Serious Photographers Don’t Use Post-Processing

I’m not sure where this concept originated, but I know it didn’t come from the professional photographic community. This sophomoric bravado may be sincere in its conviction but it is sincerely wrong in its claim. Actually, the polar opposite is true.

History Lesson. If you shot film before the digital camera revolution, the following explanation is unnecessary. However, if you are a recent participant (last 20 years) in digital photography, you might want to understand this.

B&W Films. Black and White films were largely processed and printed by individual photographers in their personal darkrooms as a matter of preference, pride, and skill. The film development variables and print controls afforded to B&W were doable and rewarding, and B&W prints have always provided photographers a form of serious artistic expression. We revered Ansel Adams and he always post-processed his own images. He advocated the art of shaping the light.

Bowers SBS

Dave Bowers, President Flagler Beach Photography Club. Digital color capture converted to B/W

Black and white photography is the original and most obvious form of “post-processing” in film photography. Anyone who has ever dodged, burned, dipped and rocked trays in a sink in the darkroom understands this passion completely. Occasionally, when we needed extreme enlargements, we sent our negatives to a commercial lab for printing and dry-mounting on art boards.

Color Films. Color films were a completely different story. Professional photographers, photo retouchers, ad agencies, art/design studios, airbrush artists, art directors, photo technicians, darkroom jockeys, and even serious hobbyists prior to 1995, all entrusted their exposed color film exclusively to the services of professional photo labs for processing.

Very few professional photographers even processed their own color negatives, and precious few brave individuals produced their own color prints. The controls were simply too limited and all work had to be done in total darkness. There was no fun in the process.

Color Prints. Color prints (beyond Drugstore-grade 4×6 glossies) were produced almost exclusively for galleries, exhibits and wall decorations. Most of these prints were retouched for color, texture, and detail. Prints were rarely used for publications and high-end lithography unless serious airbrushing alterations were required. In that case, C-prints were produced for the retouching work before being handed off to the engraver.

Color Transparencies. Very few of us even processed our own Ektachrome slides (35mm) and transparencies (4×5 and 8x 10), and Kodachrome slides were only produced in 35mm size, were processed exclusively by Kodak-licensed labs. Kodachromes were rarely used in the printing process. Color transparencies were hardly ever used in the production of individual prints but were the preferred photographic original for publications and picture books.

Color Engraving. One more note about post-processing images. Virtually all chromes destined for publication or collateral materials were precision color-corrected by photoengravers and color separators during the color conversion from RGB to CMYK. Nobody outside the trade knew about the color transitions that occurred inside the shop. Any color photos that bypassed the color correction stage always appeared dull.

Lithography (high-end print) has always been handled by color trade professionals and involved the generation of multiple color-corrected proofs before going to press. I was a color separator for decades, and worked for National Geographic’s premier color engraver, so I know this first hand.

Virtually every mass-printed color picture, whether for publication, fine art, or advertising was heavily post-processed, just as it continues to be today for all commercial publications. I am a photo retoucher even today for several high-end City Magazines.

Disclaimer… professional post-processing stops way short of today’s typically-overproduced trend. In the color trade, we color balanced and adjusted tonality so that each image reproduced with punch and precision on press, but we stopped short of the surrealistic images, saturated colors and grunge hi-def appearance so popular in today’s processing software. True professionals respect the art of restraint. We live in the real world; Fantasyland only exists at Disney.

Personal Publishing. Only the phenomenon of the Internet and the advent of social media have provided a platform for the masses to publish their pictures any way they wish. They’re not hard to spot. Ironically, most social media affords the User various forms of photo effects, which is just a novel form of post-processing.

Next time someone demeans post-production, maybe you should have them read this post. That’s the way I sees it. Let me know what you think. Sign up for this blog and join me on a regular basis. I love to hear other opinions and feedback. Life’s for learning.

If you’d like to understand what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, go to and get Bright About Light! All the answers to these (and more) questions are answered in an easy-to-understand video series.

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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 from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color video series at Gotta Know
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2 Responses to Serious Photographers Don’t Use Post-Processing

  1. Eric says:

    I process my own digital images and print my own except for specialized stocks or mounts. My personal rule of thumb is that the final image should be something the eye saw or could have seen. (which covers things like long exposure star shots, for instance). The point is to retain some fidelity to the subject of the photo — but intelligently, not as a slave.

    Practically everything I do comes down to dodging and burning — but with a level of selectivity that only digital routines can make feasible. I do use noise reduction and micro contrast adjustments (On-1 or Topaz for instance) and an up-rezzing program for really big enlargements.

    I do use a tool called Lumenzia to create and adjust luminosity masks. But again, the final output has to look like something at least connected to the original subject.

    The line between digital artist and digital photographer is getting blurrier by the day. If one wishes to be on the photographer side of that line, blurry as it is, the connection with the external world has to be maintained. Post processing can trash that connection and produce something beautiful, but only by crossing the line past where I as a photographer am reluctant to go — though there have been exceptions! 🙂

    • Herb Paynter says:

      There is a fine line indeed between optimizing and exaggerating with our images. I see images that are overdone quite routinely now, the norm more than the exception, and that disturbs me somewhat. Photography as an art form is no different than the liberties taken within the fine arts of oil painting. It’s a tough call. I have always tried to bring my photos up to the level that my imagination “saw” when I captured the image. Sometimes I cross that line purposely, but I do so on a selective basis. Over-processing every image just gets tiresome.

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