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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Who's in Charge? You or the Camera?

by Ctein

I've observed a tendency for digital photographers to just take what their cameras hand them. Folks put up on-line galleries of their digital photographs for comment, critique, and simple enjoyment, but it's rare for those photographs to be anything different from what they downloaded from the camera.

These folks are unconsciously operating much the same way slide film photographers did (more correctly, were forced to). Unless they are intentionally trying to present the world entirely as the camera saw it, this is a profound artistic mistake.

Those of you who did wet darkroom printing before you took up digital photography should recall how you approached printing negatives.

When you would go to print a negative, you'd instinctively view it as the starting point for a finished photograph, not as the final word. You'd make a test print and mull it over. You'd decide if you liked the cropping and composition, the contrast, the lightness/darkness, and whether you needed to do any dodging or burning in (the latter you might not be able to determine until you had nailed down the other qualities). It's the mindset that's important here; you never assumed that the negative handed you a finished print; it was up to you to figure out what the photograph should look like.

(Those four basic characteristics, by the way, are good ones to think about with digital photographs, too. At least, the cropping and composition and the overall contrast and brightness. Even the simplest image-handling programs will let you manipulate those.)

You'd see the converse of this when photographers printed slides in the darkroom. Many folks produced much worse (in the artistic sense) prints from slides than they would from a negative. Because the slide already handed them a viewable photograph, they unconsciously fell into the mental trap of accepting the slide instead of treating it as the starting point for making a really good image.

Too many digital photographers fall into this trap. What they need to do is start to train themselves to see that fresh-from-the-camera digital photograph that looks 'pretty good' as nothing more than the beginning of a satisfying photograph, not the end result. Think of it as you would a negative, not a slide, no matter that it looks like one.

Don't let those bits push you around; you're supposed to push them around!

Posted by CTEIN


MJFerron said...

You know I've been involved in a number of discussions lately on this very topic. How much should you twist a photo? How much tweeking in PS can you do before it's really not a photo anymore? We all have our own opinions on this topic and own own tastes. I learned a layering/gaussian blur techique that can add drama to the most mudane of photos. For every 3 "I like it's" I get at least one "sac-religious". Some internet portrait photographers are using a similar techique and their photos while very popular with the masses look more like illustrations then they do photos. I really believe photoshop is making a few of us so-so photographers look better than we are at times.

9:17 PM  
Max said...

Great post. I think it's lack of education in most cases, not being able to see more potential than the initial magic moment. I'm not sure anyone who has a passionate idea in his head about what he likes stays at that stage forever.

9:23 PM  
Mike F said...

I take all those points, especially the parallels to slide film. But I'll also point out that the vast majority of the people posting those "straight from the camera" photos took their undeveloped film to a mini-lab and for the most part accepted whatever came back as being the final and more-or-less unalterable product. Enlargements might be possible, but that was about all.

I can recall my frustration, many years ago, trying to find someone who could take a colour negative and produce a print "cropped like x; enlarged by y" in an even vaguely competent fashion for a sum less than my weekly salary.

I was in no circumstance to do my own darkroom work (constraints in time, space and money - in that order). Its what drove me away from a serious interest in photogaphy for many years.

The "digital darkroom" is what brought me back. But I'm sure that's of no interest to the majority of people who have replaced their film snapshot cameras with digital cameras, print "unprocessed" JPEGs at the lab or at home and post those shots to the web (note that flickr and such even handle the resizing for them).

I don't see why they should be interested in doing anything else, if that works for their purposes.

I think there is, however, one slightly pernicious trend out there: the belief that any use of Photoshop is somehow "fabricating" or "cheating" or "lying". I don't think photographers (or journalists) have done enough to deliniate ligitimate versus illegitimate use in reportage, and nobody seems to have commented on uses of Photoshop (and other image editors) in fields outside reportage.

In the long run, I think that will hurt - because I see a trend along the lines of "I don't know what Photoshop is, but I know its bad."


11:09 PM  
Mitch said...

I don't think Ctein's posting is at all true for people who are serious about photography, especially those who print B&W;: they would tend to stay in the tradition of B&W; analogue photography where extensive burning and dodging, etc is the rule.

As an example see my Rcioh GR-D pictures:


11:50 PM  
kevin said...

hmm.. interesting. i would say the majority of pictures i see online are actually way over processed. there seems to be something about the ease of digital manipulation which encourages photographers to make every image look perfectly exposed, noise-free and the like. i think this approach can suck the life out of an image. a lot of the images i see online remind me of someone airbrushing a t-shirt design, haha.

then again i really do like slide film, and think that trying to get everything right in camera is a fun challenge. when i see something that catches my interest it does so because of how it looks when i see it. so i think of my photoshop processing as coming in the camera with my choice of film, exposure and metering.

i have come to this approach after starting with digital imaging, so i'm no analog diehard. i found after trying slide film and seeing the results straight out of the camera, that fixing computer captured images with another computer just didn't seem like fun anymore.


12:05 AM  
Ken Tanaka said...

My response is somewhat congruent with Mike's. I think you're mistaken, Ctein.

I don't think that your observation accurately reflects the current reality of digital photography. It's probably quite true that the majority of digital photos are recorded as highly compressed JPGs and presented untouched. But it's also true that the majority of photos are taken as casual snapshots and mementos, never intended as artistic expressions. It's also true that the overwhelming majority of film photos ever taken were processed and printed by commercial labs, also as snapshots. Only a tiny fraction of film frames ever saw a wet darkroom.

The reality is that digital photography and digital darkroom software tools have enabled more people to enjoy photographic post-processing and printing than ever before, certainly by several orders of magnitude beyond those who ever used a wet darkroom. The advent of the RAW digital image format has not only enabled photographers to have a digital negative, but it has provided them with something far more valuable than a film negative; a dust-free, fingerprint-free embodiment of their image that can be backed up and non-destructively re-processed ad infinitum and that contains all of the original exposure data. It's a format of image that enables a photographer with just a bit of skill and modest tools to perform greater and more precise refinement of an image than any film image ever permitted.

I don't know any aggregate sales figures, so the following is speculation. But I'd bet that sales of digital darkroom books and tools is also several orders of magnitude beyond what the wet darkroom market ever saw. And what about the hundreds of self-styled "experts" that have emerged to offer workshops on digital post-processing and sell-out crowds? And I don't think that happy snappers are buying all of those expensive pigment printers that are landing on our shores in mountains of shipping containers each day.

No, from what I observe I both new and old photographers who want to achieve the best final images have long since embraced the notion of digital post-processing. I don't see today's amateur photographers "falling into a trap" of accepting the camera's image at all. If anything, I see them going too far with post-processing.

If a warning should be issued regarding digital photography today it would be headlined the same: Who's in Charge? You or the Camera?". But the message would warn phototographers not to become photographic automatons. The automation of today's cameras has relieved newcomers from learning the basic principles that still govern photography. This automation can be a wonderful aid to the photographer who has a firm grasp of these principles. But it is most often used as a crutch that ultimately weakens and limits one's skills with over-dependency. That's the real hazard I see today.

12:47 AM  
John said...

Interesting - I agree with the major points of the original post and yet there is still this superstition, for lack of a better term, that an "unprocessesed" image is a more honest approximation of the world as it is. Never mind the fact that what camera sees through a lens and records on film with its unique properties or via an image sensor and algorithms may bear only scant resemblance to what we originally perceived through our eye.

1:58 AM  
Sam Cooper said...

Once you start processing an image in photoshop, why stop? Cropping, color correction, dodging and burning are given, but why not selective saturation control or soft-focus? The sky isn't very dramatic, why not drop in a new one? And paint out that ugly dude in the background. Perhaps many people limit their digital manipulation for fear of going too far down a very slippery slope.

On the other hand, there are many special effects that can, with certain difficulty, be created in-camera with tricks like filters, multiple exposures and darkroom work. What difference does it make to re-create these effects, with great ease, in photoshop, besides that many would call it 'cheating'?

Maybe we have to acknowledge that the digital revolution has the potential to blur the line between photographer and painter to the point where we're hard pressed to tell the difference.

2:15 AM  
Donncha said...

I know so many people who argue that processing a photo is bad and not real but this is the best rebuttal I've heard in a while.

I saw slides at my local camera club that blew me away with their vibrant colour. They looked really amazing. As images that are straight out of the camera I'm stunned, not enough to want to shoot slide but I'm impressed!

Next time someone says they don't process their images I'll ask them, "Who's in charge?" I had to grit my teeth when an experienced film photographer bought a Canon 5D and solemly pronounced that he preferred to "get it right in the camera".
I have to wonder why he'd limit his creativity?


5:26 AM  
CKWork said...

But let's not forget that slide shooters also used some filters to get more dramatic skies etc.

The problem with all these discussions is that they seem to assume there is a single "art" (and I use the term loosely) called "photography". Rubbish. For some, photography is simply a tool - at best a craft - a means to an end: "This is what I saw". And that is fine, but don't confuse it with art.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who have an image in their head and will use any means available to create it ... and this has always been so - think of collages of photos or photos that have been airbrushed or otherwise manipulated.

The bottom line is that there is no generic wrong or right. The danger is in suggesting that people "should" be doing X or Y without applying a context.

7:00 AM  
Max said...

May be here we have a bias according to some kind of scale in which the stages a photo goes through has a "finished product" value of it's own in the photographer's perception. For most digital snapshooters, a nice image in their monitors is 100% finished product. For others, the slide is beautiful, and hence it carries a heavy percentage of finished product perception and the photographer feels uneasy about changing it (after all, it already looks good, I'll probably screw it up!), while negative film users are not constrained in that way.
In the end, probably Ctein is above all a print man, and as long as he gets what he wants on paper, he doesn't care if he needs to get his film on a butchers table and chop it up with an axe, if that produces the results he wants. I'm kind of that way too.
May be it's a good concept to teach in photography lessons that we have to have a target, a finished product in mind, and nothing is sacred till we get there.
(sure, if the target is making a faithful reproduction of reality, that already sets some directions to follow).

7:27 AM  
ilachina said...

Wonderful post! I have recently commented (lamented ;-) about the same theme on my Blog, with an entry with the title "Previsualization ...or... Why Ansel Adams Could Never be Happy With a Point & Shoot Camera". The "example" I use (from my own not quite point-and-shoot Canon 20D) is an "objectively" dull picture of a broken window...but with the potential for being so much more. For those interested:

8:59 AM  
jim witkowski said...

I don't think that all people who shoot/shot transparancies accepted what the camera gave them either.

Last year I attended a workshop at Arizona Highways Magizine where the subject was getting photographs up to their submission standards.Although the magizine has dipped a toe into the digital pool (most noteably removing a cigarette from a John Wayne photo, they still work predominately with large and medium format transparencies. They rarely work with prints (Ansel's work excepted).
When asked if they color corect or crop or lighten/darken dodge or burn the transparences, their answer was that they printed as submitted.
I had the oppertunity to examine some of the images being processed for the current issue and I must say that I've never had an original transparency that looked as good as those. All of the color correction, cropping, burning was done at the time of exposure.
I guess my point is that slide film does not mean one has to accept what the camera gives. Sometimes you have to wrestle the camera to the ground and beat it into submission to make it give you what you want. To master your medium you have to understand it first. Most people don't have the desire or the energy.

9:57 AM  
Michael said...

Good point, good discussion. But how about this:

In those days I had to take slide film because they were going to be projected or published. So that was a given, the only tool I had to use. And in fact I mostly used a prime lens.

Nevertheless I was able to do a lot of manipulation. I could move closer or further away. I could squat down or climb a tree. I could take portrait or landscape. I could overexpose or underexpose. I could change lenses. I could even put on a filter (though in fact I didn't mess with that very much).

That worked OK, and in fact the publishing and the lecturing and the being proud all ensued. And when I began to look more closely into snapping and printing in the digital age, I decided that I still needed to make most of the decisions up front, as I did with slide film, and I even thought that there was a necessary discipline there, sort of like rhyming or at least keeping it to iambic pentameter more or less.

So I tend still not to do too much cropping. On the other hand, I usually do a little work with Curves and perhaps a spot of burning or dodging, and with colour maybe some saturation, usually because those things corresponded to the 'visualisation' or, to be more accurate, to what I thought I saw. So much praise for Photoshop for the darker blacks and zippier yellows, but much more praise for the camera, digital or film, in the first place.

10:23 AM  
Dan said...

Didn't Dan Margulis once say something like "there are no bad photographs. Only bad Photoshop operators".

Mike has a very good point regarding the perception of "Photoshop good/photoshop evil". I can never think of a good what for what it is I do with my photos once I get them onto the computer. "Retouching" sounds wrong because to me it implies "painting onto", which I've nothing against but which I don't do, and it does seem to carry some negative connotations. "Colour correcting" is too narrow because I also play around with sharpness and other elements. "Editing" and "processing" both sound too generic and non-descriptive.

11:38 AM  
carpeicthus said...

I don't think this is true, at least in that I think the proportion of people using Photoshop to some extent is larger than the proportion of people who did their own darkroom tinkering instead of just turning it into a lab.

1:16 PM  
Erio said...

I'm looking at this from the other direction as well. I'd prefer an untouched photo to one that has been over done. Unless you know what you are doing in PS or even Elements, the urge to try and make your photos look different just for the sake of it seems to be overwhelming.

4:42 PM  
Morven said...

I don't think this bias against processing is that common in digital photographers as a whole - as several people have mentioned, you're much more likely to find people over-processing than under-.

However, a bias against processing is setting in in certain segments, mostly advanced amateurs and artists, a form of elitism, a reaction against computer manipulation and a purism that states that nothing should be done after the shutter is pressed.

It's worth writing things like Ctein has done about this; to point out that manipulation has always been an accepted part of photography for those who do darkroom prints, and that it shouldn't be knee-jerk avoided.

6:09 PM  
Just Plain Hugh said...

Speaking of slide film ...
Jay Maisel, Pete Turner, Eric Meola, and a bunch of guys who I can't remember off hand were doing stuff way beyond anything I see from the most over the top Photoshop color manipulation and they were just using Kodachrome (and sometimes a slide duplicator).

And what about all that Velvia. That isn't straight reality.

But as for the take what the camera gives you school, I always thought there was something wonderful about Polaroid SX-70. They are perfect in their , well , imperfectness.

11:23 PM  
John said...

Hmm, I don't think it is so much a question of whether pictures have undergone processing as it is a question of where the final processing has occurred - in the camera or in the computer or darkroom. And, at the risk of repeating or at least paraphrasing, its far from clear that the image as it emerges from the camera, be it bits and bytes or exposed film is a closer approximation of reality or what the eye sees and brain perceives, than an image that has undergone some processing. Can an image be processed to enhance or distort reality? Certainly and there may be nothing wrong with that, depending on the goal. But image processing can also be conducted to poduce a closer approximation of the subject or scene as perceived by the photographer. And while perception itself is subjective and subject to the vagaries of memory, possibly to produce colors or tonal relationships that are more accurate than those in the unprocessed image. I agree that there are plenty examples of over-processed images but, to me, that simply says that digital manipulation alone doesn't guarantee a good picture.

1:03 AM  
Michael Canyes said...

This discussion always comes down to the judgement of the individual photographer and a bit of common sense.

Photographer Bob shot a really great slide of a fox, but it has a beer can in it. Too bad Bob.

Photographer Bill shot a really great digital image of a fox, with a beer can. Should Bill:

a) Add a fifth leg to the fox and claim a new biological find?

b)Get rid of the beer can and sell the image?

9:37 AM  
MJ said...

I would probably like the picture better with the beer can left in.


9:45 AM  
John said...

Was the beer can full or empty?

12:11 PM  
John said...

By the way, I think the orginal post and the ensuing discussion have been great!

12:50 PM  
Boris said...

Hi Mike, this is Boris from PDML having finally bit the bullet and opened the Blogger acct.

I don't really agree with CTein here... My personal perception is that today picture that hasn't been heavily processed with PhotoShop is perceived as non-cool by general public. And even many photographers feel the same. Here they say, you have the beer can which distracts - get rid of it, I know you can do it...

I try to do the most while shooting. What remains to be done is RAW processing and print/web preparation.

I admit that I am learning PhotoShop techniques, but slowly and with great reluctance.

I'd rather be shooting than spending time in front of my computer.


2:01 AM  
MJ said...

Cheers, Boris!


8:28 AM  
Randomrubble said...

The desire I often see is to produce a heightened reality in the most excruciatingly banal way. I reckon there's way too much of the wrong kind of processing done, specially the flippin' USM filter. Mostly it seems that people aren't happy until their images have so many jaggies your eyes bleed, colours so loud that you're deafened and (for landscapes) so warmed up they burn you.

7:21 PM  
David A. Goldfarb said...

Just to expand a bit on Jim Witkowski's observations--often when I've shot color transparencies, it's been when I haven't had access to a darkroom, so the aesthetic challenge came to be to get it right in the camera--much in the way that cinematographers had to work before the advent of digital post-processing--and I learned a lot from doing that for extended stretches of time. While I agree with Ctein's original point that digital photography and modern cameras make many people lazy, there is something to be said for the aesthetic choice of making the whole image in the moment of exposure.

7:40 PM