There are numerous reasons to post-produce an image. At its most moderate it's a process of tidying up minor problems (e.g. dust spots), maybe adding a touch more contrast, and so on. Tweaking reality, if you like. At the other extreme, as I discussed in relation to the structure of light, it's a case of pre-visualising the final image and then shooting a deliberately mundane exposure in order to create a more dramatic image in post. In this case the post-production is more about creating a new reality rather than tweaking an existing one. And if you're interested, 'the structure of light' is the image I'll be discussing in my next Creative Workflow tutorial, due out before the end of this month.

Between these two extremes though are images such as this one: where the shift between the original and final image is clearly significant, but not quite as dramatic. If you take a look at the original you will see what I mean:


For me, the important thing here is not how a particular change was made, but why. So, for example, you could ask me about the technical changes I made to this image, and I could tell you about the Channel Mixer layer I used to desaturate the sea, and the Curves I used to selectively adjust both the contrast and tone, but those questions wouldn't get you any closer to understanding why I made those changes.

To put this another way, one of the things I'm often asked is "how do you know when to stop post-producing an image?", and there isn't an easy answer to this question, at least not one that can be phrased in technical terms. The problem here is that the question can only be answered from an aesthetic point of view: it's finished when you're happy with it, when it says what you want it to say.

From a technical point of view, this can be problematic, as there is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between a specific technical change and a desired aesthetic outcome. For example, if you are aiming to produce a moody, emotively 'dark' image, then it may be the case that a large increase in contrast will help, or a vignette, or a black and white conversion, and so on. For some images these changes will work. For other images though, you will need to take a different approach.

Anyway, I'm waffling – mostly because it's a topic that I find fascinating – but also because it's a round about way of introducing the changes that I made to this image. In this instance, my aim was a simple one: to capture the feeling of being there. The visual reality, as you will have seen if you have taken a look at the original, wasn't anything special, but the feeling of being there – listening to the gentle sounds of the sea, while watching the contrail dissipate towards a bright and distant horizon – was a lot more profound. I felt at home there. Whether my edited version manages to convey any of that to you though is a different question entirely :)

focal length
shutter speed
shooting mode
exposure bias
metering mode
image quality
RAW converter
2.08pm on 9/3/10
Canon 5D Mark II
EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM
aperture priority
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