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While using my old Point and Shoot camera I used to think about post-processing photos in Photoshop like something unnatural, fake, and deceptive. But after buying DSLR I have not only to think about many parameters like aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings but also about what format to choose for taken pictures: RAW or JPEG. And most of advises are to use RAW.

The main advantage of the RAW format is the possibility of post processing without losing quality, so I draw conclusion that post processing is always a necessary part of the process of getting good pictures. Am I right in this conclusion?

To what extent is post processing used for getting best (or just good) results by experienced photographers?

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6 Answers

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It may help to think about post processing in these terms:

When shooting film, you either took the film to the lab, or developed the film yourself. During this "process", you had the opportunity to further tweak the image to produce the desired effect. In the days of film, it may have been the case that you would have made several test prints until you reached a result that you were happy with.

When shooting a digital camera, your camera automatically does "post-process" to produce a JPEG image. The camera has a tiny little computer that does a few specialized calculations on the information captured by the camera's sensor, and produces a "ready-to-print" image. Many cameras offer settings which will allow you to control the "final" output, but ultimately the camera is doing post processing.

So to your question: is post-processing required. Yes. Otherwise you would have meaningless information (a film negative or raw binary data), neither of which would make for a compelling image.

Now to your question which I think is more "Is it required to edit photos on the computer" for best results. That answer is depends. If you look at my example about the camera's little computer creating the image, think of post-processing with a computer and your brain, as like processing your images with like a NASA super computer. Instead having a little computer constrained by it's own designs, you have a human with all it's strengths and flaws, creativity, life experiences, knowledge, etc manipulating the image. Clearly the human computer has more capacity to create something more than just a mere visual representation of a bunch of sensor data. But that same human can totally screw things up, producing an image that is terrible compared to what was done by in-camera processing.

That said, I believe getting the best out of your images is a two-phased approach:

  1. Taking the best picture possible with your camera. Nail the exposure, frame the subject properly, etc.
  2. Post-processing to enhance your image.

To the first point: No amount of post processing can fix a poorly shot image. The closer your initial image is to "perfection" the less time you will need to correct flaws in your image, and the more time you will have to make the tweaks to finish off your image.

To the second point: there are limits to what you can do with your camera. You may not be always be able to frame your image in a way that is compelling, and removes that unsightly powerline. Or, perhaps you didn't notice the piece of trash that ruins an otherwise lovely shot of your daughter at the park. Whatever the case, the post-processing step can fix these issues, and add the proper enhancements to your photo.

Me personally: Adobe Lightroom 3 is an integral part of my workflow. I use it to convert my RAW images, and more often than not, apply various settings to each image. However, when I shoot the image, I take care to try and get the best "negative" I can. Additionally I have a mental picture of what I'd like the final output image to look like, and I use tools like Lightroom and Photoshop to achieve that final image.

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Thanks, Alan, for sharing your experience and for such detailed answer. –  rem Aug 2 '10 at 17:29
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I'm going to be controversial, and say that post processing isn't always required; but then again, that fits my style of photography. As a general rule, my processing stops at processing RAW files (so maybe a slight tweak to exposure or white balance)

You'll find that some people refuse to show a photo to anyone without at least sharpening, and others live by faux-vintage effects.

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If you shoot RAW, some form of post processing is always going to be required, as merely the act of converting an image to JPEG is, technically, post-processing. Additionally, the data in a RAW file needs acting on even to display the image on screen; different RAW renderers will display the same file different ways.

I can't speak for Aperture, but when I import RAW files into Lightroom it adds a level of contrast and brightness adjustment just to make the image look reasonable.

But I suspect you are asking about what is done after this. Personally, I prefer to get an image right in camera, as it is much more satisfying when you do. However, even before digital, a lot of black and white photographs were tweaked in the darkroom, with dodging and burning techniques applied to bring out detail in highlights and shadows. So doing the same in post processing software using local adjustments is, technically, no different.

In the end, the final image is the important element. If you are aiming for an effect that can only be achieved in PP, then fair enough; if you're honest about what you have done to a photograph, whether it's cropping to straighten a horizon or desaturating a background, the photo is no less valid than one that has had the bare minimum done to it.

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For the best results? Absolutely. There are always little things you can do to tell the story you want to tell in a better way. Remove distractions, draw attention to the subject, enhance aesthetic value of hue combinations, adjust contrast or perceived sharpness, change a transition here, shift emphasis, it goes on forever.

Now, let's define best: there is no better. In art, best results are subjective, idealistic and essentially unreachable.

What is worth it? For great results, depends on the photo. As Da Vinci said: Art is never finished, only abandoned. Know when to abandon. It can be right as it comes out of the camera, after an import preset, or hours on photoshop. There is a law of diminishing returns in effect, but its shape is different on every shot.

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I've chosen another answer as the accepted one, but yours is really nice in its conciseness. Piece of art. Thanks! –  rem Aug 2 '10 at 17:22
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One way or another, regardless of whether you are using film or digital, post processing must occur. The true, raw, untainted data strait off your sensor is, for lack of a better comparison, no different than an undeveloped negative. You can't do much with an undeveloped negative...it requires "post-processing" to be transformed into something interesting and artistic.

Digital is no different. In most cases, some automatic post processing is occurring with every digital camera, whether you notice it or not. JPEG images are simply raw data that has been passed through a multi-channel tone curve and color processor. RAW images, when imported by a RAW editor, usually get some kind of default tone curve applied to them. Just like a film negative, the raw unprocessed data off of a digital sensor is rather bland, severely lacking contrast and rather uninteresting.

Post-processing is an integral and important part of the photographic process. It has been for around a century, and digital really won't change that. What matters is how much post processing you personally think is necessary to produce the vision you had in your minds eye of a scene. If your vision is to reproduce reality as accurately as possible, very little post processing may need to be done...perhaps nothing beyond the default processing applied by a tool like Lightroom or Aperture. On the other hand, if you wish for your work to represent an artistic view of the world, or tell a story beyond the starkness of reality, then additional post processing will be beneficial to your ultimate goals.

There is no real "right" way to do photography. It is a personal thing, when you boil it all down, and each individual needs to explore the options and choose for themselves what kind of photograph they want to create. Post processing, just like the camera and lens, is a tool to help you visualize reality. It doesn't matter if its "real" or "fake"...

Here are some examples of different approaches to post processing:

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Thank you, especially for links to examples. For me some shots from the second link seem more artistic than realistic, and unfortunately, that's why all collection looks more like good paintings than like good photographs. –  rem Aug 2 '10 at 17:35
    
@rem: something I probably should have noted about the second set by Vincent Favre. The "artistic" look to those is still mostly optical. That vibrant colored look is generally achieved through longer exposures supported by ND (neutral density) filters placed in front of the lens. Various long-exposure ND filters tend to add their own color casts (i.e. enhance vibrant blues and purples and pinks) or deepen color that is there. You get the ability to add an artistic touch to an image like that without having to do it all post-process. Most of Vincent's images use an ND filter for better look. –  jrista Aug 2 '10 at 20:34
    
@rem: I guess it should also be noted that the time of day, angle of a shot, and altitude all play a role on the ultimate lighting you get in a landscape shot. Morning/sunrise shots tend to get you brighter yellow lighting, sometimes vibrantly yellow and orangish. Evening/sunset shots tend to be more red-shifted, and can give you some of the most vibrant red and pink hues. ND filters can "pull" out more saturation from such scenes, but in general, the setting and the time of day make an incredible difference how the resulting image looks, and even vibrant scenes like Vincent's are still real. –  jrista Aug 2 '10 at 20:43
    
Thank you! Your detailed explanation help me to understand the art and nature of photography. –  rem Aug 2 '10 at 23:31
    
Glad to be of service. :) One other thing I should mention. The flower shots from the gallery I linked in "Stunningly Realistic"...they are all real, with perhaps a very slight enhancement to saturation post-process. The artistic look of those shots is largely done through composition (positioning the subject in the frame) and depth of field. Again, like post processing, the concepts of composition and choosing a good depth of field are all tools in the photographers toolbox. My ultimate recommendation: Use ALL the tools at your disposal to maximize your potential. –  jrista Aug 3 '10 at 0:03
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I never cease to be impressed with the improvements I see in my photos after post-processing. Understand that post-processing doesn't necessarily mean that your photos will wind up unnatural. While that's certainly a possibility if you overdo it, you should be able to generate some good results that look very natural.

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