The two schools of thought on this subject are at utter apposition. There are those photographers who adamantly insist that a photograph should be created in camera through traditional (or non-traditional but outside the box) means. Others believe that RAW pixels are merely the raw material for making an image great and that tools like Photoshop (PS) and Lightroom (LR) pick up where Ansel Adams' Zone System left off and are where a photograph truly takes its first breath.
Us? We let the photo be our guide. Often, the main objective in camera is to light the subject/scene properly and/or in a way that (with current technology) cannot be simulated in software and to compose the image as simply as possible, whether we zoom with our feet or our lens. Cropping in camera, in our view, makes for a larger possible print than cropping in PS/LR.
At a minimum, every final selection from a shoot is dodged and burned (to use old-school terms) and sharpened. We also will adjust the histogram (the display of distribution of light and dark tones) so that the image is printable. That is, the image should have no blown highlights and few, if any, plugged up shadows with no detail.
After that, we remove objects (telephone wires, unwanted birds too far away to be of interest, lens flares, stray hairs, etc.) that detract from the subject/scene.
Once all this is done, a photograph will tell us whether it's done (stick a fork in it) or it needs further manipulation. Sometimes, it will call out for another element -- clouds in a bald, uninteresting sky, let's say.
Let's stipulate that that's exactly what it needs. Clouds. We keep a folder full of clouds that we photograph for this very purpose. Here's an example of just such a photograph:
Yes, we know It's not a photograph taken all at the same moment. Get over it. Composite photos have been made almost as long as photographs have been made.
And this one, as they go, is a pretty simple one to execute. Merely select the aforementioned bald, uninteresting sky, refine the edge along the treetops to prevent a white outline, mask the clouds with the field of hay and trees, and you're almost done.
Doing this kept us from having to wait days or weeks for the proper clouds and take the chance that the field would be cleared of the hay, and it also affords us the flexibility of adjusting all the elements of the both sky and field independently -- contrast, highlights, shadows, sharpness, etc.
Even though this is a composite, we did everything we could to frame and expose both elements. We waited about half an hour for the last bit of sunlight to skim across the field and hit the hay at just the right angle. The shadow from the horizon was moving so quickly that next frame was half-covered in shadow and the hay rolls were where they were light moments before.
The clouds were almost as difficult to capture. Shooting them from a high vantage point to remove clutter and bracketing exposure to pump up the contrast and make sure there were no blown highlights took some experimentation, too. As a result, they became a bit more ominous than they appeared to the eye. Adjusting them in PS/LR helped to exaggerate that effect.
So, when it comes to making a good photograph, we go to one school to get what we can and then on to another to make the most of all that we learned. It's really an ongoing exercise and we never fail to learn something new with every photograph.
~ Lawrence Standifer Stevens
Lawrence Standifer Stevens has been a photographer longer than he can remember. Quick! Subscribe to his newsletter and if he can remember the password to his computer, he'll pass along some tips and advice to help you improve your own shooting.