Our art is important to us and as imagers we need to ensure we work according to the principles governing our art.
As technology develops we have increasing freedom in the way we work, but our appreciation of true freedom carries responsibility: we are able to drive a car as we wish, but our driving is tempered by a code governing those driving skills, otherwise our very freedom would have to be grossly restricted to ensure safety.
The way we are able to work in photography also requires a code, so that the imager creates a comment on the vista or event before him/her and the viewer understands the code under which the imager is working.
This article thus has three sections:
- Making a creative, successful image, perception, black and white
- Visualisation of the image and our photographic freedom
- On ethics in post-production, HDR, Ansel Adams, et al
Though there are many words, I hope these articles illustrate the constraints that I feel are vital for us to work in the freedom we crave.
1. Making a creative, successful image, perception, black and white
Many imagers have sometimes found a conflict between the perception of what is a ‘good’ image by whosoever views and appraises the finished image.
By example, an image library may consider a photograph where colour has been enhanced or contrast increased as being inappropriate because of data loss despite the photographer’s consideration that his image has more impact and thus more attractive. At the more mundane, family members may not perceive the ‘improvements’ the imager has made when colours have been well saturated and/or contrast has been ‘tweeked’.
Photographers have always sought impact in a photograph whether in the content of the scene or in the interpretation of the scene – throughout the history of photography imagers have wanted the freedom to interpret. (That said, not all imagers are good editors.)
Three examples can be cited: firstly, the soft portraiture of Julia Margaret Cameron conflicted with other contemporary photographers who were seeking sharpness that was their view of technical excellence. Secondly, Pete Turner produced heavily saturated commercial images in primary colours. Thirdly, one could also point to the blurred indistinct photographs of Ernst Haas whose images certainly cannot be described as a true record in terms of a sharp and clear rendition, but very definitely conveys his feelings of movement and his interpretation of the moment.
Perceptions of photographs should be lifelike – but is this definition always clear?
For some, many photographs of cathedrals evidenced in guide books and postcards do not convey the space within the buildings or the interplay of light within that space: photographs of these buildings are often superbly lit where everything is clear and everything can be seen. But does this clinically ‘correct’ treatment represent the purpose of the architecture or the spirituality of those buildings?
The dynamic range and light contrast of these beautiful ecclesiastical buildings is often beyond human vision, let alone the capability of the sensor chip or film. It is a question of how this is addressed – Doesn’t the use of a horde of additional tungsten or flash lighting disavow the creativity of the architects and the spirituality of the cathedral? Or even worse, the sometimes tasteless exaggerations of HDR processes?
When visiting a large church or cathedral, there is huge satisfaction and a pleasurable peace to be found just by sitting in the nave. Lighting levels continually change: sunshine outside may be direct or indirect and thus affecting indoor illumination, brightness levels vary depending on the outside sunlight or whether it has been diffused by cloud or filtered by rain… and it is changing all the time. Within the cathedral the same subject modifies depending on the impact of the light variance from moment to moment.
In the same way as the reportage ‘decisive moment’, a landscape photographer waits for just the right moment when the elements of cloud, sunshine, or light intensity is just right for his/her visualisation of the scene; the same should apply within the cathedral. Uniformly lit scenes using flash and/or HDR (high dynamic range technique) without consideration for the spirituality may now seem improper.
These two images illustrate the ‘lit’ versus the visualised interpretation. Not everything in the second photograph within Llandaff Cathedral may be clear – the roof is much darker which gives more prominence to Epstein’s sculpture – but the photograph does record the scene as the photographer saw it.
Within the landscape is it correct to record everything ‘correctly’? Is it correct that every element from 1 metre to infinity is pin sharp? Is it right that brightness levels are varied to ensure everything is recorded? To my eyes, the overuse of HDR can make an image un-natural and confuse the viewer and differential focus can be a creative tool.
On the other hand, in landscape photography, what is it that is wrong if contrast has been significantly increased to enhance those scudding cumulous clouds across the sky, even at the expense of some shadow detail that may not be perceived by the viewer in real life anyway?
These three images of the same file illustrate a straightforward recording of the scene, processing that enhances the photographer’s visualisation of the clouds in the expanse of sky, and a monochrome exaggeration of the scene.
Perhaps these conflicts between the recording of reality and interpretation of reality have been answered. Many photographers are now looking toward monochrome black and white imaging in order that they can more freely interpret the scene. In a sense, this may be an escape from those criticisms they may feel unwarranted, allowing them creativity within their visualised reality.
Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ is applied to reportage – but there is also a decisive moment in scenics when responding to changing light levels whether in the landscape, in cathedrals or portraiture or indeed most of our photographic endeavours.
Indeed, viewers seem to more readily accept an interpretation of the recording of the lighting of the subject in a monochromatic rendition, allowing the photographer a more liberal freedom to create a powerful image. Indeed, mono images enhance impact by the deliberate use of high contrast (or low contrast) sometimes deliberately losing detail present in the original RAW file in favour of a graphic interpretation.
Sometimes, photographers crave for this indulgence in their approach to colour imaging.
It is thus suggested that the greatest aspect of our Art, is how we emphasise our subject and how we have consolidated that subject within the frame or how that part of the landscape has been isolated in order to make a statement within the frame the viewer sees. It is the visualisation that is paramount.
2. Visualisation of the image and our photographic freedom
Successful photography is the successful visualisation of a finished image taken from life.
At its simplest, a part of a scene is placed in a frame, but the rest of the scene is either deleted or sometimes implied.
As photographers we have never before had such freedom to produce images and to publish them widely. Trust is built between the photographer and the eventual appraiser of the image whether public or private. Sometimes people assume an image is manipulated, ‘photo-shopped’ and altering the truth – this is a failure of the trust built by photographers interpreting what they have seen for over 150 years.
The process of creating an image has never been easier. However, there are barriers even to the present processes. The 3D scene will ultimately be rendered as 2D; colours will need to be rendered from a smaller gamut than the reality; there may have to be adjustments to contrast and dynamic range; tonal adjustments will be made. This is apart from the possibilities of significant deliberate adjustment of colour, perhaps to monochrome.
The process of image visualisation remains constant in the digital age – the elements of realisation of the image have not significantly changed throughout the history of photography whether they are daguerrotypes or cyanotypes or now digital files. In the digital age we have more freedom and create millions more images than our forebears, but our decadence sometimes reduces the very freedom that has been gained.
Typically, the enthusiast or professional photographer responds to the scene before him/her, selecting a lens that suits his/her initial visualisation. Alternatively, the shot may have been planned well in advance – the equipment and resources committed before creating the shot in camera. The success of the outcome depends on the success of the technique that renders the photographer’s interpretation whoever he/she may be. The rendition of the visualisation depends on the resources committed to the outcome and understanding of the creative process. This must mean that the initial assessment of the subject is but the start of a visualisation process. For this let us assume that the photographer is seeking the best outcome.
The process in three stages can be summarised:
- Recognition and assessment of the (likely) subject
- Application of the resources required
- Selection of focal length
- Selection of ISO, then aperture/shutter speed
- Shooting the image
- Processing the image
- Conversion from RAW
- Tonal adjustments/sharpening
- Rendering and Displaying the image
- Print / Web / Tablet
- Media choice
Visualisation thus takes place during all these various stages – this has not fundamentally changed since digitalisation, but rather that the choices have widened.
Increased automation is available and can be exploited if desired, but the greatest potential for excellence comes through the greatest control. This may be manual rather than auto exposure or manual adjustment of curves rather than auto levels, etc. The problem is frequently that one size tries to fit all, hence it is still usually better to control individually (manually).
Perhaps strangely, the increased ease by which images are produced, and automation, may result in fewer image creators knowing the fundamentals of reflected and incident light and understanding the ISO/aperture/shutter relationship. Those shooters who learned their craft in analogue days, even those shooting screw threaded Zenits or Prakticas, were forced to understand those principles.
There is a balance in the freedom created by technology removing our need to understand. For the purposes of this discussion the above steps are taken in step, but of course they should be collectively considered in their totality. These are fundamentals of the art form of photography, continuing to be akin to the steps camera-negative-print as taught by Ansel Adams, though his understanding of chemical processes affecting the negative/positive development/printing attributes no longer has a precise digital parallel.
This short article is not intended to be a technical primer, but by identifying stages in the process to assist in understanding cause and effect. So, let us marshal our thoughts and apply this to a shoot.
Before leaving base the photographer will have an idea as to likely subject, or even be making or have made the trip knowing the precise intention. The approximate lighting levels (and consequent ISO/exposure required) will be anticipated. An initial recce may or may not have identified a precise location, or the photographer will need to prepare for his/her intentions.
Depending on availability of gear and whether or not it is spur of the moment, the first decision is made as to camera. [There may be filters, tripod and other needs.] We may or may not have a choice, but most of us will choose which camera to use. One decision may be whether to use analogue film or digital, others may be DSLR/Compact/CSC/tablet. Whatever the case, the photographer will recognise the potential of the equipment that is carried. Some of each camera’s parameters may include:
- View camera (very heavy, not very portable, requiring significant setup time; restricted lens choice; potential optimum quality but also requires most knowledge for operation – few auto features)
- Medium format (more portable, but heavy and probably with a fairly restricted lens choice; sensor/film size is more forgiving in terms of resolution and has wide dynamic range)
- SLR (likely to have greatest lens choice: to save weight coupled to portability a single superzoom can be taken, or alternatively a wide zoom plus a moderate tele zoom depending on likely subject choice and/or expectation of subject with willingness to carry a rucksack or sling bag; good to excellent quality is possible; auto features are available but the photographer can still maintain full manual control)
- CSC (more compact and portable; small lenses may lead to distortion; format may struggle with dynamic range; relatively restricted lens choice)
- Compact (fits in a pocket and easy to use but sensor size is most likely to limit dynamic range and noise and thus restricting print outcomes; automation can assist the photographer, but many cameras cannot override manually)
- Mobile phone, or tablet
Obviously, different cameras respond differently to different circumstances, but essentially this stage identifies the gear to be used.
Commitment of resources
We have now reached the subject and we now have to decide on lens focal length and decide on what we need in terms of depth of field and type of image we are striving for (high key/low key, juxtaposition of elements within the frame, etc). To realise intentions camera height, precise ISO, aperture, shutter and focus have to be considered that may be possible given the camera choice and a tripod if the exposure desired is long.
Lens choice is made at each point of the visualisation – that may be before the actual shoot and/or at the place of the shoot.
Shooting the image
Before tripping the shutter the photographer will consider compositional elements.
Initially there may be a choice of landscape or portrait format (or square if medium format) within the frame. The photographer may have plans for the final rendering, anticipating the eventual format, but at this stage the composition is within the frame at the point of shooting.
Compositional devices will already be considered but the photographer may also include margins for further work he may anticipate for the outcome.
Time may be of the essence resulting in a grabshot, but the aim is to control each stage of the process in order to achieve the highest standard and quality. The photographer may ‘expose to the right’ in RAW to allow the greatest potential quality, undertake bracketing or image stacking, shoot in alternative formats anticipating the processing stage or respond to the scene as seen. The attraction of the initial wide view can thus be developed by changing focal lengths.
Of course, the initial planning may be upset in order to respond to changing meteorological expectations or the evolving landscape itself. The photographer’s visualisation at this stage is to make the most of the moment.
This image may result in further thinking.
This stage is back at base, enhancing the conception realised at the shooting stage.
How this is achieved depends on the original equipment choice as well as the photographer’s response to the scene, anticipating the eventual rendering. There may be attempts to avoid and correct those unavoidable weaknesses at the shooting stage, such as removal of litter or objects upsetting the balance of the composition.
A sense of ethics may have to be considered – whether people within the photograph should be rendered or whether it is appropriate to show the scene how the photographer’s interpretation may desire as opposed to a faithful rendition of reality. If the image is destined for a stock agency processing is likely to be minimal in order to meet their needs of quality control, but the outcome may be a more fine art landscape where the photographer may wish to darken skies, tonally enhance or exaggerate colour(s) to encourage emotional response in the viewer.
Format was considered at the shooting stage, but format may be enhanced by further cropping to make a satisfactory rendition. A landscape shot may be further cropped to a letterbox/panoramic format that the photographer first visualised but the photographer as editor may now further visualise an improvement and further crop.
Both initial portrait or landscape images may better be cropped to a more square shape if compositional devices work better (lead in lines, rule of thirds, etc.). Further variations can be found and utilised from the original shot.
In this category an image may be created by stitching (panoramas – horizontal or vertical), focus stacking, HDR and similar techniques. Note that in this case the visualisation is clearly at the shooting stage or earlier.
This is the final outcome. Choices may include the form of media print, poster, electronic (website, email) or type of media (glossy, matt, satin) or size.
Adjustments will be made to the fully visualised image to fulfil the optimum rendering outcome. From the foregoing, it is now apparent that visualisation does not occur only at the first stage of the process, but the image can be re-visualised at all stages depending on opportunity, restrictions in shooting or variations in rendering.
An initial shot can be rendered quite differently depending on the final visualisation. Indeed, the same shot can be reinterpreted to meet those different requirements. In this digital age, the photographer is now much more of a picture editor who more fully understands the possibilities for manipulation in order to suit a final rendering.
Photographers now carry a more responsible role so that renditions are ethical and thus beyond accusations of trite interpretation. Photographers now have a much greater freedom as to how their visualisations are rendered and shown, including huge manipulative ability. But that freedom also carries a responsibility that the eventual viewer of the print or image on a web site trusts the photographer in his/her description of what the image represents.
We all wish to be stimulated by the images we consume or enjoy – we do not want to be tricked and thus have our trust undermined. We relish the freedom to be able to see images and the freedom to create images, and the developing technology of the last 150 years has helped us to do so. Let us develop our Art to continue our valued communication!
3. On ethics in post-production, HDR, Ansel Adams, et al
Photography, in most of its guises, is intended to represent an image visualised by the photographer, produced for a display medium either in print or PC/tablet/phone.
Software is enormously powerful, and we trust that news media are nowadays careful in their use of software skills, such as by not juxtaposing two images to change events as they were in reality.
This short article is more focussed on imaging as a visualisation medium.
As with all art forms, this is a communication between practitioner and appraiser. The skills used are appreciated by the viewer aiding understanding of the art and enjoyment of the communicated art-form; and the photographer feels supported by that appreciation.
Some would say that the extremes of atonality used by many ‘avant-garde’ composers in the ‘classical’ music world once divorced the listener too far from the ability to appreciate their art, and which now seems to be rejected by composers of subsequent generations. In photography, the viewer also needs to be engaged.
Disengagement can be two-fold – the lack of perception of high art skills may be one, but in recent digital times we have nurtured software that creates significantly ‘new’ images from that inspiration initially visualised by the photographer. Calling an image ‘photo-shopped’ is no longer a term of endearment.
Our art form is undermined if viewers label it as ‘photo-shopped’, though every image has been adapted to the eventual medium (i.e. photo-shopped) in some way. Indeed, the very framing of the image is the start of the visualisation.
Ansel Adams visualised the image but then refined the image in post-production. This did not undermine but supported his visualisation, but he then enhanced the image before communicating in print form to the viewer.
This is not to say that post-production does not play its part. Indeed, post-production has often been the core skill that realises the visualised image – Adams varied exposure and thus subsequent post production development times coupled to strength of developer solution as well as toning. However, he clearly visualised the image at the point of exposure, but then used the negative to further enhance and improve upon that initial visualisation. The eventual images are strong interpretations of what he saw that may also have been cropped from the original format of the negative.
Adams was attempting to reproduce the scene he saw, seeking to reproduce the range of tones he perceived to communicate to the viewer. Sometimes unfortunately, the range of tones was wider than those easily reproduced and so required adjustment… and interpreted.
In our image making we have learned and rejected the excesses of coloured and special effects filtration common in the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, polarisation to enhance contrast and colour, and graduated neutral density filters balancing areas of the image otherwise too bright to be handled by the medium are quite acceptable. Indeed, these types of filters are essential in controlling the dynamic range of the scene that otherwise cannot be recorded by the imaging sensor.
In the case described, the photographer is clearly visualising the image at the point of capture and thus there can be no difficulty in its ethical publication to the viewer.
The use of graduated filters can, to a degree, be replicated by software provided the full dynamic range has been used, but the software can also further enhance and develop the image. This can be part of the photographer’s skill in visualisation in the same way that Adams used exposure/development combinations that was then further enhanced in the darkroom. Indeed, some photographers use histogram displays to assist in ‘exposing to the right’ in RAW mode, in order to gain the maximum benefit from post-production.
In post-production, the photographer may wish to enhance contrast to produce a more striking image with more impact, and at the same time dispense with some of the detail the sensor recorded to fulfil his interpretation to achieve the visualisation.
Software can, of course, go further and process a number of images to widen the dynamic range resulting in a final image that is extreme – an image that does not represent the initial visualisation. If presented as a ‘natural’ image this can no longer be considered ethical, but the photographer may have been seeking a ‘special effect’. This type of special effect perhaps should be categorized similarly to those Hidalgo/Cokin 1970s/1980s multi-image, speed, prism or star burst effects.
There is thus no issue in the use of ‘HDR’ techniques being used to widen the dynamic range of single exposures – but most current magazines do not define the term ‘HDR’ as an applicatiion for this restricted use.
The term HDR is generally applied to the stacking of several bracketed exposures of a scene that in combination exaggerates the full dynamic range of that scene and can sometimes be greater than the viewer at the scene itself.
HDR has a parallel in focus stacking and the exposure stacking used by astronomers – but here the technique clearly supports the initial image visualisation. Before using the technique, we imagers should consider if it is necessary or even desirable to in the interpretation of the scene, and then reconsider the appropriateness of the processing.
In essence HDR is a technical tool that can be used to control the dynamic range of the visualisation, but the technique fails if the viewer has decided that the image has been too exaggerated by over-zealous photo-shopping.
It is the visualisation of the image that is most important that photographers attempt to reproduce in their creation of the resulting image.
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