My Post-Processing Journey

I created the image shown above in 1993, when I attended a Photoshop class at Kodak and Apple’s Center for Creative Imaging in Camden, Maine. I was always dorking around with images in those days. Instead of learning to make photographs look good, I spent hours trying to make photographs look Photoshopped!

Photoshop was the ultimate boy-toy for those of us too geeky for the real thing.

This situation changed when I got my first digital camera (Canon S30) and learned that with digital, most images require post-processing. For example, most digital cameras employ a sensor filter to prevent moiré patterns, but the filter also softens the image. As a result, virtually every digital photograph requires some sharpening. With film, I had already created nice images, so I put them on the computer to play with them. With digital, I put images on the computer to finish them.

One of my first images with a digital camera, badly processed.

Of course, in my youth I believed that anything worth doing was worth overdoing. I became a Photoshop junkie and probably knew a dozen different sharpening routines, from lab color to high pass filters to elaborate double unsharp mask routines. I created multiple curve adjustment pre-sets, custom white balance settings, etc. I bought all kinds of plug-ins. After shooting a dance concert, where I might capture 1200 frames, it took days or weeks to process the keepers. Sometimes I returned to an image months later to try a different sharpening routine. Keep in mind that I am not a professional photographer, and as we note in principle eight: “There’s a fine line between a hobby and an obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

I also fell into the very dangerous habit of shooting recklessly, believing I could fix poorly captured images in post-processing. Some things you can fix, and some things you cannot, but sloppiness has a way of spreading. One day you don’t pay attention to your white balance settings, and the next you forget to reset your ISO. The day after, you don’t bother to think about composition, and you photograph someone with a metal sculpture growing out of his ear:

In this case, the black background makes removal of the offending sculpture trivial, but I am rarely so lucky. Try it with a tree trunk.

Motorcycle enthusiasts often start out on a small displacement machine, and then move to progressively larger bikes until they find themselves longing for the easy agility of their smaller rides. I used large, feature-rich versions of Photoshop for fifteen years, but probably never used more than a very small fraction of its capabilities. In October of 2008, I switched to Apple’s agile and inexpensive Aperture. Aperture has its limitations, but now I sort, cull, adjust and export the keepers from a 1200-shot dance concert in hours instead of days or weeks.

I still have Photoshop CS2 on my computer, and perhaps someday I’ll upgrade to the latest version. It’s handy when I need to really dig into an image, but most of the time, I just want to color correct, sharpen, and crop my images. Nowadays, you can do that with almost any software and get fine results. I’ve gotten to the point where I want to spend more time shooting and less time at the computer. It’s just a personal preference.

In the early years of our marriage, Laurie and I would set up an ad hoc darkroom in the bathroom of our apartment. We covered the window with a thick towel, filled the bathtub with trays of chemicals, and set the enlarger on the toilet seat. As soon as one of us had to go to the bathroom, our darkroom session was over. So I was thrilled when my computer became my darkroom, and I could easily work in color, at my desk, with a glass of wine, any time I liked. In retrospect, I think the bladder-volume time constraint focused my attention and improved my work.

But the hidden lesson of my post-processing journey was not about the computer at all. Over the years, I developed a much greater respect for the moment of capture. Hours at the computer taught me that it’s usually easier to expose an image properly than to fix it later. I used to pride myself on my Photoshop skills, but now I aspire to something quite different: I want to become a better photographer.

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