On Defining, Once and for All, Why Editing Isn’t the Same As Post-Processing

Photo by: Melissa Castro

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Phrases like “Do you enjoy editing your photos?”, “How do you edit your photos?”, “Wow, that’s some good editing!” are quite common to find within the photography-related world. But today, I woke fed up; and convinced that a proper distinction has to be made, and there’s a purpose to it.

Honestly, I find that such shallow questions are hiding a deeper phenomenon here. This is that a lot of people seem to be worried about mimicking other photographers’ work just because it seems that a particular aesthetic is capable of drawing in more followers. Hence the constant mention of “editing” like if that would magically turn out bad photos into killer shots.

Well, I’m sorry to be that guy, but in the proper sense, editing has nothing to do with tweaking the visuals out of a photograph. What people usually consider to be editing is post-processing; therefore, editing shall be understood from here on simply as selecting good photos. This will make better sense after properly defining each, so let’s dive into them.

Stages of a Workflow

Both are essential stages from the committed photographer’s workflow, but they serve two completely different purposes. Editing shall be used to select the images that deserve some further love, and post-processing is how you’ll give it to those raw files. Either you love it or hate it, digital photography has indeed democratized photography for us, but that comes with a considerable price to pay.

In a nutshell, we’ve become quite spoiled by the fact that we can shoot almost as many frames as we wish. That might not be perceived as something dangerous, but it has slowly reduced our ability to spot memorable shots. Having a certain degree of “frame economy” makes photographers better aware of the moments happening around them, and the best way to hack the tendency of being crazy-fingered is to use small SD cards. Less space, fewer frames; simple as that.

And even with small SD cards, the high amount of images that we bring back home are still just too much. No one will want to see all of the frames from our cards. Hence, some cleaning has to be done; and that’s what editing is all about. This stage refers to the criteria that we use to filter out keepers from usefulness shots. And if you are used to working around a concept, then you’ll find that your selection will make more sense if you stick to the concept behind the frames.

Artistic or Documentary-related, concepts are crosswise to the whole process; from the idea on a napkin to the actual publishing of the work. Therefore, it should be considered during the editing stage as well; and something that works a lot for me is the following.

First, and unless the images correspond to an assignment, I let them ferment for a couple of weeks or even a few months. After all, I don’t worry about delivering immediacy with my shots. Again, this is just for personal projects that simply don’t have a due date or something like that. Then, I begin the selection process until I have around 30 shots in my hands. Then, try to skim them down, and start arranging them to tell a story with them. After that, I ask some people I trust to give the final chop. They are always merciless and have no compassion for them.

This last part is quite healthy for me because it introduces some level of objectivity to the process. I let my images sit down for a considerable amount of time so I can somehow emotionally detach from them. But after all, the images are mine and I do love them, so it is hard to look at them with an objective gaze. Peer reviewing is a good practice that I’ve imported from my scientific background, but in broad terms, I find it to be quite beneficial for creative stuff like photography, writing, or any other craft that you could think of.

But the process doesn’t end there, continues on the next stage, which is where images get their voice.

Defining Post-processing

If you shoot raw files, then you’ll be used to the dull look several straight-out from the camera images have. Some further development is always needed, not only to make them look as desired but to be in sync with the concept or the purpose of your photographs. Everything that is done, to enhance the visual of a photograph, is what we should understand as post-processing in photography.

This could be as simple as raw development in a file in Lightroom, Capture One Pro, or any other raw file developer; or it could be as complex and sophisticated as further digitally retouching a photograph in Photoshop. Either way, this isn’t new, and that’s what we have to be clear about.

From the very first photograph that we know about today to all the shots that we make now, they all require some degree of intervention, interpretation, development, or retouching. And when one thinks about it like that, one concludes that photography is indeed what happens in camera but also what happens when we take the film or files out of them.

The big difference will be how much one dedicates to this stage. Ansel Adams is still famously known for his passion for the darkroom, but we also know that not all photographers enjoyed this part. Just like nowadays many photographers simply can’t find the fun in spending countless hours in front of a computer tweaking a couple of photographs.

Defining Editing

Beyond what I’ve already said, it is quite hard to define the nuts and bolts behind the required criterion for cold-minded editing. I hack the process by listening to what my, visually-educated, circle of trust has to say about the shots. But in the end, the editing process will be defined by each photographer and will be subject to the dynamics of their workflows.

Some photographers recommend never to erase any image, but I do delete those that I simply don’t like. I’m not sure if this is good or not, but I do find comfort in taking such decisions while handpicking the keepers that will aid me in telling my story in a better way. And that applies both to documentary and street photography, although in the latter I have a particular mindset.

My manifest goal with street photography is to find a new photograph that could coexist with my current portfolio, which has a fixed number of 25 frames. Once this is achieved, I take down the one that pleases me less. And the latent goal is to keep my eye trained for the documentary moments.

Both are Important

So, both are important, and they are complementary to each other. Good editing will always stick you to the ground and will make your photos more purposeful. Post-processing is going to always be needed, especially when it comes to building a certain style.

Regarding this, there’s something that I got to say. More and more often, I’ve stumbled into a still-rising hype over presets, especially Lightroom-related ones. They all promise us to achieve a particular look without the effort usually related to certain visual styles. But, is that useful?

It could speed things up for sure, just like the instant printing machines that were capable of delivering 36 perfect prints out of colour film in less than an hour. But then don’t be surprised that indeed your shots will end up looking like those of thousands of photographers out there trying to be relevant on the gram.

And even if that’s what some people are looking for, presets are not that smart. They have been designed to match a certain look, but their inner recipe has been developed based on a particularly exposed photograph. Even VSCO and RNI presets, which I do respect because they have a lot of time and effort behind them, can’t guarantee their results in a purely consistent way like the real films they are trying to emulate did in the past.

Presets offer shortcuts, and they shall be exploited, but more smartly. And the answer to that unresolvable dilemma is simple, build your own presets. Will you wear another man’s underwear? Probably not, especially if they have been used for so long and across many other folks. Be the real master behind your creations, be the legit owner of your style!

Isn’t that what worries photographers the most? Not having a unique style? Then, shouldn’t it just be huge nonsense to expect to come with a unique style if you are using presets that many people have already used before?

Again, I’m not against the great concept of presets. I’m just saying that one should get away from third-party ones. Build your own presets for specific batches of photographs, that will give you absolute control over your creations.

Thinking that a preset that has been designed for a specific setting will work across every photograph is just naive, and promoting magical results is quite irresponsible too. Building your own presets is extremely easy and is the most enjoyable way to work around, after all, it makes you the true author of your photograph. All those photos that took you so much hard work, should be entirely yours from beginning to end.

Work Specialization

Editing decisions are crucial for any photographer, and it is so important, that is the main responsible act behind iconic photographs. And I learned it thanks to this magnificent book. Accessing contact sheets has allowed me to understand how deeply important having an objective gaze is. And leaving the ultimate call to someone else is the better way to guarantee higher levels of objectiveness.

From a big editorial table to a small stock photos website, editing is so important, that I’m sure more people could make a living thanks to it. Even museums hire people to do this sort of task, although they call them curators rather than editors, they have a similar role. They make decisions based on their keen eye and vast visual knowledge.

Also, post-processing can offer some professional job outlets; and I’m sure this could be even more popular than editing of course. As mentioned before thanks to the reference to Ansel Adams, it isn’t true that photographers enjoy spending time behind a screen. If you ask me, I will rather be on the move with my camera than gliding sliders to achieve the perfect look.

And I’m just speaking about my scope, which limits to raw development images. But I’m sure more and more people have the true vocation of digital retouching demands and the one which I lack. Also, digital retouchers have the gift of turning a photograph into a magnificent masterpiece of art because they also have their style and their way of seeing things that had already been seen by photographers in a particular way.

So, Why People Call it Editing?

Honestly, I’m not sure, but I might have a hunch. In movie making, there’s the act of editing, which is of course in the hands of the editor, and it does relate to a certain task. That is to arrange scenes to tell the story, and in some way, it requires some intervention with the actual footage. So maybe, that’s why people have been confusing the terms for so long.

Also, because the act of “editing” implies certain manipulation or similar. Or maybe because in written texts, editors make adjustments to the texts. But what we need to know is that in photography, images should correspond to the editorial purpose of a body of work, hence the editing tasks aimed at selecting the photos that deserve further development and retouching.