To edit or not to edit – questions about retouching

Some of the readers already know that I have been publishing my photographs on my private profiles on LinkedIn and Instagram. I have been doing that mainly to provide a light, pleasant distraction from the current distressing news bombing us all over the Internet. I am mentioning that not to advertise myself (however, if anyone is interested they are more than welcome to visit my profiles: https://www.instagram.com/kochamcraiga/ and https://www.linkedin.com/in/krawczyk-malgorzata/) but to show what made me write this post. Straight to the point then. 

Not a long time ago I spent the entire day editing a picture I wanted to post and trying to decide whether I liked it original or processed. I tried different intensities of the retouch, asked friends and family for their opinions, stared at different versions for a long time and watched them one after another. I ended up posting nothing that day but with the idea for this piece.

Photographic retouching has been developing alongside the evolution of photography itself, since as far back as the first half of the 19th century. As the purposes of photographs multiplied, so did the objectives of retouching. I will not talk about the political reasons here or other intentional manipulations aimed at presenting falsified reality. These are wicked and, as such, should be spurned without question. I will only focus on the purely aesthetic ones as these purposes lead in my work.

Photo retouching is an art, craft and science, the methods of which have changed over time but still require certain skills. The majority of photographs I take for work or leisure is digital and so is their post-processing. I must admit that after the first excitement of acquiring a few tricks many years ago which resulted in slightly overenthusiastic filtering, I’ve been using post-processing software mainly for minor enhancements like drawing a contrast or straightening. I occasionally play with colour saturation of the photographs or change them to black & white or sepia (even more rarely).

And it is here that my doubts start. The moral side of it is irrelevant as, however gloomy the viewer might be, they won’t think the world was indeed black and white, no question about that. However, changing colour intensity does change the character of a photograph. 

The more faded, the more mysterious it seems and more distant from the viewer, both in place and in time. It gives us the feeling of nostalgia – not just for the place or people pictured but for any other times existing in our memory or, maybe even, only in our imagination. On the other hand, more luscious colours create the impression of a     supernatural, magical, often almost a fairytale-like world. Therefore, these artistic means are used for certain aesthetic and climactic purposes. 

Yet, there is an extra purpose which is very important now – the click rate. In the tremendous masses of photographs published online every minute being noticed, and being noticed quickly, is crucial. In 2016 on Instagram alone 95 million photos were uploaded daily, and between 2016 and 2018 the amount of Instagram users doubled (info: https://www.brandwatch.com/blog/instagram-stats/). Unedited photographs, even if interesting in terms of theme or composition, carrying often a certain mood, generally require more time to be felt and appreciated. But when there is just a blink of an eye to impress and there is no “wow effect”, the signal is “boring”, so no like, scroll down. Gone forever.

What to do then? The easiest way would be to say: “just stay true to yourself, don’t bother with the likes, publish what you like”. But what if I don’t know what I favour? Deep down in my heart, I would say that I prefer raw photographs capturing the true colours, light and impressions of the real world, which we all know can be breathtaking. At the same time, however, clear images with vivid colours do catch my eye, I do think black and white photography is interesting and artistic, and I am, indeed, happy if someone’s random hand doesn’t spoil the whole composition of the image anymore. Nevertheless, overediting always seems to be a bit tacky. Where is the limit then?

Not to remain within concepts and theories I would like to present here the photograph that caused me so much trouble.

The original file
Edit no. 1
Edit no. 2
Edit no. 3

I must admit that the last version was not the most farcical one I created while preparing this post, it was deliberately slightly exaggerated, indeed. This small sample shows how different photographs can be produced with light and haze modifications only.

I still can’t decide which I like most. How about you?

In the next post I will discuss retouching in archeological photography. Stay tuned!

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