Do I edit my photos? It was a question I got asked the other day by a friend of mine. It’s come up over the years from different people. The short answer is “yes”. The long answer is “it depends”. There’s an enormous range of editing techniques for photos, from small minor changes to massive cut and paste jobs. So I’m going to explain where I fit in on the scale of editing.
First up, I shoot in RAW, which often comes across flat before processing. Most images shot in RAW need some sort of minimal work in Lightroom. I usually do a batch process of Auto Tone on my images when I import them, except for night photography. You can see from the example below how flat landscapes can seem in RAW, despite how they appear in real life, the colour can come off a little grey.
I like editorial photography, and if I’m shooting strict editorial I don’t edit my images except for a few minimal adjustments of exposure and contrast. If I do edit a photo, it’s to recreate the feeling that I had being in that place and time. Generally I hope the photo speaks for itself, without me needing to mess with it too much.
I don’t edit things into or out of my pictures. If I want a certain shot, I’m patient. And it teaches me to take more care with my composition. I’ve got a photo I really like of a landscape at LeFleur State Park in Jackson, but when I got it into the edit room, I realised there was a whole pile of trash in the left hand corner. Did I edit it out? No. Could I have? Definitely. But I learned my lesson – always check the full frame before pressing the button. The only time I have edited a person out of an image is to sell it for commercial usage. In this case the person was incredibly small and insignificant.
However my background is as a graphic designer, so I love to be creative with my images. While I shoot mainly editorial and landscapes, if I do something artistic I let my imagination run wild. I love to play with black and white. My preference is for high contrast images with strong blacks. Below is the before with edited settings, and after in black and white.
I use white balance a lot to create a mood within the picture. Did I feel happy taking the photo? A little more yellow. Was it incredibly cold? More blue. I’m very much attracted to pure white snow and minimalist photography. I love trying to get just the perfect shade of white in my snow photos.
Lately I’ve experimented with cross processing and multiple gradient filters in Lightroom. This is all to achieve an artistic effect, and I’m pretty clear when I’ve edited a photo why I’ve done so. Lately I’ve been inspired by futuristic cities, so I use colour to convey the science fiction aspects of the shot. While I greatly admire the landscape photographers who don’t Photoshop at all, many of them shoot on medium and large format cameras and with film like Fujifilm Velvia, which produces simply beautiful colours.
I also don’t do HDR. It’s not because I have a personal vendetta against people who do HDR. There are many HDR photographers who I admire. But I prefer rich dark shadows and lights in my images, and HDR usually does the opposite by flattening multiple exposures on top of each other.
In the end, the pictures I am most proud of are the images that don’t need editing. I know I’ve taken a great photo if it needs minimal work in Lightroom. I think the images I find most powerful as a photographer depend on their composition and not their post-production. It’s easy to make a dull image interesting by heavy editing. But people aren’t going to remember it. The most striking photography captures a moment that imprints on the mind. The best photographers know their craft inside and out. Not just how to fix it later.