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!
Good Morning. I did a wedding shoot at the weekend for the first time in RAW. When I have transferred the images to my computer they have taken up 21.9gb. Please can someone inform me which is the best way and on what device to store the photos for the bride. Thank you.
I know this post is old but I discovered this site recently and this topic is the very reason why I ended up here.
I’ve just started taking photography more serious but I lack confidence and knowledge in my post-processing skills. After I done with a photo I take a breath, I look again and I thing I overdo in everything… Not to the point of creating the next Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe but to the point of thinking I do not have control on post-processing. Sometimes I reset the changes (thanks Lightroom) other times I tweak even further and messing even more.
At least I’m proud I can criticise my work and avoid making public my “try-harder photographer wannabe”.
I’ve read some topics about Lightroom and some theory about what is possible to do but I still can’t judge what I’m doing and even why. I start subtle and in the way I mess.
So, since I’m fare away for workshops (not sure you still doing) where should I look for? I know this side is a starting point but is not enough.
Today it seems like reality is not enough anymore. With modern CGI technology, modern digital camera technology, so many post-processing options, super AMOLED smartphone screens, UltraHD, 4K, and so many quick filter options for social network sharing it has become the norm that images will border on surreal or super natural. Sunsets are more vibrant than in reality, skin is more saturated, images are made to look “retro”, and video’s are edited to change the physically impossible into the possible. A kid today can capture 20 images a day on their phones, apply a filter, and their 1000 friends can view it. Then tomorrow is a new day and it can all be repeated. It is the times. You can either adapt to the times or not. One generational mindset does not rule supreme the others. Luckily there is room for all in photography.
I disagree; I like the shot of the cafe with the blue trim and red open sign. I would open the shadows a bit, but it’s a cool shot. I like it. So there! Neener neener!
Nasim, thanks for your thoughtful articles. I always enjoy them.
I’m a fan of presets… but I probably don’t use them the way most people do.
I’m lucky to have learned photography the old fashion way… by using a manual exposure film camera and processing my own film and prints. Exposing manually forced me to envision what the final image would look like for a given exposure, and processing prints got me much closer to that image. But it took a lot of effort. It wasn’t unusual to spend two or three times as long in the darkroom as the time spent taking a group of pictures.
When I switched to digital, it took years to re-learn photo processing to get to a similar level of proficiency. Now that I’m reasonably competent processing both color and black-and-white images, I find myself using presets more and more. For me, using presets isn’t about doing things quickly or achieving a noticeable visual effect, it’s about finding a solution that’s closer to what I first envisioned.
I always post-process the same way: if I can achieve a desired image by making my own edits, I’ll do so. But if I’m stuck and can’t get what I’m looking for, I’ll go through my library of 100+ presets – one at a time – until something pops out. I’m looking for the one that gives me a positive emotional reaction, the one that gets me closer to an ideal look. If a preset works, I usually continue to work it until I get exactly what I’m looking for. My goal, always, is to not look overly processed.
I see presets as another tool in my arsenal. If anything, it adds to the time I spend processing an image but at least it gives me comfort that I’ve done the most I can to get the right image.
Well, this article and author only reinforce what real photographers have suspected over the past several years, and that is modern-day post-processing (e.g., Photoshop, Lightroom) is well-suited, if not designed for, wannabe photographers who take the utmost delight in taking bad photographs. Well done, Nasim!
Please explain who or what is a real photographer?
Excellent article, Nasim!
I agree a lot with it. “Baking” the picture in post-processing (I never use PS, only LR on my RAWs) is about getting it really done. :)
Hi Nasim, will you have more workshop in the future. Will you come to the east coast? I’d be interested in meeting and chat with you.
Many of us (I for one) can be hyper-critical of our own work….whether we are photographers, painters, musicians, carpenters….the list goes on.
I love a quote from George Burns, “I look to the future because that’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.”
The quality of the work that we each have produced in the past simply represents the best that was in us at that specific moment in the history that is our lives. As we grow and mature, our talents have the opportunity to grow with us if we allow that to happen.
To dwell on past work is to become a prisoner of it.
Perhaps there is a lesson for all of us who tend to be self-critical to re-orient our attitudes and perspectives. When we look back on our work we can simply accept it as the best that we could do at that time…. then smile… and refuse to judge it. Much the way that a mighty oak tree would not look back upon its days as a sapling and judge itself. To accept the past without judgment, releases us to pursue the future to its full potential.
Best to all,
Well said Tom, and I find that looking back at older images that I can like you smile and think how far I have come as a photographer since I took that image, and my journey is not over. The future is where it is at, not the past.
I also find that being ruthless and having a good clean-out of my images by hitting that Remove/Delete to be most liberating. Also more importantly I stop from becoming a hoarder and attached to the past.
One of the things on my ‘to do list’ this month is to make time to use my delete key significantly more than I have in the past…if I’m not brutal with myself as soon as I come back in from shooting those darn pics have a way of staying on my hard drive…whether I like ’em or not!
Thanks for serving as a reminder about the importance of ‘house cleaning’ images!
” I just felt that I have recently become very critical of my work and I like my work less and less – so I feel that I need to improve quite a bit…”
This made me is so sad to read, to the point of tears running down my face. It think it is true of many artist and people in general. We do something for the love of it but over time seem to loose the joy through our own hyper criticizing thoughts.
I have noticed for a while now that the actual act of taking the photo or drawing the design is more joyful than looking at the final image — The moment by moment doing is more pleasing than the outcome.
For me I am now looking into trying to find meaning and joy through spirituality. It is rough going so far too. My mind seems to be my own worst enemy.
Wishing you more joyful moments.