Due to digital cameras’ visual impairment, as compared to the human eye’s capacity to register light, almost any capture needs some degree of editing once it leaves the memory card. But with the overabundance of image manipulation programs available today, and the sophisticated tools within them, it’s dangerously easy to step over the line of good taste. Alas, countless photographers fall into this trap daily, apparently without even realizing it, when they try to salvage mediocre exposures or when they ruin decent images by overcontrasting, oversaturating, pushing shadows beyond measure etc. And the power of social media often affirms their conviction that they are creating something “beautiful” in the process.
I believe no tool can be blamed for the many abominations that online photographic communities seem to brim with, even HDR can be put to good use by a sensitive photographer. But as photography is the art of “painting with light”, when you don’t have proper paints you can’t create a good painting. And by manipulating your images excessively you can only slip into the realm of computer graphics (of an inferior order typically).
One of my workshop guests, an HDR aficionado, on a really drab and uninspiring day in the country asked me a rhetorical question: “What do you do with conditions like these? You have to use HDR to make a scene look good”. In fact… I don’t do anything, I just refrain from taking pictures (other than maybe photo-notes for my personal use when I’m exploring a new area). If it’s not happening when you’re on the spot, no amount of post-production hocus pocus will make it happen later on. When you analyze the work of the most successful and acknowledged landscape photographers and hear or read what they have to say about it, you’ll discover that what underlies their success is mostly hard work before they take the shot. Careful planning, anticipation, visualization, commitment, a lot of disappointments, sometimes a stroke of luck.
Editing is an integral part of the digital workflow, and I can’t subscribe to the approach of some “purists” who only shoot in JPG mode and never alter the resulting image files in any way (it boils down to letting the machine make some crucial aesthetic decisions instead of you – when the camera performs automatic enhancements to the captured image). But as with so many other things in life, moderation is the key. Learning visual literacy and sensitivity is a never-ending process, but it’s a fascinating journey of self-improvement.
Attached: an image I took recently on the South Downs near Brighton, UK. RAW, exposed with a 0.6 hard ND graduated filter; edits: warmed WB, slight contrast and vibrance enhancement.
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