Post processing, editing, photoshopping, touching up. The “bit” that photographers do after the shutter has closed is referred to in many different ways.
But what does it actually involve? What do we photographers actually do once the memory cards have been uploaded and the camera has been carefully packed away?
Answering this question is something that really interests me, not least because all photographers do completely different things in different ways. Which is why I’ll give you my answer here, rather than speak on behalf of anyone else.
I love my camera. It amazes me every single time I use it. It can freeze flying objects in mid air with pin sharp precision. With a slow shutter speed it can add light to a scene even without a flash . I swear it’s magic and I am in constant, total awe at how on earth it has been designed and made - by people far, far cleverer than I.
And yet, there’s something important it can’t do. Which is lucky as it happens, for I’d be out of a job if it could. My camera can’t feel.
Used in the right way, a good camera can capture a scene in perfect replica – a photographic record. Getting your camera to do this is a key skill set for a photographer to master. It’s takes years to learn and can always be improved. Even spotting the scene in the first place is a skill. Sometimes it’s an obvious moment – the first kiss or the cutting of the cake. More often than not, though, it’s a hidden cameo, somewhere no one else has chosen to look, that gives the winning shot. Good “lifestyle” photographers constantly seek these scenes out, they know how to use their tools instinctively and quickly – knowing that in the blink of an eye emotions will change and the moment will pass.
Whilst getting that shot is a big part of success, for me, as a rule of thumb, I’d say it gets me half way there. The rest of the journey happens back home, in front of the computer screen . . . the easel of a digital photographer.
There are basic things that I’ll do to most shots – straightening lines up, cropping to further improve composition and slightly altering exposure and highlights. These things are a bit like preparing the canvas – necessary groundwork, but not the most exciting bit.
After this, the fun really starts. I set about, using all I know, to finish creating the image that I had in mind when I pressed the shutter release.
Imagine a shot of a bride walking down the aisle to meet her future husband. I’m pretty sure the groom didn’t take in that scene and think , partway through , “oh look, there’s a large air conditioning unit on the wall just there”. Well, I don’t want him to think that when he looks at the photo either. So I’ll carefully remove it and ensure the focus is on her excited, nervous face and her barely-stifled tears. A less obvious example might be a detail shot – flowers, dewdrops, jewellery. Again, all of these can be altered – elements brightened, details sharpened, colours deepened. I err away from saying “improved”, because that makes it sound like I am giving some false sense of reality . . when actually my intention is to achieve the opposite.
Post-capture alterations to people’s faces is always an area fraught with contention. Wrongly or rightly, “airbrushing”, still so common in the media and advertising, is often frowned upon as the root of all evil. So, how do you decide how far to take things? Again this is a skill learnt in time, through seeking feedback and developing a style you are happy with in that moment. I see faces as no different to other images – I want to recreate what the people who love the subject love to see. If it’s their child then what will come to mind for them is bright eyes, rosy cheeks and wild hair. The snotty nose and the scab from that minor fall last week are eminently more forgettable. If it’s a product that someone has lovingly created, then what’s in their mind’s eye is the beautiful crunch of that perfectly baked loaf, or the soft drape of that carefully sewn fabric. So I’ll use layers and brushes to sharpen, mute and brighten, and paint colours onto the raw image until it’s just the way I know it should be.
For me, post-processing isn’t about creating a false sense of reality through enhancement, or “improving” what’s there. It’s about replicating reality, as close as I possibly can, with heart as much as mind.
I was there when it happened. I pressed the button. I know what the bread smelt like and I remember how the fabric fell. I got wet knees when I crouched down to see the sunlight hanging in the wet branches, and I held my breath along with the rest of the room when the father of the bride was lost for words. It’s my job to take you to these places and help you experience these things too, every time you look at one of my photos.
Article written and images by Tiree Dawson of Tiree Dawson Photography