There are few industries as heart-wrenching as the fine art business. It's a six-car pileup at the intersection of art and commerce and the amount of opinion and hyperbole that is somehow labeled as...
For the most part, my philosophy of image processing and printing can be summed up with a succinct and pleasingly colloquial name: “cooking vegetables.” I owe the metaphor to David Mayer, who articulated it in a comment he made on The Online Photographer (only mildly slandering his own mother in passing) a year or so ago.
When you cook vegetables, you want to cook ‘em just enough, and not too much. Same could be said about pretty much any facet of image processing, I think.
With vegetables, you avoid overcooking both for reasons of taste and of nutrition. The same might be claimed, metaphorically, for pictures. Overdoing it is not only in bad taste (in my opinion), but it’s a distraction from the subject, and detracts from the photograph’s ability to communicate.
I should add a disclaimer here: As ever, I’m advocating, not dictating. I only get to decide what’s right for myself; everyone else—including you—gets to decide what’s right for them. There’s no need for anybody to get argumentative on this point. I understand.
The key, for me, is not to draw the viewer’s attention to any of your tricks. When sharpening, sharpen just enough so that the image doesn’t look sharpened. When saturating, stop just short of the point at which your typical viewer would look at your picture and say “that’s had the saturation kicked up.” If you burn or dodge (for those working in the darkroom), you usually try to stop short of the point at which the burning or dodging is obvious.
A couple of good cases in point: we’re all aware that when you have a camera that has a fixed relationship between the lens and the film or imager, and you point the camera upwards at a building, you get what’s called “keystoning”—a type of perspective distortion where the sides of the building tend to angle inwards towards a vanishing point. Some people say the building “looks like it’s falling over backwards.” Nowadays, this is pretty easy to correct in post-processing, if the geometry of the building is important to the picture. In the film era, you could correct it by using a perspective-control (PC) lens. But a common mistake to my eye is when people correct the building so that the sides are exactly parallel. While technically correct, it always looks overdone to me, probably because the eye expects to see some keystoning in photographs. The effect of making the vertical sides of a building literally parallel is that it looks like the opposite sort of distortion is in play, with the top of the building looking wider than the bottom. What I usually aim for when applying this correction is to take out enough of the distortion so that attention isn’t drawn to the distortion, but also to leave some of it in so that it doesn’t look obviously corrected. That looks the most natural to me; people looking at the picture will see the building and not get distracted by either the visual flaw or by your correcting of it.
If you’ve read about, or seen documentaries about, the Parthenon in Athens, you’ve probably learned about how the ancient Greek architects solved many similar problems. The one I remember in particular is that the pediment is actually slightly crowned; if it were exactly flat, it would look as if it bowed downward, because the eye expects to see some result of the great visual weight above it. By crowning it slightly, it looks perfectly flat even though it isn’t.
The same principle is at work in a mat for a picture frame. The picture has what’s called “visual weight”; if you make the mat the exact same distance on all four sides, it typically looks as if there’s too little on the bottom edge. A common style in framing is to greatly exaggerate the bottom weighting, but I’m not talking about that. To get the mat to look like it’s exactly even on all four sides, you actually have to add just a bit of extra width to the bottom side.
Another typical technique where you frequently encounter “overcooked vegetables” is with the HDR (high dynamic range) technique. Some pictures that use this technique have such an obvious characteristic look that they instantly draw attention to the technique. My preference in using HDR would be to stop short of point at which it looks like you’ve used HDR. In the darkroom, I worked very hard to get shadow detail into my prints, but the key for me was to never overdo it. What I wanted was not for the viewer to look at the print and immediately say “Wow, great shadow detail,” but for her to look at the print and feel an almost subliminal impression of depth and richness—perhaps without quite knowing why.
A technique I use in sharpening all the time is to just sharpen the areas of the print that I want the viewer’s eye to be drawn to. I often don’t like what sharpening does to out-of-focus blur, so I just leave it alone. Sharpness, like light areas in a dark picture or dark area in a light picture, or like a warm color in a cold picture or cold areas in a warm picture, can often just be an accent without harming the overall subjective sense of sharpness and richness. Often, I’ll do successive levels of sharpening on increasingly smaller areas—in a portrait of a person or an animal, I’ll first select the whole head (feathering the edges of the selected area generously so the borders of the sharpened area don’t stand out) and run one sharpening pass, then select just the eyes and run another sharpening pass. I do the same thing with local contrast—I’ll just apply it to the areas of the picture I want the viewer’s eye to be drawn to, and sometimes in selective, separate passes.
When you toggle back and forth from the out-of-camera image to the processed version, it’s easy to see the changes I’ve made. But if you were to just see the processed version, hopefully what you’d see is a picture that merely looks right—not obviously sharpened or highlighted, not overly saturated or manipulated.
We’re all aware that sometimes technique just “comes together” and the print seems to sing. The subject contrast fits the dynamic range of the film or imager, the lighting happens to be just right, the print looks really nice. The point of all the processing tricks and methods I use is simply to make every picture look more like the best ones do. The best post-processing is when the picture looked like it didn’t need any processing at all. To me, though, the art is best when the artfulness is hidden—just as a dancer might work very hard to make it look like he isn’t working at all, so I believe that pictures look best when they look natural. They should have a certain inevitability, as though they just have to look the way they do. Excessive use of any of the controls we have available to us might demand immediate attention more effectively, but they seldom satisfy in the long run. Like perfectly cooked vegetables, the perfect print is neither overdone nor underdone, but just right.