this article is a completely natural scene that has had what I would consider “moderate” post-processing. I like it much better than the bland original.

These tools that can be used to create horrible garbage can also be used with great subtly and finesse. Like with a painter, the same paint and brushes can create a useless smear or a respected painting. It comes down to the artist’s vision and how the tools are used.

Maybe asking if the image is over-processed is not the right question. Maybe the question is did the artist realize his vision? And did the vision resonate with me?

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