I think it’s hard to avoid being exposed to the never-ending post-processing debate in the photography world. There is always someone ready to voice his/her opinion, whether you’re reading an article, viewing a YouTube video, reading comments or enjoying pictures online.
Although the debate might be more heated now that we have tools such as Photoshop making it possible to manipulate an image into something otherworldly, the fact is that this debate has been going on since the beginning of photography.
I was recently reminded of that when watching the Netflix movie ‘The Photographer of Mauthausen’, a movie set in an Austrian concentration camp in the year 1943. The movie follows the life of a Spanish inmate who works as a photographer being the right-hand of Paul Ricken, Mauthausen’s warden. There was one particular conversation between the two that struck me:
Paul Ricken: A good photographer must know how to paint with light.
Paul Ricken: This is art. Some pictures have to be touched up. Some others, only the staging.
The debate is very much the same today. The main difference is that today we’re able to ‘touch up’ images at a higher level than before. At that time, painting with light meant Dodging & Burning.
Since I’m often asked about my opinion when it comes to post-processing in landscape photography, I decided it’s time to share it:
1. What Story are you Telling?
Photography is art. Art is subjective. The question is “What are you trying to convey through your photography?” Are you documenting? Are you showing what you felt? What story are you telling through the image?
If you’re documenting and your purpose in photography is to shed light on events, I think there should be restrictions as to what you’re allowed to do in post-processing, especially if the images are used for journalistic reasons. Is it ok to remove distracting elements? To some degree, I think yes. As long as removing the subject doesn’t change the visual impact or testimony of the image.
If your purpose is to share the emotion you felt when photographing it, then I believe you should be freer as to what you can do. This does depend slightly on how the image is going to be used, though, which brings us to the next point:
2. How is Your Photography Used?
I believe that how your photography is used makes a big difference in whatshould be acceptable to do in post-processing.
If your images are used by travel agencies or other outlets to sell trips to a specific destination, there should be restrictions. The image needs to be realistic. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s not ok to replace the sky, remove a soda can or even do minor warping adjustments; but editing the image into something the visitors won’t recognize is not ok.
I’ve seen this many time with images from the Lofoten Islands, a place I keep bringing up as I spend several months guiding photography tours here each year: travel agencies use images where iconic mountains look like they’re a massive 2000 meters tall while in reality, they are only nearly half that. Isn’t this lying to the customer?
If that same image was used as the advertisement for a bag company, I don’t mind. Because the main objective is no longer to sell a destination but rather it’s used to emphasize another product.
Finally, if your intentions are just to share your art online and perhaps try to sell some prints, then I think you should be allowed to do whatever you want.
3. It’s YOUR Art.
At the end of the day, my opinion about post-processing in landscape photography can be summed up in only a few words:
Art is subjective. Everyone has their opinion but the only one that matters is yours. It’s YOUR art. Do whatever YOU want.
I don’t get why people complain about what others do with their photography. If you want to do composites and replace skies or add the aurora over the Eiffel tower, then be my guest. That’s YOUR decision as an artist. If you don’t want to process your images, who cares?
BUT, I do ask for one thing. Transparency. Don’t try to sell it as something it’s not. Don’t lie about it. Don’t pretend it’s real if it’s not. I’m not asking you to state every time you post that it is a composite but why try to hide it when someone asks?
What really matters is that you’re proud of your art. Don’t worry what others say.