Every now and then, usually when a client is time- or cash-poor, they ask to be given unedited files, straight off-camera. And I always say no. I tend to write back a long and apologetic email explaining the reasons behind this blanket policy, but I felt that a before-during-after comparison about what editing actually is and does would be a helpful resource.

I shoot in RAW. This means that the files I end up with contain uncompressed data from the camera image sensor (when you shoot JPEG, your camera creates a compressed image, and in doing so, makes some decisions about how to interpret the image data. Those decisions are quite tricky to fix in the edit). Shooting RAW means that you have considerably more control over the light, colour, contrast and tonal range of your photo.

Photography is about making a series of complex choices. Some of these choices happen before the shutter is pressed – issues of model choice, pose, lighting location/diffusion/reflection and ratios, exposure and aperture and shutter speed and all the rest of it. But the creation of an image doesn’t end there. Editing is the second half of the photograph, and asking a photographer to neglect this process is asking them to give you a half-finished image. It’s a bit like asking a chef to make you a meal, and then asking to just take the raw ingredients home, without having them cook it.

So much of what defines a photographer’s style is the series of choices they make when processing an image. Anton Corbijn‘s shots don’t come off the roll with those crunched blacks and flat highlights. Bill Henson‘s models don’t have that extraordinary translucent skin when they arrive in the studio. There’s a huge amount of dodging and burning that gets it that way.

And this isn’t a new thing. Photography has always been bewilderingly susceptible to alteration. Different chemistry, processing times and methods, papers – all of these impact on the image even before you start playing with exposure in the darkroom. Making iconic images has always involved iconic processing.

Here’s a shot of megababe James Dean in Times Square, taken by Dennis Stock. The lefthand image is the test print of the photo. The scribbles and numbers are made by Pablo Inirio, the darkroom printer at Magnum, with his notes for dodging and burning the image, complete with exposure times and enlarger heights. The righthand image is the finished print.

The regular hullabaloos about retouching of celebrities? They’re not dealing with an issue that only arose with the advent of Photoshop. Here’s a shot of Joan Crawford taken by George Hurrell in 1931, and retouched by hand by a fellow named James Sharp.

Take that, Photoshop. Dude did this with a backlit negative and a pencil. Badass.

So. It’s 2017. What does this process look like now? For reference, I’m going to use two recent self-portraits. Here’s one I shot last year, outside Footscray Community Arts Centre:

That’s the finished shot. How do we get there? With the magic of editing. This starts as soon as the image is imported. I do the first stage of my editing and file management in Adobe Lightroom. When you import a photo, you tell the software how to interpret the data it’s given, by choosing one of several image profiles to work with. For reference, here are four different profiles for the above image, with no other changes made to the file:

In case you were wondering how much sleep I lose over this shit, the answer is heaps. So already, before even doing anything to the image’s colour temperature, exposure or curves, we have to choose between several, often quite different, versions of the photo. Think of this process as choosing the chemistry for analogue photography. And think of this also as a reminder never to choose ‘Camera Vivid’ as an image profile because it’s incomprehensibly awful (it’s the bottom right one above).

This is the image as it was imported, with the ‘Camera Standard’ profile applied.

This is what we’d call an ‘unedited’ image. And it’s fine. It’s a perfectly adequate image. But it’s missing a certain pop. The light is too blue – it’s missing the gorgeous warmth of the sunset that I was shooting it in front of. And I look knackered (which, to be fair, I was).

So now we start the process of editing. Firstly, I brought down the highlights of the image in Lightroom, then exported into Photoshop. Then I cleaned up my skin. I’ve removed a pimple and toned down the birthmark on my face that people often only notice after knowing me for six years, and then try to remove with a licked thumb (gross. Don’t do that). I’ve brightened my eyes and minimised my eye bags (artist lyf). I’ve brought up the highlights and light tones in the image and crunched the blacks in Curves so it pops more. I’ve made the whole image warmer, more red. And I’ve comped in the background from another photo shot in the same session, because I liked the bokeh (out of focus section) on the opposite bank of the river.

Here’s a close up of my face, so you can compare the before and after of the skin editing:

There’s always a moment, where you toggle back to the original, and go, ‘Yeah, I mean, this is basically what I look like, right?’ Click. BRUTAL. I should point out that I don’t always do this level of eye/skin editing – I almost always do some amount of it, especially when the model has been sweating, and has patches of highlights on their face. It does vary substantially, image-to-image. I’m very happy to edit my own face more heavily (and generally, much more quickly and in a much more slap-dash manner) than other people’s.

Here’s the whole image, before and after:

Here’s another self portrait, shot in the doorway of my studio. Yeah, I take a lot of selfies, wanna fight about it? Here’s the finished image:

And here it is, off-camera, with the ‘Camera Standard’ profile applied and the highlights pulled down:

The edit on this one was a three-stage process:
1. The doorway and shelves behind me were distracting, so I started by masking and burning them out. Now, the focus of the image is on me – the eye has nowhere else to wander.
2. From here, I did some skin editing, brightening my eyes, smoothing highlights, dealing with those ol’ under-eye bags. I also did a first pass on a tonal edit – working with curves to brighten the image and boost the contrast.
3. The highlights in the photo had too much yellow in them for my liking, the hair had a green colour cast and the shot generally lacked the punch I was after. This step involved a lot of fiddly colour and saturation adjustments, pulling up the cyans in the highlights, and pushing down the green shadows slightly into the reds. I desaturated my hair slightly and crunched the blacks.

These steps are shown in the gif below:

Each of these steps involved a lot of frowning, a lot of flicking between settings, a lot of making minute adjustments, a lot of frustration before the image was ‘finished.’ Obviously not every photo involves the same amount of editing. Sometimes, it’s a matter of a quick exposure adjustment, a tiny contrast tweak, and they’re good to go. But even a thirty second edit betrays thousands of hours of figuring out the right way to handle each image in a way that feels authentic and right to the photographer.

So that’s why I don’t give out unedited images. Because the editing is how I make the image mine. A lot of these stylistic choices are ones that most people wouldn’t notice, but I notice, and giving out unprocessed images means giving out shots that I’m not yet proud of. They’re style-less, they’re flat, and they don’t feel like I own them.

While we’re here, a tiny bit of image-use housekeeping – please don’t ever release a photographer’s unedited proofs online, no matter how thrilled you are about them – you’ll be even more thrilled with the edits. And secondly, please don’t whack Instagram filters on the shots you’re given. They’ve been edited, and that editing can take absolutely goddamn ages. There’s something deeply heartbreaking about looking at a shot that you spent four hours trying to find the perfect balance of colours and tones on, only to find that all of the delicate colour and contrast detail has been ballsed up by some heavy handed Instagram work. If you want adjustments made, contact your photographer, not your filter options. Please don’t do this (actual filename: ‘oh no.jpg’):

So there you go. If you need images quickly or cheaply, chat to your photographer. But give them the respect to let them finish their images so they’re ready for the world. That way, they can be as chuffed with them as you are.

S x

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