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!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Visiting with the Past

My wife Nancy and I just returned from a visit to Nova Scotia. I should probably mention that , being of Scottish descent, I am likely to find anything Scottish at least a little bit interesting. That minor caveat aside, we were both deeply taken with the beauty of this part of the world, both natural and man made. The natural terrain bears a strong kinship to that of Scotland, with its rugged, rocky coastlines and deep, dark spruce forests. The polished granites of Peggy's Cove speak directly to a far distant geological past, much like that of the Scottish landscape. A little research indicates that this particular stone mates with similar from northern Africa, though, and not Europe! So much for first impressions. The northern coastal climate is the real source of the biological similarities, favoring spruce over the deciduous forests found farther south. The proximity of the sea accounts for the rest, with its inevitable impact on the local sea oriented culture.

It is the overlay of man made history that drives our interest today. Like much of North America, the incoming Europeans displaced the Native Americans, who have left little more than place names to remind us that they predated the present residents. We Europeans have all but obliterated any other trace of their presence, a direct result of our greater (and still increasing) numbers and tendency to build more extensive and relatively permanent structures. The expansion has occurred over some several centuries now and, where the earlier European settlements remain, they call to the more attentive visitor about our history, relatively brief though it is.

Our main focus on this trip was such a place, a rather well known tourist stop: Peggy's Cove. Traveling as much as we do, Nancy and I are all too familiar with the commercialization which tends to destroy the heart of many of these historic places, leaving a thin shadow of the former reality. Fortunately, Peggy's Cove is largely spared this ignominy. While there is a fairly constant flow of tourists, fed by a series of large tourist buses, the accommodations for the buses and tourists are all kept outside of the small village. If you want to see Peggy's Cove up close, it is necessary to get off the bus and walk through the little village, which is still an occupied and functional fishing village. It remains 'the real thing', not some gussied up caricature of a recently deceased community. The changes are limited to a parking lot just outside the village and a rather large gift shop and additional parking at the highpoint just above and beyond the opposite side of the village, near the well known lighthouse. This seems to have worked well to keep the village relatively untouched from the more typical effects of the tourist invasion, with the hardscrabble nature of a thin existence by the sea evident in the ubiquitous peeling paint and mossy, rotting, but still functional, and functioning, structures.

(click on image to enlarge)
These places were once the norm on the extensive New England coastline and are hardly considered 'romantic' or beautiful by the occupants. As with many occupations, the hard, bare lifestyle was made untenable by the introduction of large scale commercial fishing and the resulting reduction of many of the fish species that these communities depended on. The pattern is echoed in our own local fisheries. The South Shore of Long Island was such a place until fairly recently. The once common fishing boats are now gone, and there is virtually no trace of their former existence, as even their old haunts have been filled with condos and restaurants.

(click on image to enlarge)
Visiting places such as Peggy's Cove calls to us, as it reminds us of a recently lost history and way of living. It is interesting that we now find beauty in the spare, plain structures placed so precariously exposed to the elements. There is nothing to be found here that is not functional in some respect, the rare dalliance with the unnecessary restricted to a coat of brightly colored paint on a window frame or a boat hull. All else is unadorned in its pristine directness, built to a purpose. As the bulk of the tourists moved ahead, Nancy and I lagged behind to more closely examine the intimate details of this wonderful place: surprisingly bright colored mosses growing through the peeling paint on the base and foundation of a small wooden outbuilding, the moldy details of a hidden stairway between two buildings, a haphazard pile of bright orange trap floats and rust. Rust was everywhere, ever present. No item of steel escapes, as evidenced by the rusty streaks marking the presence of steel nails in the buildings. Here were the trace details of an active seafaring life grown in place for many, many years.

Why do such places speak to us so strongly? It must be more than simple 'quaintness' of a type of life since past. Do we yearn for the simple directness of such an existence rather than the fast moving complexities of the present? Do some of feel that we have lost something important, even vital in the transition? When I look out on our own Great South Bay, and see not a single individual remainder of the once omnipresent clammers and oyster boats, I know we have lost something important in the local community. The Bay can no longer support the oysters, clams and scallops that once put Bluepoint and the Great South Bay on the map, a victim of overfishing and pollution runoff from expanding suburbia.

It is one of my few regrets that these things, taken so for granted at the time, were passing away even as I watched. My recognition of what was happening came far too late, too late to record all but a few scattered remnants. But I look and find the bits and pieces where I can. Not all has yet been erased and built over, not yet.