Opposites: Ansel Adams, besides painstakingly composing his photos and sometimes waiting the better part of a day for just the right lighting, also meticulously developed his own film, dodging and burning to perfection. Henri Cartier-Bresson, on the other hand, would compose quickly, then send his photos out for processing. For some photographers, once the “decisive moment” has passed, that’s all she wrote. The moment’s been and gone, the photo’s in the can. End of story. For others, there’s not so much a decisive moment as a cascade of events that in some sense prolongs the photo, both before and after the shutter’s been pressed.
I don’t think they had CVS or Walgreens (much less Photoshop) in those days, but photographers have tended to fall on a continuum between those two points. The question that always hovers over us is, “When is this photo done?” Is it when the photo’s taken, frozen on film or encoded on a memory card? Is it after we’ve made a few small crops and tweaks? After we’ve processed it more than your average can of deviled ham? Or just after we’ve paused to vacuum the cracker crumbs out of our bellybuttons?*
When I started in photography, my enthusiasm for post-production was matched only by how awful I tended to be at it. Sometimes it was because I was using the wrong tools for the job; other times, it was because I was using what could very well have been the right tools, just with a little too much enthusiasm. To say I was heavy-handed sometimes would be an understatement… think of the photographic equivalent of opening a jar of pickles with a hammer, and you’d have a pretty good idea of the end results.
Over time, I’ve learned (I hope) to edit with a lighter hand. A touch of sharpening, a few tweaks to the lighting or white balance, maybe a crop… Which isn’t to say that sometimes I’m still not tempted to throw everything at the photo just to see what sticks.
But enough about me. What about where that leaves you? How do you know when the photo’s finished, what the right kind, or amount, of processing is?
You just do.
What did you have in mind before you made the photo, as you set up your shot and chose your settings? How about when you took the photo? What was your subject trying to say, or what were you trying to say through your subject? If you’ve gotten your answer straight from the camera, lucky you, you’re done. If there was something else you had in mind, or in your mind’s eye, then post-process to your heart’s content ’til you get it where you want it. This is the photographer’s equivalent of “season to taste.”
Of course, tastes vary. What looks “artistic” to you might, to someone else, be not unlike dumping turmeric over grapefruit, or playing a kazoo during one of the more somber bits of a requiem. What’s “done” to you might be “overdone” to someone else (maybe they prefer RAW, or at least medium rare). That’s okay too.
Tastes also change. You may start out preferring a very deliberate process, with great care and time taken at each step, only to move toward a quicker and less self-conscious process (and/or vice versa). That’s fine. It’s all part of the (post-) process. At the end of the day, it’s your muse you’ve got to follow, and your vision to which you’re accountable.
*Just making sure you’re paying attention.