Recently a follower on Instagram posted a comment on one of my images complimenting my photography, but also asked if I "enhance" my final images. That question gave me the idea for this blog post.
Do I enhance my final images? That is a very tricky question. For as long as I've owned a digital camera I have set it to shoot RAW, which means to create the final image I have to process my files in photographic image processing software. In fact, I cannot even remember the last time I shot a jpeg image directly in my camera. To process my RAW image files I will on occasion use Canon Digital Photo Professional software, but I mostly use Adobe Lightroom. There are many other image processing software packages that can be used, but I prefer Lightroom. Once I process the RAW file a jpeg image is created and I may then do further adjustments in Adobe Photoshop. I rarely process or "enhance" my images beyond what I perceive the image to be in my mind and I hardly ever add anything that was not in the original scene. If I want to blend multiple images together to create an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image I use Photomatix Pro. Many photographers will also apply textures or overlays to their images to further change the final print result, which I may also do from time to time. When I feel like using this technique, I will use Perfect Photo Suite. I don't do that very often, but on occasion if I feel particularly creative maybe I'll use an overlay or some textures. There are many packages you can utilize to apply textures, but frankly I just don't use them often enough to keep current. Using these image-processing tools is all part of the creative process and assists in creating a final photo you are proud of. The image my Instagram follower commented on was shot in RAW, processed in Lightroom (in an effort to replicate the original scene that I witnessed), and no overlays or textures were applied. In fact, I didn't even open the image in Photoshop. I try to do everything I can in the camera, but if necessary, I will use external processes to achieve the final print result I desire. For this particular image, I was fortunate to have been in the right place, at the right time, with the right light. I did not need to do anything else to the image.
Of course, photographers can shoot a jpeg directly in their camera and later adjust in Photoshop, but then if you change and save your jpeg you have no "digital negative" of the original scene. To me this is one of the major reasons to shoot RAW. In addition, every time you save the jpeg file it recompresses which over time can potentially degrade the image. Another major benefit of shooting RAW is that the image file contains far more data than a jpeg file and allows for further adjustments and corrections after-the-fact. Digital cameras have a hard time obtaining the dynamic range we can see with our eyes and shooting RAW and bringing this out later is a good way to get the final image you desire. This is especially important if you want to preserve detail in the shadows.
When I shot black & white film, I would spend hours in the darkroom experimenting with high contrast filters, dodging and burning tools, and different brands and textures of photo paper trying to bring out the best in my images. For as long as there has been photography, photographers have been striving for ways to get the most out of their craft. Ansel Adams is widely known for being one of the greatest landscape photographers that has ever lived, but he is also known for inventing the zone system. The zone system took a scene and divided it into ten different zones (or shades) that range from pure white to pure black. Later in the darkroom he would use this system, along with dodging, burning, and other techniques, to get the most out of his image negative. Photographers have always developed new techniques to help them get the most out of their work. These techniques can be done in the darkroom or can now be accomplished on the computer.
So to me, overly enhancing your images is fine if the end goal is to create something that is not supposed to look natural to begin with, but if you are trying to create a natural looking image, be careful not to overdo it.