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There's a very common attitude among photographers that the appearance of a photo (ex: exposure) should be created using the features of the camera (aperture, shutter, etc; does not include the "retouching" features built into newer cameras' software) rather than post-processing (Photoshop and the like).

Obviously, before the digital age, this was largely a matter of practicality. Now we have more tools at our disposal.

What is the reasoning for doing things in-camera instead of in post-processing, given the current technology available?

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I think if you haven't figured out why you should shoot "right" in camera, then you need to keep shooting until you realise post processing does not make a bad photo good. (not directed at you, but in general). –  Nick Bedford Feb 2 '11 at 23:45
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BTW: Pushing/Pulling a film, softening overblown lights (dodging and burning), using different paper for hard contrasts was not so unpractical when you developed your own black&white. Time and your original material was your limit then too. –  Leonidas Feb 3 '11 at 1:16
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After all, photography is in the first place about what you see, then how you translate that to a photo. –  Caspar Kleijne Feb 3 '11 at 12:21
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I don't think the question is about fixing up a poorly executed photo in post, but about the implications of effects that can be applied either in camera or in post, with often indistinguishable results. –  Matt Grum Feb 3 '11 at 15:15
    
@Matt Grum: that was pretty much my intent in asking. –  Craig Walker Feb 3 '11 at 15:55

13 Answers 13

up vote 59 down vote accepted

No amount of processing can add detail that isn't there to begin with. If you greatly overexpose your picture, you cannot rescue the highlight detail lost. The same with significantly underexposing your picture. Additionally, attempting to fix some perspective problems will make the picture look unnatural and sometimes even cartoonish.

Getting it right in the camera is still a matter of pragmatism. It's a question of whether you want to spend several hours in front of a computer retouching the picture, or spend a couple of minutes getting your camera settings right.

Some things might be better done in post processing because you have more control, such as multiple exposures. However, this class of post processing has more to do with special effects rather than proper exposure.

I'm also of the opinion that you should never use "I'll fix it in post" to do a mediocre job taking your picture the first time. An extra minute or two at the time of exposure is well worth saving hours in front of a computer. As my college professor once said, "No matter how much you polish a turd, it's still a turd."

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Agreed. "I'll fix it in post" is the worst attitude you can have in photography in general. –  Nick Bedford Feb 2 '11 at 23:42
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That also applies to makeup and hair on a model, draping of clothing, fingerprints and smudges on products, removing trash from a landscape foreground and so on. A few minutes spent up front can save several hours at the workstation later -- even if you know you're going to retouch anyway. –  user2719 Feb 3 '11 at 1:54
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I agree to a point with the "i'll fix it in post" being a bad thing. The exception is if it costs less to fix it in post. If you have 5 crew (more common in video shoots I agree) then fixing it in post would actually be cheaper if it takes less than 5 hours.. Just a thought. –  Mark Underwood Feb 3 '11 at 8:10
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It's one thing if, due to your experience, fixing it in post will take less time and you make that conscious decision. More than likely, you will change how you are shooting so that it will make it easier in post. However if, due to inexperience, you assume computers can fix everything, then you will quickly find out that is not the case. –  Berin Loritsch Feb 3 '11 at 13:41
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Mythbusters actually did a segment on polishing a turd and it turns out with enough polishing you can turn one into a thing of beauty! –  Matt Grum Feb 3 '11 at 15:17
  • quality - often an effect can be achieved either in camera or in post and the quality is almost always better when exposed correctly in camera.

  • time - getting it right in camera is faster overall in almost every case.

  • less to learn - If you know how to get your exposure correct, you don't have to learn all the different ways to fix it later

  • ego - a lot of photographers simply look down on those who "can't get it right"

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+1- But while I like the first three, I'm generally not of the opinion that you should do something simply because there are people out there would look down on you otherwise. –  rfusca Feb 2 '11 at 20:33
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@chills42 - I'd exchange #1 and #2. As a lazy person, I see the waste of time as the #1 reason to avoid counting on post. –  ysap Feb 2 '11 at 21:47
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Haha, I never said anything about the quality of these reasons :). However, I agree, ego is not a good reason, it's just one of the reasons that exists. –  chills42 Feb 2 '11 at 22:25
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"if i wait two hours in the cold for the right light and take a couple dozen shots to get what i want just right, damn right i'll be bragging". Ah, but what if none of the shots come out - will you still tell everyone? ;-) –  Greg Feb 2 '11 at 23:37
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If you wait two hours in the cold, check your batteries ;). –  rfusca Feb 3 '11 at 3:28

The reasoning is "purity" in a lot of the cases I've seen, there are even Flickr "as is" groups for this. However, there are some practical reasons that I can think of:

  1. Getting it right, or very close, in the camera shot gives you substantially more latitude in post-processing for change, especially artistic change. Mind you, with raw, the biggest thing to get right is exposure, most others are stuff you can do yourself.

  2. JPEG editing is generally destructive (there are, of course, work arounds to this) and it's a format that has already lost information.

  3. Less post-processing, more shooting. :)

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For me, the light went on when I read Matt Grum's answer to another question.

I don't think it's correct to insist that everything should be done in camera (though some might take this stance), because it's really not about "post-processing" vs. "getting it right in camera." If you get the exposure, lighting, etc. as close as possible to what you want "in camera," the end result is going to be much easier to work with (you may not need any post processing at all), and you want to work with the best possible image that you can.

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Because it's more fun! My goal is to get great pictures and have fun doing it, not to get great pictures by whatever means are necessary, or fastest, or easiest.

Photography is a hobby for me, something I do for fun (so expect different answers from professionals). Getting it all right in-camera is a challenge, and makes me prouder of the results. That's why I enjoy using old (well, older than me, at any rate) manual focus lenses, too: I'm much prouder of a picture when I nail the focus without the little red lights in the viewfinder to help me.

Then again, I also love taking road trips because I enjoy the drive more than the destination.

I don't have anything against someone who makes a great picture through the use of heavy post-processing (or someone who drives somewhere just to get there), it's just that if I did things that way, I'd be spending less time on the parts that I consider fun, and more on the parts that I don't.

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Barring the egotistical types who need to feel macho because they are purist "Do it in camera" types, there is a lot of value in crafting your photographs with just your own two hands, a camera, and possibly some filtration. For one, there is the aesthetic appeal to manually working a scene, carefully preparing your camera, and composing as idealistically as possible right there on the spot. Beyond that, here are some things that can't be corrected when post processing, or where you only have limited correction capability after the fact:

  1. Composition: The form of your photos.
    • Fundamentally, composition is something done in-camera, rather than in post processing.
    • It is possible to "crop" while post processing, however the inverse, expanding your scene, is impossible after the photo has been taken.
    • Artistic expression and vision are firmly rooted in, and begins with, composition, so getting a scene composed correctly in camera is a critical factor in art.
      • It should be noted that Artistic expression continues in post, as it is not necessarily purely an in-camera thing.
  2. Lighting: The illumination and mood of your photos.
    • This is not referring to exposure, but the way your scene is lit.
    • The aspects of light and shadow only exist in the real world, and therefor can only be tweaked in the real world.
  3. Focus: The sharpness and isolation of your primary subjects.
    • Slight focus issues can be corrected in post with sharpening.
    • The artistic and compositional aspects of focus must be performed in-camera.
    • Artistic expression such as very blurry background bokeh require proper camera and subject placement, as well as wide aperture, in the real world to achieve.
  4. Exposure: The proper recording of light.
    • It is possible to "correct" exposure in post, with caveats.
    • Under-exposed images corrected in post will usually exhibit more noise than an image correctly exposed in camera.
    • Blown highlights mean you have permanently lost some image data, and that can not be recovered in post.
  5. Emotion: The feeling of a photographed scene.
    • Capturing the sense of emotion in a scene starts not only in-camera, but often in time.
    • Emotion is often portrayed by an expression in a portrait, dramatic sunset lighting in a landscape, or the sense of motion in a photo if city life.
    • Emotional aspects, like artistic expression, start in-camera.
      • Also like artistic expression, emotion can be enhanced during post processing, but if it is lacking in the first place...
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+1 for the detailed answer - great points to consider. –  Steve Fenton Feb 4 '11 at 11:37

Before digital age people had only one string to their bow. Now they have two. Why do you want to suppress one?

Post processing gives far better results on a correct image.

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We always hard burning, dodging, masking (including unsharp mask sharpening), contrast and white balance adjustments, spotting (and other forms of retouching, like airbrushing) and so forth at out disposal. It may be easier now, and may require a little less of us in terms of accumulated skill sets, but the landscape really hasn't changed that much. We're just more aware of and more willing to use the tools now. –  user2719 Feb 3 '11 at 1:46
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Actually, in my experience, you could usually do more with a underexposed or overexposed film (at least BW) than you can do even with a raw file. I don't think I have ever had a BW negative that I couldn't get something out of. –  Jan Hlavacek Feb 3 '11 at 2:15

I took up photography as a way of getting me out of the house and in touch with my world. I'd rather not be chained to my computer doing extra work to correct my images.

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There's a lot to be said about using it as a get-away. I used to drive about 20 miles outside our city-limits to a wilderness area to wait for the sun to go down and shoot desert vistas. It's good for the soul when the only sound is the wind blowing - who cares if the sunset never materializes. :-) –  Greg Feb 2 '11 at 23:39
    
I completely agree with this reason. I would much rather spend few more minutes in the forest with my camera than few more hours in a stuffy room squinting at the screen. –  Jan Hlavacek Feb 3 '11 at 2:13

Some things can't be practically done post-processing.

For example, if you have the focus wrong, no amount of Photoshop will bring the clarity and detail back. That's simple and obvious, but luckily your camera probably got that right to begin with.

Depth of field, is related to focus, but is more subtle and your camera can't guess what you intend. Even if the main subject is in focus, the depth of field may not be what you intended. If depth of field is too deep, you can simulate depth of field using blurring, but it will be very difficult and end up looking unnatural. Too shallow and you won't be able to add detail after the fact.

The wrong exposure has similar problems. If you don't expose correctly, you will lose detail in the parts of the image that you care about that you will never get back.

If you want a motion blur effect, say of a stream, it is easy to get by setting a longer exposure but again, you will have a hard time getting something realistic looking during post-processing. On the other hand if you want it to appear as stop-motion and you shoot to long of an exposure, post processing will never get it right.

Same thing goes for getting correct perspective, composition etc.

Luckily, cropping is more forgiving with modern super-megapixel cameras, but if you get these other fundamentals wrong when you take the picture, you won't be readily fix them afterward.

I would take care to get things as close to perfection as you can in your camera and then fix them up in your digital darkroom.

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It's a really good idea to go into a shooting situation with the idea of doing it right the first time, and getting the absolutely-best images you can.

Then, if something goes wrong with an image, you can fall back on "fixing it in post-production", which sometimes works.

If you go into it with the attitude you'll fix it in post-production, and I go into the same situation with the idea of getting right in camera, 9 times out of 10 my shots will beat yours because they will have less noise, will fill the frame better, will be color-balanced correctly, etc.

I used to do a LOT of outdoor action work with full strobes, lighting pro-rodeo arenas. You get ONE shot at perfect action, then you wait about one second while the heads recycle. There is no motor-drive, there is no auto-exposure. If your color balance or exposure is off you'll get to adjust every picture, and for each thing you didn't get right up front, you'll get to work that much harder later IF the picture is salvageable, because for each thing wrong, the odds go way up of it not being fixable.

And, when you spent several hours hanging lights and pulling power and setting up redundant remote triggers with sync lines, then shoot for three hours, then spend another couple hours tearing down, having to spend multiple hours fixing dumb mistakes in post-production is like self-flagellation.

So, take a word of wisdom from someone with experience, get it as right as you possibly can ahead of time because you might not be able to get the image back later.

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For me it comes down to something extremely simple: when I do as much as possible in-camera I can (to some extent) determine whether I got the shot or not while I am still at the site. If I wait until I am back at my computer, I may very well detect that I didn't get the material I need, with no chance of correcting that.

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To paraphrase Ansel Adams, it's because if you can't visualise exactly what the finished product is going to look like, then you're not ready to push the shutter. And if you can visualise it, then you know what can only be done in camera and what can only be done in pp. Sure, you can rescue a shot when you did something wrong, but why resign yourself to such mediocrity in advance? Have some pride in your work :-)

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If you do it in-camera (the things you mentioned), the exposure etc. is determined by optical factors, whilst everything post is done digitally. Since the light is natural rather than being calculated, setting your optical devices does produce a better quality image (which you still can postprocess if you like).

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