RAW Processing v Photoshop Manipulation

I read a blog recently discussing the value of utilizing Photoshop in your photography. The author of the blog seemed to come down firmly on the fence saying that he felt it added to photos in ways we couldn’t replicate in camera, that he used it sometimes, but he firmly believed “as an old fashioned purist” it camera only should only be used 90% of the time.

To begin, I’d like to begin with pointing out the difference between ‘photoshopping’ a photograph and processing a RAW file. I’m guessing from the way the author wrote that they have never seen the inside of a darkroom.

In the old days that this photographer waxed so poetically about, almost as much work was done out of camera as in camera. Not 90% to 10%. I have been saying for more than 20 years that how you process your image is just as important as how you take it. (I also often say that how you print and present your photographs is also as important, but that’s another rant.)

I get the impression that when the author managed to capture a decent photo on film, it was accidental rather than intentional and then he sent his roll of film off to a 24-hour lab for processing.

It is kind of the same with Photoshop. Processing a RAW image is the equivalent of spending time in a darkroom, just you and the chemicals whereas shooting in JPG is the same as getting a machine to process your film.

Let me be clear, I firmly believe on getting it right from the camera. That is the whole point of Remember Forever workshops and the lessons we teach around the world. Getting it right from the camera means composition, means getting your exposure correct, removing distractions and not clicking the button a million times to get something half decent.

Getting it right from the camera means capturing a negative that you can then develop and turn into a photograph. Same as in the good ol’ days. Photoshop for a professional photographer is not about altering an image or changing how it was taken - but using what was taken (as a negative) to create a photograph.

The photographer mentioned a camera club meeting where someone criticized someone for not using photoshop. Not having been there I can’t really comment but the part of me that has faith in my industry hopes and believes fervently that the critic in question just wanted them to process the image, same as the old days.

If you’re 100% satisfied with how your photos have turned out on camera and they have not been post-processed, it is going to be the outcome of shooting in JPG.

There are settings in your camera called ‘Picture Styles’ or ‘Style Profiles’. With these settings you can alter inbuilt settings in your camera like saturation, vibrancy, sharpness, contrast …

How is that different to Photoshop? It IS actually different. When you change those settings in your camera, you’re giving more power to your camera and less to the photographer – pretty much the opposite of what we teach you in Remember Forever workshops. You're essentially giving your camera permission to use blanket photo manipulation settings (saturation, brightness etc.)

Let me put it simply. If you shoot in JPG, you’re sending your roll of film to K-Mart, Walmart or the pharmacy for 24 hour, 1 hour or instant developing. Like I said above, a major component of the photographic art has always been in the processing of your film. I actually miss the smell of some of the chemicals, and if my wife would let me, I’m pretty sure our R.V. on our current American tour would smell like a darkroom of old.

Processing your RAW image – whether you use Photoshop, Lightroom, Camera RAW, Aperture or any of the other variants is the same as spending time in a darkroom.

Here’s my rule.

I won’t do anything in Photoshop (or any of the alternatives) that I was unable to do in a darkroom. If I need to brighten one area, darken another – we call that dodging and burning and that could always be done with chemicals. So could saturation. Filters? If you go to the Royal Photographic Society in London, there are graduated filters on display from the early 1900’s – yet the author of this blog has gone on record claiming they are cheating.

If it can be done on film and in a darkroom, then it’s still photographic. Just because our film is now digital and our darkroom is now on a computer does not make it evil.

Where do I draw the line?

Do I manipulate the image beyond what I took? By that I mean, am I clone-stamping out a stray bit of trash floating the breeze or hiding a random tourist by altering what I took? Am I substituting the sky I photographed with another?

No. I’m working with the data that I’ve captured. Well, let me amend. This relates to my travel photography. When shooting portraits or weddings, yes - I will go beyond the darkroom and look at magazine style retouching.

If you’re interested, I’m happy to share exactly how I process a RAW image. CLICK HERE to watch a very short 3 minute video of me explaining.

If you don’t want to watch the video, it really breaks down to:

• Adjust the exposure 
slightly if necessary
• Tweak the contrast

• Slightly adjust your vibrancy and clarity

• I like to throw in a bit more of a graduated filter

• Adjustment Brush – Dodge and Burn

• Straighten your Image

Like I said, nothing I do here can’t be done in a darkroom. Thinking it’s photoshop manipulation means you have never set foot in a darkroom.

Is it okay to cross the line? Here’s where I get controversial.

Absolutely, yes it is. Did you know the principles of photography have existed since around 400 B.C.?

In (I think) 1665, Isaac Newton discovered how light and color worked together, essentially creating the White Balance setting.

In 1727, Johann Schulze worked out how Silver Nitrate and light interacted to make an exposure, essentially creating film.

In 1814 the first photograph was taken by Joseph Niepce with Camera Obscura, though it needed hours to expose and later faded.

In 1900 the Brownie was developed. In 1913 the 35mm camera and in 1935, Kodachrome film came out.

Here’s my question. Did Photographers between 1913 and digital cry that using anything other than the Brownie was cheating? The flash was developed in 1927. Does that mean as a purist I shouldn’t use it because it wasn’t developed at the same time as Brownie or Silver Nitrate or God forbid 400 B.C.

Technology is going to change – that’s just life. The photographer who wrote the blog that started this rant has recently set himself up as a wedding photographer (with no training, experience or education.)

Let me ask a question. Who knows a single bride who doesn’t want an element of retouching to her wedding photos?

Photoshop manipulation has created a whole new artform (coming soon in a brand new Remember Forever workshop) that has it’s place – a place that doesn’t mean purists need to wring their hands in despair. (Seriously, you should check out the new workshop, it’s awesome!)

As a separate artform, Photo Manipulation has a lot to proud of, as does HDR. Personally, I’m not a fan of HDR and having tried it a few times, will never go back as I can’t ever be comfortable with the artificial feeling I see in an end image.

Yes! I firmly believe that we need to get it right from the camera. I don’t agree that means shooting in JPG and being self-righteous about my photographic abilities. It means we capture the same data we used to capture in film and it means using our digital darkroom to process our images.

If you don’t process your images (which is the same thing as developing a roll of film), you’re only doing half your job as a photographer. You’re letting camera settings do the rest. Good job.


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