Moderately processed natural scene

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?

The Paint is Never Dry

"Almost" overprocessed

I find there are 2 categories of images in my library: ones I am “done” with and ones I want to tweak each time I open the file. Furthermore, it seems the ones I want to do something to each time I see them are the ones I like best. I refer to this as the paint being never dry.

A significant advantage of digital image manipulation is that it is so easy to make changes. This can also be a problem.

Wet paint

Modern technology gives us great freedom to edit and express ourselves. It is so easy to make some changes every time we open the file. Oh, I didn’t see that little flaw. I really don’t like the relation of these tones now that I look at it again. Maybe it would have more punch if I pumped some of these colors some.

But this is a subtle trap. A trap of time, because this is a never ending treadmill of editing, and of lack of confidence. I will write about this confidence problem in the future. Basically, it has been hard to accept that, as an artist, no one can tell me what is “right” or when I am “done”. I am the only one who can decide.


I wrote once about prints being a frozen moment in time. This is one of the great things about prints. They are not changeable.

A print represents my interpretation of the image at one moment in time. It is very tempting for me to modify it a little every time I print it. But now that I do editions of prints, I have to discipline myself to create exact duplicates for each print in the edition. It would be dishonest and a disservice to the purchasers if each one was different.

Part of the process of growth is deciding that an image is “done” and is ready to be shown and purchased . And I have to be able to stand proudly and represent it as my art, that I am proud of, even if I see opportunities for improvement.

Creative vision

But my creative vision is evolving all the time. It is frustrating to be locked in to printing a series a certain way when I may see it different now. I am resolved, though, that that is the requirement. I will have to exercise my creativity on new images.

The images are my children, in a sense. But any parent finds out that after they grow up, you have to let them go. Send them on their way to be independent. I can no longer control them or manage them. Kind of the same with my images. When one is sold, the whole edition is frozen, out of my control.

Oh, but the new images, the ones that haven’t sold yet. They are free to be interpreted and re-interpreted at will. I love to do this, but I recognize the need to let the paint dry at some point.

As the artist, all my images are resources to me to use any way I wish. Even the editioned ones can be recycled by compositing, over-painting, or radical cropping. Anything that makes it into a whole new work of art. My creative vision can best be applied to new work rather than reworking old things.


I don’t believe doing a great image “uses me up”. I have to believe I have a boundless well of creativity. It is better to go out and create new work. Learn what I can from the best of what I have done and go on from there. Explore a theme and do variations. Discover new themes.

My curiosity will lead me to new subjects, new visions for old ones, new points of view. I will learn new techniques for shooting and processing.

It would be devastating to feel that my best work is already done. I would have to quit if that were the case. I feel sorry for the old rock bands who still tour. No one wants to hear their new work. They only want to hear the hits of 40 years ago. They are trapped. I couldn’t do it.

So, yes, my tendency is to want to constantly rework and tweak everything. I often see things I would change in my work. But discipline has to be applied. Most old work should be left as a memory and a signpost along the way of my journey. Apply the creativity to the new images. Let the paint dry.

A confession: even after writing all this about letting the paint dry, I went back and did some minor edits on the image with this article. This is an old image, scanned from film. The quality is not up to today’s standards. But I really like the feeling of the image and the memories it brings back of Chartres Cathedral in France. So I indulged myself in one more little tweak. Do what I say, not what I do.

Far Enough


“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.

Ansel Wasn’t an Oracle

Rusty Truck

Ansel Adams famously said that the negative is the score and the print the performance. Ansel was one of the great lights of 20th Century photography and his writings are generally very good. In this case, though, I think this famous quote has become a little outdated by technology changes.

I love this quote and have been guided by it for a long time. As I began to understand it more deeply, it was empowering. For a long time my work was basically a documentary or reportage style. It was very literal photography of scenes in the natural world. I even for a time subscribed to the false doctrine that if an image was altered in any way it was no longer pure and virtuous.

Ansel’s quote helped me understand that that had never been true and was not a worthy or even useful goal. At least for me. I truly believe that the negative (raw file now) is only a start. It usually must be perfected by the artist to become art rather than just a record of something.

The darkroom process

Let me talk a little about the darkroom process, as I understand it. This is so I can contrast it to the current workflow. I will confess that, although I built a darkroom in my basement, I only ever used it for a few black and white images. About that time I discovered a new program called “Photoshop”. 🙂

The image captured on film is generally considered “read only”. It is never modified. There are exceptions to every rule, but this is by far the typical case.

The extensive set of transformations and modifications that can be applied to the negative in the course of printing are done in “real time”. That is, it is a dance involving adding or holding back light from certain areas during the time the paper is exposed to light. It can also involve variations of development time or chemicals and even manual operations like bleaching or spotting of the print.

Given this workflow, it is completely appropriate for Ansel to describe it as a score that will be performed by an artist. The outcome will vary somewhat with each performance, depending on the feelings and inspiration of the performer. Each print is a unique creative process.

The digital workflow

Fast forward now to the current generation of digital imaging. Digital imaging is wonderful in too many ways to list. I absolutely believe it is superior to film in almost all important respects. There is no reason for most artists to ever want to go back to film and chemicals. Your mileage may vary, but that is a personal artistic decision.

One of the places where digital processing is most different is in the post processing to complete the image. The raw file (the “negative”) is processed in the computer using software like Photoshop.

The software allows extensive, non-destructive manipulation of the image. The great dynamic range captured by modern sensors now gives us far more information to work with and more freedom to transform the image. It is easy to remove distracting elements, composite images together, and vastly change the tone and color profiles and even exposure.

Ansel had to select a type of film to use prior to taking an image. He also had to use color filters to change the tonality of his black and white images. It was a guessing game based on lots of experience. He called it “pre-visualization”. Now we retain all the color information until processing time and we can convert to black and white via multiple types of software transforms and with extensive control over tonality. Much more subtle artistic decisions can be made. He would have loved it.

Furthermore, these changes are built on the computer and recorded as a complete package. All the modifications can be done slowly and I can backtrack, undo things I don’t like, try alternatives, even easily create multiple versions of an image.

The “performance” aspect of Ansel’s darkroom manipulation now becomes a considered, one-time transformation. All the artistic decisions are immediately seen on my nice color corrected monitor. I can study the effects at leisure and decide to change them. When I am done, I have virtually a finished image.

The print

It almost sounds like printing has been reduced to a minor step. Not so. It is still a complex artistic process. But again, the digital world gives many new options.

Choice of paper is a big deal. It controls a major part of the look of the resulting image. A glossy Baryta has a very different look from a matte watercolor paper. Paper with varying textures and base color can be selected.

This is assuming you are printing yourself. I recommend it. It is a joy and it connects you with the final product. But many other options are available. You can have your image rendered on canvas, metal substrates, acrylic, transparencies, cloth – too many to list. All vary the look and potential use of the final image.

But the thing that is ultimately the most different from film days is that the artistic result has been determined prior to hitting Print or sending the file to the producer. Each time you print the image, the results should be so repeatable as to be indistinguishable. As Alain Briot said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek I think, this is one of the problems with printers: they do not need our help in any way while they do what they do.

So, in a way, a print is like a good illusion. The magic happens before we ever see the print appear. This is a huge contrast to the film days where creating a print required a virtuoso performance in the darkroom.

Was Ansel right?

I believe Ansel was completely right and very insightful when he wrote this famous quote. Like with many things, though, time and technology changes. Since he was describing a particular technological process, it is not surprising that it will change.

The real genius of the quote, and the reason I believe it is still useful, is to point out that the captured image is only the starting place. I am free to apply my vision to complete the image. Without that injection of originality, it is too easy for it to just be a snapshot.

How that is done is not that big of a deal. Art is a physical product and expressed via currently available technology. The technology should not determine an artist’s vision. Make it your own.

The quote was an observation by a great and experienced artist. It did not come down from heaven written on stone. Don’t be limited by changes of process or technology. Understand that it frees you to create!

How Much Processing?

Extreme post 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.