The Methods Don't Justify the Results in Photography

There is a tendency in photography to over-engineer things, thinking that more complicated is inherently better in some way. However, that can often work against us, and often, it is better to simplify things a bit. 

Successful photography takes the confluence of technique, creativity, and careful work, things that often take years to really master. As such, we often feel like we have to put all those techniques and ideas to use to produce a worthwhile result.

My Overwrought Editing Workflow

Photoshop has a ton of functions. Editing any single image does not require employing all of them; in fact, most photos only need just a few of them. But for a long time, I used most of them anyway. Looking back at one of my first shoots, a simple natural engagement portrait got a solid color adjustment layer, gradient, levels, curves, brightness/contrast, vibrance, HSL, black and white adjustment layer set to soft light blending mode, selective color, frequency separation, cloning layer, and who knows what else. That is just what I can remember off the top of my head. If I recall correctly, I spent somewhere around 90 minutes on it — that is 90 minutes for each image that I delivered.  

This image definitely did not need the huge range of ultimately pointless adjustments I applied to it.

The funny thing is that when I dig up the massive multi-gigabyte TIFF file, it looks pretty plain compared to the massive amount of "adjustments" done to it. Opening the individual adjustments, I feel quite silly. The solid color adjustment layer is set to soft light blending mode and 2% opacity. The black and white layer is so subtle it adds essentially nothing. Why are all those layers there at all? I remember that I added them without thought as to what the image actually needed. I felt that if Photoshop had those adjustment layers, then I had to use them to create a fully polished image, right? I opened the image and immediately added all those adjustment layers without any thought as to what it needed. 

It somehow did not feel right, like I was not doing the image justice if I just gave it a quick and straightforward edit. It was an overcast day, giving a soft, flattering light, so all I really needed to do was add a touch of contrast, maybe bump up the warmth a bit, and catch any stray hairs or distracting elements with the clone stamp. That's a two-minute edit. But a two-minute edit made me feel like I was cheating. But the truth is that there is not always a direct correspondence between the amount of work that goes into something and the quality of the final product. Sometimes, something good comes out from little effort. Sometimes, tons of effort produces something bad.

The Black Hole of the Garish Edit

Which brings me to the other extreme. How often have you gotten lost in an edit, pushing it further and further, only to finally finish it and realize that it is a garish mess of oversaturated colors, plastic skin, too much HDR, or some other issue? There is a human tendency to try to engineer our way out of situations in a way that adds more complexity to deal with issues brought on by previous levels of complexity when sometimes, the answer is to back up a few steps, reassess, and simplify. 

We often tend to be better in pushing forward than in changing direction. This can corner us. It is the same sort of process as my first example, in which I used a bunch of tools without actually using them. But in this case, it produces an edit that is way over the top. It feels too easy to lightly edit an image, as if anyone could do that and the only way to give an image our personal mark is to give it an extreme, unmistakable edit. But the best photographers show a lot of restraint. You might be surprised by how little a lot of top photographers edit their images.

Of course, that is not to say that there are not images that require extensive editing to achieve the desired results. There will absolutely be situations that call on the full range of your skills and creative ideas. But the best photographers have very discerning taste and apply their skills with a selective touch.

Better Output

It is not just a question of producing images of a higher quality. Learning what an image needs and what it does not can save you a lot of time in the editing process, and that adds up quite a bit over time. And when it comes to photography work, doing anything you can to reduce effort and streamline your process can do a lot of good.

But more than anything, this really does come back to producing images of the best quality, which is what we all strive toward at the end of the day. And while I have focused on post-processing here, it applies to all aspects of photography: you over-engineer lighting setups, etc. Even worse, you can over-engineer gear in the sense that you think expensive equipment justifies a result: if it was shot on that shiny medium format camera, it must be good, right? But a lousy image is a lousy image, no matter what captured it. 

The Methods Never Justify the Results

It can be tempting to feel that there is a correlation between the complexity of the methods and effort and quality of output. After all, that is the just thing in some sense; it should not be that we can sometimes create a great shot with little effort and that we can spend hours working on a photo for mediocre results. We trick ourselves into thinking that we have to do something more. And in some cases, that is the case. But in others, it is not. The trick is learning to not lose focus on the result. That sounds like simple advice that borders on simplistic, but when you are in the midst of the creative process, it can harder to be objective about the result than we might realize. 

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Charles Mercier's picture

When I take a photo and work on it, I want it to look like it is - what I saw. I don't want enhanced colors. Bleah. There is something hopefully amazing that I want to capture. I can't improve on the light so I just want to get the image as close as I can. Subtlety, apparently doesn't seem to fit into photography anywhere.

Charles Mercier's picture

True. I was about to remove the subtlety remark. It was more a comment on my personal distain for fake and oversaturated colors which seems to be going out of favor (see nature calendars) thank goodness.

Ed Kennedy's picture

The photos with the "cotton" like water flowing is horrible. I have traveled the world and have never seen anything like these edits/pictures. Mist - yes. "Cotton" like water never.

Deleted Account's picture

A neutral density filter, tripod, and long exposure puts you in business for that. Tiresome by now. Right there with hyper saturated colors.

Charles Haacker's picture

I've thought for some time they have become cliche. I admit to rarely carrying a tripod (lazy man) but I personally prefer a water shot that lets me "hear" it. To me, silky water is silent water. I prefer to see, and "hear" the power.

Steven Weston's picture

Ah, so true. KISS. A little crop for composition. Clone distractions and wayward hair out. Adjust the color temperature and contrast a little. Next!

Deleted Account's picture

Big Name says "it is clarity of intent that defines great art."

"Setting a clear intention is the first element of any successful creative endeavor. A conscious clear intention can greatly assist any creation effort. Clarity of intent coupled with mindfulness and awareness is the most powerful mental creative force you have."

My art instructors often prodded me to put implement to surface before my intention was clear!

Gary Diamond's picture

So this article essentially boils down to: train your eye, less is more.

I'd add that sometimes imperfections that people touch out of their shots makes them better and removing them with the clone tool makes them blander. I like the artifacts of the medium, for example deliberately not correcting for lens barrelling or pincushioning when shooting on vintage lenses, and leaning into wide open dark corner vignetting rather than away from it.

Also, shoot as much as possible and embrace happy accidents. Sometimes the best shots are ones you don't even remember taking. Happens to me all the time.

RT Simon's picture

Purchase an Eizo monitor with a built-in sensor, purchase some exotic matte papers, make the paper base your white point, feel the texture of the matte paper, though be sure to wipe the surface with a fine cloth before you feed it into your expensive inkjet printer, make a print of your latest garish edit on on this beautiful Matte paper, and you will REPENT.

All the overworked edits will jump out at you like the little garish edits they are. Messing with colours you shouldn’t mess with or shadows that should have been only adjusted with the slightest tweak.The matte surface is like scrying scream for your photographs to filter out what you did wrong.

Deleted Account's picture

Why do you think that is? I quickly thought maybe the matte surface better represents how our eye moves about the image. Different, say, from a glossy stock,

stuartcarver's picture

Just so we got this right, you want us to spend £10000 to see that the saturation slider might be too high?

David Pavlich's picture

How much do you think an original Dali painting goes for? It's a terrific example of art. We choose what we like. I don't care for Dali's work, but others love it. It seems that I'm in the minority here since I like the feathered look of long exposure photography. I like good cloud motion blur. I like some over the top tone mapping. I will NEVER be accused of being a purist.

We like what we like. Since it's all subjective, there is no right or wrong.

David Pavlich's picture

And one more thought; there's a reason that Ansel Adams spent many, many hours in the dark room. He made his images look like he wanted them to look.

Sam Sims's picture

Sure, you can certainly tell Ansel dodged and burned a lot in his photos. As a complete contrast, Henri Cartier-Bresson never had any interest in developing his own prints and always sent them off to a photo lab.

David Pavlich's picture

Like I said, it's all subjective. No one way is the right way or the wrong way.

anthony marsh's picture

Yes he did,however ADAMS used his experience and artistic aesthetics to enhance his photos. His hours and hours in the darkroom were the culmination of years and years of experience learning his craft not by depending upon technology to correct what he deemed correctable or enhanced.

David Pavlich's picture

He used the technology available at the time, just like we do today. If Mr. Adams were here today, do you think he would shun the computer or embrace it? I'd say he'd embrace it.

Edmund Devereaux's picture

My art my way.

Sam Sims's picture

I personally find no joy sitting in front of a computer for hours editing my photos to death. I do find there’s a point where photo editing starts to look artificial unless it’s done subtly. I try to get the exposure as accurate and consistent as I can when out photographing then apply a few subtle edits to the exposure and colours. For me the real joy is going out and taking photos, not sitting in front of a computer. Each to their own, of course.

Alex Reiff's picture

I think it's dependent on the situation. Especially if your goal is to get acceptably good images out the door quickly, there's a lot of value in the less is more approach. However, it's not really one size fits all. Some images just require a lot of time, and the final product isn't necessarily indicative of what went into it. Not just in terms of editing, but also in terms of planning, leg work, etc.

There's also something to be said for the process being its own reward. If you're a hobbyist, you wouldn't take the time to shoot if you didn't like it. And over shooting and over editing, even if you're doing it badly, can serve as a learning tool.

anthony marsh's picture

Less is more begins with knowledge of fundamentals prior to and during making a photograph,not by depending upon technology to bail one out after a less than fine image.

Alex Reiff's picture

From a results and efficiency standpoint, it pays to approach it from both sides. Decisions made on location and decisions made during editing both offer options that the other don't, and if they do offer them, may be more time consuming and/or give worse results.

Chris Fowler's picture

So, if I take your article to an extreme conclusion, I should not have given my mother my Sony a6000 to "improve her photography" when she was perfectly happy using her smartphone to take pictures at family events hahaha.
I'm being cheeky, but to be honest she has barely touched the camera since then...

Aidan Morgan's picture

I've put ridiculous amounts of time, effort and money into software and techniques that turned out to be more or less useless for my photography once the initial excitement wore off. I would say it's nice to know what Photoshop is capable of, but without regular practice you eventually forget it and have to relearn on the fly. Getting it right (or close to right) in camera and making a few edits afterward seems like obvious advice, but it's one of the hardest lessons to learn. Thanks for this article.

Morris Trichon's picture

The confluence of photography and personal computers has given photographers an infinite number of solutions in modifying or enhancing an image. When I started with film, it was the image captured on the film that mattered most. With Cameras now being small computers with lenses and the ability to further modify the image by computer I believe there is a lost art that was specific to photography. I do not claim to know if this is a good thing or a negative influence on capturing an image. The technology has surly unleashed a rash of creative images across media and galleries. I do think that the release of new cameras, lenses, computers and software editors every six months or so is unsustainable across the global economy and not even sustainable across just the wealthy nations. Unforeseen impacts like COVID-19 has for the most part redirected money to necessities no matter how the desire to buy the lates and greatest. The rich will always be able obtain what they want, but this cannot sustain an industry. Of course the advent of cameras imbedded on smart phones has also had a significant impact to those who desire immediate results. They are like a modern day Polaroid camera but even better as the images can be shared on a wide scale instantaneously. I believe that current camera will again morph into something else that will shake and change the camera industry. How well it will preserve the art of photography that old timers like me knows is an unanswered question.

Charles Haacker's picture

I love to shoot and I love to process. I started out shooting JPEG but I never showed anything that hadn't received a little tweak. I was always careful to expose for the highlights, then open the shadow in post. Once I discovered raw I subscribed to Adobe CC and never looked back. As regards Alex's piece, I pretty much never process in Photoshop. I know folks that do, right down to the frequency separations, but I find that I get what I want 90% of the time in LR alone. I feel pretty sure I don't overdo it. I tweak a little here, a little there, and my biggest thing is establishing a black point and a white point. I back the white point off until it just disappears but I usually leave a tiny bit of black clipping. It's an old zone system thing. I was trained to make long-scale prints with an absolute black and a paper white somewhere in every image. I shoot events, and I may have 1500-2000 frames to cull and post-process. I can usually get it done in an evening so I don't think I'm overprocessing. I hope. For me, Photoshop with its awesome power is reserved for the heavy stuff.

Scott Hussey's picture

A few years ago, I was speaking at a local photography club. One of the club members shared a print he had made and talked about the processing. It was basically just a simple (boring) shot looking up into a tree. He'd combined 48 photos shot at f/1.8 on his 85mm. He'd done a panorama of 6 shots, focus stacking 8 times. He spent 2 weeks editing this thing.

All I could think was, "why the hell didn't you just shoot f/8 at 24mm?"

Charles Mercier's picture

LOL! Your response was good for a hearty morning laugh!

Marv W's picture

Really useful article, thanks. I agree, it’s easy to lost in the editing process, the importance of which cannot be overlooked. But not to the detriment of time or image outcome.

Mihael Tominšek's picture

Once I clashed with my fellow photographers whhen I laugh out of them to spent hours on one image that only needs few touches (like exposure). I was acused doing bad service if I just give images without spending hours on each. Thhey also advocated that Photoshop is the best tool for developing images. I could not understand: It is like one would need to capture music concert and would paint each image on canvas. Nuts. I use capture one and touch every forth image. They still used Lr and Ps and advocated C1 gives overcooked images and they prefer Lr where image is flat, so they can do stuff how they like. Me using Lr once realized I need to move 10 sliders in Lr per eac image, repetively thhe same, to get my base image I want, from which I would touchh every forth any further. I spent hours persimple family shots unable to show the kids images of the day before bed, since I still edit them while they had to go.

Well, C1 gives my just that what I would slide anyway out of the box. And it looks way better at once. Now I just import, check exposure and mostly export before mention type of images. Family happy, me happy.

Adobe force over-engineer workflow by itself. I know Ps for 20+ years, Lr since it exists, Premiere even before PRO was added. Hell how this software is complicated and cumbersome for single reason: it is ancient old. They only build on it over the years. They had to overcome all old tech shortcommings. Ps is fossil in software world. Than this cumbersome, long lasting, task rich workflow you must train and train ans use everyday to master, grows under ones skin and he thinks he can't live without. The main reason so meny folks refuse to abandon Ps is thinking other software is complicated or lacks things. Yes when I came to C1 I thought the same, I MUST do more with image, ... now I am glas I came off this "addiction" and just look at image: If iit is right, I just export. In Lr image is never good just as is and than after so much of touching photographers forget to be photographer and see image. We always tend to slide something by habbit, even if it is not needed.

And whenb using PS it is essentially destructive method. You always end up with massive TIFF files or even PSD files that tripples the storage need. And if some initial task was done wrong, here ve go again.

anthony marsh's picture

"Learning what an image needs and what it does not need"? Would it not be far better to know this when making a photograph? Sadly many digital photographers feel that they can compensate for their ignorance of the fundamentals of photography by "enhancing" ill conceived ill composed images by much manipulation.