In Defense of Post Processing

This is another article on technique. It’s not so much a “how-to”. It is more of a defense or justification.
The Mayberry Cafe - Danville, In.
The Mayberry Cafe – Danville, Indiana (final B&W image)

We have a few people in our Photography Interest Group that are relatively new to high end DSLRs. They’re used to point & shoot cameras and one question I hear quite often is “why post process?”. Their argument seems to be that the photos “straight out of the camera” (SOOC) are much better than they were with their old cameras and they don’t understand why anyone should waste time learning about software and processing photos on their computers. I even have one friend that uses the “I’m feeling lucky” button whenever photos need some adjustment.

Now, I’ve been using Photoshop since sometime in the ’90s, so I really have to stop and think when someone questions why they should use photo software. My answer comes down to: Control, Quality, and Change.

Control: If you understand post processing, know what your software is capable of, and have the skills to use the software, then you can take control from your camera and choose how your photos will be processed and what their final appearance will be. You decide exposure curves, fill light, sharpening and noise reduction levels, etc. Or even color vs. black and white.

Quality: If you want the best results, post processing allows you to optimize things (e.g. selective noise reduction and sharpening, various filters). You also can try different approaches and use the one that works best.

Change: Especially if you use RAW format, you have the ability to modify many of your settings after you make the photo. And if you need to adjust some parameters (e.g. white balance, saturation, exposure) you can do so after the shot. Also, software constantly improves – witness how much better recent noise reduction algorithms are today than even a few years ago. As the software improves you can apply the updated versions to your existing photos to keep making them even better.

Here’s an example that might illustrate the possibilities. I like to make photos that are “timeless” in the sense that they could have been made a while ago, or don’t give away when they were made. I saw this dinner and old sheriff’s car as I drove through a small town in Indiana. I thought the scene might make a good photo and since I had my camera in the car, I went around the block and made this image hand held through the open window as I passed by a second time:

The Mayberry Cafe – Danville, Indiana (SOOC)

This copy above is SOOC – nice, but too much clutter, and kind of drab. I post-processed it to remove the clutter, selectively reduce noise in the clouds, adjust white balance and exposure, add saturation, etc. Here’s the result:

The Mayberry Cafe – Danville, Indiana (post processed)

This is a lot cleaner, the clouds and sky are brought out, and the colors and contrast are better. Could I have done this in the camera? Some of it. Would the results have been as good? I really doubt it. And if I want, I can keep reprocessing a photo whenever I learn a new technique or get some new software. Should you reprocess every photo? Of course not – if you did you wouldn’t have time to make any more photos. But you definitely need to make an effort when a photo shows some promise.

Finally, I thought this image would be more “timeless” as a black and white photo, so I converted the image above to get the result at the beginning of this post. If you’d only seen the B&W photo, when would you think it was made?

© 2007 & 2011, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

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