Do you do post-processing every day?
What I was suggesting in the "Processing Strategy" post a few days ago was that on the first pass working on an image, stay loose, take it easy, work fast, and don't stress—get it mostly right. And then step back and stop working on it. Then, let it "ripen"—live with it for a while, think about it; "feel your way into it" as a friend of mine says. If an image still has power / interest / energy for you after some time has passed, that's when you spend the time to really work on it, to more closely calibrate it with "just right" or "perfect."
In the Comments to that post, Adrian Malloch had this to say, in part:
"Just looking," and the passage of time, has been a necessary part of my slow-photography practice too. However, the impatience of my commercial clients who, despite having had the proofs for three weeks, suddenly want 37 selected images graded and processed urgently, means that their poor planning becomes my rushed processing.
My sympathies. I suspect all pros know that feeling. In fact, "pro" work in general means getting to good results quickly and efficiently...rushing, usually.
I made the case for this once in back in the old days talking about home darkroom work vs. commercial labs. The custom fine printers were generally much better printers, and faster, because they did it all the time and had to make good prints quickly, spending the least possible amount of time and materials. Where the custom lab guys fell down is precisely in that they were forced to use...the least possible amount of time and materials! That's why the home darkroom worker could sometimes make a better print. What they lacked in fluency and practice they could make up for in time and care. Where the custom lab guy might have no more than seven minutes and two sheets of paper to make a "finished" print, the home darkroom worker could take four hours and twelve sheets of paper if she wanted to.
Where the home darkroom workers fell down is that they didn't work often enough to stay "fluent." They never pushed themselves to learn how to work quickly and efficiently. Never had enough reason to.
Do you post-process at least a few images every day?
If you don't, you should. Just to keep your hand in. Regularity makes for fluency. Even if it's not an image you're going to keep, spend a few minutes fixing it. (Even if it's not yours. As I think I mentioned a while back, I sometimes snag random images off the Intertoobs and fix 'em. Why? Just to keep my hand in.)
This is a picture I processed yesterday. It's kind of a bleh, meh, second-tier shot. I don't like it, would never print it, and consider it an also-ran. So why bother with it at all? Because I want to get good at B&W conversion, and that mostly means exercising my judgement of tones on a regular basis. I want to practice on skies, and on questions such as, how dark a gray should the lake be in this shot, taken at dusk, to "read" like the scene really looked and felt to me? This is practice, pure and simple. Like a pianist playing scales.
Really, the ideal way to master post-processing (or darkroom printing) is to learn to work both ways—fast and slow.
When you first work on a new image, act like a professional—work quickly and fluidly. Pretend your client wants 37 images delivered yesterday. Get to a good-enough result fast. Then move on to the next one.
Later, act like an artist or hobbyist...bring your full judgment to bear on those (no doubt fewer) pictures that still interest you. Study the file; determine what it really needs; question everything; work slowly and fastidiously. Be a craftsman (or -woman). Take your time. Get it just right. Not close but just right.
Speed and fluency is the great advantage of the pro. Time, thoughtfulness and detail-orientation is the great advantage of the amateur.
You need to learn both ways of working to really get good.
(Thanks to Adrian M.)
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jay Pastelak: "You're so right about looking at what one has done. As a teacher, I have many students who don't really look at what they have (or have done: in a final critique I once had a student bring in a comped piece in which a label was unintentionally flopped). As a result, they have no idea what to do to the file in processing. I'm not sure if their lack of looking is merely a result of their inexperience or a manifestation of a cultural notion that the technology will get it right. It's one of my huge frustrations in teaching because I can't seem to find a way to teach them to look. And brother, have I tried."
Mike replies: I know what you mean. My former teacher, now friend Paul Kennedy, who taught lighting at the Corcoran School of Art for years, once told me that the hardest thing about teaching lighting was getting students to actually look at what the lights were doing. They were much more comfortable following setup diagrams and so forth. He had an exercise where one student would slowly move a hot light, and the other student's assignment was merely to look at what happened to the light on the subject while the light was moved.
Michael Martin-Morgan: "Quite so. Most people when they play on a computer choose a video game. My video game? Photoshop—great fun!"
Kenneth Tanaka: "In a typical week I do some form of post work perhaps three of seven days. Other days I'm either doing camera work or other things.
"After nearly 20 years working with images I'd like to offer two thoughts outside what's already been noted. First, contrary to the old chestnut, practice will not make perfect when it comes to image refinement. In the absence of some external feedback or aesthetic guidance chances are good that practice may make you worse. In today's digital environment it's very easy to succumb to 'trying' one set of filters and HDR widgets after another. Bit by bit (sorry) your images begin to take on a kitschy, cartoonish appearance where the treatment overthrows the whole message of your images. Unless you force yourself to remain tethered to some aesthetic model constructive to your visual goal it becomes easy to lose sight of what you're trying to accomplish. Learning short-form and long-form treatment routines, as Mike suggested, is essential. But you must first find rails best for your work.
"To that end, make every effort to see good printed work whenever possible. Work whose treatment you not only find appealing but that accomplishes the kind of visual messaging you feel you need. Learn the master art of restraint. It's very, very hard to find such work within the amateur photo sites. I strongly recommend museums and galleries whenever possible. Online, sites such as Lens Culture and L'Oeil de la Photographic are excellent places to see a broad range of work and treatments.
"Second, and this may seem radical, consider partnering with someone who does post-processing, and perhaps printing, professionally. Paying an experienced retoucher, or even a talented art student, to put the finishing touches on your images can be tremendously enlightening and more productive for some projects."
Joe Holmes: "Ken Tanaka's advice, 'consider partnering with someone who does post-processing,' is spot on. Every time I've worked with a professional post-processor or printer I've seem them bring out my images in a way I could not. And I picked up their techniques each time—invaluable! But even non-pros can show you tricks you hadn't considered. Watching a friend work an image is worth a hundred YouTube videos."