Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reality, What A Concept

One of the most frequent questions I hear as a photographer is ”Did you Photoshop that?

The answer is invariably “Yes”, but I can never let it go at that. The persons asking the question seem to have a mindset that any really good image must be 'photoshopped', ie: fake. I make it my task to set them straight.

Let's get something right out in front first: Photoshop is an amazingly powerful program. In the hands of a really talented user, images can be produced that are nothing less than mind blowing and often have little or no relationship to reality. It really has become a medium unto itself. The resulting images should be appreciated as art in their own right, if they qualify for that ethereal status, but they are no longer photography in any practical sense. Here lies the problem for the typical photographer and the resulting guilt by association. Photography is unique in the arts in that it began as, and for the most part remains, a mechanical/technical medium for recording 'reality', ie: realistic depictions of scenes that actually existed. Photojournalism is the most obvious example of this practical and common application of photography.

Next, we have to address Photoshop's place in the modern world of photography in relation to most pro photographers. Photoshop is the modern 'darkroom'. Digital technology has allowed us to eliminate the need for all the cost, chemicals and complications of the traditional darkroom. This is precisely the role that Photoshop fills for the vast majority of photographers. Traditionally, film development included adjustments to color, contrast, brightness, etc. More sophisticated processors would use treatments to dodge (lighten) some details and burn (darken) others. Ansel Adams was a master at this process and this his how he produced many of his most outstanding images, by way of a well known example.

Aside from the physical advantages mentioned above, the additional benefits are the ease of the various adjustments. Most common adjustments can be made with sliding scales and the results are seen immediately on your monitor. The vast majority of photographers operate at or near this level. Photoshop has simply replaced the darkroom and is used in essentially the same way. The biggest change is that this technology has made the once very esoteric and complex developing process accessible to so many more people.

An example of typical processing is provided below. I took the original image during a March walk on Fire Island, looking to catch the last of the winter's snow on the primary dunes in the vicinity of the Fire Island Lighthouse. The first image is the untouched file straight from the camera, converted to jpeg format for posting here. Directly below it is the processed image.

(click on images to enlarge)

A quick look at the file shows that the processing included these adjustments:

1 – A sharp eye will notice a very slight counterclockwise rotation (1.5 degrees) and very slight trimming crop to square the frame after the rotation.
2 – Minor sharpening to enhance detail. Digital photos retain a bit of softness carried over from the sensor and some sharpening is often used to correct for this.
3 – Contrast is increased slightly to further enhance detail.

That's it! Very little is done but, as you can see, the results are fairly dramatic. The image is clearer and the details practically leap off the image. The real work was done in taking the original shot, getting the exposure and composition right to achieve the intended image. The steps outlined above just complete the process.

Lets take things just a little bit farther. A really sharp eye will pick up a couple of very, very subtle alterations. Look at the top, unprocessed image. Just to the right of the base of the lighthouse you may see a small object – the top of the flag pole near the lighthouse. Directly below that, on the lower dune line, there is a bit of irregular grass, with another bit to the left and farther up the sweep of the lower dune. These three details interfered with the clean, graphic sweep of the image I wanted. Accordingly, I used Photoshop to remove them. The result is something of a very small step closer to an artists representation than a truly representational photograph, but the changes are so subtle that without being pointed out, no one would ever realize the slight changes were made. You can see the improvement in the clean lines of the dunes as they bring your eye to the center of attention – the lighthouse - without distraction.

The next blog entry will take a look at the next step: using some of the more sophisticated features of Photoshop to move photography from strictly representational to art. See you then!

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