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Photography: Editing

Photo editing, like flash,  is a topic with some controversy, at least among us amateur photographers. Some people think that if you didn’t frame and adjust your photo right when you took it, it wasn’t a good shot. Others (like me) use Photoshop and similar programs to adjust, crop, and tweak their photos. I have no problem with either stance, but to me photography is not literal. All those pixels do not accurately represent the subject, no matter what you do. They reflect how I see the world, so adjusting my photos after I take them is about giving the viewer a more accurate view of what I see. Case in point: David and I can shoot the same exact subject and have vastly different photographs. He sees the world differently than I do — subjective. I don’t think photography is any more literal and representative than painting or drawing. Adjusting my photos is part of my artistic process, not a cheat.

Right out of the camera.

Right out of the camera.

water lilies

Cropped and color leveled, saturation bumped up.

Also, I’m new to cameras but not to image editing programs so I often have better luck with post processing. I go through way more machinations to get my pictures just right after I’ve shot them because that’s what I’m good at. Sometimes they come out awesome right out of the camera, but I don’t really care one way or the other. I also shoot RAW format which means that the camera outputs ALL the information it has available. It pretty much necessitates some adjustment, if only to reduce the file size so you can use it for stuff. My Nikons tend to blow out reds and pinks if I shoot in JPG, but RAW is awesome.

Keep in mind when you look at my before and after photos that the before photo is just the computer’s crap representation of a pre-process RAW photo. All RAW photos have to be processed to some extent. It can be a pain, but you get way more control over the end product. Each program (Photoshop, Fireworks, your operating system, Firefox) is going to make different decisions about how to display the data that the file contains. RAW photos have all the data, but the program decides what to display. The tweaked photos don’t really have any data added, I’m just telling them which stuff I want to see. Just on my computer, Photoshop displays the photos cooler than the other apps, my browser shows them less saturated, and my two monitors have a different contrast level from each other. There’s no way to match them all up completely. When I tweak the colors, I try and get them to a place where they’re going to display somewhat consistently across platform and medium. But it will never be exact.

RAW photo as interpreted by iPhoto and then Firefox. A little grey and uninpsiring.

RAW photo as interpreted by iPhoto and then Firefox. Computer applications don't make good decisions about what data to keep and what to throw away. This photo was much more vibrant when viewed in the camera.

Zilker in June

This photo was cropped, levels and saturation adjusted, and the temperature cooled down a bit. So much better!

Another thing about editing is you can salvage a badly framed hi-res photo. Just because you don’t like the whole thing doesn’t mean you need to throw it away. Cropping in particular can help you show the viewer’s eye where to go. For me a good photo draws your eye to one specific place, rather than fighting for your focal point. Sometimes you get too much stuff in the shot and you can clean it up just be some judicious cropping.

This photo just has too much stuff in the frame. My eye doesn't know where to go.

This photo just has too much stuff in the frame. My eye doesn't know where to go. RAW photos tend to look murky until they've been adjusted. Photoshop is the best for RAW editing.

Early September at Zilker

Image cropped way in, and saturation adjusted.

Finally, I’m all about color. I loooooove color, especially in nature photography. So I do a lot of tweaking to get my colors as rich and vibrant as makes sense for the subject (or sometimes just a wee bit more). I do some standard stuff like leveling (which I’ll explain at a later date), and I use a combination of sometimes up to three different applications to get the tone, saturation, and contrast just how I want it.

Keep in mind, this is just one program's version of this photo. Even out of the camera, it looked different in each application. This version is pretty dull.

Keep in mind, this is just one program's version of this photo. RAW photos have all the data, but the program decides what to display. The photo below hasn't had any data added, I'm just telling it which data I want displayed.


I did a lot of tweaking on this one. Punched the color way up, and used a little effect to get the darkening around the edges. And bumped the contrast way up. A little surreal? Maybe, but it's wicked cool.

I tend to think that the debate about editing mostly resides among amateurs. You’re not going to see anything in commercial art that hasn’t been tweaked more than a little. Maybe some professional photographers don’t do any post processing, but I doubt it’s common. Post-processing used to happen in the real world on the film and prints instead of inside a computer, so it’s not like Photoshop invented it. Consider audio – post processing can be used to cover flaws, or accurately represent how the music would sound in a concert hall, or to create a whole new palate of sound. It’s up to the artist to decide how to use the tools she has available.

If you’re interested in learning more about post-processing, Pioneer Woman shoots with a Nikon – sometimes RAW, sometimes JPG –  and has a bunch of detailed tutorials. She also likes creating filters and effects, which I haven’t done much of yet. Check out her stuff here.

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