The Value of Post-processing

Many clients protest that the price of photography is high compared to the amount of time they see the photographer at work. What they don’t understand is the amount of work that begins after the shoot ends. Preparing the equipment before the shoot, transportation to the shoot, and file management and archiving aside, there is a significant amount of work in post-processing the photos. While all good photographers try to get the best photo possible in camera to avoid heavy post-processing, no photo comes out of the camera perfectly, so work must be done to achieve perfection. This is not only a liability of digital photography. For photographers who work with film, there is an analogue equivalent to post-processing in all the work necessary to make the best print, as negatives are rarely perfect either.

I can think of four main reasons for post-processing. Let me know if you can add any others by commenting on this post.

1. The camera is a machine. The camera’s sensor records the photons of light as they exist when the shutter is released, subject to the settings of the camera as the photographer decides they are best for the situation. There is not much human touch until the photographer evaluates the digital file and makes adjustments to interpret the mood of the photo as only a human can. In particular, the individual RGB channels need to be adjusted to represent a more natural range from lightest to darkest.

2. Photography is always a set of compromises. There is an inverse proportion between every aspect of photography. Not much light, but you want to get everything in focus and have a bright photo? Can’t do it. You must choose between brightness and depth of field. Is there a broad range of illumination in the scene but you want to expose for everything? Again, you can’t do it. You have to choose between exposing for the highlights or the shadows, but not both. Study the before and after photos above. The church was overall darkly lit, with strong illumination only on the choir. I exposed for the choir so as not to blow out their highlights. That left the remainder of the photo with little detail in the shadows. Only by post-processing the photo could I bring out the details in the dark areas and simulate what the scene actually looked like (the human eye can see a much broader range of light to dark than the camera). In addition, I was shooting with auto white balance, which is necessary at an event like this, where I was moving around the church all morning. With this setting, the camera decides what neutral should be. Often it does a good job, but in this case I though the light was a little too warm. I was able to adjust the white balance in post-processing.

3. Every photo needs to be sharpened. Unlike their film predecessors, digital cameras don’t produce sharp photos, no matter how well focused the lens is or how steady the photographer holds the camera. The fault is in the engineering of the sensor. The pixels on the sensor measure the quantity of red, green, and blue light with individual elements that are positioned next to each other. The merging of these individual channels into one pixel of light blurs the pixel slightly. There’s no getting around this, and each photo must be individually sharpened with settings particular to its qualities. For instance, you may want to sharpen a landscape a lot to bring out detail out in leaves or grass. However, the same amount of sharpening in a portrait would highlight pores and wrinkles. Another factor in sharpness is the quality of the lens. Better lenses yield sharper photos. But even the best lenses have a “sweet spot” at which they are their sharpest. The sweet spot occurs at one-third-to one-half the smallest aperture, generally between f/4 and f/8. So if the lens I’m using has its sweet spot at f/5.6 but for artistic reasons I shoot at f/16, I might expect that the photo would be a little less sharp, and I’ll have to sharpen it in post-processing.

4. Retouching is a necessary evil. It’s inevitable: you need to remove that one bird from an otherwise flawless sky. Or the green lights at the party cast a sickly glow on the guests’ faces. Or no amount of makeup could cover up that angry zit. Retouching is a natural and necessary part of any photo shoot, and it takes time and expertise to do it in post-processing.

So consider all this the next time you need to put a value on a photographers work, and you’ll realize that the fee is probably pretty reasonable. But never be afraid to ask each photographer you hire what goes into his or her prices. The better informed you are, the better experience both you and your photographer will have.

Here are some additional examples of photos direct from the camera compared to the post-processed result.

The camera’s machine rendering didn’t match my memory of the scene. While the original is not bad, it just doesn’t pop. I adjusted the levels and the contrast, and I recovered the hot spot on the models’ forehead. And of course, I sharpened the photo.

This machine rendering lacked punch. I adjusted the white balance for a closer match to my memory of the light at sunset. And the clouds seemed more dramatic to my human eye, so I adjusted their contrast in the photo.

Not a bad photo to start, but the camera’s interpretation of the white shirt is very blue, taking the model’s skin with it. I warmed the photo up considerably, making her look much more natural. I removed some blemishes, lightened her eye sockets, and smoothed out her skin (hard to tell the difference in these small photos). Then I sharpened the photo.


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