When is enough, really enough?
So when is enough, really enough when it comes to post processing? In other words, when do you stop? It’s not a photo retouching ethics question of when “should” you stop. I’m more interested in how do you (you personally) know when a photo is done? There’s so many things we can do to our photos that, sometimes, it’s hard to call it quits right? Whether it’s personally or professionally, we all want our photos to look great. But we have to balance that with the amount of time we’re willing to spending editing them. And since most of us are our own worst critics, it’s hard to say “enough is enough already!”.
For me personally, I guess it’s done when I look at the photo and I feel like it looks like it did when I was there. The color, brightness, mood, etc… I start off in Lightroom and sometimes it really is done there. A lot of us have a hard time with that though, because we think it should be harder – even though it’s done. If you have a great subject, great light, and you’re in the right place at the right time, enough may really be enough with about 25 seconds worth of work. That’s a good thing.
Here’s a photo taken in Abu Dhabi Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, when I taught in Dubai last year. Editing took about 30 seconds and maybe 2-3 sliders in Lightroom. It was really easy to say “enough” with this. I mean what can you possibly do with a place as beautiful and pristine as this mosque is?
Here’s another taken during sunset at Bandon Beach along the Oregon Coast. Again, maybe 2-3 sliders tops and it was enough. It looks like it did when I was there.
But here’s a photo taken during my trip to Paris a few months ago. This one took significantly longer. There were people to clone out, junk on the ground and of course it’s an HDR so that took some time to tweak to get the way I wanted. It wasn’t until I did all of those things that this photo really looked like it felt when I was there.
So my question back to you is when is enough, enough? How do you know when to stop? And when you do stop, do you find you go back to a photo a day, or a week (or even month) later and change it? What percentage of your photos see Photoshop? How often are you able to just stick with Lightroom? You don’t have to answer all of those questions but I posed a few to get you thinking. For me, just about every single professional portrait I shoot sees Photoshop, if only for a minute or two for some quick retouching and blemish removal and to brighten the eyes a little. I’d say that about 75% of my travel and landscape photos (that I plan to use in my portfolio) see Photoshop for some quick retouching to remove distractions and (shhhh) maybe even add a new sky. The other 25% of the time, I’m lucky enough to be in a place like Abu Dhabi or Bandon Beach where the light is awesome and the subject is gorgeous. Then it all comes together with just Lightroom, and It’s those times that it’s really easy to call it quits on editing a photo. Other times, not so much 🙂
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Well. It depends on what photo I’ve taken.
Landscapes and Buildings I often just use 1-2 rulers until it looks like when I saw it.
Skyrealms I often manipulate a lot more. Contrast, Split Toning (Is that the right word?), Clarity.. the same as with Macros.
I am constantly improving (or getting less worse!) so photos I edited (and thought were perfect) a few years ago which I spent hours labouring over can today be improved in a few minutes. This hopefully will be the same in another few years.
Who would not be tempted to go back to their greatest most favourite picture in the future to enhance with the supa-space age-guaranteed 6000% improvement-sharpening algorithms?
Selected images I spend a little bit more PP on, are put aside and re visited several weeks later.
If I am still satisfied with what I am seeing, I am done. Stepping back clears your mind and preconceptions about an image. Every so often I have to ask myself, why did I not see this while I was working on it?
Hi Matt, I really enjoy reading your stuff. As for this question, I think knowing when you’re done and finding the boundaries of what can be done become a lot easier when you adhere to a workflow. I have about 18 steps in my post-processing workflow. Very rarely do I use all 18, but I go through the process and consciously omit those I don’t think I need. If the image doesn’t look like what I want it to at the end, I know which step in the process to go back to work on. But some images never get there for me, so I abandon them.
In addition to following the process I try to do only minor adjustments in each step to keep the image from looking over-processed and to let the changes work together without competing for attention.
The process doesn’t eliminate the problem, it just helps me determine how far I can go with an image and be happy with it at the same time.
As much as I agree with your opinion and post-process images to the state “as I saw it”, I would like to play devils advocate here. After all, when you start removing distractions, trash, people- you are changing the scene from what you saw, you are making it what you wished it was in the sense. And I am not even going to touch this “adding a new sky” ;).
A famous artist (I cannot remember which) said many years ago that a piece of art is never finished, it is merely abandoned.
For me the post process starts before taking pictures. Im not usually into happy accidents or “lets see what I come up with later”, so I try to visualize and analyze my final image even before taking the shot. I know a lot of you guys do that, but I go really really deep into that mind imaging process, so when I get to LR, I know exactly what Im looking for and go straight to those sliders. Enough is (almost) enough when my photo looks just like the image on my mind.
Rafal mentioned the importance of taking breaks… When I believe Im done developing in LR, I wait until next morning to double check the process and then export it to PS, cause after working for several hours, my aesthetic judgement is exhausted and needs a pillow to rest.
Reading over the feedback you’ve received, I’ve had another thought. A painter starts with a blank canvas and adds to it where a photographer starts with a busy scene and takes away from it. Using that philosophy, I feel the point where “enough” is reached is when all that detracts from the subject has been removed/minimized. For example, colour casts, excessive/lack of contrast, points of interest that detract from the subject, etc.
I’m all over the map – SOOC to ‘over the top’. I post-process until it stops looking better and then I go back a step. For me there is a ‘gut feeling’ that the image is ‘right’ and then it’s done. And yes I do sometimes second guess myself and revisit an image.
When I first started I wondered about this too but I’ve studied the heck out of the subject and now I trust my instincts.
But in reality, it’s never done is it? Just abandoned.
greeting from Paris !
For me enought is enought when I have an emotionnal impact on the photo, sometime I try to get the feeling of how it felt when I was there, for example I was with you for the Montmartre photo and your post processing for me is just right, this truely on I remember the scene, sometime I will improve a photo in photoshop (change the sky or give it a look), but then Im more in an artistic “trip” and want to create a special effect. Some very heavely retouched photo did not create emotionnal impact, and some very not re touched did, in the end, is the audience getting some emotions and messages, that’s my goal !
For the best images from any shoot, I work on them until after every change I like the before more than I like the after. That tells me I’m done [for now]
In down time (no current work to process) I go back to images at least a year old and see if I can do a better job. I start again with the RAW image and go forward, then see if I like that edit more than the initial one. I also look at some files that I didn’t process when it was new to see if I can find a gem among the rubble. (The only files I ever delete are the real mistakes, such as out of focus, camera shake, nearly all white or black, etc.) Other stuff that most people would delete gets moved to DVD and stored offline. When I look at them later I use bridge and CR rather than clutter my LR catalog..
I like the approach that most people in this discussion take – “when it feels right”.
I found a good example of a photographer that I admire a lot, where I personally wouldn’t retouch as much as he did – if it was for my own, but it’s a commercial portfolio, so again, different perspective.
Take a look, I was surprised: http://blog.chrisleschinsky.com/post/6042658078/fresh-retouching-courtesy-of-g10-capture-in-san
Im all about capturing the emotion of a moment with my photos, as cheesy as that may sound. For me, the post-processing is finished when I feel that Ive captured a particular mood. Sometimes I like to run a preset to enhance the feel of the photo, and then other times I will do absolutely nothing. It really depends on what exactly Im trying to convey to my audience. I’d also like to agree with pretty much everything George Quiroga posted, with emphasis on “…photography is a medium for artistic expression.” He hit it right on the head.
This is a question I ask myself on a recurring basis. I try to do as much as possible within the camera as possible. A carry over from my film days. A lot of times it is a couple of sliders and done. Other times I may work for quite a while on an image. I may looks at an image and think that it’ll look better in black & white. Opps! there goes an hour or so, just playing around in Photoshop and NIK Silver Efext Pro. So, I guess it boils down to how the image “feels”. I’ve gone back to images that I thought were finished and completely re-worked them. Sometimes it is a quick touch, others, hours. It just hast to “feel” right.
To me, photography is a medium for artistic expression. It is the tool that I use to create images that speak to me; visually and emotionally. I use photography to express how I visualized something and attempt to convey how it made me feel at the time. Sometimes I also impart the emotion that I feel at the time of post processing. If the image and the feeling is fresh in my mind then the post processing more accurately reflects the mood at the time of capture. I also experiment with several variations of an image and may keep them all because they speak to me with different voices.
The amount of my post processing may vary from very slight manipulations of contrast and sharpness to complete blurring effects, black and white conversions, and duotone applications. I also like to shoot a lot of HDR and I may vary the tonemapping from very subtle to completely surreal. I refuse to put a box of limitations around how I work with images.
I also believe there is and will never be a “pure” form of photography since there is not yet a way to capture what is precisely inside the human brain. Photography has always been about manipulation and processing. Images taken with a view camera and processed as a tintype will always be a different representation of the same image that may have been taken with an ISO 400 Black and white film in a 35mm camera shot through a red filter. Both images are manipulated in different ways. BW film processing in the darkroom is also a manipulation that depends on developer formulations and dodging/burning artistry during enlargement. Ansel Adams was one of the foremost post-processing masters of the film era.
Great post. If is hard to know when to stop processing and move on. I fight the inter struggle each time I start working on a photo. I am trying to learn better how to balance how much time to spend. Photoshop gets about 5-10% of the photos. Plug-in’s get 10-15% and Lightroom most of the time.
I do mostly landscapes, and every one that I’m going to print goes to Photoshop. For portrait work, I find that anything to be printed smaller than 8X10 can be done entirely in Lightroom, anything larger than 8X10 almost always goes to Photoshop. For 8X10’s, it’s about 50/50.
Great subject Matt and perfectly timed following on from Scott’s recent post about editing his images from Croatia.
I do still struggle with the fact that I can finish some images entirely in Lightroom as purely from habit I guess I’ve always felt that I need to go visit Photoshop for something atleast no matter how small an adjustment it is. You know what though…alot of the times that very same adjustment can be done in Lightroom; I’m getting better though and more accepting that Lightroom can be a ‘one stop shop’.
Those images that do require more work though, what I tend to do is get to the point in the ‘first sitting’ where I think I’ve done enough, but rather than save it and move on, I’ll leave it on screen and come back to it later and look at it through fresh eyes. Straight away when I do this I can tell if anything more needs to be done. I’ve now started using a Blue label in LR too for those very images that I ‘think’ are done but need to be reviewed before finally being happy.
I have to say that less is more for me…….again….don’t over egg the pudding. There are too many over ‘shopped photos in this world. No I am going mad again, whenI worked in a darkroom I would spend days getting a B&W perfect. maybe I am getting lazy. Maybe I need a darkroom not a Lightroom????
Matt, I am guilty of digging up old photos that should be left alone and rehashing my retouch on them. Specifically, I have a set of vacation photos from 2009. I took a trip through many national parks in Utah & Arizona. I shot thousands of pictures and I am constantly drawn back to them. I think it may be from a desire to shoot in the same areas again. I know a lot more about photography now than I did back then. I am also learning a lot of techniques in photoshop, so I tend to try out new ideas on these old familiar photos. Sometimes I really hit on something that I like, other times I realize that I’m just too emotionally attached to the pictures 🙁
Le Consulat is simply the best HDR ever … and it is a beautiful shot too. This shot might be one where it would be hard to call it quits.
I don’t understand this “when it looks like it did when I was there” argument people keep using. Pictures should look as good as they possibly can. If you can make them look better than what they looked when you were there then by all means go for it. This is art and it should look good. As good as possible. Then… you stop.
I work on it till I like the way it looks. Usualy not a whole lot, like you most times just a gew slikders. Unless it is a photo that I realy want to play with and then anything goes and ill keep going till i think it’s really cool or just hate it. it’s all about the fun factor for me.
That is a tricky one Matt, like you, I feel that some pictures only take a little to tweak. 100% of all of my photos see Photoshop for adjusting as that is my normal workflow, all of them start with an Action I made to pull up curves, levels, contrast, and saturation. However, all of those don’t necessarily need much on some images and some need an overhaul! With HDR photos I always have to do some noise correction work and the usual Action I run.
So when do I say, “Woah dude….STOP!”, usually after I walk away from the image, come back to it, and confirm that it looks good. I almost always walk away from the image and come back later, it gives my brain a minute to reset and see it fresh.
I think all post processing is subjective to the image. I wish I could say this is when enough is enough, but with such a wide open question it is difficult to answer without a bit of description.
Almost ever enough… meaning that I often find myself re-tweeking a photo when I revisit it months or even years later….
when it works.
For me it is all about achieving a goal. When I click the shutter I have an idea of what I want the final image to look like in my mind. When I process, I am simply trying to add/subtract or adjust whatever I need to for the image on the screen to match the image in my head. It may be a minor WB and Exposure tweak, or it may end up being a lot of work. I sit I stare, and when I am satisfied with what I have, then I stop. I use Lightroom for 90% of 90% of my images. I have just added Photoshop to my toolkit, so I am probably going to be doing more in the near future!
Most of the time I just adjust my pictures in LR only. I import with zeroed preset and use calibration profiles when applicable. Primarily I use the Basic, Curves, Detail, and Lens Correction Panels to bring the picture as close to what I saw at the time. Once in awhile I will mess around with other panels but not often.
I’m in a camera club and this is one of the current discussions. Some members are submitting comps for the print competitions it seems a few of them spend a lot of time in PS with mixed results. I prefer not to adjust the content of a picture but that’s just me.
Half the time “enough” is when I’ve run out of time to work on the photos because the deadline is upon me (or passed). 🙂
The other half I can’t give a list of objective criteria for when enough is enough. Like others have noted here, I just look at the picture, and it ether feels done or it doesn’t. Sometimes I know immediately what it needs, sometimes I have to come back to it later. But when it’s done, it’s like a switch flips in my head and a little sign comes on that says “thats it.”
As an artist/painter/photographer, I’ll say that this is always the question regardless of the medium. Painters often fiddle with their work well after being ‘done’. Many of art’s great masters used to do this, even to the point of going back to a work after it was hung in a gallery or museum. Only the artist/photographer really knows what effect they’re looking for, and that can change with time spent ‘away’ from the image or new inspiration or learning new techniques. I’d say, once you’re satisfied and have satisfied the client (if there is one), that is ‘enough’. For me, one image can go through many manifestations. That’s the beauty of digital and lightroom/photoshop.
When an image no longer commands your interest and imagination, it’s “enough”.
Question on SlideshowPro Director for Lightroom. I’ve been making flash slideshows using SSP, however I now want to make them viewable on iPads. Have you done this Matt and do you have any comments on how to do it. The directions seem a little complex. Thx
I find myself retouching endlessly and going to Photoshop when the shoot is not good actually (wrong focus, bad light condition, poor composition) or for portrait rather than landscape. With the landscape it’s kind of easy to stop to what you actually saw or felt it as u said. But with one’s face it’s more tricky. Removing blemishes, lines and this lines as well, whiter teeth, brighter eyes eyes, add shadows and so on …
Compare to a paint artist – it’s not done until it’s off the easel and sold – there will always be the desire to make it better.
A new program or a new technique will quickly send me back into my archives….
For me, it depends on the audience. If I know a photo is going to be shown to a lot of people, I may spend more time on it. If I know I’ll be the only one looking at it, I probably spend a lot less time unless it’s sentimental.
I try to do less than I think is necessary, come back, do a little more, rest on it, and then make a final decision. Its all about restraint.
Painters have the exact same problem. While painting in studio groups, Ive watched over and over again paintings progress from a blank canvas, to the start of something great, to something great, to something with the life overworked out of it (mine included).
Knowing when to stop is very hard, and is a large part of learning.
Matt, great post.
Two things come to mind 1) your question is like asking how high is up? Well, that depends; and 2) I think it was a judge that said this about pornography “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
For me that’s what it’s like. I can’t define when enough is enough, but I’ll know it when I see it. My problem is that I’m always too cautious about overdoing things in post. This is where I waste more time thinking that I have gone too far then spend more time pulling it back. (yes, I’m guilty of too much saturation, contrast and over the top HDR because it looks so cool!)
The more post techniques I learn the more I realize the importance of keeping things simple. Most of my stuff is done in LR with a few sliders. If it looks good, then I’m done. If it needs more detail work then over to PS. But in the end…well it depends.
According to Leonardo da Vinci – Art is never finished, only abandoned.
You keep tweaking until you go to the next image. You may come back and tweak some more, but eventually you just quit.
Im new to all of this having only pickup photography a couple of years ago. I use LR from most of the work, but on occasion a PS will be used. I found that if I have to think to long about what to do next then Im done.
I use LR only for 99% of personal photos. But there are times that I want certain hazes and added light that I can’t do in LR, so I move to Photoshop. Every professional photo I take is processed in Photoshop. I do family portraits, and I liquify, mask, and head swap pretty regularly. But even when it comes to those tools, there is still the question of when is enough, enough? For me enough happens when the image tells the story I wanted to tell. I couldn’t explain to anyone how or when it happens. But I know it when I see it.
Matt, I agree!
When I am in Spain where the sky is blue and everything looks dandy I do little retouching. But, here in Norway it rains and it is cloudy most of the time.
Well, then photoshop is a must to add contrast, colors and spice!
Also, when I revisit images after a month or two I often find myself doing some extra retouching in Photoshop.
Generally speaking, I probably spend less than a minute tweaking 95% of my photos. It’s the 5%, the favorites, that I’ll focus my effort on.
When do I stop with the 5%? What it looked like when I was there is a good general rule of thumb, but once I reach that point, I’ll often continue to tweak to enhance the mood of a photo.
For example, if a sunset felt warm, glowing and powerful, I’ll enhance the warmth and perhaps tweak the colors in the sky to create a mood fitting what I felt when I took the shot.
For me enough is when my limit is met and then I usually leave them for a week and the do the final adjustment.
It also depend on the shoot(s), when I’m shoot a large amount of pictures that need to be processed then enough has a very low limit some pictures never is enough. I get back to them year after year…
Never sure when enough is enough. I use LR for 90-95 %, PS for the content aware fill feature and some pano’s. I count on LR to take care of the rest, including sensor dust, blemish and ‘very small stuff’ removal. Most of these capabilites I learned from you; so I wonder why you still jump to PS as often as you do (or is it because you know PS as well as you do)?
Thank you for reminding us that enough is enough.
As a commercial photographer, pretty much everything I shoot undergoes a heavy treatment in Photoshop– in fact, I’m often hired specifically for a distinctive “look” that’s only possible through the magic of Photoshop. Further, my clients are typically well-established musicians looking to take their careers to a new level, so the CD covers and press kit photos I shoot for them need to have a certain “edge” to them in order to stand out from the crowd. Although this can sometimes be accomplished with lighting alone, it’s usually the post work that makes these images “sing” (pun intended).
But back to your original question….to me, and image is done when: (1) the client says it’s done, (2) I feel that it’s a good representation of my work and overall style, and (3) I’ve taken a second look at it after a day or two. This last step is crucial– particularly with composites– because you need to be able to look at an image with a fresh set of eyes to notice subtle variations in contrast, color, and tonal range that might need further tweaking.
Anyway, thanks for the question…..I look forward to seeing everyone else’s responses as well! 🙂
Hi Matt, very interesting subject matter! My mind was reviewing this same subject since we got back from our vacation to Canada a couple of weeks ago. My process has changed a lot since reading your blog and Scott’s blog and reading your books and Scott’s books.
I first use a different program to weed out all the bad stuff. After that, I’ll import into Lightroom and then make my picks and delete the rest. Then I start with the calibration module and set my profile and then to the lens correction and set that. Then I’m off to the basic panel and then work my way through using three or four sliders. Then to HSL module make a few changes there if needed. Sharpen and then I’m done. Like you if have remove stuff I’ll jump into PS. One other thing, if I have an interesting sky or reflection, etc. I’ll use Nik software (Viveza2 and/or CEP-3) to enhance it.
Like you, I do it until it looks like the shot I remember taking. I’m really trying hard to cut down on the number of steps needed in post by getting it right in the camera the first time. Moose Peterson is a great inspiration about this!
Great question! Looking forward to reading all the answers.
I just process the images with Lightroom. Only when I want to fix something in particular I go to photoshop. I try to keep the photo as real as possible. But that’s just me! 🙂
Are you trying to create OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) in us? In my opinion, I stop when it feels right. I try to get it right in camera to avoid post processing. Like you said some are quick fixes, others take more time. I find I’ll go back and look at some photos and edit them, it could be because when I first looked/edited them my eyes were tired and upon review I notice something “off”.
I agree with getting the “art of processing” to follow a philosophy of “like it was when I saw it”. This would cover most situations, and certainly applies to the first three of Matt’s examples.
However, I would suggest that there is an alternate philosophy which can be followed: “the way I want you to see it”. And that, I think, is what Matt has really done with his last, Parisian, example. It most certainly didn’t look like that when he was there taking the picture. It probably did FEEL like that; it was the impression created on Matt when he was there. He processed the picture to that feeling, but not to the look of the original scene. (“There were people to clone out, junk on the ground…”)
Ssshh! I too like to sometimes add a sky too. Can you do a video tutorial on your technique for this. I struggle sometimes achieving believable results. Thanks and keep up the good work!
As a commercial photographer, almost all of my images get plenty of treatment in Photoshop — in fact, most of my clients hire me specifically because I can give them something “different”. I specialize in band & musician promos and CD covers, so oftentimes my images will end up quite different than where they started, once graphic design elements and/or special effects have been applied.
But to answer your original question, I know that an image is “done” when: (1) the client says it’s done, (2) I believe it’s done, and (3) I’ve waited another 2-3 days to clear my mind and I still think it’s done. With composites in particular, it’s absolutely essential to come back with a fresh set of eyes to reevaluate things like tonal values, lighting, and color. Anyway, great question– it really got me thinking! 🙂
Over few years I’ve learnt such approach:
1. I import photos, throw away crap
2. Take a brake
3. Pick interesting ones
4. Take a brake
5. Process interesting ones, with
5.1 Quick fix
5.2 Crop + Adjust after quick fix if I feel I need to
6. Take a longer break – I leave it to rest&relax for next day 😉
7. Go over selection again and change process (go back, play with versions, etc) if I see something odd or possibilities to improve
It is whole workflow, but I have noticed it is very important for me to take breaks (especially last one) because I have tendency to go to far with process, sometimes WB goes to hell or doesn’t have good idea for crop.
When is a photo finished? A very good question. Sometimes I find myself asking the same one. Most of my photos don’t see Photoshop at all, only maybe 3 – 5 % get their final touch there. Normally Lightroom offers enough sliders to play around with to make my pictures look good. I developed this procedure for me to decide when it’s time to stop working on a photo: I make all corrections I think they will help the picture. Then I click on the very first entry in the protocol pane, the “import” and back to the last entry. When the imported picture looks better then the reworked one, I did too much and I click down the list step by step to find out where the picture looks best in my subjective assessment. Sometimes I try out one or two further corrections and compare again. Usually I don’t come back to a photo which I found to be finished before. Only at the greatest shots I have a look again after 1 – 3 days. Then I make a virtual copy of the original picture and start at the beginning. In the end I compare the first and the current version to find out, if there are differences and which one is my personal “winner”.
Greatings from Germany!
I agree with your philosophy Matt – I want the picture to look like it did when I shot the image, but I add that if someone went back to the scene under the same conditions, they should be able to see a scene similar to my photograph.
When I come back from a trip and have to choose from thousands of pictures, I have a philosphy that if the image will take more the 2 minutes work, then it is not worth it, so whilst many of my images would benefit from a sky replacement, if it doesn’t look good in Lightroom immediately, it will be ignored.
In your example, your first two images reflect your philosophy perfectly, but the Paris scene threw me. Whilst our eyes compensate to show us a greater dynamic range – they don’t see in Photomatix. The HDR “look” gives it an artsy, photo filter look that surely wouldn’t be there in the actual scene. Then I realised you put that in to be controversial for next week’s Grid show 🙂
I think this article by Mike Johnston on Photo.net explains my philosophy well: Don’t overdo it!
it’s a really hard question. As you described, some Photos looking perfectly with a quick development in Lightroom. This is my first step after uploading my photos into LR. But I think i’m really happy with the result for about 10%. The other 90% are going into the Nik Filter Collection for Lightroom or directly into Photoshop.
But into Photoshop it is sometimes hard to say it’s enough. I often try a lot of things, just to end with a earlier version of the photo because I overdid it. And with HDR it’s absolutely impossible to go without Photoshop.