Processing and Fast Food

| July 17, 2013

… while photographing, the “tecnician” takes over and obscures the emotional side from my view. When printing, the emotional side takes over. –Minor White

A couple of decades ago I made my first foray into black and white photography. Naively, I purchased a roll of Kodak T-Max, exposed it the same way I was used to exposing C41 and E6 films, and took it in for processing at the local lab. As I handed the roll to the lab technician, he casually asked how I wanted it developed. I felt like an idiot as he explained (with obvious impatience) that developing B&W film was not a standard process. Perhaps taking joy in my misery, he continued to ask how I planned to print the images, adding that the local community college had a darkroom I could use for a small fee. I learned an important lesson, but I also never went back to that lab.

Schadenfreude aside, I’m often reminded of that lab technician when asked why I use Photoshop and none of the myriad of special effect and preset tools available on the market, offering an array of “push the button, let us do the rest” processing options, or sometimes a limited set of sliders and dials to fine-tune the result. It’s an odd question, considering that most “serious” photographers understand the reasons to avoid the “P” mode on their cameras, yet for some reason fail to extend the same logic beyond capturing the image, and into the just as important (if not more) phase of processing their work.

My use of Photoshop has nothing to do with any great love for Adobe. I use it because it offers me the fine control I need, and because, lamentably, there is no other package on the market currently that offers the same breadth and precision of tools. The more control I have, the better I am able to make my images look the way I want them, and the less I have to rely on the computerized brain and other people’s skills to do my thinking for me.

It’s fair to ask why I prefer to not delegate some of this “heavy lifting” to the computer. The answer is simple: the creative process of making an image does not end at the time of capture. In fact, it only starts there. In many senses, time spent processing an image may offer far greater opportunity for creative ideas and personal expression than composing and exposing the image (important as they are). Where time in the field is governed by external impressions and distractions; processing time, spent in quiet solitude, in a controlled environment, perhaps with a music and lighting of choice to impart the desired mood, can be a more thoughtful, meaningful and revealing experience than capturing the image in the field.

Another reason I like Photoshop is because using it, as I do, is a tactile and manual experience, allowing me to use brushes; to isolate parts of the image of my arbitrary choosing; to literally paint in the effects I want where I want them, and to manipulate the image with my own hands and fingers, rather than tweaking sliders and dials like a mad scientist from a silent movie era science fiction flick.

These are not new notions. Throughout most of the history of photography, processing required more time, dedication and knowledge than exposure. This changed for a short period when standard processes were introduced for the development and printing of color film. Digital photography caters well to both approaches. RAW capture offers the same broad field of processing options that unprocessed B&W film used to, and extends them to color images.

The desire to be creative, similar to the need for knowledge or even spirituality, can be though of as a form of hunger – a need to be satisfied. And, like hunger, it can be satisfied in many ways. You may pick an option from a fast food menu, same as millions of others, or you may learn to maximize the pleasure and nutritional value of your meal by learning to prepare it yourself.

To click on a preset for a canned effect is not an act of creation, it is an act of surrender. It is admitting that doing it yourself is too hard; it is taking the easy way, settling for good enough, choosing the drive-thru window over a pleasant evening preparing your own specialties and unique flavoring in your own well-stocked kitchen. Both will fill your belly, but differ greatly in satisfaction, value, sense of accomplishment, and accolades from others. Worse yet, if you don’t invest the time to learn the skills and apply them yourself, you may not even know how much you are missing.

When I hear the mantra “I’d rather be in the field than behind a computer” from so many nature photographers I can’t help but feel bad for them. It’s like saying “I’d rather take a bus than learn how to drive.” It makes sense, but only if you’re willing to limit your travel options to places where buses go.

The High Road

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (6)

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  1. Nice article, Guy!

  2. Joe Becker says:

    Well said, as you so often do. I really appreciate your thoughts on subjects such as this. The art of photography doesn’t stop when you press the shutter, nor should it stop when you press the magic preset. Perhaps it is just my photography (which I highly doubt), but I have yet to see an image I’ve taken that could not be improved with manual tweaks in either Lightroom or Photoshop.

  3. David Taylor says:

    Awesome, as usual Guy.
    I couldn’t agree more. I find that my time ‘behind the computer’ is just an extension of my time in the field. A way to finish the work that I started behind the camera, in front of an incredible scene.
    Now, I do say that ‘A bad day in the field is always better than a good day in the office’, and I stick by that. But my time, ‘in the office’ is typically not devoted nearly enough to editing images and making prints:D it’s the other, less inspiring, activities that occur there that give it a bad name.

  4. jdb says:

    Amen, Guy Tal! I cherish evenings spent sifting through collections of RAW files and cherry picking the best for some quality time with Silver Efex Pro.

    In a recent Lenswork podcast, Brooks Jensen emphasized the importance of the drudgery of doing things other than being in the field taking photos. He singled out time spent in PS as an example. What he was really saying was that we shouldn’t consider it drudgery, since those tools are what allow us to express our creative vision…