Over the years operating this site, I have been incredibly lucky to meet many talented photographers from all over the world. Some I met face to face (whether in my workshops or other gatherings / conferences), while others I met and interacted with online. One interesting pattern that I noticed in the majority of photographers, and I am talking about the ones that understand light, composition and proper technique, is that they often lack the key component of completing the image and making it successful – post-processing skills. It turns out that most of us spend our time learning our gear and how to take good pictures, but we fail to take that beautifully captured photograph to the next level and make it look amazing by enhancing it further in post-processing. Yes, camera technique, light and composition are all extremely important and those are certainly key ingredients that each of us needs to learn and eventually master, but we need to understand that a captured photograph is just the beginning of making the image. What happens to the photograph after it is taken, is as important as the process of capturing it. I have seen many photos that would have looked breathtaking, had the person put some extra effort into making it work. Even worse, I have seen so many examples of great photos that get slaughtered by very poor post-processing techniques and ugly presets.
How many times have you seen an overdone HDR, over-saturated, over-sharpened, over-contrasted, over-recovered, over-preset, over-insert-any-photoshop-term-here mess? Unfortunately, I have seen too many. The worst examples are what I call “forced photos”, where the photographer takes a bad image and thinks that it can look better when post-processed. So much time and effort is spent on making a bad photo look terrible. How do I know? Because I have done it many times myself.
When conducting workshops, I always say “start with a well-captured photo and you are halfway there”. This immediately raises a lot of questions from participants, because they know how much time I spend explaining the importance of properly capturing images in-camera during my workshops and in various articles. The topic especially gets attention during the discussion of filters for landscape photography. I often get asked “Why do I need a filter? Can’t I do the same thing in Lightroom/Photoshop/Photomatix?”. I then have to explain in detail why capturing a photograph properly in-camera is important and that it gives far more options to make it look even better in post-processing later on (see this article for details on filters and also check out my detailed lens filters explained article). In short, start out with a great photograph and make it look magnificent! Don’t start out with a crappy photo that needs a boatload of Photoshop work to look good – that rarely ever works out. See an example of what a typical photo looks like before and after post-processing (move the mouse over):
With the advent of the computer and digital photography, the market got quickly over-saturated with a plethora of software offers and presets. These software companies are fooling new photographers into thinking that they do not need to learn anything and they can simply apply a preset or two and their photographs will look instantly good. What a load of nonsense. What makes you think that someone else’s presets are good for your photos? If your photos look bad, they will look bad even more with presets. I am not implying by any means that presets are bad; on the contrary, if you start out with a great photograph, a preset that slightly boosts colors, contrast and perhaps other variables could make the photo look better. But before you start exploring those presets, you must already possess the knowledge to make the photo look good. Once you do, the presets simply become time-savers for you – nothing more.
A good photograph to me represents a good balance of the subject(s), exposure, light, colors, framing / composition and post-processing. Disregarding any of these will never result in a solid photograph that represents you and your work. As I was browsing my Lightroom catalog for the past 5 years to build my Landscape Photography Gallery (which I invite you to check out and provide some feedback on), I saw many examples of forced photographs with extremely poor post-processing that I should have never captured or touched in the first place. And the scary thing is, back then, those images somehow looked good to my eyes! Don’t believe me? Take a look at this picture:
I still wonder what this photo is about – selective colors at their best (see my humorous top photography mistakes to avoid article). I could probably win many photo contests with this one today :) And I have hundreds of images like this from the early days to make myself the subject of shame and lots of laughs. And please don’t ask me for some HDR samples! I slaughtered those the most back in the “HDR hole” days.
I do not regret that I took those photos, because it was all a learning curve and it gives me an idea where I started and where I am heading to in the future. Doing such a review of prior work also gives an opportunity to see whether my work has improved over time, stayed stagnant or potentially got worse. In my case, I realized that I got very critical of my work during the past year, to the point where I am only happy with 2-3 images in my Gallery. I also realized that while I got better with my post-processing, I now need better vision, framing / composition and timing to execute better photographs. Yes, it is a vicious cycle, but that’s the beauty of learning – you start with something, then you improve, then you go back to your first steps and re-learn/enhance the process to get even better. I know that my main weakness is lack of vision and planned execution, instead of random picture taking that I have been practicing for years.
Would love to hear from our readers regarding the above topic. Where do you see your biggest problem in your photographs? Please share!