The Slippery Slope of Digital Editing Addiction
Relying on digital editing tools can be tempting and even downright addicting for amateurs and pros alike. So where do you draw the line?
It's been said that if you are good enough at Photoshop you don't even need to go out with a camera. Humorous, perhaps, but not entirely untrue. Admittedly, starting from a blank canvas would be more akin to painting than photography, but you can do a lot with Photoshop, Lightroom and other digital editing programs. Even when you start with an actual photograph shot in camera, you can modify it endlessly after the fact in the digital darkroom if you so choose.
The digital darkroom though is just an outgrowth of the traditional wet (chemical) darkroom. Photographers with the means to develop their own film had long taken control of the process for creative effect. Ansel Adams was famous not only for his amazing images but also for the process that went into creating them. He famously said that "the negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways."
Others went even further, literally merging objects from one frame into another shot with film through multiple exposures, dodging and masking in the darkroom. This sort of thing is commonplace now with digital editing of course, but determined photographers have always done it. It's just easier now.
Purists then as now dislike image manipulation after the fact, preferring to present only what the camera actually saw. But anyone who's been involved in photography for any time length of time has certainly discovered that the camera doesn't necessarily see what the photographer holding it does. From differences in aperture and shutter speed, to varying reactions to the range of subject brightness, to the choice of framing and focus, to countless other differences, photography can't help but influence the look of what it captures.
Which I suppose gets me to my point in writing this article. Photography itself is image manipulation. Even before you press the shutter release you've already made choices that affect the final image. But whereas you get one shot to press that shutter release for each frame, you can revisit an image as often and for as long as you want in the digital darkroom. It can be seductive to overdo things. After you've worked on an image for long enough, it's easy to lose touch with what it looked like to begin with. The trap of "just a little more" editing can be tempting indeed.
Digital editing can be addicting. This is one of the main reasons why the outcome can sometimes go awry. It's also one of the reasons why some photographers think it best not to venture into at all in their quest for "pure" photography, as if such a thing actually existed. There's no denying that some photographers steer clear of digital editing simply because they don't know how, but some who do simply prefer not to.
Of course it doesn't have to be an all or nothing question. You just need to know where to draw the line. Thankfully, everything you do in Lightroom is inherently nondestructive, and most actions can be done that way in Photoshop as well. It can be a good idea to periodically turn off all edits on an image while working on it to remind yourself what the shot looked like as captured. Granted, you've already made choices while shooting that can't be undone, but what you do digitally generally can be if you work with that ability in mind. If you find you've gone further down some given editing road than you realized, you can undo things to correct. Over sharpening and bumping up the saturation too much are the most common symptoms of the digital editing disease, but most anything can be done to excess if you're not paying attention.
Some digital techniques such as HDR really have no corresponding film analog. When HDR first became popular, many photographers jumped on it and took it to extremes, creating images that looked far beyond what any real photograph ever could. Thankfully, HDR tools have improved over the years and tasteful results are definitely possible now when such tools are used with restraint. Not all photographers have gotten that message though and I still see HDR images that suffer from overworking.
You may have heard the expression that the second half of photography begins after the shutter release has been pressed. This has always been true, but it's all too easy to tip the balance too far toward the darkroom in the digital era. Some photographers can be tempted into relying on digital editing to make up for sloppy shooting, believing they can "fix it later in Photoshop."
At least in my experience, the best approach is to shoot each shot with a clear plan in mind. If you are familiar with what you can do with Photoshop, Lightroom and other digital tools, you can know how far you can push things in the field to create optimal source images for later editing. After all, that's how Ansel Adams shot with his darkroom in mind.