How much is too much?

Photo by Chase Jarvis

There’s a recent post on Chase Jarvis’ blog explaining the post-production process for this popular photo. It’s pretty interesting seeing the difference between the original raw file capture and the final image after it’s been processed. I mean, the difference is really huge. It brings up something that I struggle with as a photographer- how much post-production is too much?

The purist in mean tells me it’s way too easy nowadays to do too much. Anyone can take a mildly interesting photo, work it over in Photoshop, and come out with something pretty intriguing.  That should be a good thing, right?  I don’t know really.  Sometimes I think it’s a lazy photographer’s tool.  Don’t get me wrong, Chase Jarvis is an established photog with a portfolio, client list, and work ethic  any aspiring grommet can only drool over.  But too many times I feel like high octane post-production is used as a crutch for average photography.  I feel like if an image is solid, if it evokes an emotional response from it’s composition and essence (whatever that is), you shouldn’t need much post-production.  That’s the standard I try to go by.

Moreover, photography is a trend-driven enterprise.  Once some new technique is exploited, gets on an advertising campaign and receives a lot of attention, all of a sudden everybody’s trying to copy it.  But is that necessarily a good thing for photography?  I don’t think so.  I mean, I’ll tweak a photo’s contrast and sharpness/softness, maybe add a gradient to get a horizon a little darker, maybe a vignette, too, but dissecting and manipulating an image into multiple parts, with each getting it’s own specialized treatment, seems excessive.  But am I just selling myself short?

I had a conversation about this with another photog friend of mine recently.  He posited that the processing should depend on the image’s usage and intended audience.  I guess that’s a general enough guideline.  But I don’t fully buy it.  Once you start using advanced techniques to really manipulate an image, I think it’s hard to stop.  Granted, it’s hard finding your own photographic style, and post-processing is a must.  But should your style be built upon somebody else’s new technique?  It always is to some extent, I guess.  But technology has allowed this to a degree not seen since the advent of the emulsion process.

You can argue, though, that somebody as iconic as Ansel Adams spent thousands of hours in the darkroom manipulating his images during the printing process.  He’d beautifully dodge and burn an image until it conveyed exactly what he pre-visualized.  That’s the thing, though.  He PRE-VISUALIZED.  That’s what made his images great in the first place.  Nowadays it seems like post-production is used to ‘save’ an average image.  There’s no pre-visualization involved.  I’ve done it myself!  And if you’ve ever worked with now old school printing, you know it’s much more difficult to do the dodge and burn dance than it is to click on your ‘magic wand’ and transform every piece of an image into a perfectly exposed and assembled masterpiece.

Truth be told, I don’t know all the new post-production techniques my fellow photogs are using these days.  Photoshop is a powerful program and I feel like I only know a small fraction of what it can do.  I’ve tried a few techniques, but haven’t been completely satisfied they added anything to the image that wasn’t already there in the first place.  I guess I’m lazy in the way that taking the time to learn the new techniques isn’t worth it to me, since I rely on something intrinsic within an image to convey the emotional response I had when it was taken.  But again, am I selling myself short?  Is your photographic style reliant on post-production?  Should it be?


One response to “How much is too much?

  1. You nailed it Marc. That’s exactly the dilemma that has plagued me too for a long time- I worry that I am being too lazy when I spend a lot of time in Photoshop. But for many of my pieces, they became compilations (collages) that transcend the original phtotograph, and so I call them collages and not photographs. In the past I spent hours and hours in the darkroom, making handmade collages using enlarger techniques and found objects. I developed a whole unique style, but I guess the beginning impetus originally was to save an average photograph. But in so doing I opened a whole world of mixed media collage that has touched something deep inside me- I found my medium! So I guess it’s forgivable in my case…(smile) or I like to think so. I think more than being a purist, when I look at an artwork I judge it by how it makes me feel, what it evokes, and whether it feels authentic or not. I think there is artistry in Photoshop, but when I look at processed images its the after processing I am appreciating, and I accept that. It’s a different feeling than looking at a masterful, pure work, but I appreciate both. I am a fence sitter, it would seem!

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