One of the easiest ways to start an argument among photographers is to ask, “How hard should I try to get the photo right in-camera?”. Some photographers believe that all Real Photographers™ nail the settings in-camera; that having to adjust exposure or white balance or anything else during post-processing is the mark of a lesser photographer. Other photographers go the other way, and believe the insistence on in-camera perfection is an archaic holdover from the days of film, and is a waste of shooting time.
Before diving into this controversy, I want to point out that almost all non-photographers really don’t care. The final result, the photo itself, is what people care about; the process you the photographer went through to create it is of limited interest at best. If it looks good, it’s good, regardless of whether the shot is straight off the camera or whether it required 3 hours of post-processing.
(As a side note, almost all non-photographers also don’t care what gear you used or what photography rules you followed/broke. They’re not going to like your photo any more if you tell them you used a Canon 1DX or less if you tell them you used a super-zoom lens.)
One of the key skills for photographers to learn is to differentiate between “This photo looks great!” and “This photo required a lot of effort/gear/skill to create!”. Too many photographers post the photos that required a special technique, or expensive gear, or that were otherwise tricky to take, instead of posting the photos that look good, and then wonder why their audience isn’t impressed. Yes, it can be frustrating when the off-the-cuff photo you took on a whim is better than all the shots you spent hours setting up, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. If you post the lesser shots because of all the effort you went through for them, you will be short-changing yourself and your portfolio.
So now that we’ve established that (almost) no one cares if you got it right in camera, why should you care?
The rule that applies here is to do the least amount of work to get the same result. In other words, if you can create the exact same final photo in 15 minutes or 90 minutes, isn’t the 15 minute method preferred?
Frequently, getting it right in camera will save you time. For example, getting the white balance right in-camera may take 30 seconds with a white balance card vs taking 2 minutes to fix it in Lightroom, so getting it right in-camera is preferred. Other settings that are usually faster to get right in camera include exposure and framing/composition.
There are, of course, exceptions.
- Sometimes, using a white balance card isn’t an option. (Stage shows, for example.)
- Other times, getting the settings right in-camera my have too steep of an opportunity cost (weddings & other special events), where the time you spend adjusting your camera settings is time you miss capturing a special moment.
- Sometimes things move too fast to keep up with settings adjustments (photographing kids, for example).
- Sometimes you have so little of the subject’s time that you can’t adjust settings. Hallway cosplay and event photography come to mind here.
- If you’re paying a model by the hour, do you want to spent 10 minutes fiddling with something in the background that can be fixed in 2 minutes of Photoshop?
- And sometimes, it’s just plain faster to do it in post. If there’s a soda can in the distant background, cloning it out in post will probably be faster than sending a someone to move the can.
Of course, there are some things that can’t be completely fixed in post, like high-levels of noise or very under/over-exposed shots, so while nailing it perfectly in camera may not always be the best solution, you always want to be in the ballpark.
Also, there are times you can’t/don’t want to post-process — if you’re running a photo booth and selling the prints on-site, you have to nail the shot in-camera because no post-processing is possible.
Conversely, there are some things that can’t be done in-camera. Localized adjustments, color tuning, and many other effects must be done in post. No camera today produces images that don’t benefit from some post-processing, so unless you’re in a “can’t-postprocess” situation, you should always do at least some basic post-processing to make your photos look their best.
Like for so many other photography questions, the answer to, “How important is it to get it right in-camera?” is “It depends.” It depends on how much time you have to adjust settings when shooting, how much time you have to post-process, and what’s easiest for you. Don’t let the purists on either side of the debate get to you — do what’s right for you and your photos in your situation.