How much is too much? Or: How (not) to destroy a photograph

One of the hardest things in life is to find the right balance and not to over-do things. The Yin and Yang if you will. Work-life-balance would be one example, cooking a good meal that is not over-spiced and would thus loose its broad palette of rich flavors, another.

The same is true for art but with a special notion. Art needs to be unconventional, needs to set itself apart from other artists. To accomplish that you need to do the exact opposite of being balanced. Balance in art is plain boring. And here is the challenge: the temptation is to over-do the act of being unbalanced by sheer exaggeration instead of working to increase the content of the artwork.

In photography this is particularly relevant with the advent of digital photo editing tools being ubiquitously used by everyone. Now everybody can become an “artist” by making a picture look “artsy” by (over-)using every possible filter and photo effect. And even seasoned photographers (me included) fall into this trap from time to time.

One good example of how heated a discussion even among very experienced photographers can get about that topic I encountered last week on Facebook where Mitsutaka Tajiri had posted the fantastic street shot below which I believe has the exact right balance of post-processing. However, one commentator suggested that in his opinion the image was over-processed. In its wake a quite agitated exchange of viewpoints emerged.

© 2015 Mitsutaka Tajiri

Like everywhere in art there is no right or wrong amount of using effects and digital post processing to “enhance” the impact of a photograph. At the end it’s really down to personal taste or preference. However, what sets apart good photo editing from less suitable photo editing is moderation.

But how can I for myself judge if I’m using moderate “enhancements” or if I’m completely over-doing it? My personal advice to anyone using photo editing tools are three things:

First: If you are in doubt whether your selected photo is worth being shown off or edited it’s probably NOT worth it and you should ditch it right away and not waste any time editing it by most likely over-using digital effects to make it look “artsy”.

Second: Always second guess your image while you are editing and again after you think you are done, and then ask yourself “Would less be more?”. The following effects are particularly prone to being over-done: sharpness, clarity and contrast. Always use these with great caution. On that note – an out of focus picture is not going to get any sharper by using the sharpness slider :).

Third: Ask a trusted friend (doesn’t even need to be a photographer). He or she will tell you if what you have done sucks (only then it’s a good friend) or looks “OK” (which is all I usually get from my friends).

With that I hope you will not over-spice your images any more and serve a dish rich of colors, tonal range and content.

Please let me know in the comments how you feel about “over-doing” photo editing and how you handle it in your work.

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