How Much Image Post-Processing Should You Do?

Light, Medium and Heavy Editing of Buoys in Maine. (Photo: Kim Olson)

In some ways, shooting digitally has made editing our photos much simpler. No longer do we have to deal with messy chemicals in the darkroom. We only have to sit down at a computer and have at it.

Massive programs like Photoshop have so many advanced tools that you can spend lots of time on your images and completely alter them so that they’re practically unrecognizable from the ones you started with.

Other light editors, like Picasa or even Windows Live Photo Gallery, have fewer tools but still allow you to do quite a bit of post-processing if you want to.

But the question is – how far should you take your photo edits?

In the Beginning

As newbies I think we tend to overdo our post-processing. We get excited about all these nifty little tools that can be added with a quick click, so we find ourselves piling on “enhancements” left and right.

Looking back at some of my earlier adjustments, I sometimes wonder what in the world I was thinking… garish colors, overly airbrushed people, heavy vignetting – I feel like I added every little trick I ever learned all to one image. Yikes.

I’m lucky that pretty much all of my RAW edits were done in Lightroom, and since it’s a non-destructive editor I can easily undo all of my silly changes if I want to.

But once you learn not to apply everything you’ve learned to every image you have, just how much post-processing should you do?

Light Editing – A True Representation

Some people tend to be more purist and like to keep it pretty simple and clean. They shoot what they see and rarely do anything to the images afterwards. They like to make sure their photos are kept true-to-life and so they leave them pretty much unaltered.

Photojournalists and wildlife photographers tend to fall into this camp. Most of their images are lightly edited and typically left alone. You rarely see highly-retouched photographs in the news since that could be construed as misrepresenting the situation.

This photo I took of a snow monkey in Japan was super lightly edited. Just a few exposure adjustments in Lightroom and that’s about it.

Japanese Snow Monkey taken near Nagano, Japan. (Photo: Kim Olson)

Japanese Snow Monkey taken near Nagano, Japan.

Heavy Editing – An Artistic Interpretation

Other photographers can be pretty heavy handed in their editing. Whether they want to completely alter the essence of their images for artistic purposes, want to remove unsightly objects or make changes that they feel better represents their vision of the scene, these photographers typically take advantage of the advanced tools available in their photo-editing programs.

For this image I took at Acadia National Park in Maine, I envisioned an oil-painting-like piece. After some light exposure edits in Lightroom, I opened the image in Photoshop and applied some additional tweaks.

My artistic interpretation of the fall leaves in Maine at Acadia. (Photo: Kim Olson)

My artistic interpretation of the fall leaves in Maine at Acadia.

Something in Between – A Happy Medium

I think a lot of us, though, tend to fall into this camp – right in the middle.

A few images we may leave alone. Others we may spend a lot more time fussing with to get it just so. But for the majority of photos, we’ll probably alter them in some way to get them looking pretty.

For this image of the 1,000 Torii, or gates, at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, I wanted to boost the exposure and vibrance just a tad and that was about it. I guess it’s more on the light end of editing than anything.

The Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan (Photo: Kim Olson)

The Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

The beauty of keeping your edits simple and clean is that they stand the test of time well, unlike some of the techniques that were once super popular but lost favor eventually.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Times do change and whatever happens to be in vogue today may look funny in the years to come.

Remember the selective coloring that was so popular back in the day? A lot of portrait & wedding photographers did that and now it looks a bit funny.

Selective color adjustments to a flower. (Photo: Kim Olson)

Selective color adjustments to a flower.

How about the Glamour Shots look? Anyone remember that? The soft light, ridiculously puffy hairdos, pink backgrounds and popped collars. Not quite the look most of us are going for today.

Your Choice

As I seem to end up saying a lot, in the end it’s all up to you. If you decide you like the look of highly-edited photos, go for it. If you are more traditional and don’t like to do much, if any, editing, that’s cool, too.

Photography is a medium to help us capture tiny moments in time and then do with that memory as we wish. You can choose to save your images soley for historical purposes or make them art. It’s up to you!

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2 Responses to How Much Image Post-Processing Should You Do?

  1. Carol April 9, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    It is interesting to see what can be done with editing. Thanks.

    • Kim April 10, 2013 at 10:11 am #

      And that’s just the beginning. You can do so much more if you want to!