Reality: pre-, mid- and post-processing

No one would believe that this image of the pond behind our house is a factual recording of an actual scene. Yet it makes me think about a question I often hear from people who are beginning to get serious about their photography.

Concerned about how much an image should be manipulated after it has been taken, they fret about the best techniques for "getting it right" in the camera in the first place. The idea is that there is a way to take a picture "as it really was." They often look back fondly at film-based photography as being more honest and less subject to manipulation than digital photography.

This concern is entirely misplaced -- and not just now, in the digital age. While there may be a popular understanding that photography offers a documentary view of the world in a way that other graphic arts do not, it completely ignores the fact that everything about the photographic process is an abstraction. From the photographer's choice of subject matter, time, place, lens and angle of view, to the projection of a three dimensional world onto a two-dimensional screen or sheet of paper, there is not a single aspect of the process that is not subject to interpretation and alteration. From the very first image on a light-sensitive surface until now, not a single photograph has escaped being fiddled with.

We could ignore this truth during the film years by squinting through our cameras with one eye and then entrusting our film to a lab -- thereby concealing the impact of the photofinisher's choices and our own selection of film type. The difference today is that most of those choices have become explicit and obvious as even rank beginners have access to powerful image manipulation software.

Manipulation has always been the norm. But it is now impossible for photographers to ignore the impact of choices they make between scene and finished product. And our understanding of the relative importance of camera work versus "process" is also changing. The job is not about creating a document in-camera that preserves the scene as it really was -- it's about capturing data that will best support the image we choose to present to the world. And it always has been.

So, perhaps we should stop talking about our time on the computer as "post-processing." There is no time when we are not processing.