What does post-processing really mean?

I “develop” or “process” every photo I publish. Every photo gets a little colour-correction, some cropping (usually), some exposure-correction, and usually a little constrast boost. People sometimes ask me “has that been altered?” or “did you photoshop that?” when they see one of my more compelling photos. I’m never sure how to answer because, technically, yes, they’ve all been altered one way or another and yes I use Photoshop Lightroom to alter them. And yet I know that’s not what they mean when they ask. If it were then it would be like asking a film photographer if his photos “have been developed” or “did you darkroom that?”

What they mean, of course, is did I change the reality of the scene? Did I remove or add objects or “airbrush” certain features? For me the answer is almost always no.

Here’s an example using a photo I took of my daughter this weekend:

  • I’ve corrected the colour so that her skin has a more natural tone – if just a touch paler than it actually is.
  • I’ve also lowered the “clarity” quite a bit to give a softer, dreamier look – a side-effect of that is much smoother-looking skin.
  • I lightened up the corners of the image (a reverse vignette) to draw the eye into the centre of the photo.
  • her eyes were quite shadowy so used the paintbrush to lighten them up a bit
  • the whites of her eyes were also a little pink, so I corrected that – the side-effect of which was to turn the iris a shade of green — Hannah’s eyes are blue. I decided to leave them green because I’d already mucked around with this photo far too much. ;)

This photo has FAR more corrections than I would normally do on image, but I thought it would make an interesting before/after illustration. The full-size “after” photo is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/carmichaels/8018243656

If you would like to see a before/after treatment on any of my other photos, leave a comment here or on the blog post with the photo – or even on Flickr.

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