Custom Navbar

Thursday, May 16, 2013

“That’s been Photoshopped” and that’s the same as Cheating.

Warning: My reference to “Photoshop” in this article is a proprietary eponym. That is to say, it is not meant to be brand specific. It is a phenomenon of English vernacular that through common use, popular brand names often become a generic word encompassing all items of similar purpose. See Kleenex, Band Aid, Coke, Frisbee, Polaroid… 

I've wondered over this attitude for many years. Truth be told, I have in the past prescribed to this idea, whilst at the same time employing the use of various digital processing software almost universally. One pretty much has to, unless you’re happy leaving your 6x4s buried in an album for the rest of time. This has naturally led to a measure of internal unease as I wrestled with the spectre of hypocrisy. 

So what then, is NOT cheating?

I have to laugh these days when confronted by a self-proclaimed purist of the photographic arts who chooses to flaunt their piety in the face of us digital manipulation heathens. “I like to return to the purity of simply capturing the image” is the gist of their mantra. “So” I retort, let me understand your position. You stand before the breath-taking artistry of nature, imbibing the majesty and feeling the awe that is the earth-mother-goddess. This Buena Vista is absorbed through the miracle that is your eyes, and can then be appreciated by unfathomable mystery that is the human mind. In order to share this purity, you interrupt your line of sight with metal/polycarbonate alloy chassis box housing a multi-layered silicon wafer rectangle meticulously pock-marked with (insert number here) million photo-receptive light cavities which digitally convert the analogue light signals through an anti-aliasing array into electronic signals stored digitally on Electronically Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory flash memory drive. But first, you insert a metal/polycarbonate tube housing multiple machine-crafted glass lenses in order to mechanically bend the light from this wonder of life in several different ways and to flatten all three dimensions into a two dimensional representation. 

By this time, as I’m about to launch into the diatribe about the supposed purity of uploading your image through Instagram/Facebook/Pinterest via encrypted algorithms to convert your digital file into light pulses pushing the packet data down optical fibre…. You get where I’m going here right? But the disinterested party has now switched completely off, and usually disappeared in a cloud self-righteousness leaving me like the lone-nut muttering to himself while passers-by throw coins into my camera bag mistaking me for a mentally-ill homeless person.

But all I’m really trying to say is this. 

The biggest single manipulation of any view, is made by putting your camera in front of it. 

Whether your capture device of choice is a 2MP camera phone or a 50MP Hasselblad, no camera yet in existence can see the world with anywhere near the quality of the human eye. To be brutally honest, cameras destroy scenes.  Everything that follows regarding post-processing, is simply trying to force the outcome to better emulate, better communicate the emotion and experience of being present in that particular time and place. Remember my last entry – every picture must tell a story. Well, I want to tell MY story, share MY emotional reaction to that view. My camera can tell its own story if it so chooses, and given the smarts of modern DSLRs I would not in the least be surprised if at night, while I’m snoring, she sneaks out of my camera bag and interacts with the world under her own social-media pseudonym. But while ever I’m still in charge, it is important to tell my own story. 

Now, there are some caveats here. I do think it is akin to cheating to purport an image to be something it isn’t, and this is the example often cited by anti-Photoshop advocates. Let us imagine that I take a photo of a pigeon in my garden. I then use image editing software to paint its plumage bright green, give its tail some flourish, and proclaim to the world I have been the first to photograph this new species in the hope of personal acclaim. This has been famously evident with dubious photos of UFOs, Bigfoot and just about every photo of a ghost. But that is the exception, not the norm. 

My camera is somewhere in the middle of the pack. It does a fair job, but it is rare that it captures what I intend it to see. What indeed, I see. Contrast is my greatest nemesis, in Photog-speak, High Dynamic Range (HDR). What I see are beautifully saturated blue skies melding into orange and magenta sunsets, colour-contrasted against the deep green grass painted with swathes of golden light rim-lighting the taller blades. What my camera sees is white, blown-out sky and black, shadowed foreground. This is not the story I want to tell. Now, there are a number of ways to fix this, any or all of which I might employ. Physical GND filters are a good start but the same result can often be attained with a virtual GND in Photoshop (or other generic, non-brand specific digital photo editing software). So I now ask this question;

Philosophically speaking, what is the difference between a physical and a virtual GND?

Technical merits aside, quality for quality, whichever method I choose I am still employing an artificial device to alter the light intensity of nature, in order to force my two dimensional representation to tell the story as I am at that time, feeling it. So the real question is not whether to post-process, but where to stop? I could probably, with a lot more skill and knowledge than I currently possess, turn that hill across the road from my house into a pretty good likeness of the Matterhorn under a winter storm. But that, by my own definition, would be cheating. So I developed my own guidelines that can be succinctly defined as:

Does the finished product genuinely reflect the story I am trying to tell about the beauty I experienced? 

Notice, I did not use accurately, but genuinely. Am I being true to my vision? Am I being true to my emotional memory? If the answer is NO, then I’ve either gone too far, or not far enough with my post processing. Occasionally, I get lucky, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to improve an image that comes out from my camera. But if that defined the limit of my creativity, then my gallery would be very small indeed – and not the better for that either. So I am richer inside, I am nurturing my creative outlet, by employing Photoshop, and I make no apologies for that.

Even that photographic Gautama Buddha to my Prince Siddhartha, Ansel Adams hand-painted his own negatives right?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A great photograph, or a photograph of something great?

Something I have been learning, sometimes a little painfully, is that there is a chasm between these two concepts. Furthermore this chasm is really only apparent to those within the photography cabal, leading to further divisions between those who take photos, and those who simply view.

Let me elaborate…

The most striking example where this is apparent is family portraits, particularly babies and children. How many of us have been shown countless photographs of friend’s and family’s offspring, having to constantly agree as to how great a photo this or that is. Truth be told, most of the photos are usually ghastly. Flat lighting, flash blasted, fuzzy focus / slow shutter movement blur, cluttered backgrounds, mis-matched clothing, over/under-exposed, photo-bombing elements, you name it and they’re usually there. But… there is no way in the world I’m going to be the one to break the bad news. The fact is, the budding photog is fixated on the subject, and all other elements are irrelevant, or else completely invisible. When you’re looking at the most beautiful thing in your world, any photograph will inevitably also be beautiful, right?

Take this to the next step, travel photography. This is where I started my journey, taking photographs of majestic objects such as mountains in the Himalayas, the iconic buildings of Venice, ancient temperate rainforests of Tasmania. So long as one can focus, get the exposure at least close to correct, and some semblance of composition, you can almost be guaranteed a good shot. Combine this with the quantity percentage phenomenon (if you take a thousand photos, at least a few have to be good, right?), and almost anyone can come home with a photo that just screams “YOU COULD BE A PROFESSIONAL”.

So I keep taking photos, even though I’m no longer on holidays, usually of my more familiar environment. But now I’m wondering to myself where the magic has gone. My photos just aren’t inspiring anymore. I have come to a fork in the road, and just quietly, I’ve taken both branches at various times. I put my camera back in its case (usually something expensive and professional looking because my journey isn’t complete without the appropriate accoutrements), and there it stays for that “some day” moment. Then of course, “I don’t have enough time”, or “I couldn’t be bothered lugging all that equipment around” so “my (insert camera phone here) will do just as good a job”, or any one of a dozen other excuses raise their daemons in the back of my mind and become self-imposed obstacles in my path. Occasionally I might pull out the old-girl for another session at a friend’s wedding or children’s birthday party but those photos inevitably end up lost in the cyber world of hard-drive oblivion and the camera returned to its undeserved internment.

Is there a solution? Of course, but it does involve a journey of self-discovery. Ergh… I know, but stay with me for just a bit longer.

I revisited all my favourite photos and studied them. I still love them, nothing’s changed there. I subscribed to magazines, websites, social-networks and even went to galleries. My mind was filled with spectacular images, but I still didn’t understand why only those special picks of mine “made the grade”. I studied articles, tutorials, even took classes. My own photography was improving, but at a measured, incremental pace. I still did not understand why I could make such giant leaps of talent when confronted by majesty, but exhibited banal when confronted by the familiar.

What happened?

The answer was always there, but it took the wise words of a very experienced wildlife photographer for me to make the connection. I invested in a workshop with Steve Parish (, listened intently, pad and pen in hand, and tried to ingest all the secrets from the inner sanctum of photography holiness he could impart within 8 and half hours. The fact of the matter is, like most things in life, there were no real secrets. Although obviously possessing less skill and experience, I understood already by this stage the general photography and post-processing principles. Whilst there was still a lot gained from this session, one uttered phrase, oft-repeated stuck in my mind. Of course, I’m paraphrasing here but it goes like this.

Your image must tell a story, or it will never hold attention.

In this specific example, the advice was specific. He literally was reinforcing the need to write a story the support the image, and capture the imagination of the viewer, who was never there, at that moment in time, seeing the beauty you saw. Steve was, and is, a publisher of books, not just a photographer, so his view of the world is to share stories. It’s not enough to just show something pretty. Like a person, being pretty is good for a glance, but having substance can hold attention for a life-time. The same rings true for photography.

Having mulled this over in my mind for some weeks, this explained all these mysteries to me, and changed the way I see photography forever. My images were not just beautiful, they told my story, back to me, invoking emotions, feelings, transporting me to happier times and places. Henceforth, for my images to work, I needed to invoke that same sense of feeling, the passion, the awe-inspired, the breathtaking, and convey this to a disconnected viewer. For me, words would not work, it had to be the image, the story must be written in the colour, the mood, the drama, the detail (or lack thereof). I was no longer content to capture the image alone, I now had to capture the emotion. 

Now how does that work with 16million dots of electronic technology sitting behind layers of polished glass...?

The Purist Photographer versus the Excited Photoshopper...