Editing is an art, not a process

I think there is power in the written word. In fact, the decision to use one word or term over another can have profound implications for the way we think. I mention this, because for a long while now, I've really grown to dislike the term 'post-processing'. I'll explain why, but before I do, let's consider what the editing stage of a photograph actually involves.

From left to right:  Left: Original Image © Dave Bowman Middle: Dave Bowman's interpretation Right: Bruce Percy's interpretation

From left to right: 
Left: Original Image © Dave Bowman
Middle: Dave Bowman's interpretation
Right: Bruce Percy's interpretation

Firstly, I consider the editing stage as interpretive. Just as you chose which composition to shoot and therefore give the viewer a particular angle or story, so to does editing your image give you another level of conveying your story. Often I find that by darkening and brightening areas of the frame, I choose how the reader's eye should be led through the frame.

Secondly, I think of the editing stage very much as an art. I've been editing work now for more than 15 years and I still learn new ways to approach editing my work every week I work at it. So to me, not only is it an art, but as art forms go, it is a life long journey of discovery in visual awareness skills, interpretation skills and above all, developing one's own style.

So let's get down to why I dislike the phrase 'post-process'.

Dave Bowman's edit (higher resolution). Image © Dave Bowman

Dave Bowman's edit (higher resolution). Image © Dave Bowman

Firstly, it does not encourage one to think of this stage of creativity as anything but a process, rather than an art. As an extreme example of this, I've met one or two photographers who apply the same template or 'processing' to every image they have.

Secondly and perhaps most important to me, the word 'post' encourages us to separate the editing stage of our work from the image capture, and I have a real problem with that. You see, I often think that it's easy to consider image capture and editing as two very different things, when in fact they are highly related and often use the same skills: for example, when you crop in your editing application, you are re-composing, and when you compose out in the field you are in effect cropping the landscape. Similarly, when we edit our work, we consider how the tones and shapes in the frame interact with each other (if you’re not doing this, then you should be). The same should apply to when we are out in the field. I now find myself thinking more about shapes and tones while out in the field than I did years ago and I know this is because of what I've learned during my image editing time.

So although the first stage is done behind a camera and the second is done behind a computer screen, they both utilise the same awareness skills. Only problem is, I think many of us don’t see it that way and tend to approach each stage as if they are completely separate. They’re not.

Fieldwork to Digital Darkroom Workshop

This year I conducted my first Digital Darkroom workshop here in the north west of Scotland. I had specifically set this up to work on awareness skills while out in the field and while behind the computer. I made a point of saying that the course' purpose was not to teach the participants software programs such as Photoshop or Lightroom (although some techniques and tools are learned as a matter of getting to a result during the week), but more to help participants consider what is actually in the frame of the image and how to interpret it during image capture and editing stages and hopefully see the relationships between the two.

It was a very informative week for me, as this was a new area to teach in my workshop schedule. I feel I learned a lot, specifically when it came down to ‘how far does one go with the edit’. I feel there is no answer to this, other than ‘it’s a matter of taste’. Some participants I felt were far too light on their approach while others may have suffered from overworking the work. I often feel this is a balancing act that can only be corrected by leaving the work for a few days and looking at it again later. Distance gives objectivity, but with a lack of experience, we can still end up with images that either haven't gone far enough, or have gone too far.

One of my participants during the week is a very proficient photographer in his own right. Dave Bowman has been making images for over 30 years and is represented by galleries in the US, Canada and the UK. I found his skills as a photographer to be already highly developed. So much so, that I found it particularly hard to contribute anything to Dave’s work because he has such a developed sense of awareness and skill. But during an e-mail after the workshop, Dave said he might have learned a lot more about my approach if had edited one of his images from scratch, rather than contribute to what he had edited. I thought this was a great idea.

At the top of this post are three images. The first is the original image straight out of Dave’s camera. You can see that his sense of composition is well developed. The second image is Dave’s edit and the third and last image is my edit - done this week without any consultation or referencing Dave’s own edit.

Bruce's edit (higher resolution). Image © Dave Bowman

Bruce's edit (higher resolution). Image © Dave Bowman

There is never a definitive edit

Firstly, and even though I will say this, I’m sure it will be overlooked: this is not a test of which is better. That I feel, will always be highly subjective. But I include both edits here to show that ultimately, two photographers editing the same image can convey a different aesthetic / mood and style. Both images are successful in different ways and ultimately, both are highly personal interpretations.

When I spoke to Dave about my edit, he felt i'd move it along further than he would be comfortable with. Likewise, I felt his edit was far too subtle and that he hadn’t gone far enough. All this proves really, is that both Dave and I have different tastes and we are looking for different things.

I find that I always learn new things in looking at a different interpretation of the same work. And I also feel that being a good editor of one’s work is mostly about objectivity. If I am too close to it, then I find my ideas about the image are often out of sync with what is really there.

I’ve also found that if I try to edit the same picture from scratch on a different day, I always go somewhere new with it. Like a band that plays the same song, each rendition is different in some way and presents a different flavour. Which is why I think image interpretation is an art form. It's a life long journey into personal interpretation and self expression.