Feb 022016

Philosophy on editing a photograph

Salt: A philosophy on Editing © Adam Marelli

Salt: A philosophy on Editing © Adam Marelli


In light of the recent “Nikon airplane contest disaster” I thought it would be worth writing a short philosophy on editing.  The view that each photographer takes on editing must be developed individually.  It is an ethical attempt at your own practice which will inevitably change over time.  Perfect consistency is nigh impossible and even if it was, it would feel a bit robotic.  As technology and the world around us constantly evolve, so too will your own philosophy on editing.  As I like to remind myself:

“It is impossible to extract a consistent morality

through the observation of human beings.”


We are funny, flawed, and occasionally lovable creatures and do best when we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Before and After © Adam Marelli

Before and After © Adam Marelli

The Salt Analogy

We all eat, right?  It is a universal component of the human experience.  Without eating we transition fairly quickly from human beings to human history, which is why it makes a good baseline for an analogy about photography.

Before and After © Adam Marelli

Before and After © Adam Marelli

Editing a photograph is like adding salt when cooking and here’s why…

Salt is essential to almost every cuisine (there are exceptions, but we will get to that later)

A little salt, properly placed of course, feels necessary.  It is an enhancer and amplifier of existing flavors.  It allows flavors to express themselves more clearly, but should not introduce anything that is not already there.

Photographs, like the airplane one, had a new ingredient added post mortem.  To my own sensibility, editing is about dealing with what’s there and maybe using a pair of tweezers to remove little things.  But if the extent of the change is too much, we end up in a world of photographic plastic surgery rather than heading to the gym and getting ourselves in shape.

Before and After © Adam Marelli

Before and After © Adam Marelli

Bland or Salty  

The spectrum of saltiness is one of the major qualifiers for a dish.  “It’s bland” or “It’s salty” are an indication that the balance is off.  Like in a photo, editing is about balance.  Too little and it may appear flat, grey, or bland…too much and it is likely to be oversaturated, too contrasty, or feel over-processed.  Using salt is the concept of achieving balance that is suitable for a picture or a body of work.  Ice cream and steak both use salt, but the effect is rather different.  Same for photographs.

Balance is invisible

Have you ever eaten a dish because the salt they use is amazing (well maybe in Noto Japan… but I digress)  But other than that, good salt is invisible.  We never notice it.  With good editing we should notice the photograph, not how it was finished.  Post production exists to showcase the bones of the picture.

Before and After © Adam Marelli

Before and After © Adam Marelli

Salt won’t save rotten ingredients 

How many times have you heard someone say “Oh, I’ll just fix that in post.”  Some things are fixable, but not everything.  Salt can’t fix rotten ingredients and editing cannot fix a rotten picture.  It might be highly “salted” but underneath it is still rotten.

Before and After © Adam Marelli

Before and After © Adam Marelli

There are different salts, but they all essentially do the same thing

There are probably more types of salt than there are editing programs.  Some are very delicate, while others are industrially produced versions that are barely palatable (Think Capture One versus VSCO filters)

But essentially they all do the same thing.  They are enhancers and equalizers, they are not authors.  Whichever one you have access to, it is good to understand its powers and its shortcomings.  (One of the many reasons HDR is neither compelling, convincing, or even worth learning)

Instead of getting caught up in endless Adobe tutorials, it is easier to focus on your vision of what the picture should look like.  Then the editing software just a tool, not to be mistaken for creativity itself. But wait, what about all the guys who teach us that HDR is the creative solution to photography?  Frankly, they are all full of salt.

There is no need to learn every square inch of Lightroom or Photoshop, unless you want to be a retoucher.  You will get on better choosing a few good ingredients at a market and mastering their flavors than you will obsessing over the type of salts you use in the dish.

Before and After © Adam Marelli

Before and After © Adam Marelli

No Salt needed

There are a group of people who don’t believe in salt and that’s ok too.

Nature happens to be a very good designer.  If by mistake you put salt on a freshly cut papaya grown on Tanna Vanuatu, you would be mad.  But raw ingredients and RAW images are not the same thing.  By the time you get any negative or DNG, it has passed through a lens designed by one team of engineers, to a film plane or sensor designed by another team, and out through chemicals or a computer screen designed by yet another team.  The point is that any photograph is so far from its original source that it’s probably going to need at least a pinch of salt.  If it doesn’t, it only means that your preferences are in line with the salt that the engineers have already added.

As I mentioned at the top, these guidelines, for lack of a better term, will evolve.  There is no need to fix them in stone.  If they change it just means we are asking more questions, examining what we do more closely, and adapting to the ever changing world around us.  Hopefully in the wake of this change and flux we can put together a few properly salted photographs that do something interesting and expand the way in which we see and interact with the world around us.




  9 Responses to “A Philosophy on Editing”

  1. Love the salt analogy Adam. Very interesting take on it but one that is perfectly on point

    • Dear Aaron,

      Happy to hear you enjoyed the piece. Certainly from what I have seen for your work, we are both on the opposite end of the spectrum from the over-salted.


  2. After 30 years as a feature film editor, this is the most brilliant discussion/analogy I’ve read on post editing. I’m also a fan of the Japanese aesthetic, which you also seem to advocate. Great stuff.

    • Hi Michael,

      Very gracious for your comment. 30 years of feature film editing carries quite a bit of clout.

      And yes, the Japanese aesthetic is something special.


  3. Hey Adam,

    Really nice article. A lot of people these days are indeed adding to much salt to there photographs. Something I also did till a few years ago.

    What bothered me was the constant subjective “wanging” of the slidebars; recovery, contrast, sharpening etc. Before I new it I was working on an image for half an hour. And when I went out for a drink and came back to see the image again I often thought: what was I thinking!

    And if that is something you have to do to every image you take and you have a lot of them, than that is not a efficient and good way to work. It just takes to much time.

    Pretty much all image editing today is based on subjective personal interpretations of what the end result should look like. Of course it is fun to be creative with an image and make it your own. But first it must be processed.

    Processing is bringing the image into a state with which you can be creative. Overcoming low dynamic range, fixing the crushed highlights and shadows, adding contrast and sharpness. After all these things, then I believe you can be creative.

    About 3 years ago I came across a video on YouTube by a man named Guy Gowan. And he told me that is was possible to bring a photo to a very high quality state with just one click in Photoshop. Yeah right I thought.

    What most Digital camera’s lack today is a way to capture a high dynamic range image. Meaning good shadow detail and at the same time good highlight detail (Not the awful HDR images that you see a lot these days made from multiple pictures). What Guy Gowan Teaches is to shoot RAW and overexpose your photo’s as much as you camera will allow. This means that there is a lot less noise and colormoire in the shadow regions. Then in the RAW converter you underexpose the image until the overexposed area’s are normally exposed again. But now the shadow area’s are underexposed again you think!

    This is where Guy’s photoshop process action comes into play.
    So let’s say we have an image of a bright sunny sky ( According to Adam not the most optimal time of the day to shoot – Udemy!).
    Because we have underexposed the image in the RAW converter we now have amazing exposed clouds but the rest of the image; trees, buildings, people are totally under exposed. What if we could pin the highlight tones of the image and stay exactly as the are, and bring back the shadow and midtone details so that they are visible again. This is exactly what Guy Gowan’s Process action does. Resulting in an image with an high dynamic range in which we have all the shadow, midtones and highlights! Without is looking like a stupid HDR mess.

    It’s basically a realistic looking HDR from 1 photograph. Ahaha, just tell that to a photographer and the think your totally crazy…

    Guy was working in a lithographic darkroom optimizing images just before the digital desktop revolution in the early nineties. He made the transition from the analog darkroom to the digital desktop and shortly thereafter saw the worldwide decline in image quality. Where you previously had professional image editors, now you had millions of clueless (cheap) graphic designers doing image processing which is still happening today.

    Guy often used the term “frame of reference”, meaning that people can only use the klowlage and tools that they know at this moment in time. Most people think that RAW converters are the best place to do there photo edits. I think, however crazy that may sound, it is not. Because 3 years ago because of Guy, regarding to Image processing and editing, my frame of reference has grown a lot.

    I highly advice anyone interested in image quality to visit the Website of Guy Gowan and have a look at his “Focus section”.

    Here he shows you that the tools in RAW converters and photoshop are not the most optimal ways to edit an image.

    Have you ever had the portrait of a person and you used the contrast slider to add a bit of contrast until that moment; OOPS! The colors have changed to much… Lets slide it back a bit… Why does the contrast slider effects and distorts color in the first place. According to Guy because the contrast slidebar was programmed by a programmer who doesn’t’t know what real contrast is. Or real sharpening, real color correction etc.

    In his process action Guy used the photoshop tools to mimic the Lithographic darkroom principles from the analog period. And I truly believe that it is the best upgrade that you can give to your camera.

    And to Adam directly, I believe that what Myron Barnstone was to Art and composition education, Guy Gowan is to image editing and Quality.

    PS: can’t wait for your next Udemy lessons!

    PS 2: Longest blog comment ever… My god…

    • Hi Floris,

      Thank you for the passionate response. totally pleased to have your longest response ever on the site. Id say its good fun and glad that you are thinking about all of these things.

      I had a look at Guy’s videos to see his approach. He is definitely a technician, which has its pluses and minuses.

      My question is, how does one adjust color and value without numbers…like pen, pencil, photo, oil paint, water color, acrylic, color pencil, pastel, and the list goes on?

      In the absence of numbers, pantone charts, color checkers, technicians are lost. Guy calls it wanging. But when you tune a guitar string and you go above and below the “in-tune” point, is that wanging or tuning? The action, even if there is a number used as a baseline, like with tuning, is a matter of feel. Guy just “wangs” color in 500 point increments, like F stops.

      Technicians and artists are two very different breeds and in my experience. In full disclosure, i love technicians because they are like robots and never mess with what I make. And because they work in a semi-robitic way it is very easy to give them instructions. Additionally, if I switch a piece of art to another medium, their techy vision of the world makes the transition a bit more predictable.

      A good artist can do the work of a technician, though they find it mind numbingly boring, but a technician cannot do the work of the artist. Nor would they ever want to, as being “right” is a preoccupation of technician. Guy must have mentioned “right” color 50 times in his video I watched, which is why I would hire him to do post production, but would never commission him to shoot a project.

      As one of my mentors told me, you do the technical work and just get on with it. Its not hard to learn, there are a million different systems, but its never gonna make the bones of what you do any better or worse. Its just technical.

      Perfectly balanced here, 1.5 stops more dynamic range here…I have never looked at a photo and said, OMG that is such an amazing photo…if that photographer were only better at RAW conversions it would be spectacular. Sure its good to learn, but all within reason.

      The measure of someone who understands value (or exposure in photo-speak) and color control is the person who can do it in any format because they understand it inside and out.

      I think Guy’s techniques are very good for teaching how to be a technician. But after getting enough pictures “right” how will someone make something that is really “them?” The RAW converter does not yet have a slider for “photographer.”

      But maybe they will come up with something soon. Makes me think it would be worth doing a few discussion videos exploring the topics.


  4. “But wait, what about all the guys who teach that HDR is your creative solution to photography? They are all full of salt.”
    Bless your euphemistic socks :-)

  5. Your blog is very nice and I like it your blog keep sharing with your new article.

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