SOOC is overrated and PhotoShop gets a bad rap

If you’re not all that interested in the technical aspects of photography, you might want to skip this post – because I’m getting in deep!

When you hang out with photographers, when you’re Facebook friends with photographers and follow their Twitter streams, when you spend time on photography forums, you get exposed to lots of different ways of thinking about photography – which is great! But sometimes an idea gets picked up by the community, and elevated. And every once in a while I see an idea get tossed around, that leaves me a little baffled – like the idea that it’s best to show your images straight out of the camera with no adjustments, and that PhotoShop is bad. Now depending on the type of photography you practice, showing SOOC and limiting the amount of processing you do may very well be a smart strategy – but it’s definitely not a one fit solution for all photographers.

Back in 1994 I got a job in a portrait studio, and they hired me as a photographer even though I had zero experience. Why? Because they used one setup for everything. I had a couple of days of training to learn how to setup the lights, what settings to use on the camera, and to memorize the basic poses. It was photography by the numbers, for sure! But it worked, and we created some beautiful portraits. But after a couple of months I got bored. Really bored. I wanted to experiment and do new things and that was never going to happen in this particular studio, so I quit and went back to school.

Suddenly photography for me became art and science combined – it was the exact opposite of the set-it-and-forget-it style of photography I’d done in that first job. And I played with EVERYTHING! I spent 30 hours a week in the darkroom that first semester, and loved every minute. There were so many choices I could make and directions I could take. It started with film choice – color or black and white, low contrast or high contrast, high or low ISO? And then while shooting, did I want a narrow or a wide depth of field? Did I want a little motion blur? Did I want to expose for the highlights, or the shadows, or the midtones? Next came processing the film, where I could adjust the temperature and timing to get more or less contrast and more or less grain. And then in the actual darkroom? There were paper choices and filter choices and timing choices – and the ultimate bit of control – dodging and burning! And the final step – spotting the print – where you used a tiny brush and a special ink thinned with water, to tone down dust spots – and more. We called it interpreting a negative, and I spent hours in the darkroom and lab doing exactly that. There is art in the shooting, sure, but there was also art in the choices you made in the darkroom, interpreting that negative.

So jump to 2010 – and photography is almost all digital now. Instead of choosing the ISO when we buy the film, we set the ISO in the camera. Where we used to increase the contrast by choosing Tmax instead of Tri-x film, or developing the film longer, or using a #4 filter in the darkroom, now we change the settings in our cameras or in the post processing. Every choice we used to make with film, we still make now with digital – PhotoShop is the new darkroom!

There have always been photographers who don’t want to spend time in a darkroom or sitting at a computer – and for those photographers the ExpoDisc is a must-have – so they can color balance in camera. And for those same photographers, Canon Picture Styles and Nikon’s Picture Control allow them to customize a group of settings for portraits and another group for landscapes, and then flip between them at will – it’s very similar in process, to choosing film, a decade ago. And believe me, if I was shooting weddings, where the standard is to give the client all the files, I would definitely consider making more of the choices in-camera – so that the main post necessary would be downloading the images and burning a DVD.

But here’s the thing – if you’re not dealing with thousands of files, there is no benefit to doing it in camera, other than saving a little time in post. Anything you can do in-camera, you can also do in post – and instead of just blindly applying a group of settings as you shoot, and hoping it turns out okay, if you make those choices as you process, you can see what you’re doing.

Back in the old days I could ship film off to the pro lab, and get back beautiful prints – but when I wanted full control, I did it myself in the lab! It’s the same thing now – I could come up with a generic set of presets for open-shade portrait, backlit portrait, etc., and apply them as I shoot – but if I want total control, then I need to wait and process each file in post.

There is no right or wrong here, and every photographer will come up with their own way to work – but I can safely say that I will always be a “interpret the negative” kind of girl. And when I hear the phrase, “fix it in PhotoShop” used in a negative way, I cringe a little. It’s really not “fixing” it in PhotoShop – it’s interpreting it – working it – creating art.

I’m sure that showing files straight out of the camera works for lots of photographers – but is it right for every photographer? No way! For some of us, the lure of the darkroom is still there – it just takes place in a different arena. Same process, same creativity, different arena!

10 Replies to “SOOC is overrated and PhotoShop gets a bad rap”

  1. I would say *word* – in that I agree w/every single word of this post;) Although, I never experienced the dark room, I get the concept you have of “interpreting the negative”…love that phrase!

    I think the SOOC purists can have their bit – they don’t impact me or anyone else, as far as I’m concerned – it’s just a preference…

    But one of the things I have found for myself in photography, is that the decisions we make in post really round out the overal creative process – I don’t think I would be as “into” it as I am now, if it wasn’t for that post interpretive process – and I feel like I have a long way to go in this realm as well as the actual shooting process…to me it’s definitely not one or the other…the overall end to end process really is what appeals to me…

  2. thanks for this Cheryl.
    “How can photography be considered art.. isn’t that an insult to the “true artist”?
    “anyone with the new expensive cameras can do that”
    “It’s been ‘shopped.”
    “It’s not a true rendition of the subject.”

    I have had conversations like this the past few months and have never figured out the best way to get my point across. From now on I will be able to make that connection.. the dark room/photoshop connection. Bravo. (and thanks!)

  3. Exactly Elisa, where the art happens doesn’t matter – as long as it happens! Some of us used to do it in the darkroom, and others do it sitting front of the computer – so what? In the end, it’s the process that counts, not the tools.

  4. Fransi, I don’t hear comments like that much anymore, but my feeling has always been that anyone who would say such a thing either has no sense of what art is all about – OR – they do know, but they’re insecure, and trying to protect their turf by acting dismissive of other art forms. Either way, I don’t take a comment like that very seriously. My response has always been, sure, not all photography is art – just like it’s not always art every time someone slops paint on a canvas, or picks up a pencil and starts to draw, or grabs a lump of clay and starts to poke at it. Art is NOT about the media, it’s about the artistic impulse. I don’t think everyone gets that at first, but give them time – you’ll get through eventually!

  5. Read this last night and have been thinking about it since. I agree w/ you … completely.

    It is interesting to see how certain ideas gain momentum … Do you think a lot of the pro-SOOC types come mostly from the digital era, w/out having the negative/film development bkgrd? Maybe they don’t realize the decisions pre-shoot and post-process that film photographers make. Or maybe it’s just a general push-back against all the PS actions marketing that some photogs do. I have seen that lately while bobbing around the ‘net, I must say.

    For me, having all these options and tools available is a good thing – it’s exciting. I enjoy the post-process as much as the image-capturing. I like how photographers develop their own styles, apply their artistic touch. It’s one of my favourite things about viewing an artist’s work – not only how they see the world and the subjects they choose to photograph (or paint or sculpt etc.), but their personal touch on an image that gives it something different, something special. It makes me think about art in new ways.

    “Interpret the negative” … I like that a lot. That’s good. :~)

  6. Right on Cheryl! I agree completely with your remarks when it comes to professional photography. I will say working around students who have often never dreamt of the technique (and effort) required before the digital darkroom, there is a WHOLE lot of value to teaching getting a great image before the post-processing, and sometime SOOC as an exercise can hit that home. I see so many that will say they’ll just “fix it in Photoshop” and their images lack a certain basic starting quality necessary to warrant the energy on post-processing (if they are going to use photography for something more than a fun hobby.) Another related term I appreciate is “Photoshopographer” referring to someone who is more into the quick vignettes and default filters more than the process of image-making and the art of photography itself — the idea that you can apply a default sepia tone and voila, the image is now art! I personally don’t share or post images without reviewing them and post-processing myself (outside of the social networking camera-phone snapshot variety)– to me they aren’t done until the photographer makes out of the camera determinations!

  7. I stumbled onto your article quite by accident, and it was an interesting read!

    I think, though, that at least some of the SOOC popularity is a bit of a reaction against the HDR/selective colouring/overcooked/oversaturated/oversharpened series of fads that have become associated with Photoshop and frankly, excessive post-processing that either 1) doesn’t fix a bad picture or 2) doesn’t render a good picture any more interesting.

    For me, SOOC can be a good exercise and a challenge to pull off well (just like selective colouring is a challenge to pull off well). But I can appreciate what you mean in your post, since I shoot a lot of film, and black and white negatives require quite a few processing steps for me (I develop and then scan myself). In a way, SOOC is like shooting colour slide film: you’ve basically got one shot to nail your exposure (there’s a mild irony in my having to tweak my even my colour slide scans in post processing…). SOOC can be fun. Can’t we just take pictures and be happy? 🙂

  8. Exactly Lori! There are definitely times when SOTC is warranted – like I wrote above, anytime you have to present a client with 1000’s of images (like in a wedding!) – or as you suggested, when you’re a student – and learning. I will also say that I think a properly exposed image is always necessary – that’s not negotiable – but properly exposed is very different from properly exposed, color correct, and pre-sharpened, and ready to go straight out of the camera. Honestly I not only dodge and burn, I also selectively sharpen, and there’s no way I could do all that in-camera!

  9. Welcome Khoa Tran! I’m glad you accidently stumbled in! And I think you’re probably right about the anti-Photoshop attitude being partially a backlash to all the “trends” you mentioned. I also think it’s sometimes perpetuated by competitive photographers proving their worth by tossing out spectacular images, and claiming they barely have to try anymore – it’s all just so easy for them! Which in my opinion is silly, because it’s the “trying” that’s the fun part! Why would you want to be so brilliant, that you didn’t have anything new or exciting to discover? But we’re all different – right? And yeah, let’s all just make images, and do it in our own way, and all be happy. I’m definitely in favor of that!

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