Why EDIT digital photos?

I've had a few people ask me over the years;

Why do you need to edit your photos? Can't you just give me all the files as they are - I dont need them edited. I did this once many years ago. But now the answer is NO, I can't just give you the files unedited.

Let me illustrate why...

  • Do all recording Musicians/artists record straight to disk?, no masters, no studio mixing and editing??
  • How about Race car drivers, to they just race with no engine tuning or modifications to things like suspension?... do they just run the way the cars are first built??
  • What about Writers, no editing, no corrections, proof reading, just straight to print??
  • Why do you add sauce to your fries? or seasoning to your food?... Aren't fries good enough on their own??

When it comes to photography the saying 'You can't polish a turd' is valid. A bad photo is a bad photo. So, ideally you should try to get as much as possible right (in-the-camera) than during post editing.

That said; even in the early days of film photography there was often far more work done in the darkroom than in camera that you may ever realize. The paper the chemicals, the light, different processing methods, handling the negatives - it all affects the final image.

IMAGE FILE TYPES - RAW vs. JPEG

Most professional photographers shoot photos in RAW mode - a file format that is like a film negative. That means that the camera has not made our decisions *for* us in the processing, just like many film shooters decide not to let a commercial lab make *their* decisions for them but do their own darkroom work. Post processing is where you can take that negative and make decisions based on the preferences you want/need for the image. 

RAW files are like raw meat - Your steak can be eaten raw if you are that way inclined, but some like their meat rare, medium rare or well done, then you can add your preference of sauce or seasoning. This way the meat can be really enjoyed and appreciated.

JPEG files - are like being handed a fully cooked hamburger - cooked exactly the same way every time (many camera models let you choose between a couple of different recipes).

TIFF files - are another file type used that is lossless and compressed or uncompressed it does not lose quality like a JPEG - But that's a subject for another day.

Camera's, even as amazing as they are these days, still can't capture what we can see with our own eyes. Most photographers say - I wish my camera could see what I can actually see in real life.

You and I can see all the details in the shadows, and all the highlights that are up in the sky - but our camera's can only capture a tiny little bit of that detail.

Ultimately as you take the photo - you (the shooter) need to decide what details are most important. Do you want to capture the details in the sky or in the shadows beneath the horizon among the trees.

This is why editing is so important - so we can recreate that feeling and emotion that we felt when we were there taking the photo at the time. 

COLOR BALANCE - TEMPERATURE

White Balance is measured in 'Kelvins' So, what exactly is a Kelvin? It is simply a unit of measurement for temperature and in photography we most often use it to measure the color temperature of light sources

Setting a 'Custom White Balance' is ok for a set of images in the same place if you know exactly what you are doing. Many photographers leave this setting as '(AWB) Auto white balance' as its one simple slider in post production that can be adjusted to re-create the natural feel of the original image you saw.

Where needed - for images like product, food, or portrait photography you can use a grey-card in one or more images where surroundings and lighting stays the same.

Many will argue and say it's simple to set white balance in-camera. Yes it can be if you are shooting in similar lighting conditions. But as this changes you constantly need to adjust your white balance or the images will look too BLUE or YELLOW.

Personally, I think adjusting white balance and other settings while in manual mode takes away from the time I can be recording something - like a candid moment you won't see again - that may be lost because I walked from SUN which is approx 5500K into some shade which is around 7500K and I was too busy adjusting settings with my eyes on the camera and not on the subject.

Despite modern cameras having presets like CLOUDY or SUNNY these are preset 'Kelvin' intervals - I dont know anyone who actually knows what they are doing, that adjusts them on-the-fly for every image.

Think about it - you are following a bride and groom from a bright area taking photos to a shady area trying to capture their chemistry but you missed it - because you are playing with white balance settings - and this is not just one wheel or button on your camera, its multiple buttons and wheels and you can't see these settings in the viewfinder, like ISO, Aperture and shutter speed. 

Here is a before and after example of a very basic edit of a raw file. In the before image - White balance (color temperature) is set to AWB automatic white balance (I recommend leaving AWB on all the time) meaning the camera decides what temperature to make the image. The camera does not always get it right - but this can easily be adjusted post processing.

Here the camera was put on the rock and taken - its not meant to be an amazing photo, but it gives perspective on what the camera saw vs. what our eyes saw.

Before Editing

After Editing

CAMERA SHOOTING MODES

DSLR camera's have modes called PORTRAIT and LANDSCAPE which modify the image by making it sharper, making the colors more saturated and assigns highlight and contrast presets to every image. Generally pro's set their camera to a mode called NEUTRAL or FAITHFUL. This sets everything to zero and does not 'apply' the same sharpness, contrast, highlight or saturation settings to every image. We dont want the camera making these decisions for us.

Before Editing

After Editing

The image above was taken in the afternoon. The sun does not produce pure white light, its quite yellow. and what it reflects onto can affect the whole image. Since I was there - I can recall what the scene looked like and can reproduce that image in about 20 seconds with the right tool. The original has blown-out or over exposed areas on the right where some details are lost. 

The electronic sensors in our current digital cameras are amazing, but definitely not perfect.  They are improving significantly as technology advances, but the information coming out of them is not “clean.” 

Part of the valuable technology inside your camera is the algorithms built specifically to compensate for this.  When comparing a JPEG to an un-processed RAW image, the RAW image looks “soft”, slightly out of focus, lacking detail or flat and have other issues that need to be fixed - that's why a RAW file is likened to a negative.

In JPEG mode the camera decides which information it wants to record for every image in a predetermined way and decides how the photo should look, compresses that data and deletes the rest of the information. RAW files are quite the opposite. All the information is collected and kept - you can then decide what you want to use and not use. RAW image files can be up to 10 times larger in size - all that information is there for you to use.

Until such a time that cameras can see what your eyes can see - then there will be the need to edit images in the 'digital darkroom' which is known as post processing. 

Someone that knows what they are doing will NOT give you the unedited files. If they do, they most likely dont care about what they do, and they have no real idea about digital photography. That's probably someone who took your photos for free or next to nothing. Remember the old saying; 'You get what you pay for!'

EDITING IS INDUSTRY STANDARD

If you want to call yourself a professional photographer and charge money for your images post-processing is a requirement needed to be at the 'industry standard' - and not something you learn overnight. Like taking the actual photo - editing requires something that comes from knowledge and experience - which makes all the difference in the end.

Editing is not to make photos look cheesy or unrealistic it's to correct an image to recreate the emotion and naturalness of the scene you saw with your eye that was there when the image was taken.

The connotation of a 'photoshopped image' is generalized and a negative one - because it's can be used to manipulate an image in a completely unnatural way. This is not the type of editing done by photographers. PS Photoshop is a very powerful tool, but less and less people are using Adobe PS Photoshop to edit. Adobe LR Lightroom is the most used and most powerful image editing software on the market.

No camera can replicate the human eye - So our 'trained' eyes need to be relied on to help reproduce the RAW image 'negative' captured by the camera into the final image using software such as LR Lightroom.

Paying for a professional means you are hiring someone that knows all this stuff before they arrive to take your images. Stuff that they didn't just google!... They know what WILL work and what WON'T work. The customer may always be right - but in this case, your customers are relying on your professional opinion and experience to provide the results they expect.

If you're not providing your customers with a product that at least meets and exceeds the level of what is deemed as 'the industry standard' - what makes you any different from someone who shoots on a mobile phone or different from the 15 other photographers in your area?... Nothing.

Attention to detail in everything - is everything -  in an industry that is more and more 'available' to anyone that wants to call themselves a photographer. What makes YOU stand out from the huge crowd?