‘Shop ’til you drop

If you are a photographer, have you ever been asked by someone looking at your work “did you photoshop these pictures?”.  And when they asked that question, did you notice the tone with which they asked the question? Sometimes it may come across as an accusation, sometimes it may sound like an apologetic enquiry and sometimes, the question isn’t even asked but instead, replaced with a comment such as “these aren’t real, you’ve photoshopped them!!!”. In this growing world of self proclaimed experts, people continue to show ignorance through the dangers of partial knowledge acquisition. So here I am, about to rant ironically about my expertise in a generation Y old debate: To ‘shop or not?

The Quiraing : Isle of Skye - Unabashedly Photoshopped!

How did you answer these questions? At one point in time, I’d cower away and try to minimise the amount of post processing done to an image :“Oh, not much, just a little bit of colour alteration and sharpening”. Nowadays though, my standard response is a much more confident “Yes, I used photoshop and I loved every mouse-clicking, squint-inducing hour of the day spent doing it”

Like any controversy which bears no relevance to the meaning of life, there seems to be two camps firmly entrenched in their beliefs of moral superiority. On one side, we have the so-called purists, those who believe that the only image worth raving about is the completely unedited, perfectly taken image of pure spontaneous class. I’ll call this side, the SOOC club (straight out of camera). On the other side, we have the pixel perfectionists, those who believe that only image worth raving about is the image with not a pixel out of place, not single highlight blown, with features of interests lying along Fibonacci spirals and intersections of thirds. For ease of argument, I’ll call this group the  shoppers (short for photoshoppers <said with derogatory tone> ) Like any controversy whose polarities are strong, the best outcome often lies somewhere in the middle.  Let me for a day, take the side of the shoppers.

Annapurna Sunset : I want you to believe!

I’ll start my argument with another question. What is the purpose of photography for you? It is a personal question that only you can answer. For me, there are many ways to answer the question. My interest in landscape photography stems from the love of hiking, running and the sense of solitude and freedom in the wild outdoors. Hence, with the images I present, I hope to present to the viewer not only the scene itself but something of an emotional representation of the scene. Colours and light do a lot to tell that story. If it was a grey, horrible day, I’m often feeling uninspired and grey myself, so I’ll often present an image as monochromatic. Usually, my emotions are dominated by a sense of euphoria and my representation of this is with colour. I make no apologies therefore, if some of the images don’t look ‘real’ for that reason. It is what I would like you the believe the scene can be, even if only partly in your imagination.

Slioch: Scotland. My memory is of pink in the sky.

Let’s take my euphoria and colour addiction aside for one moment. For some people, the purpose of photography is to present the scene as close to reality as it can be. Does that mean that no editing of photographs should be allowed? If you thought yes, then consider the following points about light :

–         The so called dynamic range of the best cameras today is about 6 stops of light. (1 stop of light equates to either a doubling or halving of the exposure time/ISO required to achieve the correct exposure for any given scene) The dynamic range of the human eye is debatable but is thought to be equivalent to 20 stops of light. As a practical example, when you are standing on a beach talking to someone at sunset, what do you see? You’ll be squinting but you will be able to make out a face as well as the details in the sky simultaneously. Expose correctly for the face with a DSLR and the sky is blown bright white. Expose for the sky, and the person you are talking to becomes a pure silhouette. To overcome this, many photographers either use filters or blend exposures or even adjust the shadows and highlights in photoshop. Which is the more real of the results??

Korpudalur: Three exposures to compensate for dynamic range limitations

–     The sensitivity of light in the human eye adjusts to the conditions based on what happens in our retina and the size of our iris. In DSLRs, ISO settings represent the changes in our retina in terms of light sensitivity while the aperture acts as our iris. When you are standing in a dark room (eg cinema) and turn to talk to your friend, do they look grainy or blurred to you? Even with the best DSLRs, high iso in dark conditions results in a degree of ‘noise’ in an image. To overcome this, photographers may lengthen the exposure with a lower ISO, or use ‘noise’ reduction in photoshop (or other programs). Which is the more real of the results??

Aurora in Iceland : High ISO shooting and noise reduction

–         The human eye is capable of seeing objects with sharp refined edges. The limitations of DSLR sensors by default, produce images whose components are put together by tiny individual components of the sensor. When you look at something through a microscope, if it is in focus, it is still sharp? When you magnify an image on DSLR down to the pixel is it still sharp? (no). To overcome this, photographers may use processes such as sharpening in photoshop. Which is the more real of the results?

 Another argument frequently touted by the SOOC side, is that in the old days, film photographers never had access to photoshop and still produced beautiful images. So are we , in this digital age cheating now that we have access to photoshop , lightroom and other such tools at our disposal? If you thought yes, then consider the following points:

–         What did film photographers have to do to produce their images after taking them in the field?  They developed them in the darkroom. Techniques such as dodging, burning, cross processing all stem from what used to be done in the dark room but now can be done with a click of a button. In fact, with photoshop ‘actions’ several of these functions can be done at once. Film photographers had the darkroom with which to manipulate their images prior to presentation. DSLR photographers now have a wealth of software with which to do the same. To me, the darkroom is a complete enigma and I wouldn’t know where to start. The post processing side of photography has become simpler and more available to the general public. While some see this as a trivialisation of a previous skill, I see it as a good thing. With an ever increasing baseline standard of knowledge, it requires even more exceptional ability (combined with rampant self promotion) to stand out among the poppy field of competence.

Buchaille Etive Mor: I'm no Ansel Adams but I dabble in black and white sometimes

–         Does the ease and availability of modern software to post process have any bearing on how an image should be presented? Perhaps ask yourself if you would prefer to use a calculator or a slide-rule for maths equations ……weighted scales or electronic scales to weigh an object…..a mobile phone or a telegram to transmit an urgent message……internet search or a manual library catalogue search for your latest research assignment……a bus or a horse  & cart to travel to the nearest city. I guess the bottom line of those questions : We use what technology is at our disposal to achieve an outcome more efficiently (though in some cases, not always with a better result).

 There are many more arguments to present from this side of the fence and no doubt arguments which can be presented from the other side of the fence. Lately, I’ve been post processing images from our 2010 vacation as well as our recent wedding shoots. Unless I can be convinced otherwise, I will continue to ‘shop til I drop’.


Eilean Donan Castle : Maybe a time warp would be good for all of us.


Posted on January 28, 2011, in M&D Corner, Photography, Random Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this insight in to PP or not to PP! Yes, you hit the nail on the head…what we ‘see’ with our eyes is no match for a lens and to achieve what we have seen we definately do need to manipulate the photo. Another good aspect is that we need to be even more creative and better at our photography to stand out in the crowd – who can argue with that!

  2. You’ve said volumes here, Dylan. Both pixel poppers and SOOC purists have an art all to themselves, but it is nice to fall somewhere in between the two. Like the other post agrees – trying to recreate what the eye really sees is a great thing to achieve (and most of us don’t have the new $12,000 “RED Epic Camera” to mimc the eye in HDRx). This is a great article for all of us that like to keep the shots “real” but need the help of PS to adjust the colors, curves or what have you.

  3. Thanks Ray – I know you do minimal PP but your shots stand out like a beacon anyway!
    Monika, sometimes the lens is also no match for our eye !

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: