Hey All,

Just recently I had an image go fairly viral on Google+ with over 2700 +1s, 795 re-shares and 500 comments, it is an image of Perth city with several lightning strikes behind it, the image was published in The West Australian newspaper and on several news websites at the end of 2011. It has also been licensed to FESA and several insurance companies for use in their publications. Here is the image:

Print available here

What I really didn’t expect was the amount of criticism and elitism about it.. there were many emails, messages and comments about this image and a few people even took the time to sit down and write blog posts about why I wasn’t a photographer and how this isn’t photography, based on this image alone. I really only took the time to respond to 2 people who were actually reasonable about their responses, if somewhat misguided. The more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I want to respond to the general public on this topic.

First question I have to answer is: how was this image created? 

Good question. This image is made up of 4 images overlaid on top of each other, but it’s not technically a composite image. I’ll go through the process from start to finish: I set my camera up on a very sturdy tripod and did a 30 second exposure of the city while waiting for the storm to get closer to the city. There were no lightning strikes during this 30 second exposure. That image is the city skyline and the river in front.

I then waited about another 2 minutes for the storm to arrive.. it arrived in style with multiple lightning strikes in under a minute, the technique I was using for capturing lightning at the time was to put the camera in bulb mode, use a remote, open the shutter and then close it immediately after a decent lightning strike, this stopped the image from over exposing.. it also doesn’t allow for a good exposure of the city though. I captured 3 really decent lightning strikes before I had to run for cover from the rain.

Post-processing: I opened all 4 images in camera raw, changed the white-balance so that it was all the same then opened them in photoshop, I layered the images over the top of each other with the city image on the bottom. I masked out the sky in the city image and then used the “lighten” blend mode to have it so that only the lightning strikes showed in the sky and the parts of the clouds that were illuminated by the lightning and city lights. I then flattened the image, applied some contrast adjustment and then sharpened it to prepare it for printing. That’s it, there was no adding of elements that weren’t there or removing of elements that were, nothing magic and very achievable with film and a dark room.

Second point.. and the more important point:

Is post-processing cheating or deceptive and make you less of a photographer?

It depends on the type of photography you are doing, what your message is and who the intended audience is. Generally I would say a resounding no to all of these questions. The world english dictionary defines a photographer as one who “takes photographs, either as a hobby or a profession”, it doesn’t add in a caveat “unless they extensively post-process the photographs”. There are many different genres and categories (and sub-categories) of photographers, the only thing uniting them, is they take photographs with some sort of exposure of a light-receptive medium.. whether it is the latest and greatest DSLR, an iPhone or a home-made pin hole camera and some film in a shoe box.

Copyright – Paul Pichugin

I can’t say I like or enjoy all types of photography, but I’m not the intended audience for all types of photography either, that doesn’t make those categories any less valid.. I quite enjoy using my iPhone camera and creating pieces on it when I’m out and about, even when I do have my dSLR with me, it helps keep photography fun for me.

In photography, there are really only two categories where there are very strict guidelines on post-processing, they are documentary and journalism. The guidelines are that items can’t be removed or added and the image mustn’t be manipulated from the “truth”. The goal of the photo-journalist or the documentary photographer, is to provide an unbiased true account of what was really happening, and as such any major manipulation can be classed as deceptive. What is allowed is colour alteration to show the image in black and white or sepia, but more and more there is some styling being added to the colour alteration as well.

Copyright – Paul Pichugin – Cambodian villagers wait for medical treatment

When it comes to most other types of photography, the raw unaltered “truth” is rarely the goal of an image, you aren’t usually there to document something or report something. Many times the goal is to capture a moment or a memory, to tell a story or to convey an ideal version of reality or an experience. The very best photographers in most categories of photography are exceptional at telling a story or conveying their vision, they are exceptional in their post-production work as well. I’ll give a few examples from a few different categories:

Wedding Photographers:
According to Amercian Photo Magazine (a very credible and respected source) the top wedding photographer in the world at the moment is Marcus Bell of Studio Impressions.  Marcus is a very widely respected photographer, he has been the recipient of many awards for his photography including some of the top awards here in Australia, the AIPP awards. Marcus’ work is not extensively manipulated, but it is very much enhanced with colour adjustments, contrast adjustments and general post-processing techniques. Marcus and his team are very good at what they do. I’m a huge fan of their work and was very lucky to be able to shoot a wedding with Marcus as his second photographer a few years ago now, I doubt my photography skills at the time impressed him at all.

Marcus Bell 2011 Canon AIPP

Another Australian photographer who has topped the American Photo Magazine list is Yervant. Yervant’s work is highly stylised and extensively post-processed, it is a cross between fashion and wedding photography and I love it. He has been named as one of the most influential photographers of this generation. Please notice, both of these  artists are referred to as photographers, not photo-artists or any other weird title that you want to try to give them.

Commercial / Advertising Photographers:

This category has zero rules when it comes to post-processing, these guys create the classic car images, the nike shoe ads, the sports drink ads and a myriad of other images. Their goal is to show an ideal reality incorporating the product. Most of the time they are using many multiple images to end up with the final image, no one calls them cheaters for “failing” to get it in one shot or for post-processing their images. Two photographers that top this category for their stylised images are Joel Grimes and Dave Hill, both of these photographers are exceptional with their control of lighting and exposure to get the base images they want.. then they are even better in their post-processing to get the final image with the message they want to convey. They get paid exceptionally well for their skills as well.

Copyright Dave Hill Photography

Another couple of photographers worth looking at in this category are Chase Jarvis and Zack Arias, both incredible with their control of light and even more incredible in the way they give back to us beginners! While Zack doesn’t appear to extensively edit his work, his work is usually well lit with artificial light, if you are going to be picky about post-processing not representing a “true” image, then surely adding artificial light into it as it is taken also falls into the same category!

Copyright Joel Grimes

Landscape Photographers:

2011 AIPP Australian Landscape Photographer of the year was Christian Fletcher, Christian’s work is varied in style and his work has changed a lot over the last 3 years. Looking through his entries for the APPAs last year, they were all post-processed, his top image very much so:

Christian Fletcher – 2011 AIPP Professional Landscape Photographer of the year

This is the most credible awards ceremony and competition in Australia, it is very difficult to come out on top, yet his images are very much stylised and post-processed, using multiple images to create one final piece.

For me, I don’t post-process most of my images this much, maybe that’s why I’m not in the same league as Christian Fletcher or any of the other top photographers.. more than likely it has more to do with my photography skills rather than my post-processing skills though. I’m happy with what I’m currently producing, but constantly looking to grow more and learn. I’ll be entering the APPAs for the very first time next year, but I’m under no illusions that I’ll do well in them, we’ll see what happens.


Lik Lik Pikanini – copyright Paul Pichugin

The major difference in photography comes down to what the photographer is trying to achieve. There is a huge difference between the message of an artist (landscape, wedding, portrait, commercial, advertising and fine-art photographers) and a documentary style photographer (photo-journalists, documentary, travel and sports), many of the examples I have given can quite easily spread across the both styles too.

Many wedding photographers shoot in a “photo-journalistic” style for the majority of the day, staying out the way and not directing anything.. but when it comes to the creative session or location shoot, they are directing and making things happen in order to create beautiful images that tell the story of the couples love for each other. For me, I’ve come from a background in wedding photography, for me I used a mix of the 2 styles, combined with artistic post-production to create an album that tells the story of the day. I also aimed to really capture the emotion and experience of the day, not necessarily 100% document what happened, but rather create images that record an ideal version of reality!

Lake Ballard – copyright Paul Pichugin

Now that I’m primarily shooting commercial and landscape photography, my message has changed somewhat, and as such my style and methods have changed in order to convey that message. For me, when the post-processing is “louder” than the actual image and the message, then the image is somewhat of a failure, this is why I don’t particularly like the over-stylised HDR images many are doing, but that’s my own personal taste.

I hope this gives you something to think about when it comes to post-processing, I believe it is an integral part of producing an image that conveys the message or vision you want to get across. That doesn’t make those who don’t post-process any less of a photographer than those who do.. or vice versa. It all fits under the banner of photography!

Would love to hear your thoughts on it in the comments section!


Paul Pichugin


  1. You have to remember Paul, art is a very subjective issue! Someone may like one of your photos someone may think its the worst one they have ever seen (bit of an extreme example). Provided you and your intended audience like your photos thats all that really matters. People think photoshop can do anything and everything, I guess you can do most things but you can’t just use 1 click and have an amazing image. I believe all photos should be post processed to an extent, the first thing I do regardless is lens profile correction as soon as I open ACR. And Jordan broughtup my last point, PS/LR or any other manipulation software is your modern day “film dark room”.

  2. Paul – don’t let them rile you – your style of photography is very appealing and in my belief is a well balanced diet of varied shots and styles.

    For those critics of “post-processing”, good luck to them and by all means I hope they get enjoyment from their own photography. I myself don’t do very much post-processing at all but it does not make me enjoy any less, photos that have been post-processed to give us all the chance to view some beautiful works of art.

    I to started off with my Black and White photography, feverishly messing with the prints in the developing and fixing trays in attempts to achieve that little something extra from my shots. Our use these days of digital aids to manipulate our digital shots is realistically no different from what we were doing with film and chemicals back in days past.

    Keep up your fine work – I for one very much appreciate it! By the way the picture that has caused all the consternation is an absolute stunner.

    ..Phil Hill

  3. Post processing of any image is a requirement, not the exception when processing modern RAW images.

    If you process a raw image straight out of the camera without any post processing it leaves the photo flat and lifeless. The image is designed to be manipulated by using any of processing systems available and it is during this processing that the photograph is made to look as the image maker intended it to. Ansel Adams was quoted as saying “dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships”. I am sure that the knockers would not comment the same on one of his prints

    The same is true in your photo of the Perth skyline, and that of the other photographers that you have mentioned in this article, the photographs has been post processed to show the different tonal relationships that the maker has intended to show, whether that is a lot or not so much, depends on how correct you got it in camera.
    The problem with certain photographers is that they go too far and manipulate their images to the extreme, fuelling this Photoshop manipulation debate.

    Paul, thankfully you are not one of these photographers. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Steve! Hope you are well in Melbourne, looking forward to getting back across there within the next 12 months I hope.. depends on how the little one goes I guess :)

  4. Great well written post Paul. I look forward to your follow up articles on the subject.

    I don’t have any problem as to how someone arrives at a finished image, if I like it I like it, if I don’t then I don’t and I usually say so either way. I’ve seen some really great landscapes images that have been ruined by over manipulation of a sky or a over saturated sunset color and I’ve also seen some hideously processed images that I actually like. The good thing about the arts of all persuasions is that they are highly subjective and we all have our own tastes. Having watched quite a bit of the last 2 years of the APPA’s on live streaming, nothing is more apparent. Too hear the opinions of some of the judges and their totally opposing views is very interesting. I watched a gold medal image judged last year and two judges had complete opposite opinions, one loved it, one totally disliked it and both of those judges are well known and highly respected award winning photographers.

    Its all in the eye of the beholder.

  5. Very well written article Paul, and I totally agree with what you are saying.

  6. Ive been using PhotoShop for 17 years. I still haven’t found the “Cheat” filter that turns my shitty photos into masterpieces.

    You have great work and you know how to use the available tools. If purists want to be purists, let them grumble in their darkrooms.


    • Haha.. yes that’s one of my pet peeves, the implication that there is some magic button that turns a turd into gold :)

  7. Lots of food for thought here Paul. Coming at it from the reverse point of view, in my personal experience, it’s hard to find photographers who consider themselves photographers with any degree of earnestness, who don’t do some degree of post processing. The finishing of an image is all part of the process of photography, or any visual art, and just as important as any of its other aspects. How much finishing depends, as with everything else, on what the photographer’s intent is with that particular image.

    PS Lik Lik Pikanini – love this one. Beautiful shot, and a totally unexpected find in this blog post for me

    • Thanks Charlene.. Lik Lik Pikanini is one of my favourite shots from my trip to Papua New Guinea! Photographed on a Canon G9 of all things, I didn’t take any pro-level equipment with me to Papua New Guinea, it was a volunteer trip and I didn’t think it was safe enough where I was going.

  8. Hi there Paul

    I follow you on G+ purely for the joy of seeing your images. I, for one, don’t care HOW you got them to their published state – the fact is that as a viewer and also as a fellow photographer I can admire the creativity and technicality in composing the finished image, whether that’s a blend of composites or a single frame.

    Photographer envy is still the rot in our profession. OK, so like a great many I learned on film and the smell of fixing fluid is, as I have always said, firmly embedded into my nasal cavities. That said, since I migrated to digital some years ago I would never look back.

    OK, so I still sometimes shoot film but more often than not, the client demands a quick turnaround and so digital is the way to go on that score. Save for my photojournalism work, ALL images that I take will go through some level of post-work, whether that’s a slight tweak on the clarity or contrast to give it that bit of extra punch, as we all know that basic RAW files are kinda flat on viewing.

    For people to say that its fakery or otherwise is just plain daft in my opinion. I can only guess that these are the people who either:
    – shoot purely film and have not embraced (nor wish to embrace) the digital photographic evolution
    – those who have no skills or repertoire and therefore their comments are born out of pure jealousy
    – those who do possess some photographic skill but are insanely insecure in their own ability that they seek pleasure in denigrating the work and technical expertise of others, ie. they take it out on YOU

    Whilst its true to say that there are examples of over-cooked HDR (which, like you, isn’t my style) and also the cosmetics/beauty industry which purveys images of perfection and total flawlessness, that is industry drive based on a client’s precis and not, on the whole, the basic work ethic and output of the photographer. I mean, at the end of the day, a beauty cream isn’t going to be well received if marketed with images of a model with a coldsore on her mouth, is it?

    Keep doing what you do, Paul. I marvel at your work. For those purists who baulk at the idea of even some post processing, they would do well to remember that even “greats” like the late Ansel Adams tinkered with his images in the dark room!

    Thanks for the read. There’s a load of amateur, hobbyists and pro’s who are in your corner with you on this argument in the photographic boxing ring! :)


    Lynda Bowyer

    • Thanks Lynda, I appreciate you taking the time to write a comment.

      I really don’t understand the fuss about processing, even old school film photographers would process in the dark room with dodging and burning, I’ve worked in a dark room before, it’s a lot of fun!

      – paul

  9. I follow you on Google + since a good time as one of my favorite photographers, because your photos are just beautiful and speak to my heart.
    They show the beauty of our world, in best, and that is what I am looking for
    Processed or not, what is the problem ?
    Who is stupid enough to cheat and ask an artist how he realized his best work ?
    Either he used brushes, lenses, or something else, it is the reality, his reality, he wanted to show and share through his eyes, his soul and his heart.
    The one who ask and cheat doesn’t understand Art. That’s it !!!!

  10. Great article Paul and for sure you are on the money. The critics that are out there have absolutely no understanding of the ‘art’ of photography, the time intakes to learn these skills, the time it takes to actually do the processing or anything to do with modern day photography!

    The reality is that images like the lightning image you are describing above does create emotion and excitement in the same was as an artist does with their paintings, so why is it that just because what we do as photographic artists that it is so wrong in the eyes of these totally uninformed critics?

    The reality is that it is much much harder to do what we do than to leave the image as ‘natural’!

    The other fact about photography in general is that there is not a camera in the world that can capture what the eye can see, so we have to use tools to get the images back to some resemblance to what we were looking at.

    My Blue Hole Square stitch is a 45 image stitch and stack that took 8 hours to get looking something like what I was looking at on the day.

    If I had one of these hack critics standing next to me pinging off a single capture they would have ended up with a very small sized image that would have either been totally over exposed or totally under exposed. I wonder if the purist photographer would have been happy with that result, whilst my image sells heaps and wins awards etc. Why, because it looks how it looked on the day!

    Now that story is about an image that was using photoshop to make it look how I saw it, therefore the story is no different when you are using your photoshop skills to create a story and emotion like the lightning shot! That same hack purist would have ends up with a totally blown out image if he left the shutter open for long enough to best the background and the lightning!

    • Thanks Mark, I completely agree! I’m working on a follow up blog post about how all images are actually processed in some form or manner.. regardless of the medium used to create the image!

      • I wouldn’t waste too much time on it Paul as the purists are the sort of people who will never agree to what we do regardless of how many facts we put in front of them.

        It is a classic example of total ignorance to what they are complaining about!

  11. As a complete amateur to this art, I would say that this is the best explanation so far. I have come under fire for processing my images as well. I used a darkroom at first, but when I switched to digital, is all stayed the same. Increasing the contrast digitally is no different then developing longer, cutting out unwanted elements by hand is no different than the crop tool in Photoshop or the GIMP.

    Thankyou for writing this.


    • You’re welcome Roland, thanks for leaving a comment. For me it was a huge mental change from the strictly photo-journalistic style to becoming a true artist and conveying my vision :)

      • Room for everything. Fine art and photojournalism are two very good separate aspects to study.
        I love using low end hardware to get good images. It gives me a challenge. I still shoot film from time to time.

  12. Paul, I love your work! As far as post processing, I am an “old schooler” from the military that many, many times would ‘dodge & burn” and use lots of custom made tools in the dark room to “post process” an image. And then to boot either take the print out or leave the print in the “soup” for further post processing. You keep produces the imaes that illecit a a response. That to me is an art form and you are creating art.

    • Thanks Terence! I’ve used a dark room before and still shoot some film, not as much as I’d like to though. I’d eventually like to set up a dark room in my house when we own our own :)

  13. Hello Paul, thanks for your blog. Always interesting.

    As for this particular topic. I think art is art and people will do what they wish… thats ok, there are no rules. Ansel Adams manipulated his processing, exposure and development in the traditional darkroom. Im sure he would have loved Photoshop.

    We are living in a time when photoshop and the digital darkroom is still a new’ish thing, I do think in a few decades time people will look back and say that people here and now went a bit crazy with the tools.

    Personally I like a more delicate touch in post processing for landscape work. I think many landscape photographers push their images too hard. Some pull it off very well, with others their landscapes can look like a bad facelift job if you know what i mean. It gets down to the skill of the artist. Most ‘commercial’ landscape work look hideous and much of it has a ‘sameness’ about it….very cheap tourist post card.

    While I shoot film for all my landscape work, I do post process all my images, so i’m in no way opposed to post processing. I love it. I do however try and capture an image in very good quality light so that I don’t need to do much post work. I do think too many landscape photographers shoot in average light and then try and fix it in post process.

    Anyway that’s my thoughts for the night…. cheers Steve

    PS: no prizes for spotting my spelling mistakes :)

    • Hey Steve,

      Thanks for leaving a comment! I’m probably going to do a follow up post to this explaining the processing available in a dark room. I tend to try to not overly process my landscape images as well, for the same reasons you’ve stated! I think my overall point is that photoshop is just another tool in the arsenal available to a photographer, it can be utilised carefully and skilfully.. or over done and killed! Having the right tools doesn’t make you a skilled artist or tradesman. There is no magic button in photoshop that makes your photos better.

      Love your work!

      – paul

  14. Couldn’t agree with you more on this Paul. You have pretty much nailed everything on the head IMO.
    All post processing is, is really the digital darkroom. In film days, people manipulated colours in dark rooms changing contrasts and what not.
    Nothing has changed in this day and age, its jet we use a different medium.
    Thanks for the blog, was a great read.