Snapping a photo takes fractions of seconds but what you’ll get after that is not the actual photo. Well, technically it is, but you’re still missing a big chunk of the whole process called “post-production”.
As mentioned before, the act of making a photo is made at least by two steps: taking it and post-produce it. Modern cameras — particularly those of phones — are so well optimized that the output is usually already very good but that doesn’t mean that it still needs some fixes.
Let me add one small detail: the pictures we take with our phone cameras are actually already post-produced via software, even if without any human interaction. When we snap a photo two things happen: the act of taking the photo and an automatic digital post-production. Most of the times the photos we see on our camera roll have been post-produced for clarity, curves, definition. They are “made-up” to look brighter and better. What’s done by the phone is very close to a human post-production, but it’s “take it or leave it”: we don’t have any control over it.
The post-production I’m talking about is also made via software (or apps, if you prefer) by a human: you.
The camera is a tool and it’s worse than your eyes
Have you ever been disappointed by the result of some pictures you took? You remember a beautiful and glorious sunset and the photo you’re seeing is just a big splash of oversaturated red on the top and a black region on the bottom. No details, not even the idea of all those trees you saw in that place. What happened? A camera — every camera, good or bad — suffers from the so called “exposure latitude”, or in other world the extension of light that it can capture. That’s why when the scene is too contrasted it tries to find a balance between the overexposed and the underexposed areas, ending up with an exposure that “burns” the so- called high lights (overexposed regions) and underexposes too much the dark ones. Virtue is not always in the middle, like in this case. Why do you remember a different image of that scene? Because you actually saw it different and differently: the human eye has in fact a much broader exposure latitude and it’s able to grab more details even in high-contrasted scenes. And this is just to talk about the physical image. Because there’s another, more important one: the mental image. The first is the image of a scene as recorded by your eyes and then stored into your brain; the second comes with the feelings and emotions you’re having while taking it.
The greatness of photography — also within its technical and optical limits — is that it can deliver both the physical and the mental image of a scene.
Of course, with a little effort: the post-production.
With a little help
I hope that you’ve never thought that all the beautiful photos you happened to see are good because the photographers that took them are better than you at their job. I mean: probably they are but those photos didn’t come straight out their cameras as you see them. They were heavily post-produced. That means that their tones have been pushed and modified, like their lights and contrasts and so on, just to mention few parameters you can work on editing a photo.
A quick clarification for the sake of honesty: there’s anything bad in post-production. The photo itself is not the one taken by the camera. There are few other operations needed after the shooting in order to get not the best photo but the one the photographer has in mind while he takes it. That’s an important difference between post-production and alteration:
Post-producing a photo means bringing out the picture the photographer has in his mind while taking it; alteration means adding something which wasn’t there in the first place. The first one is still photography, the latter is cheating.
Adding people to a crowd — people who weren’t there — is cheating, it’s not making the image stronger. On the other side, working on levels, adding vignettes and so on it’s perfectly acceptable.
Having said that, let’s move on to the don’ts.
You all probably already know very well the basics of post-production. You don’t believe it? You’d better do it because filters on Instagram are exactly a basic form of post-production. Even if sometimes they work pretty good (same happens — even if in a more professional way — with VSCO’s presets), it’s better to use them in a clever way. I tend to use them to add a final touch to the photo, but never at 100% of their strength (do you know you can dose how much effect you pour into a picture don’t you? Yes you can). What’s most important is that each photo has its particular post-production (aka effect or filter): we can say that “it calls its own filter”, so to say. It depends on the kind of feeling you want to give to your photo: a warm tone maybe? Dark contrasts? It all depends on you, that’s the power of post-production:
Post-production is, in other words, the meaning you want to give to your work. The message you want to deliver.
Nonetheless, there are some behaviours that’s better to avoid, like:
Do not use effects like HDR (High Dynamic Range) too heavily or do not oversaturate your photos, for instance. HDR is good when it adds details otherwise lost (particularly in dark areas) but it’s really bad when it’s pushed so far to give an unnatural touch to the image (there’s a whole Reddit thread on bad HDR)
Avoid fashion presets
As it happens in photography in general (cliches and trends for examples), the same happens in post-production: some presets are just fashion. They’re good for the season because some famous photographer uses them (like the aforementioned orange and teal effect) but that doesn’t mean they are always fine. It depends. Sometimes they are, sometimes they don’t.
You have the power to give each photo its own voice. The same effect/post-production technique cannot apply to different photos because each one wants to speak its own words.
Create a hierarchy
I do believe that the most important thing in post-production — apart from delivering a message using the right “words” — is to create a hierarchy. A photo is a composition: that means that it’s made of different parts in a relationship the ones with the others. This relationship is based on a hierarchy which is very simple in the end: what’s important on the top, the rest beneath it. Post-production is another way to bring attention on certain details and to use the rest as a frame. This relationship can be evident and strong or subtle. A photo with a pale palette could suggest that there’s no hierarchy but let’s see from another point of view: when everything is on the same level it means that every detail has the same importance. On the other end, a very contrasted image with strong and dark shadows suggests that the bright details are on the top and that dark regions are there just to frame them.
More examples like this one:
On the other side, some examples with uniform tones and feeling (and with subtler hierarchies, solely based on geometry):
Each time I start to post-produce a photo I ask myself “What’s important here? Which details do I really want to stress? The skin tone? That face on the right bottom of the composition? Well, let’s work it according to it”. Let’s create a hierarchy able to give importance to some regions and use others to frame the first ones.
In the end you, as a photographer, should suggest a way to read your photo. Composition and post-production are your basic tools.
Speaking of tools…
These are the apps I use for post-productions. Snapseed is for quick editing like levels, perspective, rotation, lightness and so on; Lenslight adds light effects (like, for instance, pushing a sunset a little bit); VSCO is very good for its presets, usually inspired by analogue film looks; Lightroom is for RAW editing (actually also Snapseed and VSCO can manage it). RAW? What’s that? It means avoiding the software post-production added to your pictures via software and shooting in a non-compressed format. You can find more about that here.
I’m lazy at post-processing. I don’t want nor have time to spend hours working on tones, definition, color enhancements and so on. Post-processing takes usually a lot of efforts. It could take twice or ten times (even much more) than the act of snapping a photo. That doesn’t mean it can be avoided. Post-processing is fundamental to give power and — above all — meaning to a photo. A good image starts from a good composition and is ready to be delivered only after a deep post-processing.
Taking a photo is like writing a draft.
Post-processing is like editing it and making it clearer, better and stronger.
Coming up on Everybody’s a photographer:
- Composition and post-production: examples on how to use these tools to make great images.
- Photo-editing: how to tell a story or say something by images