Should The Viewer Be Unable to Detect Your Enhancements?

I recently watched a YouTube video by Thomas Leuthard entitled “23 Ninja Tips For Your Next Photo Walk,” no.23 of which was: “Don’t overcook your photos with too much editing. If you can tell what photoshopping tools were used, you’ve used too much.”

My inner ninja started wondering if this is true — and if it is, WHY is it true?

If it’s a valid rule it would certainly exclude a lot of creative work, including the composite images by Danny Santos in Singapore which show an accumulation of figures in the frame, derived from shots taken with a remotely controlled camera.

It would also exclude my own composite artworks which I make mostly from street photo rejects — but then, I don’t claim this activity to be “photography” as such, let alone “street photography.”

However, I don’t think Thomas Leuthard is referring to deliberately prepared composites or to such routines as “convert to black and white” (bearing in mind that his own work is chiefly in black and white). I’m sure he’s talking mainly about processing routines such as sharpening, levels and curves adjustments, and colour correction. Any of these can lead to hideous examples of bad taste unless you use them with the utmost discretion.

Acceptable Enhancements
1. What about cropping? Surely we have to accept the need to crop street photos from time to time? Some photographers are steadfastly opposed to it in the belief that capturing the perfect whole-frame shot is their primary objective. Others, myself included, deliberately use a high resolution camera to enable some cropping at the editing stage.

However, I think Thomas Leuthard’s rule (or guideline) still applies, because if the composition looks impossibly perfect the onlooker will immediately detect it’s a crop — and downgrade it accordingly.

2. Another acceptable enhancement has to be straightening. Fortunately people are never going to notice it. This a godsend to the street photographer because plenty of pictures are taken in haste and a high proportion of them need to be corrected. Luckily, you can’t overdo straightening; the image is either straight or crooked.

3. Along with straightening there’s the whole issue of perspective adjustment to consider: whether or not to correct for converging verticals. If you’ve tilted the camera up or down, vertical lines will converge towards the top or bottom of the frame. Sometimes they look right — especially if you want to emphasise the elevation of the camera — but they can also be a distraction. Is it OK to pull them into shape?

Again, it’s a question that requires an individual answer in each specific case. If you have a large, flat-topped skyscraper in the background it will be distracting to correct the verticals. People will notice the correction because they expect the top to look narrower than you’ve shown it. Rule 23 still applies!

Unacceptable Enhancements
1. Along with many other photographers I strongly disapprove of “high dynamic range” (HDR). When it first came along it seemed new and exciting, showing detail in deep shadow even though the highlights were still intact. It had a positive impact — getting close to what we see with our eyes — until people started to overuse it.

Once exaggeration crept in, HDR found itself on the “naughty step,” with photographers condemning its use entirely. That’s a pity because I’ve seen many pictures in which it seems natural, despite there being thousands more where it looks truly awful.

Would my featured image (above) be better in HDR, with detail in the shadow and highlights? I don’t think so.

2. Deliberate distortion of objects and figures in the photo can be noticeable if the onlooker compares the image to others of the same subject. For example, making people fatter or thinner is completely unacceptable in street photography, as is transposing faces, beautifying or uglifying your subject, or adding figures that were never in the original shot.

If you make any of the above distortions, transpositions or additions, it’s very likely someone will see the discrepancy and call you out. Rule 23 wins again!

3. The majority of software filters are useless and completely unacceptable for street photography. Anything which crudely stylizes, pixelates, solarizes, posterizes, or texturizes the image is not OK (and please note that I’ve drifted into American spelling because these words are too familiar to write in British English). I know their exclusion deprives Photoshop Elements users of half their software controls, but you can’t “sketchify” or introduce “craquelure” (a brick-like texture) and expect to be taken seriously as a street photographer.

In my view (although I don’t use them) certain carefully judged presets are OK. After all, if you accept the JPEG that comes out of the camera you’re accepting the manufacturer’s preset which produces it. Similarly, you may like the “look” you can get from a complex combination of adjustments and wish to apply it to all your photos. If you shoot in RAW and always retain the RAW file — as I advise — the process is reversible.

Man cooking fish in golden sunlight

Refining the Rule
Overcooking your photos is every bit as bad overcooking your vegetables. It makes photos indigestible to the visual system, bringing discomfort rather than satisfaction.

However, I think there’s a more general rule you can apply to street photography. It’s simply this: “Don’t exaggerate.”

The English poet Eliza Cook (1818-1889) wrote: “Exaggeration misleads the credulous and offends the perceptive.”

She was right, up to a point. I think it’s OK — and perhaps even necessary — to exaggerate when you’re postulating ideas, but it’s not OK when you publish your conclusions.

So apply adjustments sparingly. Keep processes like sharpening and shadow lightening to a minimum. Before you commit yourself to anything as permanent as printing, return to each picture and see whether you’ve overdone the adjustments you’ve made.

I didn’t overcook the colour in the shot above (the sun was setting), but I think the fish are nearly done.

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