processing through the photo: my philosophy on shooting & photoshop
A few weeks ago, I mentioned my sparing use of Photoshop when I process my photos -- and that my close friend, amazing photographer and bag purveyor Maile Wilson, was pretty horrified at my ineptitude, turning me on the Photoshop action packs. It's been a month since I've started playing with them, and I've quickly become a fan, yet my touch remains incredibly light when I use them. Since I often get a lot of questions about using Photoshop or other post-camera processing software, I thought I'd share a little bit of my philosophy on how I use post-camera processing -- understanding that, first of all, my philosophy is not necessarily the "right" philosophy, it's just the one that works for me. In fact, the truth is that there are a ton of "right" philosophies.
For example, when I speak to photojournalists -- people who, say, are hired by news agencies -- they tend to follow a personal Photoshopping rule that says they refrain from "deleting pixels" -- if it was in the original shot, then deleting anything from the photograph is dishonest or misleading. These folks (speaking in gross generalizations) feel like anything that is distracting in a frame -- a problematic telephone pole, say, or stray electric lines -- should be corrected by framing the shot properly before ever squeezing the shutter, and if it can't be corrected, then so be it, it's part of the shot. This makes sense to me -- these folks, after all, are hired to report current events as accurately as possible, and deleting anything would distort the story.
Conversely, I have good friends who are exceptional wedding photographers, or baby photographers, and they have no problem with deleting a wrinkle or a mole or a stray hair: "I remove anything that's not permanent," says one, who has removed stray hairs from brides, or a wedding-day pimple that suddenly showed up, or even a flagpole that appears to be growing out of the groom's head in an otherwise perfect shot. And again, this rule also makes sense to me: after all, wedding photographers aren't hired so much as to report the facts as accurately as possible, as they are to report the magic -- they're there to document the joy in the bride's eyes, and if a curl, fallen out of her perfectly done updo, distracts the viewer from that joy, then it has to go. They want to capture the delirious abandon with which Grandma danced, not the fact that you could see her girdle because her skirt flew up too high while she was doing her enthusiastic rendition of the Watusi. Deleting extraneous items from their images makes sense.
(And then of course, there are the Brooke Shadens of the world, for whom accuracy of the story behind the original image is the last thing on their minds -- they use Photoshop has their main tool to create fantastic, mindblowing art, to great effect.)
As for me, I fall somewhere in between: as someone who has written an entire book on The Beauty of Different, removing pixels by deleting a stray hair or a mole would feel very dishonest -- I would never want anyone to feel like I "fixed" something about them when I photograph them. For this reason, I have a rule that I never delete pixels (and have actually gotten into a few uncomfortable conversations with some subjects who beg me to remove a mole or laugh lines, and I refuse!). Also, I crop images only very rarely, and never for the purposes of cutting anything out, but rather, to draw attention to something I want you to see (for example, in the last shot in this gallery, I was pretty far away from the hippo, and I wanted to make sure his details of his glistening wet hide were visible to the viewer. Same goes for the lions, four pictures up, in that gallery as well -- I assure you I wasn't very close to them!). In this way, I suppose, I'm more like a photojournalist. That said, I do Photoshop every image that I shoot (even lightly), because I feel like post-camera processing is a way to capture the emotion that I felt when I took the image. I want to convey what I was feeling at the moment I squeezed the shutter, and usually Photoshop is a great way to convey that feeling. And in this latter way, I'm more like my wedding photographer friends.
So yes -- lots of different "rights."
Today, I thought I'd illustrate my process by illustrating the steps I took when shooting this little potted orchid yesterday evening. But first, a bit of background.
It was about 6:30 in the evening. Yesterday was Alex's first day home all day for the summer, having attended day camps up until last week, and so we spent the day hanging out. It was lovely. Marcus had just come home from a great day at work, and was in the kitchen making dinner for all of us. I had music playing on my computer -- the August playlist. The evening was feeling incredibly warm and homey.
I realized I hadn't taken any photographs for today's post, and a small potted orchid sitting on a cabinet in our family room caught my eye. So I took it into the dining room, where the waning sun was shining in the window, and placed it directly in a sunbeam.
my shooting process
First of all, I generally shoot with the philosophy that as much "processing" should be done before you ever squeeze the shutter -- the way I figure it, the less I have to rely on my computer once I've taken the shot, the easier it is for me (since, like I said, I'm no Photoshop guru). For this reason, shoot 90% of my images with my camera on a manual setting, because it gives me as much control as possible. I wanted the background behind the orchid (a large tapestry on the wall, and a few dining chairs) to be completely blurred out -- in fact, I was hoping that the entire background would fade to black, with the petals brightly lit. So I opened the aperture on my camera as wide as it could go (f/1.4), set my ISO to 640, and shot (1/100 second shutter speed).
The image at the top of the page is the result -- straight out of the camera.
It's a decent shot, and gets close to what I hoped the final result would look like -- but in my mind's eye, the pink of the orchid popped more than the camera was able to capture, and the petals were in sharper relief from the background. I find this to be the case with 90 percent of the photos that I capture, so, for me, this is where Photoshop comes in.
my usual photoshop treatment
The shot above is processed the way I generally Photoshop my images -- I sharpen them, I bump up the contrast a bit. I honestly didn't do more than that to the original shot -- no pixels were deleted, nothing else was changed. Nonetheless, this image feels like what I actually saw when I put the camera to my face.
Now, it was time to see if I could make the photograph feel the way I felt at 6:30 p.m. last night.
And heres where the Photoshop actions came in.
When it comes to Photoshop actions, as I said above, I'm brand new. For the last month I've been playing with Totally Rad! actions, and last night, I just pretty much tried various ones on the second image in this post, to see how they felt.
The shot immediately above was processed with an action called "Peach Vintage n Crackle," and it's the one that I've been using more than any other action over the past few weeks. I like it because the peach hue makes the image look a bit nostalgic, and something about the final texture feels somewhat painterly to me.
In the shot above, I used an action called "Colour Whisper." It pumped up the colour -- the whites and pinks are more vibrant. I like it.
The action above, "Warm Up and Intensify," bumped up the colours like Colour Whisper did -- the whites are white, and the pinks are vibrant on the left blossoms -- but it also added a bronze-ish hue to the ones on the right, giving it a sepia tone, reminiscent of the Peach Vintage.
And finally, since I "warmed up and intensified," I decided to try its opposite "Cool Down and Intensify" -- again, the colours on the left blossoms are vibrant, but on the right, instead of a sepia tone, the white petals have taken on a bluish tinge, leaving the entire image feeling cooler.
So ... which is my favourite?
Well, as I said in the backstory, I was feeling very warm and homey and grateful for my family; but when I shot the image, I was taken by the vibrance of the colours of the orchid in the sunbeam. So for me, the shot processed with "Warm Up and Intensify" conveys this the best -- bright colours, sepia-warm feel. It's slightly different than the image that came straight out of the camera at the top of this post, but it feels most accurate about the moment in time.
But honestly? If I was in a different mood -- if I'd had a bad day, for example, or circumstances were otherwise changed, I might have chosen a different image, like the "cool down" or the "peach vintage," because one of those might have felt more accurate. And in truth, a year from now, when I look at these images, a different one might appeal to me at that time, depending on my mood.
So ... the upshot
My philosophy about post-camera processing is this: do what feels right. Process the hell out of your photos, or don't process them at all. Use actions to warm up your shots or cool them down. Delete pixels or add them even, like Brooke Shaden does. Whatever works for you. Use a fancy digital SLR, or an ancient film camera or your iPhone with Instagram. Because despite what all the courses and workshops and workbooks might say, when you shoot and process your photos, you're creating your art -- and no one gets to say whether you're doing it the right way or not.