Have you ever heard a photographer say, “I show my photographs exactly as they come out of the camera. I don’t use Photoshop.”? Or someone at a photo exhibition expound, “These images have been Photoshopped too much.”?
What is the underlying message of such comments?
Imagine yourself looking out on a beautiful vista, sunlit dappled green fields sprinkled with sheep, stone walls, a lane winding its way into the distance, puffy white clouds in a deep cerulean sky. Or perhaps it’s a wild landscape, rugged forest slopes leading upward, over rocky outcrops on which straggly trees cling precipitously, to huge snow covered peaks dominating even the storm-threatening sky.
The scene elicits an emotional response in you, one which you want to capture so that you can show others. You hope that you have the tools and the technical ability that will allow you to make an image which is not only an accurate reproduction but also projects the emotions you feel as you view it.
So what’s in your toolbox?
If you are a painter, you have an easel, a canvas and some paints. You also have a choice as to the style you’ll use. Is it to be photorealistic? Impressionistic? Abstract? And what about your familiarity and skill with each type. Can you do it? What should be the size of your canvas? As a painter, though, you know that your painting will not be an accurate rendition of what your eyes see. Instead, it will be an interpretation, your interpretation.
If you are a photographer, what is in your toolbox?
What year is it? If it is 1910, your camera is only the start. Your camera has a fixed lens, and your black and white film will need careful darkroom processing in order to produce a negative (or glass plate). Then there is the print to be made, so you need to choose paper and then spend more time in the darkroom struggling to reveal the scene and emotion you set out to capture. Once again, it will be your interpretation, and, because colour film and prints have not yet been invented, you’ll be constrained by the tools and technology at your disposal.
So, let’s jump forward in time to the present, skipping over the gradual improvements in cameras, lenses, film types, and processing, to the time of the digital camera. Now, when we press the shutter button, we don’t capture an image on film, we don’t capture an image at all! Our camera counts photons, and translates the counts into intensities. The individual sensor components don’t see colour, but employ a specialized matrix of sensors, each made sensitive to different areas of the spectrum, and then an algorithm to translate the intensities into a digital representation of what the camera “saw”. Further in-camera processing of the digital file takes place and, like magic, we are presented with our full colour “image”.
But is the digital image accurate?
What does “accurate” mean? The camera’s firmware has made a series of transformations to the raw photon counts provided by the sensor array. There is nothing unique about the transformations – the choice of type and style were made by the camera manufacturer’s software engineers. Other choices could have been made resulting in a subtly different image. Furthermore, if the output image is a jpeg, an algorithm has been used to throw away some of the data captured by the camera and to modify the rest. So, again the question: Is the digital “image” accurate?
The answer is, of course, no. It is merely a representation of what we saw, constrained, like the 1910 photographer, by the technology we are forced to use. It’s like an incomplete painting. The camera has tried and failed to capture the image seen by our eyes, and has probably failed miserably to include the emotion. What do we do now?
We have to examine our original intention: to capture a scene in all its visual and emotional beauty, using the available tools, and show it to others. Our next step, since the camera has failed to completely achieve our goal, is to use some of the other tools in our toolbox.
If we don’t like the choices made to compress the data into a jpeg image, we use Camera Raw to make our own rendition of data. Since the response of digital sensors is different from that of our eyes, we need further alterations (using image processing software) to transform the image closer to what we saw and wanted to convey, and to bring into the photo the emotion we felt. Perhaps, to bring out that emotion, we need to crop the photo so as to direct the viewer’s eye towards the elements we want to be seen as most important. Then, we make choices around print size, colour profiles, frames. Or maybe we simply upload the image to a website and never put it on paper. We are like an artist, employing all our tools to achieve our vision.
So, have artists ever been condemned for the use of certain tools or techniques, claiming that they are artificial or unworthy?
Well, yes. Every new form of art, visual and performance, has had to fight the prejudice of the past, of the comfortable familiar. Simply look at the initial response to Impressionism, or Abstraction, or, dare we say it, work by the Group of Seven. Techniques which reveal the world in unfamiliar or uncomfortable ways, because they are different, often elicit a negative emotion in the viewer. Luckily, to their credit and our eventual appreciation, artists persist. And, as artists, so should photographers.
While we have only very limited control over the digital processing which occurs in the camera, outside the camera we have much more freedom to employ digital processing software to better realize our original intention. The more skilled we become at it, the closer we can get to being able to reproduce exactly the image we wanted.
That’s what artists do and no apology is necessary.