I've been going through something of a metamorphosis lately when it comes to my vision as a photographer. This change has been affecting the way I analyze a scene, the angles I shoot from, and my lens choices in the field, as well as the way I treat and edit my image in post production.
Since the beginning of my photographic journey I've used a combination of Photoshop, Lightroom, and occasional additional plugins to process my images. I can't deny that I am a huge fan of these tools, and I love what I am able to achieve through their use. I'm no Photoshop master, and by some standards I would be considered only a modest user, but even still, I find the software to be an integral part of my workflow, essential to the process by which I refine my photos into their final state.
I've been reflecting lately on various aspects of my workflow, and reevaluating their impact on the end product. Through this inventory, I've come to realize that a lot of what I've been doing post production-wise to this point has been reflexive, only applied because it's something I always do, regardless of whether or not it helps the image.
After realizing this habit, I've been focussing on being more intentional with my edits, only making an adjustment when I suspect it will help the image, not simply because I can, or because the tool is there. Sure I leave room for experimentation in my workflow, but nowadays I am generally only interested in experimenting when I feel the image is missing something, but I'm not sure what. If I'm feeling good about the photo as it stands at any point in the process, then it's probably because it matches my initial vision for the image when I took it, which is what I'm aiming to achieve through post production 90% of the time.
Of all the tools I've come to realize that I use out of sheer habit, the one that stands out most prominently is certainly the clone stamp tool in Photoshop. I know, I know, it's all been said, and there's no winning argument. On the one hand it's a hugely maligned tool by purists who believe that by using it we are “cheating” or “lying” as photographers, whereas on the other hand many see it as being an extraordinarily useful tool in creating art that would otherwise be impossible, and should be utilized freely.
There has no doubt been enough written on the controversial tool to fill a library, and I have to make clear that I don't subscribe to either camp. I am not opposed to, or for the use of the clone stamp, I think that that decision is one for each photographer to make, and at the end of the day your image will speak for itself through the reactions and emotions it elicits from viewers, regardless of how it came together. My issue at present is my own somewhat mindless use of the tool, and compulsive “cleansing” of images as a matter of course.
Generally with each image, a prominent part of my workflow to this point has been the ferreting out and removal of “distractions” within the image. I don't know that there's necessarily any problem with removing distracting elements that could not be avoided in the original framing and composition, sometimes I think that a particular image may demand their removal for it to achieve it's potential. I've begun to question however, whether the presence of “distracting” elements is inherently bad for an image, or if I've simply been coerced by a certain subset of the photographic community into believing so.
Much of your stance on this subject comes down to personal style and preference, and that may change over time. All I can say is that I've taken more than my share of images and edited them to a point bordering on sterility. Sure, many of them are beautiful, some of them are even among my favourite images, but there is a contingent among them that I can't help but view with an asterisk, as though by stamping out the flaws in the image, I was admitting defeat and throwing a Hail Mary on an image that just wasn't up to snuff initially.
I think for me, a lot of the change in vision comes down to the constant tension between capturing a scene or subject as it is, or capturing it as I wish it was. I feel myself slowly drifting to a more documentarian approach when it comes to many of my images, and a respect and admiration for places and subjects as they are, with all their flaws and faults.
There are a few of my landscape and travel images in which the rustic natural beauty is punctuated by some human element, maybe a car, telephone pole, or building, sometimes subtly, others more prominently. I've come to a point in my transformation where I'm going back and reediting some of these images which I originally scrubbed clean and introducing their “flaws” back into the scene. I feel that often the evidence of humanity conveys a completely different story of the place, one that I failed to see initially in my fervor to declutter the photo, and get rid of any “impurities” hidden within the image.
This is I think the crux of my struggle with striving for visual perfection. I feel that too often I, and many of us immediately reach for the corrective tools at our disposal without properly assessing the image we already have on our hands. Perhaps by looking a little closer, and dwelling on our images for a bit longer we could better assess the stories that the photo conveys at the outset, before the editing, cloning, noise removal, and “purifying”.
I don't mean to be prescriptive in my opinion. To each their own, and as photographers we each have our own way of seeing and representing the world, and different techniques on how to achieve that vision. It just frustrates me that there's a contingent of the photography community that seems to focus the majority of it's energy on striving for visual perfection, images completely free of noise, distractions, imperfections, reality...
Indeed many of these photographers produce stunning work, but it seems like for many beginners, this ideal of perfection is held above many of the more important ingredients that go into a compelling image, as if all it takes to create an evocative photo is a clean image, no matter what the composition, subject matter, lighting, etc, and that cloning out flaws always makes the image better.
So keep the noise, the potential distractions, the imperfections I say. At least until you've had a good look and determined that their removal is necessary to achieve your desired impact. Think about your images and the stories they convey before automatically reaching to remove anything that stands out as unwanted. I don't know know where this journey is taking me, it might get gritty, and imperfections might show through, but hey, that's life, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
What are your thoughts on obsessively perfecting your images? Is there a line somewhere between tasteful retouching and over-obsessing about visual perfection? Let me know in the comments and continue the discussion!
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