Warning: if you think photography is all about post-processing don't read this. You'll get offended. Now I'm not responsible for people who keep reading :-)
I decided to post about this because I get so many comments on various social media platforms, mostly Google+ and 500px saying simply "nice processing." While it's nice they took the time to comment, that comment in my mind is worse than a simple "nice photo." That might not be true for everyone, but it's true for me because I would say about 98% of the time, I spend more time considering and planning out the composition, lighting, and formalities of a photo. About half the time I do absolutely no post-processing or extremely minimal processing (like removing a single pimple).
I know I know, I'm a photojournalist so naturally I would say that post-processing is unnecessary. But even in my portraits, it generally is not necessary if I just compose the photo correctly in the first place. I can spend 30 minutes getting the lighting correct before the photo or 3 hours trying to do it in Lightroom and Photoshop. Aside from my time being very valuable, I often opt for the first option because I am a professional photographer.
If I'm going to say I'm a photographer, that's what I should do: photograph things. I'm not a graphic designer or a digital artist, though I do have the capability to bridge into that realm on rare occasions when the shoot calls for it. I think it's dishonest of me to say I'm a photographer if I'm selling digital art. Of course, there have been minor alterations to photos for quite some time, but there is still a line where an image goes from being a photo to being a digital art piece.
I'm not saying digital art is not art. I'm saying it's not photography. I'm not saying nobody should ever process a photo. I'm saying that it should not be done to change the image.
So what do I mean by that?
A photograph is an image in which all elements in the frame were there at the time the photograph was taken, in the way they are represented in the image.
So what does that leave me? That leaves me dodging and burning. That leaves me levels adjustments. That leaves me color alterations. That leaves me focus-stacking. That leaves me image stacking for star trails. That leaves me noise reduction. That leaves me the ability to convert to black and white or sepia or cyan. It give me the ability to add noise or grain.
What does it omit? It takes out composites. Composites are digital art, not photography. It omits the clone tool on most occasions. I'm okay with retouching a model's face, but if there is a stop sign in my image because I don't know how to compose, I'm left with the choice of leaving the stop sign in the image or bringing my photograph into the realm of digital art. It omits making an image look surreal and alien compared to how it was when you first saw it, to include extreme HDR effects.
So are you making photographs or digital art pieces? Does it matter? Maybe not to you, and that's fine.
It might matter some day if you enter a contest, try to sell your work, or submit it for publication. There are magazines that do not allow digital art. News media has extremely strict rules about what pieces they consider photojournalism.
In 2009, Jose Luis Rodriguez was disqualified from his title as the Wildlife Photographer of the year after judges decided his jumping wolf photo was probably a model. That means his photo was a lie. Likewise, just this year, David Byrne was disqualified from his title as Landscape Photographer of the year after it was discovered that he had composited the clouds into the image after the fact.
Byrne said he didn't read the rules and wasn't deliberately deceiving the judges, which is more admirable than being a cheater. However, it stresses how important it is to not only read the rules, but be able to produce photographic images instead of composites.
It's important to understand the difference between a composite and a photograph too. Composites are constantly devaluing the magnificence of perfectly-timed photographs. Landscape photographers will wait for hours for alignments of the moon with a scene, but a digital artist can just snap the photo and then use Photoshop to put the moon wherever he wants after the fact. Because digital artists don't say "composite" or "digital art" but instead mark it as "photograph" the poor photographers are struggling because people no longer see the value in their work.
Writing "nice processing" on a photographer's image might sound insulting. It's an inadvertent statement that "I like the five minutes you took after the photo was taken more than the hours you spent composing this image." It's okay. We know you don't mean to offend us, but now you know. This is why I usually tell people what I like about the photograph and not the digital art. I know that photographer probably spent more time on it, unless it truly is completely just a digital art piece, in which I'm probably being insulting.
So here's an idea: digital artists.... call yourselves digital artists and not photographers. And if we photographers comment on your art, we'll comment on how nice your post processing is. And you will know who the guy was who was silly enough to stand outside for three hours for the moon to be aligned on top of the mountain instead of just moving it in photoshop so you can say "nice job freezing your nards off outside waiting for this. I really like how it turned out."