The First Rule of Photoshop

Tekapo Light Show

“Know the difference between image optimization and over-processing.”

Teaching the digital workflow has always been a major part of in the instruction in my workshops. However I don’t consider myself an ‘expert’ in that I have no formal tuition in retouching. What I pass on is self-taught material, supplemented with refinements added over the years from other sources. I teach what I know and do; what everyone else does is often a mystery to me. In fact all the heavy lifting is done in curves and levels and the tools I use are ridiculously simple. While many participants are looking for cool new state-of-the-art techniques and Photoshop ‘secrets’, most people seem to miss the fundamental aspect of good processing – knowing the line between optimized image and one that has overcooked contrast or colours. It’s a difficult skill to teach. Indeed it may be impossible as the best way of getting a feel for this is being a keen observer of light and colour. That all means more time in the field and becoming a student of light.

“Tekapo Light Show” (From the Journal)

There are certain colours that often strike me as being unnatural when pushed too much in the sky – greens and purple (as opposed to magenta). Sometimes the colours we see in nature are so vivid that those who have never experienced them will naturally assume “Photoshop”. In 2010, when researching for my New Zealand workshops, I hit a purple patch of incredible sunrises and sunsets. Like clockwork, the magic hour never failed to produce something special each day. Among the more spectacular slight shows was this sunrise at Lake Tekapo. I’ve attached the unprocessed RAW file at default settings for comparison – it’s about the easiest post capture job I’ve ever done.

I also took some long exposures but they turned out hideously – long tracks of clipped reds gouged across the sky. Even with desaturation, these were not salvageable.



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10 Responses to The First Rule of Photoshop

  1. Dylan Toh says:

    Having seen similar colours in New Zealand recently, I can definitely +1 your experiences with ‘uncapturable’ colours especially with long exposures. Trying and seeing is more than half the fun though :)

  2. Alister Benn says:

    As someone who believes totally in the need to “optimise” my images, I am well aware of the fine line between that and over-cooked. I say fine line, because it is, and I agree that with all the processing tools at our fingertips, LR4, CS6 and Nik to name three, it is easy to go too far.

    In a podcast with David Clapp last year, he used an excellent expression.

    “Handing the image over to the computer”

    The photographer is no longer in control of the image, in terms of vision or execution.

    It is a line that stuck with me, and although I work some of my images pretty hard to optimise dynamic range, colour and contrast, I hope that I retain the key ingredient – creative control, to bring the processed image around to the point where it completes the circle between an experience I had and an image that I can share with another person..

    Great post KKY…

    • kahkityoong says:

      Thanks for your comment. After seeing your post I decided to update the article with a Venn diagram. Knowing what the bounds of the three areas is crucial to anything we do on the computer. If you know a thousand processing techniques under the sun, it’s all going to fall down without a good sense of reality, optimised, pushing the limits and going overboard.

  3. I love the venn diagram. I agree with Alister in that images often need to be “optimized”, and the line between this and “overcooked” is thin. We’ve probably all seen images that are “overcooked” in the ways you describe.

    I see this in contrast to images that are intentionally modified/manipulated for a specific artistic effect (I don’t refer to HDR with this). I’ve seen many a landscape and/or nature image treated heavily by the photographer to produce a specific artistic vision, and with wonderful results. In the scenario I describe, the image is obviously not “natural”, but still evocative.

    Thanks for the post!

    • kahkityoong says:

      Absolutely Wesley. Most nature photographers go for a realistic or optimised result. However there may be times where one wishes to explore beyond those boundaries. The problem arises when a person doesn’t know where those lines are.

  4. Joe Becker says:

    Well said Kah Kit. A great rule to remember. It is so ridiculously easy to go overboard with Photoshop, Lightroom, etc. that knowing when enough is enough is a valuable asset.

  5. Rafael says:

    Great post KK…it hit the nails of what happens nowadays: we are handed totally the “responsibility” with digital to take control of the whole process. And control means not only a lot more of work, but also of risk. As all cooks when they start, I think it is way too easy to put too much salt, species or to add too much garlic to the food…In my case, I have realized that the postprocessing learning I have had in the last years had nothing to do with getting to know more tools, procedures or techniques…but more of developing myself a more subtle taste and sensibility for it. As a good (or at least who strives to be good!) cook, I spend nowadays 10% of the time on 90% of the postprocessing, and then 90% of the time to reach that 10% which adds the subtle nuances I want for the photograph. When I see what I “did” to many images in the past, I realized how I wanted to achieve that 10% by increasing the heavy lifting by an extra 200%. In a way, add less species but select them better and spend more time grinding them…, and the dish will be excellent :)
    Thanks for the post KK,


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