Confessions of a Serial Over Processor

I think that it is human nature, when we learn something new, the last aspect we master is moderation!  That is not something that is limited to photography, but I will try to stay in that arena.

One of the real benefits of the technology now at our fingertips is the ease with which we can do incredible work.  Clearly, the main tool is Photoshop.  Because Photoshop is such a dominant force there are lots of extra tools we can use with it to create spectacular images.  To me one of the hardest things to master, and I don’t claim to have fully done that, is the balance between too little and too much.

By now, I think we all understand the concept of letting the camera do as much work as possible.  With a good capture, the post processing needs are less both in quantity and complexity.  There are so many ways that we can work an image.  Each of them can make that image better, or worse.

Following is a short trip through some of the adjustments and techniques that I have managed to overuse:

Temperature: That lovely kelvin number that seems to range an image from blue to red.  For many images small changes to the temperature allow you to go from sunny to cloudy, etc.  Then come the people pictures.  These get real tricky.  Cool an image down too much and your subject looks like they’ve never seen the sun.  Warm it too much and they look like they are totally over made up, affected by a fever or rash, or worse!  Here is an example.  This was shot by one of my mentors who is a top portrait photographer.  The first has the temperature “as shot”.  The other two use standard preset temperatures, tungsten and shade.


Need I say more?

Sharpness:  Good sharpening is a wonderful tool for turning what is a two dimensional medium into three dimensions.  Good sharpening needs to be applied judiciously to selected parts of the image.  That will bring out the features you want to highlight, draw the viewer’s attention to a specific part of that image or even change the emphasis of that image.  It is truly rare that an image will not benefit from some sharpening.  Too much sharpening, either applied uniformly to the entire image or too strong has everything “screaming” at you.

Here’s an example of the difference sharpening can make.  I really like the image.  I hope you can tell which one may be a bit too sharp.


Of course, there are those who would say that a heavy hand on sharpening is just “my style”!  I’ll leave any decision on that up to you.

Saturation:  This is another adjustment where the amount can be construed as part of an individual style.  The reality is that under saturating is really obvious.  One way to create a black and white from a color image is to totally desaturate it!  The other extreme is colors totally blown out almost to the point of distortion.  Those of us who remember the days when psychedelic first happened can remember colors like electric day glow orange that never looked real and were hard on the eyes.  That’s what over saturating can do.  I’m not often guilty of unintentional over saturation.  Here’s an example of where I did that, but intentionally.


I don’t think there is any question about over saturation.  We had an assignment for our club critiques to try things “outside of your comfort zone”.  This clearly fit that bill.  (side note…the cyclist just happened to come into the picture as I snapped it, there is no way I could have planned that!)

HDR: The idea behind HDR is to get multiple shots of the same image at different shutter speeds.  That allows you to get one or more shots that emphasize the brights and highlights, the mid tones and the shadows and darks.  You then merge the images together.  You have to use software for this.  When well done, HDR produces some incredible images.  Truth be told, I still struggle a lot doing these images.  Yes, you can also process a single image via HDR with the same possible pros and cons.  HDR software provides a lot of options for tweaking your image.  These tools are probably the easiest to overuse.  Again there are some folks who think that obvious overuse of HDR is cool.  Here’s an example of how bad/wrong an image can go.  I shot this in Rockport, MA.  Rockport was a serious art colony for a long time and the iconic scene one painted was called Motif #1.


The first image is fairly close to what things actually looked like.  The second image has a lot of aspects blown out, there are artifacts jumping out all over, many of the edges have shadows around them, in other words…yeech!

Add-ins: Add-in tools for Photoshop are designed to allow the photographer to more easily do certain adjustments.  The one I use the most is Silver Efex for converting to black and white.  There are a huge number of these add-ins, including HDR tools.  When used judiciously, these tools can really take a lot of the work out of enhancing an image.  If you are not observant when using them, you run the risk of so over exaggerating one or more aspects of the image that it becomes unrecognizable.

The bottom line, the tools we have at our disposal today are terrific.  They allow us to do incredible things with our images.  The best example I can use to emphasize the two aspects is to think of power tools ( you know drills, saws, routers, etc.)  Used properly, they let me build some really neat “stuff”.  Used improperly, you’ll probably have to call me “lefty”!