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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Importance of Post Production

“….a negative is only an intermediate step toward the finished print, and means little as an object in itself. Much effort and control usually go into the making of the negative, not for the negative’s own sake, but in order to have the best possible “raw material” for the final printing.”

Ansel Adams: the opening paragraph to ‘The Print’.

An image of a close family friend shot on film for a personal project. Despite being shot on Ilford film, post-production is involved.
In some ways not much has actually changed since Ansel Adams wrote the above opening to his book, ‘The Print’. ‘The Print’ was first published in 1983. If you replace the word ‘negative’ with ‘RAW file’ there is a remarkable applicability of the concept to our current understanding and usage of photography. Then, as now, the final image was the most important factor in the creation of the image. The negative was only a half way step to the final image. Even if photographers used transparency film, often the final print didn’t look exactly like the original transparency (although adepts of ‘straight’ nature photography loved the simplicity of the transparency, albeit with the concurrent difficulties of capturing a range of tones on a medium of such limited exposure latitude). To me, post-production is really the same as Ansel Adam’s print. It is a mechanical and artistic process by which we transform the RAW file into a presentable image.

The creation of an image involves the whole photographic package. There is more to it than simply pointing and clicking. I won’t go into the specifics around jpeg settings (you can read about that here), but essentially what we see and what our cameras see can sometimes be at odds, and quite dramatically so. As a first step in post-production we tend to want to get the image back to what we saw. This could be as simple as correcting exposure, in exactly the same way that we would have done it had we shot the image on black and white or colour negative. The whole package 30 years ago can be encapsulated within the three-book series that Ansel Adams produced, To whit: The Camera, The Negative and the The Print. The only difference is that we now have The Camera, The RAW file and The Image.

I say Image rather than Print for the simple fact that the vast majority of images produced today are not destined to be printed on paper. Neither are they intended to grace the pages of magazines and books. Rather, they are seen on hundreds and thousands of little to large digital devices and only a small percentage make their way onto the printed page. I may bemoan this at times, but it is a fact.

An image created on a recent shoot at the top of the Drakensberg. On the right is the image straight out of camera while on the left is a retouched image using basic Lightroom technique and some tweaking with Nik Color Efex

I often hear photographers explain that, “I don’t do anything in post”. Why? Why not? Are their images not worth the extra time to perfect? Are they okay with leaving dust spots on the final image? Is the crop perfect first time and every time? Are they happy that the sky might be burned out slightly, or that the face is too much in shadow? Guess what, post-production is nothing new. Had the same photograph been shot on film a retoucher would have spotted out the scratches and dust marks, carefully cropped the print on a printer’s easel, burned in the sky and dodged the face. Any claim to authenticity by not doing post-production is completely daft. Robert Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landing were heavily retouched - a necessity since the darkroom technician accidentally developed the negs in near-boiling water leading to rapid development and loss of contrast as well as an extremely frail emulsion that smudged in places - does this make them any less authentic a voice of the carnage and terror that the Omaha landings were?

Despite the simplicity of the image, I still took the time to do some basic adjustments in Photoshop in order to get the best of the image that I personally was able to.

The camera is far from perfect, despite the marketing hyperbole courtesy of the camera manufacturers. It takes skill and patience to eke out the best qualities of a scene and distill them into an image. The photographer trips the shutter for a reason. Something compelled her to create an image - if one is less inclined to believe in the determination inherent in the word ‘created’ - or photograph the moment. It is a sign of respect to the image and to the original vision of the photographer to finish the image. This means using post-production. Not using post-production, to me at any rate, is the equivalent of leaving your negatives in a sleeve (for the children of the digital age, we used to store negative strips in plastic sleeves) and only ever looking at the contact sheet. The finesse and mastery of an image only emerges when it goes through the full creative process that is photography, and that includes post-production.  

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