Michael Pilkington
Michael Pilkington

I recently visited the web site of Tony Kuyper Photography. I came across Tony as he has developed some interesting post processing techniques called 'luminosity masks'. Reading the 'creative notes' section of his website I found he clearly articulated the need for post processing which prompted me to explore the question 'why post process?'

For some people post processing of images is the equivalent of manipulating their images and is not acceptable, it is changing reality. Perhaps so, however, in the realm of landscape photography, and many other genres, this has been done since the beginning of photography and printing. That is to say well before the advent of digital photography and Photoshop. How so? Well in the 'good' old days of film you would create your prints in the dark room and could elect, using light sensitive paper, increase or decrease the amount of exposure and hence bring out or reduce shadows and highlights. Dodging and burning was effectively exercising this in selected areas of the image. All the great photographers and printers were well versed in this.

Iceland Landscape by Michael Pilkington

But why do this? There are two aspects to this. Firstly we have to acknowledge that the correct exposure for a given scene can be defined as capturing light and dark areas without clipping, that is to say by retaining detail in these areas. This also implies that your film or digital sensor has limitations in the differences between these different areas. This is called dynamic range or latitude. A negative is simply an averaging out of the light seen at the time the image was taken. The camera can only capture one exposure. By contrast your eyes scan a scene, pupils dilating and contracting to adjust for different light intensities, that is to say records multiple exposures. That is a fundamental difference between what the camera records and what you see.

Secondly, your other senses come into play, smell, sound, feeling to make up the mental image you record. Tony Kuyper states, 'the first time I see the digital file on my computer monitor it appears perfunctory, almost totally devoid of the aesthetic potentials that prompted me to take the picture in the first place.'

Inverpolly by Michael Pilkington

So technically, it is necessary to bring back the life to the image captured in the field. The different intensities of light and dark need to be recovered. Using software such as Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture ( to name but a few) gives us the mechanisms to achieve this in the modern day digital 'darkroom'. Equally, we need to recreate the experience of that moment in the field and communicate it to the viewer. Emotional connection in the field prepares the mind for the printing stage and it is this emotional awareness that informs the post processing stage. After all, as pleasurable as it is being in the field with one's camera, is only part of the job, so we must learn to embrace and enjoy printing to truly be photographers, and by doing so, offer the viewer the finished visual statement of our experience

Tony Kuyper goes on to say 'The process of recreating the visualization often requires a great deal of creativity. But it is an enjoyable process. As I revive the image I frequently find myself reliving the joy of being present with the light when the image was taken. Far from being a mechanical process, print-making is every bit as creative as actually being in the field taking pictures. It's a different situation, but it requires the same level of focus and attention.'

I couldn't agree more. Some people lament the time spent behind the computer screen post processing their images. They see as time taken away from being behind the camera. This could be a fair comment if as a commercial photographer time is money. As Ansel Adams said, "The negative is the score, and the print the performance.' For me, this part of the photographic journey is as important and enjoyable as capturing the image out in the field. Perhaps more so. The performance is the recreation of the visualization or indeed experience you had in the field with your camera.

Lofoten by Michael Pilkington

Lastly, realising the limitations of post processing improves your photography in the field. Capturing a high quality image, both technically and aesthetically becomes more important. So hopefully, my photography improves in the field and my image or print making improves in the digital darkroom.

© Michael Pilkington

You can find Tony Kuyper's work at www.goodlight.us. and also an explanation of luminosity masks.

To learn more about improving your photography, think about the following workshops: