There was an interesting discussion on Facebook this week.  A photographer posted a comment about a YouTube video which was giving instruction on how to blur a background in photoshop.  The photographer in question said that the ‘correct’ thing to do was to ‘get it right in camera’ and not to ‘fix it in post production’.  I responded to this as did a lot of other photographers – you might even have been one of them.  The whole discussion got me thinking about the old….

In Camera vs In Post-Production Debate

The debate goes like this:  One side says that we should strive to get the image right in camera and not rely on photoshop techniques to fix the problems caused by poor photographic techniques.  The other side of the debate effectively says that the final image is what is important and it really doesn’t matter how you achieve it, or what you have to do in post-production to get there.

There is a great deal of truth and value in both perspectives, and in my opinion, there is a middle ground that we as photographers should be striving to find.

Let’s look at some principles that directly affect this:

The HIGHEST quality image is the one you get straight out of the camera

That statement needs some explanation – by “highest quality” I don’t mean the best-looking image.  What I mean is that editing degrades certain quality aspects of an image.  For example if you crop an image you are throwing away pixels and image resolution.  If you have to increase exposure in post production you will introduce noise into the shadows.  Correcting of verticals will throw away some pixels and the computer will generate others.

Sometimes that loss in quality doesn’t matter and what you lose in one area can be outweighed by what you gain in another.  For example, a small increase in exposure to open up the shadows a little may be preferable to the small amount of noise that is generated.

However, if we didn’t need to do that adjustment in post production in the first place the image would be a higher quality than one where we did.  So getting the crop right in camera saves pixels and resolution.  Getting the exposure right potentially saves visible noise etc.

Post-production IS part of being a photographer

The argument that all this messing about with an image in post production is something that came about with digital photography and that ‘real’ photographers shouldn’t have to do it.  Simply isn’t true.  In the days of film, the best photographers would spend days in the darkroom working out the best way to print a particular image.  Techniques such as dodge and burn (lightning and darkening sections of an image) were routinely used and routinely taught.   There were even techniques for correcting verticals in the darkroom and even techniques to remove dust spots.

What has changed with the advent of digital photography is the ease in which we can do it.  In the film days, it was possible, but it took a long time to achieve the results.  This meant that film photographers knew the importance of getting as much as possible right in camera.  An extra 2 or 3 minutes checking settings and bracketing a shot (taking multiple exposures) could literally save hours in the dark room.

Some things can ONLY be done in post production

Even though cameras are improving all the time there are still some things that can only be done in post production.   Certain high dynamic range situations can only be effectively captured by using post production techniques.  I have two commercial clients for whom certain images could never be created if I didn’t apply those techniques.

Skin retouching to flatter your subject.  In my experience, most portrait clients don’t want accurate images of how they look, they want images that flatter them and make them look good.  Appropriate camera and lighting techniques can take this so far, but often the final step involves some form of digital manipulation.  That may be teeth whitening, skin smoothing or the occasional spot of wrinkle being removed.

Sometimes Photographers DO get it wrong

None of us are perfect.  We all make mistakes.  Sometimes those ‘mistakes’ might be because we had less than a second to react to a situation we saw.  A street photographer captures a one off incident but the background wasn’t out of focus.  It’s more important to get a less than perfect shot in that split second than to miss the shot altogether.  Anther example – unknown to us dust crept on to the sensor even though we had cleaned it that morning.  Maybe you just messed up the exposure – it happens.  In all of these cases, the use of post production techniques can save the image.

Photoshop and Lightroom are tools in a photographer’s toolbox.  In that sense, they are no different than a 3m TTL lead or 50mm f/1.8 lens.  It’s like a plumber – most of the time they will choose to use the right spanner.  However, every once in a while, a big hammer is the only thing that will solve the problem!

Lessons to Learn

So here are the lessons to take away from this debate:

  • Learn the photographic techniques to get the best possible image out of the camera – even if you know that image won’t be perfect.  This gives you the best starting point for any post production work you may need to do.  For example, If you know you want a blurred background, use the smallest f-number you can.  Only then add additional blur in post production.
  • It is usually considerably quicker to spend the time getting the image right in camera than fixing it in post production.  You’d rather spend more time behind the camera than in front of the computer, right?
  • Don’t be ashamed of modifying an image in post-production.  Post production has aways been part of photography and it will always be a part of photography.
  • Fixing a problem in post production should be just that – a fix for a specific problem not a regular part of your workflow.
  • If you know you are going to use post production techniques shoot with that in mind.  When I shot the image at the top of this blog post – I already knew what post production techniques I would use.  My main concern was: don’t blow out the sky because I knew I would be extracting detail from it in post production.

I hope these thoughts are helpful.  Until next time keep MAKING and post-processing great images,


PS.  If you wonder what the above image looked like before any post production work – here it is: