Characteristics of Zen Post-Processing

Clark Bridge-117-Edit-Edit Instagram.jpgI recently read a book called the Zen of Postproduction by Mark Fitzgerald. I admit that I chose to review the book largely because I was curious about the “Zen” in the title. Could post-processing be meditative?

Most of the articles and books I’d been reading about Zen photography were about the experience of photography – creating the photograph, post-production seems to be another animal altogether.

I find post-processing just as absorbing and meditative as I find the capturing of the image in the first place, but I know that some of my fellow photographers find post-processing a challenging and stressful experience.

I decided to return to the 9 Characteristics of Zen Photography and see if they could apply to post-processing.

A quick definition before I get started. Post-processing is not just about using programs like Lightroom and Photoshop. By post-processing I mean any change made to the photo after the shutter button is pressed. This includes presets and filters built into my iPhone and many programs like Instagram. This even means the using the programmable modes found in most cameras that change the image in camera.

Post-processing a photo means making personal decisions about how we want the world in our photograph to look.


Zen Post-Processing is Intuitive

Post-processing is highly subjective. There is no “right” way of post-processing an image. If you like it, than you’re “right”. The photograph reflects your vision.

Look at the image and find something you wish was a little different – maybe you wish it was a little warmer, a little brighter, with a little less haze. Post-processing programs are designed to let you change these little things to bring the photograph closer to your vision – to what you like. Another photographer could look at the same image and want it to be cooler, darker and a bit more mysterious – and that photographer could also be “right”.

When you run out of things to change – the photo is “done”.​ When the photo feels balanced, it’s finished.

Knowing your options in whatever post-processing tool you’re using will help you realize your vision. But don’t feel that you have to know every option. Let your eyes ​and your heart guide your changes. Don’t think too much about it, just react. Make the decisions based on how the image feels to you – it’s a gut reaction.

Original tree photo
The tree image that begins this article started life as this photo. I’d noticed the reflections and the clouds were creating interesting shapes with the dead branches. I knew I was going to crop in tight so I wasn’t concerned with the horizon line. I cleaned up the image and brightened it – and then I flipped it over to play even more with the surreal shapes. Every decision I made helped bring me closer to the vision I had of the photo.


Zen Post-Processing is Focused

Zen post-processing means working  with attention and mindfulness. One reason I find post-processing mindful and calming is that I am completely absorbed in the image and I change it by focusing on one decision at a time. It doesn’t really matter what I change first or second, it’s that I focus all of my attention on the image and on one change.

When I’m distracted, I have a difficult time focusing on the decisions I want to make. As with Zen Photography, distractions include artistic insecurity. If I torture myself with questions about what is “correct” post-processing or asking myself how such-and-such a photographer would post-process the image or if I’m doing enough or too much post-processing, I am distracted.

The only thing I can do is to be fully committed to my image and post-process it the way I like it. In other words, be true to my vision of the world.

Zen Post-Processing Means Accepting Yourself

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A common theme in the philosophy of Zen is accepting where you are. This applies to making photographs but it also applies to post-processing as well.  Photography is more about perceiving than seeing. Our brains are involved in perception and have to learn how to interpret the visual signals coming in.

Zen means accepting what we can see and can’t see in an image.

For the longest time, I couldn’t see what was meant by a “contrasty” or “crunchy” image. Photographers judging competitions would often use these words, usually in a negative sense. I didn’t know if I even liked high contrast photographs because I couldn’t see the contrast. I would even sometimes run across an example of high and low contrast comparisons and still I couldn’t see the difference.

I know from past experience not to panic. I would see contrast eventually when I was ready – and I did. There are plenty of visual characteristics to focus on. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to see what others can see or thinking you need to do more post-processing than you want.

Post-processing in a Zen manner means accepting where you are in your own vision and skill. We can only create the best possible photographs we can with the skills and vision we currently have.

I make it a point never to judge my past post-processing decisions. I will sometimes go back and re-post-process an image (though surprisingly rarely), but the new image stands alongside my original image. My vision and skills may have changed, but that does not replace my original vision.

Tree comparison
I’m currently re-processing some images for a black and white, minimalist nature series. The image was taken a number of years ago and I’ve learned what causes snow to turn blue in an image and how to fix it. I don’t feel the need to go back and replace the original image, it helps document my progress as a photographer.


Zen Post-Processing Seeks Beauty

As I mentioned in the article on Zen Photography, beauty isn’t necessarily classic beauty. Beauty is found in seeking an inner truth through an image – regardless of whether that truth is found in the physical world or an altered reality. That’s art. 

Post-processing can be about recreating the world as you remember it being when you took the photograph – to capture a reality that may or may not have been there in the real world. Some photographers rely on their memories and try to re-create the world exactly as they remembered it – but this is not necessarily the world as it really was. We all perceive the world through our experiences. There is no such thing as “objective reality” no matter how much we will it to exist. 

Post-processing can also be about creating a world that doesn’t exist in real life. These can be little changes, adding reflections where I wish they would have been or removing power lines because the world of my imagination doesn’t need messy wires cluttering up the view. Or I might use a long exposure to blur the water and make it look more peaceful – imitating a feeling in the photo rather than documenting the actual look of the water. I can’t do this when I’m doing documentary photography, but when I’m creating art, I can do whatever I want to to make the world my own.

Arch Fireworks
How I WISH the fireworks looked over the Mississippi River with the reflection in the river. No such luck, too much industry blocking the view.

Zen Post-Processing Seeks Simplicity

Rather than thinking simplicity equates with minimalism, think of simplicity as distilling the idea of a photograph into it’s purest form. I talked about this in the article on Zen Photography.  Life is chaotic and art is a way of simplifying this chaos into one story, one emotion, one idea. Through post-processing, we can enhance the story we want to communicate in our photograph.

If I’m trying to show serene sunrise at a lake, the last thing I want is for a bunch of trash to be in the scene. The trash may have been in the actual lake, but my story isn’t about the litter destroying the natural beauty. The trash clutters the scene in more ways than one. Through our post-processing  we seek to communicate clearly our vision through the photograph.

Zen Post-Processing Embraces Curiosity

We develop habits with our photography and post-processing is no different. We have a certain look we like and we may replicate it again and again without thought. For instance, I catch myself always adding a bit of contrast and a smidge of vibrance. I’ve even created my own preset to easily stamp an image with my style.

But it’s important that I don’t become too complacent to learn new post-processing techniques or to try something new – a new preset or filter. Every once in a while, I need to ask myself “what if” – what if I select this option rather than that option. If I don’t, my style will never evolve and if it never evolves, I will never grow in my vision. 

Without curiosity, we stagnate.

It’s important to be true to our own vision of the world, but it’s also true that we can learn about ourselves by looking at other ways of seeing the world. This may mean post-processing in the style of another photographer. Just for one or two images – just to walk a mile in their shoes or post-process for an hour with their vision.


Zen Post-Processing Means Accepting Others

Part of accepting our unique vision of the world is accepting that other photographers also have a unique vision. We can mentor photographers less advanced than we are – if you know one thing about post-processing, you know one more thing than someone else! We can show them how to use post-processing tools, but we should try not to impose our vision on someone else.

It’s important to accept others where they are in developing their vision and accept a vision that varies significantly from our own. HDR is a case in point. Highly stylized HDR images may not be your cup of tea, but they were quite popular not long ago and some photographers like the look. This doesn’t make their post-processing decisions wrong – just different.

Zen Post-Processing is Calm and Calming

Sometimes post-processing can become overwhelming and  post-processing becomes an obstacle, a barrier to creating – or finishing – our photos. Post-processing can mean facing our insecurities or acknowledging those photos that didn’t work and the skills we don’t yet possess. The post-processing programs and technology needed to alter our images can bring frustration and we can forget the art we are trying to create.  Some days post-processing is anything but calm. 

Accepting where you are in post-processing also means accepting what frustrates or overwhelms you about the process. Decide how much or how little post-processing you want to do – not how much you can do, but how much you want to do. This means only processing those photos that you’re really happy with and leaving the other photos for later. Work at your own pace and never rush a photo onto your social media page. Post-process until you’re happy with the image then decide whether you want to share it. 

Only do what makes you happy. If that means no post-processing than that’s fine, too!

Zen Post-Processing Connects

A central idea in Zen philosophy is our interconnectedness. Through our photography, we connect with the world around us. But connectedness also means connecting our mind and our bodies, our past and our futures, our vision with our tools. We start the process of photography by capturing a scene through our cameras. The way we capture the world is part of our unique vision. The decisions we make during post-processing add to that vision. Post-processing is the bridge between the world captured by our camera and our vision – what we want to project out into the world. 

Photography can connect people and show them another way of living or give them another view of the world.

Post-processing helped me realize my vision of this train intersection in Chicago. It would be impossible to photograph straight down without a drone – which would be illegal to fly in the populated city even if I had a drone. Lightroom allowed me to straighten out the lines and simulate the view as if I was looking straight down onto the tracks.

Chicago El

Final Thoughts

We make photographs, rather than taking them. Our view of the world shows up in every decision we make and we make dozens and dozens of little decisions in post-processing.

Some photographers impose limits on their post-processing. Maybe they don’t remove or add anything to the photograph (like a reflection or power lines). Other photographers approach a photograph as a starting place and as an artistic world where they can change anything and everything.

We all have to find our own limits and define our own post-processing rules. I believe that my own post-processing should be subtle. I can add a reflection as long as no one even thinks to ask whether the reflection was there or not. I can burn down clouds or add a bit of color as long as these changes don’t take on a life of their own and capture the viewer’s attention. But this is just an example; every photographer makes their own parameters.

Through the post-processing choices we make, our style emerges. With everything Zen, finding our style is an evolving process, a journey.

Artist Tree


This post is sponsored by PhotoYoga.

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5 thoughts on “Characteristics of Zen Post-Processing”

  1. Oh my gosh – what you did with that first photo is amazing. I know exactly where you shot this (I’ve been there a zillion times), and I would never have thought about doing what you did. Talk about creativity – you’ve got it, for sure!

    Liked by 1 person


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