This might not be wise. I’m going to enter a very old and slightly controversial debate. The question boils down to:

“Is it dishonest to post process your photographs?”

This kind of question has always hung around photography, although it seems to be being asked more frequently as technology increasingly makes it possible to do astounding things in post.

When I used to shoot film there was (and I suspect there still is) a vogue for making prints that show the film edges to prove it’d not been cropped. In digital there’s a growing vouge for images posted online with the tag “Straight Out of Camera (SOC)” to indicate that the image has not been edited manually in software outside of the camera.

The problem is that, regardless of if you’re shooting analog or digital, there is no such thing as an unedited image.

The Camera Always Lies

When you make a photograph you’re recording data about the scene. In digital it’s data captured by your camera’s sensor. To turn that data into something you can see some software needs to process it. That means making decisions about how the data should be rendered, including things like colour, white balance etc. If you shoot RAW some (but not all) of those decisions are left to you, but you still have make them to see the image. If you shoot JPG the camera makes most of these decision for you.

What’s more, before you make a single decision the camera’s software is interpreting the data it’s recording. These are non-trivial things too. This process can totally alter an image. This is why the colours from an Olympus camera ‘feel’ different to a Cannon. Everything in photography is a decision, right down to who makes your sensor.

This has always been the case. In analog photography it’s not data recorded by a sensor, it’s a latent image recorded in energised silver halides. Your choice of film matters. Do you use FP4 for a smooth portrait look, of HP5 for a gritty feel? Do you use a developer that will give a high contrast, or something that will maintain the full tonal range. It goes on and on.

The point is that there’s no such thing as Straight Out of Camera. Every image you see, no matter where it comes from, has been processed. When you hear “I don’t like like to process my images”, it really means “I like the processing that’s done for me automatically my by camera”.

I suspect the sentiment is not about this though. It’s really a question of “are we presenting our images honestly by post processing?”

There’s so much that can be done in post. Complete sky replacement, cloning out unwanted distractions, artificial focusing, selective colouring, the list seems to go on and on. All this means it’s possible to create images that bear very little resemblance to the data captured at the moment of exposure.

It’s worth noting that much of this capability isn’t new. Digital sky replacement, for instance, is understandably cause for much comment. But it’s not new, packs of negatives for use as replacement skies have been available for many decades, and have long been cause for similar comment. Sky replacement isn’t for me, but then I’m not making digital composites. That not my medium as much as watercolours or oil paints aren’t.

For me the key to answering the question lies in your own vision. In his seminal series of books, The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, Ansel Adams talks about the art and skill of pre-visualisation. This involves having mastery over the materials and equipment you use in your image making.

The principle is that by developing sufficient mastery of your process when you take your photo you know very exactly what the final print will look like and what must be done to produce it. Image making like this is a deliberate act. This is true regardless of if you’re making considered landscapes that take days of planning, or if you’re capturing the decisive moment in a street scene. With proper skill and pre-visualisation you are able to execute your vision from the moment of exposure through to whatever medium your final image will be presented in.

The Ansel Adams ideas of pre-visualisation apply just as much to digital process as they did to analog ones. It’s still just as critical to know how you’re going to process an image to execute your vision. Perhaps you want to lose detail in the shadows for that sun set where everything felt dark behind a glowing sky, maybe that street scene needs a harder contrast to convey a feeling of anxiety, or the still life you’re making will be rendered perfectly on a slightly textured paper.

Much of the art of photography is making myriad decisions, and much of the skill lies in understanding how those decisions interact to generate the end result even before the exposure is made.

If we don’t make these decision ourselves, and instead rely on technology to make them for us we are not executing our vision. It’s not “Straight our of Camera” that matters, that’s means relying on a camera’s processing to bring a vision to life. What matters is the vision you have in your head when you make your exposure. What matters is “Straight out of Mind” images.

Is it dishonest to post process images? No. Very often it’s dishonest not to.