What a beautiful picture ... Photoshop did it? About post-production and retouch.

Thursday, 30 May 2013


What a beautiful picture, who knows what treatments you have made in Photoshop? Willy-nilly any photographer is today confronted with such questions. Just think about the winner photo of the World Press Photo Award 2013, the beautiful photograph of Paul Hansen, that has aroused so many reactions, as it should be, the vast majority however addressed to the editing, that many have considered excessive, and once again all complaints against the photographer, who is guilty according to many of creating drama in picture out of retouching, with an almost painterly use of light and color, definitely got in a fake way, according to many critics.

There are those who came to the hypothesis that the light on the faces, coming in from the left, has been recreated artificially by the photographer during post-production, “it would be impossible" to have a similar light. Without even need to remember that the light bounces and nothing unreal appears in this photo, I wonder why there is so much attention to the editing and so little to what the photograph communicates and tells, specially in the case of photojournalism. Almost that that "stage," what has became the Palestine now, is part of a never-ending story, in the collective mind, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become now an immutable fact: "Hey look at another picture on murder victims in Palestine ... well, let’s see what retouching he used the photographer ..."

Now from a lighter and personal context. I often get questions from students about the post-production of my shots. I collect always, among those who began their photographic adventure, a common belief that the passage in Photoshop is what gives a picture its atmosphere and its intensity. Reluctantly I get more requests on that than on the photographer's vision, or what led him to choose a particular perspective, to highlight certain elements, or simply bout the time of day, the chosen light, etc..

The post-production is a must, we know, but it appears in the eyes of most people as the shortcut, almost the "magic trick" by which even a mediocre photographer can create spectacular images from almost nothing. This happens sometimes, but mediocre photos appear spectacular only to those who do not understand photography, even if they consume a lot of it, which today means a multitude of people. Even in the field of photojournalism, you know, the never-ending troubling concerns about the photo editing keeps asleep the most prestigious boards. However, I believe that those who, as in the photo of Hansen, so quickly jumped against his choice of post-production if not ignorant of photography, they are not honest, which is much worse. We can speculate, at most, on the need to "fine-tune" (I like the word "tuning" to express this idea, I'll use in this post), what is just to give that final touch to an image such that in somehow it be helped to emerge from the background noise of the nowadays subculture of the images. Somehow the photographer "has to" overdo it. I wonder if the photographers are not quite the victims, instead, and they are always ready to jump on each other.

Let's go back to the topic. Photo editing as an alternative to be able to photograph , this is the common sense. Not by chance in photojournalism, even by tradition, there is a "trend" towards producing raw harsh images, pictures that not only have been very little retouched, they have been very little "meditated". Conversely there are photographers who have made their  style a signature, which is often obtained in the (traditional) darkroom. The fact that it can be replicated, when digital is the process, has made it lose value as expression. The "tricks" of the darkroom were hallmarks of a photographer, now a plug-in for Photoshop or other software can replicate "exactly" the digital development process used by a particular photographer, thus making him lose uniqueness. Who has not heard about the "Dave Hill" effect or "Dragan" effect? Just search on Youtube and tons of tutorials are there.

If one thing is replicable, you know, it is no longer an art. Yet the posterity will look at the typical "touch" given to images in these years as a "fashion". I see in the beautiful picture of Hansen the typical "tuning" of these years, I also wonder whether it is someone else's the creator, a studio maybe, a graphical editor. In fact today we all are free-lance, many of us rely on the post-production of some studio for a fee. Desaturation and sepia tones, it is the most currently used tuning. On second thought, this photo (among others) is almost a monochromatic one, it is a black and white that does not mean to be, with a hint of color which in itself arouses emotions (usually a color change either as brownish or as bluish, typically coming from the white balance or from a filter) but even so the avoid the distraction induced by the colors (for example, the electric blue of the suit, the man on the right).

Should we cry scandal and mystification? Are the colors of that shirt so essential for the understanding of the story from the picture? Thus we move into an area where the choices are no longer dictated by "right or wrong" but also by the intentions of the author, at best, or more likely by an editorial staff. I am convinced that many of my colleagues today fit to a certain taste for two basic reasons: fashion and opportunities. I do not dare to blame them. Fashion because this type of tuning is what current taste prefers and therefore requires. Opportunity because if you do not adapt, it is possible that your photos are penalized, others are preferred only because they are seen and yours are not, for the competition is fierce today we know (we're all free-lance): the art director (hopefully there is one in the newsroom) is affected by the current taste. Unless you're not a sacred monster of photography that makes his own choices, it is necessary to agree somehow with the current fashion.

Perhaps, in conclusion, if the editing got somehow standardized, it is not that bad. Maybe it is the photos to speak more than the tuning? Quite all photos from the Middle East war scenarios are desaturated, tuned to brownish and with only different doses of contrast .... well. It seems to me as we got back to black and white. Can you tell that black and white pictures were/are all similar?

This is the picture that started the discussion in the class.

Over the years I'm going back more and more to the black and white, pure B&W. The color bothers me sometimes even they protagonist of an image, as in the photographs who have made the career of a Steve McCurry, I find it most of the times distracting. Of course it is essential the photographer not puts intrusive colors in his photos, but objectively, if you think about the photos of Hansen, had he to ask the people to wear less colorful clothes? A speculation about color can not be reduced to these few lines. I would add that now strong touches of saturated color are the gimmick to capture the attention and the common taste. In doing so, however, photographers "distract" the observer and do not induce to perceive their images in its essence, form, space, light. This is just my personal idea, of course.

These are some photographic examples of two recent reports in which I chose the black and white, I’ll show the equivalent in color (after all it is always possible in digital to return to color in a file.) One of these is the photo "incriminated" by the students, what allows me to return to the initial topic. Because the risk today is this, that if a photo looks full of intensity, it is believed that the post-production definitely has made it such. In a sense, it is likely today that if a photographer has finely chosen moment, composition, light, etc.. he is considered at best a good "post-producer."

For my work, I have to talk with and understan those who are total noob in photography (and I like it) and I have to take into account what impressions a photo arouses inside uneducated minds. A strong contrast, for instance, which is possible only on photos that are perfect for light and exposure (unless you “burn” it to its extremes), may look like an elaborate and complicated photo editing, such as to suggest the initial question: "what a beautiful image... what have you done in photoshop? ". A feeling that it would be better not to arouse.

Like many photographers, I share some photos on facebook to keep in touch with the public. The photo (just above) is the one that made students think about strong photo editing pushes. We then discussed it in the class and this post got out. It may seem unbelievable but this photo has not even past through photoshop. Ther’s work there of course, everything on RAW, but what has been finely adjusted is the dosage of brightness and contrast, nothing has been introduced or altered. The color photograph from which it “originates” (in the RAW file, color data are always present even if we used a monochrome effect in camera) is this one, yet a color image, but rather the image as it was before the last conversion to black and white.


Color photography shows us better what corrective actions have taken place for optimization of light, where I often seek for a typically non-digital curve, highly contrasted midtones and compression of the highlights. Digital images always require an optimization of this kind because this technology records the tonal range in a linear way, unlike the films each of which has its characteristic curve.

The color here is an important part of the picture and settles the atmosphere, warm lights on the metal (these are photos taken at dawn), the color contrast between these structures and the blue of the background or of the workers. All this is not entirely lost in the black and white, because color contrasts are to be transformed into light contrasts. One shot starting with good tonal passages makes equally clean images even in black and white. I would say that the black and white makes it more visible to us the contrast of lights, which are otherwise camouflaged by the color (review the pictures in B&W).

The following is another example of black and white coming out from a picture where color was not bad and rather contributed to set a unique atmosphere, this series:


The full gallery is visible in the home, it is entirely in black and white and so these photos will be published on paper and on exhibitions. It 's still possible that an editorial board that is interested in the photos, however, asks you to send them the color version. The question on the advisability of current taste, as said above, is in the agenda of the photojournalist.

Another picture to follow, here color maintains its meanings, despite I have chosen in the color version a strong mitigation of it by less saturation, in order not to distract the viewer. The clothes worn by Indian women even when performing heavy work are  gorgeous, indeed, but not necessary to the picture. I love this photo for the snapshot, the composition, the gesture, the relationship between the two characters. And I don’t doubt that by black and white all this will emerge more clearly and "pushes" even the most careless observer to focus on factors others than color, to follow more precisely the photographer’s vision through the elements that he has chosen to highlight. And the post-production should not appear.


I hope that with this very subjective and partial discussion is born some further discussion, I do not claim to possess the truth about such a controversial topic, but I hope I have done my part, according to my own experience as a photographer who is constantly struggling with doubts about the post-production, to set a bit of light on the topic.

It can also be useful to read these articles I have written on the same subject, starting from different points (sorry If they still are in Italian, I’m translating them).

And please leave a comment…



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