Editing, Not Processing

White Trees, Series 2, No. 9

Making a photograph largely is a two-step process:  working with the camera to make a capture (in the field, in the studio, or wherever), and working with the capture to make the final photograph (in a darkroom, on a computer, or whatever).  The second step commonly is called “processing” the image.

It’s a term I don’t like.  “Processing” makes it sound like the second step is very mechanical, rote, or devoid of creativity.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Working with the photograph after capture often is where the key creative decisions that craft the final image are made. 

In the case of black and white photography, the decisions typically are on questions of brightness and contrast.  Sounds fairly straightforward, right?  It’s not.  There are myriad ways to work with and apply the grayscale spectrum to a black and white image that dramatically, decisively affect the way the final image looks.

This White Trees image is a perfect example.  The concept behind the White Trees images are very white subjects against very dark backgrounds.  It didn’t have to be this way – the image could have been made to make the trees very dark against very bright backgrounds, or relatively mid-toned against a mid-toned background, or in any other combination of brighnesses and contrasts achievable in a darkroom or on a computer.  The impact of the White Trees images comes precisely because the white trees/dark background combination suits the subjects of the photographs so perfectly.  It was a deliberate choice that was made, and deliberately carried out in working with the images after capture (not always a technically easy thing to do, by the way, but that would be a subject for a different post).

The term “processing” cheapens the act of working with the image after capture, in my opinion.  It sounds like something you would do to a tax return.  For this reason, I prefer the term “editing,” which I think more accurately describes the creativity in what is being done.  It’s true, usage of the term “processing” is so widespread that I, too, slip up and find myself using it now and then.  But as much as possible, I try to use the term “editing.”  I believe the words we use to describe things are important, because they subtly shape our perceptions and biases when we undertake the actions they describe.  Being an “editor” provides a much better mindset for working with images after capture than being a “processor.”

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