Exercising The Art of Restraint

When processing photographic images, the greatest skill is knowing when to stop. This is a lesson I learned long ago. My entire career has been involved with color photography and image reproduction. I’ve invested more years in this area than I care to admit or that you care to know.

Harbor Street Original

A quaint old harbor street in San Juan Puerto Rico. The scene was colorful enough by itself. Very little enhancement was required to portray the scene the way my eyes observed it.

I worked my way through college running one of the printing presses in a large color reproduction house in Miami. We produced much of Miami’s high-end tourist and real estate pulp. An overactive curiosity drove me to learn virtually all facets of the image reproduction process. I invested over twenty years in pressroom, pre-press, color separation, studio photography and image processing, and that was prior digital! As a result, I pretty much understand how to control the whole process now.

In all those years, I was exposed to both craftsmen and cowboys in every aspect of the process.  I observed professionals and amateurs at every station, and I learned something from each. But one thing has always separated the pros from the cons in my mind; the true professionals exhibited the art of restraint. They knew when to stop pushing the process beyond the point of believability; their respect for the tools and the trade governed their production. That mantra of restraint has governed my photography and image processing work throughout my career.


When film and chemistry began it’s transition to pixels and software, I was at the right place at the right time to get involved in the industry transition, consulting with the new giants of publishing: Apple, Adobe, and Aldus and producing the first four-color literature in the industry. At first, the exuberance of the new breed of desktop publishers tended to overproduce everything.

379165 CCil1202

Fascination with new opportunities doesn’t always produce professional results

Like a little girl discovering her mother’s makeup, almost all the initial production was filled with too much of everything; color, fonts, drop-shadows, boxes, etc. The maturity of good taste was in short supply. But within a few years, a level of restraint and professional taste prevailed.

In our years as an Adobe Developer, my company (ImageXpress) produced an AI (artificial intelligence) image processing system for Photoshop called ScanPrep. Much of my photo/imaging experience went this plug-in for the fledgling desktop publishing industry. ScanPrep automated all Photoshop imaging processes and optimized scanned images for accurate reproduction.

The temptation to over saturate and over sharpen images to produce a WOW factor was purposely tempered by the instilled art of restraint. ScanPrep won all the publishing awards for years and was employed by virtually all major publishers, newswire picture desks, and yearbook publishers because it produced striking color images, but kept their appearance within the limits of reality.

This same harbor street processed by enhancement software. The lines are over-defined, the contrast is jacked up, and the colors are over-saturated. Good for expressive applications.

Harbor Street OnOne

Today many popular image processing software packages offer pre-set enhancements and amped effects that are quite beautiful and very popular largely because they effortlessly hype scene images to a surrealistic degree. I personally love the edgy and exaggerated results that I can achieve with this software for art’s sake. Be careful to only use select the images for this treatment. If every image gets over-enhanced, your “style” will get stuck in software surrealism. Keep the body of your work your style.


As with all sharp tools… use with caution.

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at GottaKnowVideos.com.
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3 Responses to Exercising The Art of Restraint

  1. Hey Herb, I really appreciated this article on restraint. I appreciate all your efforts to share what you have learned and I took your course on color, only to discover later that I have a bit of color-blindness (I don’t see greens completely as others do.) However, I am still able to produce work that others applaud. I shoot nearly 100% natural light and at 12-16MP, M4/3 with my Lumix cameras, I rely heavily on processing. I would really appreciate your giving my work a quick glance (3 or 4 minutes) and then sharing your immediate impressions regarding the extent of processing I currently employ. I am 64, so I feel I will be able to interpret your critique reasonably well. I understand if this is not possible for you. I would consider hiring you to do a real analysis if you would do something like that. You have rare objectivity and I value that. Thanks for all you do.

  2. Berdella says:

    Thanks, great blog! I like edgy on occasion, but mostly realistic!

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