Photo Editing is No Substitute for Photography Technique

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Photography has entered a whole new world, with remarkable changes in technology in just a few short years. One thing has not changed, however; the camera – not the computer – is still the most important tool of a good photographer.

photography technique

Photo captured by Ayan Maitra (Click Image to See More From Ayan Maitra)

In recent times I have spoken to a few very disgruntled beginners, who had signed up and paid good money to attend a course in ‘digital photography.’ On arrival at the first class, they were told to put their cameras away – they would not be needing them. This was not actually a course in photography; it was a course in photo editing. So instead of being taught how to take better photos, they were being taught how to fix up their mistakes.

I would have asked for my money back, for this course was not delivering what it promised.

Was this a case of blatant false advertising? From the customer’s point of view, it certainly was. But believe it or not, the teacher may not have seen it that way. It is an alarming truth that some people see software, not the camera, as the cornerstone of photography.

When the digital photography revolution began, it excited two groups of people. First there were the traditional photographers, who embraced the cost savings and convenience offered by digital photography. For them, it was a chance to do what they had always done, but to do it in a format more suited to the modern age.

Then there were the computer types, who perhaps didn’t know much about photography and weren’t very good at it. For these people, photography had entered their world in a big way. They may not have known much about art or technology, but they sure knew plenty about software. In this world, they were way ahead of traditional photographers who had grown up with SLR cameras, film and the darkroom.

So, does being good with software make you a good photographer? Of course not.

With software, you can achieve amazing things. You can do everything from tweaking the contrast in an image to moving objects around and making your photo look like it was a painting. But there are also plenty of things – essential things – that you can’t do. You can’t make an out-of-focus subject in focus. You can’t un-blur a moving subject that was blurred because the photographer used the wrong shutter speed.

Technical issues aside, there it also the great sense of honest satisfaction a photographer feels when they are able to capture a perfect image ‘in camera.’

natural photos

“Living with Regret” captured by Ji Yeon So (Click Image to See More From Ji Yeon So)

I met a man who told me about his visit to Sea World. He took a bunch of photos of his wife, but he wasn’t happy with them because the skies were grey and there were lots of tourists around. So he set to work on a computer, and over three days he transformed the sky in every photo to blue, and removed all those pesky tourists. He had successfully manufactured a ‘memory’ of a day that never actually happened.

To each his own, I guess. To me it was just creepy.

In some industries, like advertising, the only thing that matters is the image; how you do it is irrelevant, as long as you produce the result. But for the ‘average Joe’, photography is about capturing memories, to revisit and share with others.

I am not suggesting software has no place in photography. In fact, even devoted digital fans recognize that most images need a little tweaking of saturation and contrast to bring them up to print quality.

The point is, software is no substitute for camera skills. It is great, perhaps even essential, to know how to work on a photo after the event. But that cannot take the place of learning how to use a camera, how to appreciate light and how to compose a great image.

Beginners beware; there are people out there who will hold you back by telling you that notions of aperture, shutter speed and ISO are outdated relics of film photography. In fact, by learning these photography essentials, you will develop skills that will reduce your reliance on computers to fix your mistakes.

The benefits? Well, first there is the satisfaction of knowing your picture was captured with your own skill and is a true reflection of the moment as it happened.

photo example

“The cherried umbrella” captured by Parvathy Mira Nair (Click Image to See More From Parvathy Mira Nair)

Need something more practical? Think about this. To produce a good image from a poorly taken photo can take hours sitting in front of a computer. How long does it take to get it right in the first place? About 1/500th sec.

About the Author:
Andrew Goodall writes for http://www.naturesimage.com.au and is a nature photographer based in Australia. He manages a gallery in Montville full of landscape photography from throughout Australia.

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22 Comments

  1. I am a true believer that one is better off to spend more time behind the lens than in front of a computer screen. I shoot commercially and just today I was working on a product shoot for a client. The client was there with me and they pointed something out that I could “fix in post”, instead, and much to the clients surprise, I said I would rather take the time to correct the mistake in camera to cut down on editing time. Photographers don’t just take pretty pictures, we also need to be great problem solvers. Spend more time behind the camera and your skill will grow, spend more time in front of a monitor and you will forever miss the best shots.

  2. John Kennington says:

    Yes, the photo right out of the camera is the most important thing. However editing the photo after capture is nothing new. Even Ansel Adams edited his photos. Modern software is a tool that replaces the Darkroom of the past.

  3. Rob-L says:

    Ironic that you write about this immediately after the post about how to do HDR, which is one of the most over abused post processing techniques I’ve ever witnessed.

    • Mary F. says:

      Rob-L, I agree that the HDR is one of the “most over abused post processing techniques. . . .” I would use it to enhance my photos (if I wanted or needed to, of course). I would like to see less use of it. Some photos look so “over-done” that it makes me want to cry, so-to-speak, after I see what the original shot. Good shooting!

  4. Mary F. says:

    I could not have written it any better! I concur that “getting it right the first time” is important. Spending time afterwards “fixing” my photos to look like something I COULD have photographed with my DSLR is really time consuming. Also, I would also have been VERY disappointed to find out that the digital class I may have signed up & paid for was going to help me learn how to better shoot photos. Thank you for a great article!

  5. Kasey Kitterman says:

    I don’t think, I resent editing as deeply, as the author. I do dislike “rendering” when over done. I see software as a useful tool, that can make art from “illustrations” & compensate for cheap equipment. The horrible truth is, the great photographs have mostly been taken by now. I suggest the rest of us, work with variations on a theme. It’s the same criticism Norman Rockwell’s work goes through; a great “illustrator”, striking universal and generally accepted themes, but is it “art”? Art should soar and stimulate to escape the act of “recording” a moment. That is when the photograph, begins to live beyond the archival.
    Part of the definition of art, has to be the quality of one’s self, that the artist is able to put into the creation, and to what degree the viewer incorporates, their personal experience, into the image . A good photograph should work as a shared vision, IMHO. A recent art discussion, suggested that once you “get ” (comprehend) a work, it is time to sell. I think that’s easily true of illustrations, and may be of repetitive efforts in art. In that sense, editing tools are a Pandora’s Box for expression. One thing I certainly agree with, is that, if the image is not there to begin with, all the editing in the world can’t save it.

  6. Nice post. I do agree that the best photos are those that don’t require setups, light controls, blemish removals and severe body changes. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, but the best photos are the ones that “just happen,” when the photographer is in the right place at the right time.

  7. Wilson Wong says:

    Good article. Especially when I have a class coming Sunday and wanting to spread the love of photography and yet do not want them to be so dependent on post processing.

    Fact of photography since its invention: Post processing is part of photography.

    But why are we so into “out of camera” versus “post processing” arguments?

    The answer is deceptively simple. Those who are proponents of “out of camera” photography are those who simply treasure the things that they learn. Skills learnt makes you a better person. I think if we are sincere to really want to embrace photography, then the first step is to really understand photography through the usage of the basic tools of photography: Aperture and Shutter speed.

    I would say those who are really into photography, will appreciate the type of discussions that actually builds you up as a photographer in terms of the knowledge and application of the technical skills.

    In contrast to a discussion of photoshop steps to enhance a photograph, the skills learnt is meant to enhance you as a digital imager, hence lays the difference.

    Ultimately, it all boils down to who you really want to become when it comes to an image: Do you want to be a photographer or a digital imager? If it is the former, I welcome you to a world of photography that photoshop won’t provide that easily because of the sacrifices one has to make to capture that one shot of a bald eagle staring into you, that one exposure of that gorgeous sunset (with an accompanying crescent moon) and that one picture that cause you to remember that significant time of your life.

    If you want to be an imager, then the art world is your oyster since it has gone beyond the restrictions of photography as an archival medium. But I would not call that photography in its purest sense of the word.

    To me, I want to remember what actually has happened; I want to remember what I took is what I really saw; I want to remember the truth of a matter, not a figment of imagination of what I would want.

    Hence, what I want has led me to become a photographer; to use post processing as a way to correct minor embellishment but not to hijack my memory of a place, of a person and of an event in life.

  8. Kasey Kitterman says:

    @eeryweerywoe I don’t know about that “worth more” comment. Ansel Adams went pretty far with post exposure creation. He addressed our community photo group once, and talked directly about getting that ‘moment’ via pre & post exposure. He was visibly irritated by questions about f stops & shutter speeds, not so for place & time. Ron Stanford created striking wildlife images with “slide sandwiches” which process, I believe, would qualify as the ultimate in out of camera creativity. To be sure, I heard Galen Rowell comment about the hardships he endured to capture his “Alpen light” photos, at just the right moment, along the mountain peaks. So in the end, my personal bias is, the finished image completes the paradigm between photographer & audience. Maybe it’s nobody’s business, but the artist’s own, how he produces his art; the image either stands or falls on it’s perceived merit , by it’s target audience.

    • Johnathan Heneka says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I believe it very important to learn your camera and any other tool you choice to use. At times it’s important to capture a moment truthfully and others times not. I say learn your tools, be creative, be passionate, make art and don’t worry about coloring within the lines.

      “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” Ansel Adams

  9. Cole says:

    I was watching television the other day and saw one of the most disappointing camera commercials i think there could possibly be. There was a man showing his work in front of an audience and they asked him what the shutter speed was, his response was “I don’t know, fast?” they then asked what the aperature was, he showed a circle with his hands and again, shrugged it off. The ad finished with the quote “you don’t need to be an amazing photographer to take amazing photos”

    I think it is absolutely ridiculous to put these notions in peoples heads who are inexperienced just to get them to buy their product, Im not arguing that you need to be an amazing photographer to take pictures that will wow people, but they are basically telling people that they don’t need to learn anything about their equipment or how it works.

    Post processing works in the same way, instead of learning to use your equipment to take the best possible photographs under different situations, you can just drop a photo into lightroom, hit a button and get an extremely vivid and eyecatching picture. Ignorance is not an excuse for not learning to use the equipment that you more than likely spent hundreds, or even thousands of dollars on.

  10. I say perfect the shoot and perfect the necessary post processing for an image or a photograph. This is a free world so if you want to concentrate on photo capture techniques only, it is your prerogative. Let us not discourage those who would want to expand their abilities beyond the camera as digital photography has become a rather wide field sometimes only limited by our imagination and creativity.

    In this field, as in most fields, it is best to keep an open mind. This world is full of biased minds and I admit to being guilty at certain stages of my quest to gain more knowledge and experience and eventually be self corrected.

  11. deric says:

    Why do I need to buy a very expensive camera and lenses if I’m going to edit my photos after the shots? it’s useless… it’s better to use an ordinary digital camera or cellphones if you are always not satisfied on results and keep editing the photographs. cheers!!

  12. eeryweerywoe says:

    Surely capturing ‘the’ moment is worth more than creating ‘a’ moment.
    In my opinion photography is about patience, vision and creativity.
    Of course, editing has a huge role to play in the photography world but, natural photography cannot be compared to that of an edited image.

  13. I think it is irrelevant at best.

    The tenets of “straight” photography can be accomplished with simple adjustments of an image. Taking a sort of ‘film’ approach. This is what I shot, and I want it to be as free from manipulation as possible. Cool – that is a style that is well respected.

    There are those for whom the image is but fodder for creating something beyond what was seen in the camera and caught on the sensor.

    Cool as well.

    The examples shown are from the former, and that makes sense. What doesn’t work is the notion that somehow there is a right, a correct way, to produce a finished image.

    That is beyond silly.

  14. Chris M says:

    The funny thing about this post is that the photos used in the post have more than likely been edited with software.

  15. Alex Sablan says:

    I find it ironic that the article about photo editing vs photo technique has a photo leading off with a huge circle of sensor dust right in the negative space at the top of the image. I think technique is the basis of all art. But at the end of the day, if you want to use your images straight out of camera do it; if you don’t then don’t.

  16. Chattanooga Charlie says:

    I was post processing photos in 1955. I did a little burning & dodging in the darkroom. I “pushed” film developing to compensate for poor lighting. I varied the surface of prints. I even cropped slides. Won some contests in those days too. So, with all these experts in Photoshop, etc. these days, I don’t do so well in contests. So, I guess I could be bitter; which BTW seems like from where your editorial is coming.

    I take the majority of my shots at ISO-3200 & ISO-6400. That usually requires a lot of noise reduction in post production. Should I just give up shooting in low light where my subjects usually are? Sometimes, it’s a little difficult to get wildlife into a studio where I could pose them in optimal light. It’s also difficult to control the backgrounds when shooting candid portraits of children.

    Actually, as I see what is necessary in post processing, it helps me to see how I need to improve my photography skills. I do agree that for many, more concentration on photography skills would help their results more than post processing. But, let’s face it, even with all the great photography technology available today; we still can’t capture all that our eyes can see, no matter our camera wielding skills.

  17. For as long as people have been taking professional photographs, the difference between the snapshot and the portrait has been the combination of good photo techniques, a solid understanding of photographic principals, good equipment which includes knowing how and why to use it, and good post production to enhance the image. This has been true and good for Adams, as much as for Leibovitz, or for that matter McNally, Peterson, or whomever you fancy as your brand of photographer’s photographer. A fine balance between these thruths is necessary to achieve more than a snapshot; but taking any of the factors to its maximum without regards to the others is a recipie for discourse and disagreement of what constitutes a photographic work of art or a image of the immagination. In either case art is achievable, but is it digital art, or photographic art? Or perhaps today, a combination of the two we might call digital photographic art?

  18. Allan A Albery says:

    This is a great thought promoting article. I have been devoted to photography for just the last 5 or 6 years, I truly wish that I had started sooner. I can’t get enough knowledge regarding camera settings, how to use the camera technically and post processing. I have an engineering background, so I suppose this is why I strive to understand my camera and it works. But I also have an inspirational and creative side to my character that endeavours to look for good composition, story telling and the wow factor in my photographs. If I may put my pennies worth in as a relatively new photographer, I think it can be a bit of both. If I’m taking shots of my family, say on a day out, memories are the most important, so I shoot in JPEG and let the camera do the main processing.
    If on the other hand I want to take say landscapes or macro shots, then I shoot in raw and do my processing on my computer. I always try to set my camera up correctly, because post processing will not correct out of focus or blown out images. Art has to be a part of photography in my humble opinion, because great photographs do reach the soul. If post processing does help to achieve this, well that’s OK with me.

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