That is the question? Well, it’s certainly a question and not one about hitting the high street or eBay with my increasingly anxious credit card. It’s not intended to be a cheap rip-off of Shakespeare either, even if it looks that way. The ‘shop’ here is Photoshop, although other editing programs are available of course. For a while now, I’ve been reflecting on how my photographic practice has evolved over the past decade or so. I’m not talking specifically about the technical ability to shoot a picture, which has naturally had to change given the number of different old cameras I now use. Nor am I specifically talking about creativity, which is something that continually changes with whatever project I’m working on, as well as within my studies. When I refer practice here, I mean the complete process from concept through to finished photograph, which includes the murky area of post-processing.
Post processing isn’t anything new. Since the early days of printing on photosensitive material, photographers experimented with a variety of elements in the production of a final image. Variation in the emulsion, processing chemicals, temperatures and times, produced different results, any of which might be the preferred look. By the time photo papers for printing had become mainstream, darkroom techniques to achieve the best possible outcome from the original negative had become quite sophisticated. Photographers would make a contact or test print which,in the case of the former, is simply laying a negative onto a paper and exposing through it. The resulting print would then be annotated with a marker pen with the areas of the image that needed adjusting in during the making of the final piece. Dodging and Burning became the techniques to lift shadows and retard highlights as the paper was being exposed. The former involved temporarily blocking the light falling onto the paper, thus lightening the area when developed, while the latter involved exposing an area for longer. Although I’ve never printed in a darkroom, I remember watching my Dad waving his hand over the areas that needed dodging, like some kind of magician waving a wand. You couldn’t see the results until the paper was subsequently developed in the chemical baths, so it was all a case of judging the timing in both techniques. The real skill was judging how long was too much and obviously how short was too little.
When digital technology became the norm, the need for these skills largely disappeared with the decline in film photography, however they do survive today in the many software packages used to carry out post-processing. Like all technology, the developers continually push for more and more tools and features for their digital users. That is the purpose of this post, to share my thoughts on how much is too much and what is just right for my personal taste.
A few weeks ago, a photography Instagram account appeared in my stream (shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone) and the image being shared was a dramatic, contrasty portrait of a young woman. It was certainly an expressive piece of work, but immediately clear to me that it had been processed to the point where it was no longer really a photograph. Ever since my project on internet trolls last year, I’ve found myself automatically looking at the comments on these kinds of posts, as if I instinctively know that these morons will have something unkind to say about them. Sure enough, there was outrage (not too strong a word) at the fact that the picture was ‘not a photograph’. This image was an "Artificial Intelligence creation" at best, or a "clumsy attempt to be interesting" at worst. Their views were that photography was a pure and truthful medium, which in actual fact couldn’t be further from the truth. The act of transferring what is in front of the lens onto the sensor or film is scientific enough, but that certainly does not make it truthful. As well as manipulating the technology as I mentioned before, photographers have pretty much always done the same to the subject, setting, lighting, context etc to make an image that they visualise. They may want to portray something honestly, but truth really doesn’t come into it. I wasn’t surprised by the angst about the picture I was looking at, because I am a traditionalist at heart and my own work tends to be traditional in style. However, the use of post processing in this case was pushing the aesthetic into what I consider the digital art space. Although art is a complex concept to define, most experts agree that it’s an expression of human creativity that evokes some emotional response in the viewer. To this end, the picture was a valid artwork as it grabbed my attention and invoked a sense of wonder about it, but admittedly I felt it had less in common with photography than perhaps a painting would have. It stuck me that the anger at somehow contaminating the medium of photography seems to stem from the use of technology to hide errors or improve on something that wasn’t done properly in the first place. Did this digital art image start out as a poorly executed portrait? As I said, the tools and features of most post-processing software does suggest that you can make a bad image better and, if so inclined, make something completely different from it.
This guy (guilty as charged) thought he was being gritty and interesting in 2014. In fact, he was just being a bit of a dick
I’ve found from my own experiences that extreme post-processing isn’t something that interests or appeals to me as a photographer, for a number of reasons. The first relates to my film work, which I do because I like the look of particular film stocks, so naturally don’t want to lose that in the final piece. The second is simpler, I just cannot be bothered to learn how to do it. Whenever I use Photoshop, I usually spend the first half an hour re-learning the basic stuff that I’d used months ago when last attempting to use the software. I end up sliding controls and pressing buttons like a sugar-fuelled toddler with a crayon, resulting in something that is almost immediately deleted. Instead, I tend to stick to the basic editing techniques that photographers used to use, like making small adjustments to exposure, dodging, burning and also dust removal, something either caused by pollen insisting on sticking itself to my DSLR sensor or my 130 year old house depositing crap all over my negatives. The tools really help me when I look at a photograph and wish that we’d had a particular filter with me or had metered the subject slightly differently.
From the Worcester Big Parade 2021, shot on Kodak Ektar. Thought the sky could do with toning down a bit
Selecting the sky as an adjustment mask and shown here in pink so we can see the area that will be affected
Adjusted image. Note the use of 'Burn' in the menu. Have exaggerated the effect so it's more obvious on all displays
These sorts of mistakes can easily be corrected without losing the visual meaning of the original image, or the rationale for taking it in the first place. That’s not to say that I’m against digital art, artificial intelligence adding creative elements or even adding a 1970s polaroid look to a phone shot for social media (although I would personally just buy a Polaroid camera, to be honest). For me, digital art is like any other natural evolution of creativity, as photography was in the 19th Century. Some painters of that era saw this new upstart as bordering on heresy, and some thought it would destroy painting altogether. However, what happened was nowhere near that dramatic. Photography took its position as a bone fide art form over the following 150 years and it’s the drive to explore new ideas and produce something original that has evolved it into what we have today, including the ability to digitally ‘create’. If that’s your bag, then fair enough. Just ask yourself, when your finger hovers over that fancy filter or other creative algorithm, why you might want to over-process and whether it really is a creative decision or merely something to do. The key thing is to create something that expresses your subject or yourself, in whatever form suits your purpose. That’s how we grow as artists. Oh, and ignoring the trolls of course.