Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Biggest Secret about Editing Portrait Photos

Photoshop (or any other similar program) has been the wheel of digital photography: Everyone acts as if it's a new invention, that came along the past few years. It isn't! Or, to put it this way, what digital photography is, Photoshop is for...editing.

We've been editing (post-processing; retouching; "fixing") our photographs ever since photography was invented. In the dark room first, playing with stinky liquids and tools straight out of a horror film. And now, that cameras have gone digital, with Photoshop. 
(Btw, you do know that the first versions of Photoshop came long before digital photography became available for the general consumer audience, right?)

And so, everyone feels mystified by it. To be sure, it is an art - just like photography. But you know what? And this is the biggest secret of photoshopping: Editing photos is photography. It is the continuation, the extension of capturing an image. Just like a film photographer's job did not stop once the shutter button was pressed, a digital photographer's job continues on the computer.

The problem is - and this is what confuses many - that modern digital cameras are pretty capable at producing results that look OK for a variety of scenes. Are you photographing people? You choose "Portrait" mode. Landscapes? "Vivid". And so on. But the problem is, you then surrender your photographic vision to someone else (some machine doing some adjustments according to how some engineers have programmed it). Can you imagine a professional film photographer, someone who cares about his or her art, to take a photo then leaving the film to be developed and printed at a 2-hr lab?!

But watch for the crucial detail!
In a past article I had instructed you to make your post-processing serve your images. In our "filled with plugins" era, we are often given tons of ready-made solutions. But this leads to many people doing things semi-randomly.

I had a pretty revealing discussion on a forum recently. Actually, it was less of a discussion and more of seeing dozens of users brutally "fixing" the portrait of a young child. The original poster had asked for advice on how to make the image better. I had replied with this:
Any post-processing should be seen as an extension of the capturing process. In other words, your post-processing should serve the image and the thought process behind it.
- What did you try to convey with this image?
- What feelings/thoughts are involved?
- In which way is the image lacking this now?
There is no point post-processing an image semi-randomly - if you can't answer these questions, what exactly do you try to achieve?
Except for one single comment agreeing with the above (a comment that drew a rude and hostile reply), the rest of the users distorted any sense of what art and photography should be about. The young child was given eyelashes, lipstick, a fake smile, and countless other utterly inappropriate "fixes". 

Don't fall into that trap. Here is the best advice I can offer you when it comes to editing and photoshopping:

Do learn about photo editing
Do experiment with your photos, that's how you will learn
DO think about what you're trying to achieve and use post-processing to enhance this thought/feeling/mood. 

Don't think photoshopping is "cheating" or that you don't need it. You do.
Don't use editing to turn a portrait into something it isn't. Red lips and long eyelashes on children? Whatever next...
DON'T do things randomly (except only when you're in the learning stage). Your editing must be an extension of your creative process.

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