There’s a lot of talk these days about the pros and cons of post-processing. Is it good or bad, why do we do it, shouldn’t photography be representative of reality? Authentic? Isn’t the image of a camera reality? Isn’t editing cheating?
What is an unretouched digital photo?
Let’s put one thing to bed immediately. There is no unretouched image.
When you press the shutter button on your camera, the shutter moves apart and allows light to fall on the sensor. When the exposure is over, the shutter snaps back into place. Your camera’s image processor then takes all the light data from the sensor and puts it into a RAW file. This happens whether or not you chose to shoot in RAW or jpg (assuming your camera gives you the choice).
If you chose to shoot as jpg, then the image processor takes that RAW file and tries to make sense of it, based on the algorithms (and possibly artificial intelligence) of the camera. It applies contrast, saturation, noise reduction, some sharpening, etc. and then saves the result as a jpg image.
If you chose to shoot in RAW, this simply saves the RAW file. In this case, you will apply contrast, saturation, noise reduction, etc., according to your intention, later.
In both cases, the image has been modified. In the case of a jpg shot, the camera made the changes, and in the case of a RAW shot, a human made it.
There is no unretouched image.
Some people claim that if you convert the RAW image to jpg, without any modification, it would be an unmodified image. This is bullshit. First of all, a RAW file is not a usable image format. Try inserting one into your Word document or importing one into InDesign, if in doubt. You need specialized software (Lightroom, Camera RAW, etc.) to export a RAW file to an image file.
If you look at a JPEG preview created from an unedited RAW file, you will see that it is flat, has washed out colors, and has little to no detail in highlights and shadows. That’s not what the scene looked like. A RAW file is not an image, it is a database of light information and is meant to be edited before being exported as an image.
The image on the left is the JPEG export of an unedited RAW file. There is no depth in color, hardly any detail in highlights or shadows. The middle is the JPEG file exported by the camera. The right is a JPEG export of the RAW file, edited by me. The last image is the closest, of the three, to what the scene looked like.
There is therefore no unpublished picture. And no, editing is not cheating. It can be overdone, it can be done badly, it can be done in bad taste, but it’s must be done. How much is acceptable is what we are going to talk about now.
How much editing is too much? And does it matter?
Generally speaking, I think it depends on your intention, on the final use of the photos. Let’s go ahead and ask ourselves these questions in various fields of photography.
Personal / fine art photography
If you shoot for yourself or if you are an art photographer, it’s up to you. Changes can be as subtle or strong as you want and saturation can be intense or not – it’s your call. You know what you want your job to look like. Some people like HDR, some like the realism or precision of the scene as it was, and some like adding effects or overlays/compositions. It’s art, it’s your call, go crazy! Edit and manipulate as you wish.
Consider the fine work of Henry Friedland. These complex compositions have their roots in photographs. They are combinations of various images, which have been intertwined and manipulated with textures, effects and overlays. They are so edited that they have gone from photographs to stunning digital artwork.
So if you’re a fine art photographer, it doesn’t matter how much or how little editing you do.
It’s the other extreme. The goal of photojournalism is to show (or document) the reality of a place/situation/event to people who are not/were not physically present. The goal is to be as precise as possible, so your editing must be in tune with reality. How were the colors and how was the light? In all likelihood, you’re unlikely to do more than basic color, contrast, sharpness, and noise adjustments. And cropping.
One of the great photojournalists is Steve McCurry, who is best known for his Afghan girl cover on National geographic. As one of the best photojournalists in the world, his work gets more scrutiny than most people, and a few years ago he faced a lot of criticism because of some manipulations and edits that had been discovered in his work. There are numerous incidents of photographers getting fired and losing awards because they manipulated their images.
While the desire to polish one’s images is completely understandable, honesty in representation is the mantra in photojournalism. So yes, it is very important that your editing is precise and faithful to the scene as you saw it.
Product and commercial photography
This is where the shades of gray start to show.
There was an old Michael Douglas movie in which he freaks out in a fast food restaurant, because of the gap between the burger on the menu board and the one served to him.
This is a real situation – have you ever been to McDonalds and compared the cheeseburger on their menu board to the one you get? They are polar opposites, there is no comparison! Funnily enough, I found a clip from Mcdonald’s PR that seemed to be a response to this.
In fact, recently there has been news recently about Burger King, McDonald’s and Wendy’s being sued for misrepresenting their products.
On the one hand, the purpose of product photography is to show a potential buyer an accurate representation of what the product looks like. On the other hand, the seller of the product, the person who will pay you to take the photos, wants the product to look perfect as possible.
Let’s say the product is a crystal vase. There are imperfections in the finish. The corners are rough and irregular. This is a high priced item, and the customer says to clean up the edges in photoshop. If you did, you would distort the product. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t satisfy your customer.
What would you do?
Suppose you are photographing a villa in the busiest part of your city. The area is expensive but congested, there are criss-crossing loops and cables everywhere, and a poorly maintained landfill behind the house, visible from the bedrooms. Do you want/should you modify the cables? How about the view from the master bedroom?
What if the product was a face mask? When shooting, you notice that the stitches are uneven and in some places the fabric is torn, thus compromising the protection that the buyer would benefit from. This is clearly not a very high quality mask, but it is marketed as something that saves lives. Now what would you do? What should you do?
So how much you edit, in product and commercial photography, can matter differently, depending on the stakes. But yes, it is important so it is better to lean towards authenticity.
How much editing in the portrait is too much? There are all shades of gray here. Much depends on the client and the intent.
Some customers may request full vogue and Cosmopolitan “Make me slim with flawless glowing skin!” I want to see what I would look like! They might also say “No editing at all, please!” I am who I am.” Or somewhere in between. Many portraits tend to be ambitious, and therefore may involve more post-processing. is permanent. Got a pimple on your nose? It’s gone. A spot on your neck, gone. A birthmark or mole on your cheek? Leave it as is.
Do you know Cindy Crawford’s mole? She wouldn’t be Cindy Crawford without it.
It also depends on the intention and end use of the images. When shooting portraits, ask what the images are for. Portraits are originally a way for models and actresses to showcase their portfolios to potential employers, so if the client is a model or actress, keep the images as authentic as possible. So, when he shows up for a screen test, the agent is not surprised! In many cases now portraits are popular as corporate photos and as display images for social media, in these cases the client will sometimes ask for a little more touch-up.
Personally, in all my work, I lean towards authenticity, even when shooting ambitious glamorous portraits. I truly believe that everyone is beautiful. Beauty comes from within. If someone catches you at the right time, your photos will reflect your inner beauty. A good photographer is not only good with the camera and the lighting, but they will be able to find that moment, if not create it.
So in portraiture, the amount of editing you do may or may not matter, depending on the wishes of the client and the intent and use of the imagery.
There. How much editing is too much? Does it matter? There are no clear answers, really. As with many things in life, it really comes down to: it depends.
The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author.
About the Author: Andy Malhan is a portrait and communication photographer based in Hong Kong. You can find more of his work on his website, blog, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.