But that's just Photoshop!

Over the years I've had quite a few protracted and often heated discussions about the role of post-production in photography, normally with people who seem to have a rooted objection to images that have been radically transformed.

"But that's not photography, that's just Photoshop!" has been a relatively common criticism of some of my work.

It's a complex debate – especially as it plays out differently within different areas of photography – and I certainly don't intend to provide a complete answer here, but an image I've been working on recently prompted the following.

A lot of the time, when I'm shooting a scene, I'll have a very good idea about how the final image will look. Sometimes it's quite close to the original, sometimes not, but most of the time I have a good idea about the direction I'm going to take.

For example, I made three relatively minimal changes to the following image. I darkened the upper section of sky, increasing the natural vignette; cloned out a small bright cloud that seemed a bit distracting; and added a bit more light to the rippling waves near to the horizon.

Importantly, I knew – as I took the shot – that the final image would be very close to the original. The editing is just the icing on the cake.

Hover over the image to see the original

The changes I made to the next image were more dramatic, but before we take a more detailed look, let me explain the context.

I travelled up to Jura recently, one of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, to run a two day photography workshop for the winners of the Spirited Community competition organised by the by the Isle of Jura.

While I was sat on the train to Glasgow I got a text message from Libby, my wife, telling me to make sure I photographed the house on Jura where George Orwell wrote 1984. He was there in 1946 (to 1947), and stayed at Barnhill, a house owned by David Astor, the editor of the Observer. Orwell was in ill health - he died just a few years later - was recently bereaved, and struggled through one of the harshest winters of the century: but he finished a first draft of the book while he was there.

As the house is almost eight miles from the nearest paved road, and we didn't have a 4x4, my only opportunity to photograph it was during a boat trip we took to the North of the Island to photograph the Corryvreckan whirlpool. So I just had a couple of minutes to grab the shot before we moved on.

As you can see below, the initial shot is compositionally OK, but lacks any real impact, and this isn't what I wanted to achieve. What I wanted was something darker, and more dramatic: something to evoke the isolation of this remote house, and echo the bleakness of one of the most important and influential books of the twentieth century. So on this occasion – as I took the shot – I knew that the post-production would need to be quite a bit more extensive.

You can preview the changes I made by below. Clicking one of the adjustment layers will enable it, and all the layers below it. To disable a layer, or layers, just click one of the lower layers.

To summarise: I cloned out a couple of distracting elements; converted the image to black and white using the Channel Mixer (biased towards the red channel to darken the sky and lighten the foliage); added a vignette to focus the viewer's attention more firmly within the frame; added Curves 2 to brighten the sea, land and house; added two additional masked curves to darken the sky; used Curves 5 to increase the contrast on the land below the house; toned the image with a curve; then added a final curves adjustment to brighten the house.

I guess the important thing here is that I had an idea in mind: I'd pre-visualised the mood and feel of the shot before seeing the house. Once there, all I needed to do was compose the shot and get the exposure right. The heavy lifting was done later.

On most other occasions, at least when I'm shooting landscapes, the pre-visualisation takes place during the shoot. The following shot is a good example – a bright, flat original, lacking in both mood and character – but the ingredients are there: the lone figure, hurrying through a vast landscape, beneath a potentially interesting sky.

Hover over the image to see the original

On other occasions, things aren't quite as simple. For example, I took the following shot because the scene was interesting – lots of structural detail, offset against a reasonably interesting sky – but I didn't have a predetermined strategy for the edit other than knowing that I'd need to compensate for the relative absence of light beneath the structure.

Generally speaking, these type of shots are the most problematic – you'll find that lots of potentially interesting shots manage to avoid becoming interesting, despite your best efforts – but in this case it worked.

Hover over the image to see the original

To sum up then, before we move on to take a look at the image that prompted me to write this post, I'd say that most of the images I shoot fall into the three broad categories I mentioned above: those that I know will require little or no editing; those where I have a very clear idea about how the final image will look as I take it, even on those occasions where the changes are extensive; and those where I'm fairly confident that I'll be able to come up with something to compensate for any obvious problems (lighting, balance, and so on).

In each case, and in response to "but that's just Photoshop", it's not: it's an integral part of the process, tied to the content of the scene and the way in which its potential is visualised at the time the shutter is pressed.

Occasionally though, and this brings me to the image I want to discuss, I end up shooting something that's more difficult to process. Before we take a look at it though, I'll explain the context.

It was my final morning on Jura, and I woke up at around 5.00am to a glorious sunrise. I skipped coffee, threw my clothes on, grabbed my RX1 and spent 15 minutes or so photographing the following scene.

Hover over the image to see the original

As the sun climbed higher, and the light began to flatten, I snapped a few more shots of the surrounding scene, including the one below.

As I'm sure you'll agree, it's not a great shot. The composition is OK, but beyond that it's quite weak: the light is flat, it's underexposed, and it doesn't have a clear focal point. I did like the reflections, and the vague detail in the sky, particularly towards the right of the image, so thought I'd process it anyway.

After about 30 minutes of trying a whole range of different approaches I finally worked out why I was having problems: I couldn't decide what the shot was about. If you look back through the rest of the images I included above you'll see that they're all about something: a lone figure on the beach, an ancient iron structure against the sky, the beauty of a sunrise, and so on. But what was this one about? The sky? The houses? The reflections?

I'd been working in colour till this point, but thought I'd try black and white.

It didn't work, at least not all that well. The sky looked good, particularly on the right, but the houses looked unnatural and the image as a whole seemed more like a collection of interesting parts than a cohesive whole.

Given that I was struggling to come up with anything I was happy with I asked Ian Mylam, Antony Northcutt and Simon Jenkins if they'd be interested in taking a look at the image, with a view to coming up with their own version. And while they worked on it, I switched back to my colour version and tried again.

Here's what I came up with.

My version (click the image to compare with the other versions)

And here are Ian's, Antony's and Simon's versions. Interestingly, despite the obvious differences between our versions (as you'll see below) I think we all hit on pretty much the same solution, but I'll explain what I mean by that below.

All rights reserved © Simon Jenkins (click the image to compare with the other versions)
All rights reserved © Ian Mylam (click the image to compare with the other versions)
All rights reserved © Antony Northcutt (click the image to compare with the other versions)

As you can see, Ian and I ended up producing quite similar versions, Simon created a darker, brooding image, while Antony went for a more painterly feel, but despite the pronounced differences I think they're all examples of the same solution.

As I mentioned above, my initial problem with this shot revolved around trying to decide what it was about: the sky, the houses, the reflections, and so on. But, as the black and white version demonstrated, emphasising these elements just fragmented the image. It became a collection of parts, not a cohesive whole.

The solution that we all settled on was to unify the image through colour. Ian and I chose a remarkably similar colour palette, Simon went for something warmer (though darker) and Antony chose a colder theme. In each case though, it's the colour that's the key, not the disparate elements. The colour unifies the image, providing a structure within which the rest of the components seem to sit quite comfortably.

So, what's the moral of this story?

Photoshop is a powerful tool, and it's one that can be used to radically transform an image to the point where "but that's just Photoshop" can seem like a perfectly reasonable and justified response. And if you trawl back through my photoblog, particularly the early years, you'll find quite a few examples of images that I would no longer produce: ones where I treated the post-production as something that was unrelated to the photographic process as a whole. I didn't pre-visualise.

So would pre-visualising this shot have helped? Almost certainly, but in this case – remember that it was 5.30am, I'd skipped coffee, and I'm not a morning person – I think I would have probably just given up and not pressed the shutter at all. Generally though, if you're shooting a scene that you know is flawed, but you can pre-visualise an edit that will address those flaws, then your chances of producing a good image are massively higher than if you just snap and pray. In this sense then, the post-production comes first: you imagine or pre-visualise the final image, then press the shutter.

On which note, while I'm reasonably happy with my attempt, and think that Antony, Simon and Ian produced good versions too, I'm by no means convinced that any of us made the best of this one, so if you'd like to give it a try you can download the RAW file here:


Let me know in the comments below if you do, and if you come up with something you'd like to share, post in on our Facebook page:


I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

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