The Digital Stain

It appears to me that even today, after a decade or more of digital photography, that post processing is perceived as “the digital stain” that alters photographs from what they “should” be. Hashtags and photo themes like #SOOC (for “straight out of camera”) try to establish a most nonsensical sense of purity. A purity that simply doesn’t exist in photography. It never has.

Long exposure of tide pool rock features at Sunset Cliffs, Ocean Beach, California. June 2012.
Long exposure of tide pool rock features at Sunset Cliffs, Ocean Beach, California. June 2012.

The camera catches a one-eyed glimpse at a scene for a more or less short period of time – and that 2D rendition is supposed to be an accurate rendition of reality? How? Color rendition depends on white balance, raw profiles, software and camera profiles – and that interpretation is an accurate rendition of reality, but deliberately shifting colors in post is not? Unless you’re using a color checker, you never know what the real color was, anyway. #SOOC is a myth*.

As I previously said, we need to embrace post processing as a natural part of the entire photographic process. It appears to me that “talent” these days cannot be limited to the moment it clicks alone – it has to extend into the realms of post processing as well. Especially since digital images coming “SOOC” tend to be flat, neutral and dull, lacking character; but also because the looks achieved in post processing have shifted the general perception of photos. Or how do you explain the success of mundane cellphone snapshots with an Instagram or Hipstamatic or whatever else retro filter slapped onto them?

And that’s where the quality of the data you’re able to capture (by utilizing techniques like ETTR, using 14 bit raw data instead of JPEG, etc.) might make a difference as well. Not between success and, well, not really failure, but staying below the full potential of the image. I recently compared images from Algodones Dunes that my wife made with the D700 with my D800 captures. Despite the fact that the D700 also captures 14 bit raw data, it was simply not possible to process the images in a similar fashion. The D800 data contains “more” and it goes beyond resolution. There’s a difference in dynamic range and color depth that nicely illustrates why the camera does matter.

Also, if we could value the artistic aspect of a photo alone, then the absence or presence of noise, camera shake, the accuracy of color rendition and all that wouldn’t matter. But that’s not the case. For example, critical sharpness often is an aspect that makes or breaks an image – and that simply is a technical aspect (of many), and not an artistic one.

I don’t think it’s possible to draw the line between the artistic and the technical values of a photograph. The two are overlapping, and depend upon each other. We are rarely presented with “ideal” conditions were everything in a frame is just right. Some people use neutral density filters to tone done a bright sky. Others do it in post. Film photographers used to and still do dodge & burn** to change the distribution of light and dark areas, bring down a sky that is too bright, and lift up the shadows, just like digital photographers employ digital techniques to achieve the same thing: bring out what really matters in an image.

Just like a composer might dream up the most magnificent piece of music, without being able to write down the notes and/or play an instrument, it is in vain. Post processing is a necessary skill for a photographer. All the talk about “getting it right in camera” will only get you so far.


*) camera-JPEGs are just raw files that are processed by the camera’s internal JPEG engine, in other words, they’re subject to the camera makers interpretation of colors, contrast, etc., within the parameters and modes that can be set in camera, like “Vivid”, “Portrait”, etc.

**) Additional reading: Ansel Adams and Photography before Photoshop – I rest my case!

12 Responses

  1. Yup.
    To quote myself: “Pure Photography” should never be defined by one group, person or doctrine.”

    Not even yours (with all due respect).

  2. Great again Alex ! I remember when I first learned about post-processing programs (not that long ago for me ) ;-) Wow I was so excited that I could put my artistic interpretation on my photos with contrast adjustments and simple things like that. Then someone told me it wasn’t really a “true photograph”. Well then I did a lot of internet reading up on the matter and decided they were full of bunk !

    But the thing that disturbs me about your article is the bit about bits-which I am just now learning about (thanks to another photoquiz). It just makes me sad that I can’t get as much data or “potential” if you will from my lesser camera. Because then you hear it all the time ” it doesn’t matter about the equipment-it won’t make you a better photographer ” Well now I have to believe THAT is bunk.

    1. The casual photographers of old that were using film simply didn’t see the post processing – because the lab optimized contrast and exposure for them! So don’t listen to these people.

      And don’t worry too much about the bits – as long as you’re using raw data and not JPEG, you capture the maximum information, and that’s good. Also, your “lesser” camera (the poor little thing…) is of the new sensor generation already, and probably has more color depth and dynamic range than our old D700 has!

      It’s normal that the technology evolves. And you won’t notice any difference because you don’t know anything else. When I was using the D700 as the main camera I was perfectly happy with it. :)

      1. You did make me giggle :) And I DO love my camera :) And thanks for reminding me that I do.

        “Their cheating art” bwhahahhaa. Truth is beauty and beauty is truth

    1. Hi there and thanks for stopping by. I wholeheartedly agree about the capture being the beginning of the creative process. I don’t know if you saw the link (I added it late) in the footnotes. That article has a picture of Ansel sitting below a “straight print” and a “final print” of his famous “Moonrise” image. Wonderful image and a true eye opener!

  3. Excellent Article Mr Kunz! Processing is completely necessary with digital images. If you think you are NOT processing by just accepting what “comes out of the camera” you are failing to realize the amount of processing your camera is doing (for jpeg) and for RAW as soon as you realize that raw file into an image it has been processed somehow automatically by software. You simply cannot avoid processing with digital. Actually, on film the final result is altered dramatically depending on type of film used, so a kind of “pre” post processing has always been in existence.

    I think the key in terms of artistry is learning to let the eye (or your vision) lead the processing instead of the other way around. The cookie cutter over processed effects of those with less experience is an indication that the processing is leading the vision. When you have a general idea in mind and then explore that with the processing you will find that your processing choices are not a simple matter of pushing sliders to one extreme or another , but involve a learned skillset that complements your shooting and helps you realize a vision.

    I thoroughly agree that the artistic and technical overlap… In my view technical ability is not artistic ability but you are limited in you artistic expression by your technical limitations (Which we all possess to one degree or another) You cannot substitute one for the other but I hope the ultimate goal isn’t technical prowess (often I think photographers get distracted by this pursuit to the exclusion of artistic vision)

    p.s. the photo is very beautiful, I love the colour especially.

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