Treat it like a photo
Photography has a rich enough tradition that a photo doesn’t need to look like anything else
The ‘processed’ look of a photograph is a new phenomenon that’s the direct result of new digital ways of handling brightness and contrast on a local scale. In film-based photography it had no meaning, because all film and photographic paper responded in much the same way to exposure and processing. Digital algorithmic processing of RAW files has changed this. In Adobe Camera Raw, three sliders in particular work on the entire image but in a local way: Highlights, Shadows and Clarity. They use TMOs (Tone Mapping Operators) that alter brightness by means of very localised contrast, making adjustments based on neighbouring pixels. The results are powerful in that they can ‘open up’ shadow areas with increased localised contrast and crispness. This naturally appeals to us in much the same way that we generally respond positively to brighter and more colourful images.
A ‘photographic’ look centres on smooth tonal gradation with a full range from black to white. It has no sharp discontinuities, it’s well rounded, and it’s a natural result of the S-curve response of film. Its opposite is hyper-detailed images, with tonal breaks, that look more like hyper-realistic paintings. As a style of painting, this is effective and popular, but do you want a painterly effect from photography? The world of photography passed through that phase about a century ago.
The pictures above illustrate the difference. Few would disagree that the top image looks more like a traditional photo. You could argue that looking like a photo is no special advantage and that the modern way of looking accepts heightened clarity and crispness. Most photographers disagree, even though our acceptance of the photographic look comes from a century and a half of looking at it.
The same shot, processed to make the most of the high-contrast lighting (top), and using the newer tone-mapping controls (bottom). The results contrast a traditional photographic look with a flatter yet more detailed ‘illustrative’ look Illustrative