The Most Important Post Processing Tip

Recently I was teaching a street photography workshop and my post processing workflow came up.  I realize that everyone’s workflow is a little different and we always want to know what that secret sauce is but often there is no secret sauce…  Ultimately, we all have access to the same adjustments as amateurs and professionals alike.  Yet there is still this mysterious difference, a mythical recipe, to some photographers images.  What could it be?

Freedom!  Unlike speech these days, artists have the freedom of expression within their images without fear of public shaming (sometimes).  In fact, the artists who use post processing to realize a vision are the ones that cut themselves from the herd, the Mavericks of photography if you will.  For them the post processing workflow doesn’t bend around properly exposing images to fit into the mold of what others find acceptable, no, there post processing bends to their vision for each photograph.

So the most important part of my workflow is completely ignoring what the internet trolls tell me I have to do.  I don’t have to have the perfect histogram, I don’t even want a perfect histogram.  Sometimes I want to blow out my highlights.  Sometimes I want to dodge and burn the crap out of an image.  Sometimes I’ll deepen my shadows instead of lightening them.  A photograph doesn’t have to represent everyone’s reality, just your own.

If you’re the type that stays inside the “lines” when post processing I would encourage you to step outside of your comfort zone and adjust your image purely based on visual appeal rather than using the histogram to monitor what is under or over exposed.  Adjust the white balance to a hue that is pleasing to you, something that captures the mood you felt when you took the photograph.

With all that being said, there are times where knowing how to adjust an image to fit societal norms makes sense.  If you are a documentary photographer you typically want to portray the scene as it was and take far fewer artistic liberties…  This is where knowing how to use your histogram in post processing pays dividends.


Let’s take a look at an images I took where the end result was an expression of my artistic liberty rather than simply adjusting for proper exposure and adding some contrast or clarity.





In the final image I’m unconcerned with the loss of detail in the shadow area, the subject matter is the face of the subject lit by the phone.  By reducing highlights, exposure, and shadow in the way I did I’m sure to make purist feel uncomfortable but this photograph is an expression of an artistic vision that isn’t constrained by what others might think or say.

Your ability as a photographer can only improve as you practice your post processing skills.  The more familiar you are with the boundaries you can push in post processing the more precise you can be when taking an image.  For instance, if you see an image where you want to really push to expose shadows, and you are familiar with how far you can push an image in post processing, you can dial in the exact settings on your camera to realize your vision as opposed to always trying to perfectly expose each and every image you take.

How do you post process?  Are you by the books or do you let your creative juices flow?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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3 replies on “The Most Important Post Processing Tip”
  1. says: Ben Casper

    Hi John
    I enjoyed your commentary on post processing and you expressed my sentiments exactly. I used to aim for a result as close as possible to what I saw but I follow this less often these days. The digital process allows us a more flexible and artistic approach and enables us to widen our horizons. Great editorial which will go on to inspire many of us to throw away the textbook and produce stunning images.

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Thanks Ben, I used to do the exact same thing. It was eye opening when, one day, I threw caution to the wind and just did what I wanted. Thanks for sharing!

  2. says: John Robin

    Hi John

    I had a photography teacher who insisted I keep the photo as close to what came out of the camera as possible. This included no cropping. His idea was that you should strive for the best photo (exposure, composition, mood, etc.) at the time you take it. I never really subscribed to that concept, since for me it is more about creating the final image that best expresses my vision. Interestingly, sometimes the expression I end up with post processing is not the one I intended when I took the picture. I find cropping alone tends to be the biggest factor. I will have to try and be more creative with shadows and highlights, as your example suggests.

    To answer your original question, I usually first try to create the most appealing image I can by going by the book. Then I improvise. After reading your entry today I think I will be bolder in my improvisations! Thanks.

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