the blog of Seldom Seen Photography

Pet Peeves – Is that photo enhanced?

Skunk Cabbage

I was in Spokane last weekend visiting my Dad. While there, I played golf with Dad and my brother. On the golf course, my brother mentioned he had never visited my website. So I gave him a business card to help him remember. My business card has a photo on the front (some surprise there), and my brother asked if the photo was “enhanced.”

Now, I must admit, this question really annoys me. Certainly he is not the first person to ask if one of my photos has been enhanced, or Photoshopped, or digitally manipulated, etc. But, being my brother and not a potential client, I’m afraid I answered a bit too sharply, asking him “What is enhanced?”  I went on to give him a mini-lecture about how every digital photograph he’s ever seen – those taken by friends and family with cheap point-and-shoot cameras and those taken by big-time professionals with expensive DSLRs – are processed by a computer. The computer might be in the camera, or it might be on the photographer’s desktop, but all photos have been modified from how the camera records the data. I explained the difference between RAW format and JPEG. I told him I shoot in RAW format, and who is to say how I process an image is any different than how the camera would process it if I had shot in JPEG format. I think he is sorry he asked the question.

However, now to be totally honest, I know when I process a RAW image, it will certainly be different than how the camera would process it as a JPEG. So I guess, the question does actually have some merit (sorry Matt for coming on too thick!). In fact, in hindsight, I’ve been guilty of asking the same type question. I remember once when I was at a reception at Art Wolfe’s studio for winners of a photo contest. I met a relatively well-known landscape photographer there whose work I admired (not Art Wolfe, though I do admire his work and met him there as well). I asked this photographer what processing he typically does to this images. He told me he typically does very little processing. And I thought, “what a load of crap!”; it was obvious he did quite a lot of Photoshop work on his images. (This particular photographer, on his website, no longer makes this claim.)

But still, this question of enhancement comes up even where it should not. I’ve seen the question pop up in certain photo contest rules; rules stating no digital enhancement may be applied to an image, and if an image is chosen as a finalist and came from a RAW file, the original RAW image must be provided so the judges can see if was enhanced. So it’s okay for the camera to apply processing, but not the photographer? That doesn’t make any sense! Ansel Adams’ prints look nothing like the negatives they came from, and he’d be the first to tell you so (if he was still alive). Yet no one asks if Ansel Adams’ prints are enhanced.

I guess this blog officially rates as rant (and since this is my blog, I’m allowed). A photographer I much admire, David deChemin, has a Rants and Sermons category on his blog (which is well worth reading by the way). Perhaps I should start such a category as well! David deChemin, by the way, has written a whole book on how to process/enhance RAW images. This book, Vision & Voice: Refining Your Vision in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, shows how deChemin converts his RAW images to match his vision as expressed through a photograph. He makes no bones about it, his images are enhanced, but done so in a way to match his particular photographic voice. No questions there – his images are enhanced.

Some think that photography should only be a recreation of reality. Yet that is impossible. Reality is three-dimensional, photography is two-dimensional. Reality is every changing – time does not stop. Photography takes a portion of time and compresses it into one image (or multiple images in the case of video or movie photography). Reality is more than just light. Photography only captures light – and cannot show that light without processing, be it digital or traditional. Because of these limitations, photography cannot be a recreation of reality. Because of these limitations, photography is an art. Like any art form, the artist can attempt to make their creation as life-like as possible, or as abstract as possible.

Take the photo I’ve included to illustrate this blog entry. It’s an image of a skunk cabbage that I took back in May at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island. Would anyone ask if this photo is enhanced? I think probably not. Yet, it is obviously not life-like. This plant is green, not shades of black, white and gray. The original RAW capture is basically shows shades of faded green. I chose to turn it to a black and white image; and when converting it, I chose specific settings (for those of you technically minded, I used a Photoshop Black and White adjustment layer) to make it the shades of gray it ended up. Then I chose to change the contrast a bit, and do a little selective darkening around the edges of the photo. I also removed a few small pieces of dirt on some of the leaves. Do these “enhancements” make the image less of a photo? Not for me; those enhancements help make the photo closer to my vision of what I want the image to be. It’s art; it’s not reality.

What’s your opinion? Reality or art? Do “enhancements” matter?

8 responses

  1. Pingback: What is Reality? What is Art? « joebeckerphoto

  2. I found your post very interesting because I have similar feelings about the opposite situation. As a graphic designer and amateur photographer, I get a little cranky when someone says, “your camera takes great pictures”. Like I just sat back and let the Canon go to work and collect the paycheck. I actually do a lot of post processing on all of my photographs. I spend hours, sometimes days simulating exactly the mood and color I am trying to get across. I check the images on different monitors to determine the subtle differences in contrast and color. I try to convey through the photograph all of the whimsy that real life has the potential of having, but that the AUTO setting on my camera keeps leaving off. Keep up the great blogging!

    September 7, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    • I hear ya! There is a lot more to it than just pressing the shutter button, especially if the camera is set to auto mode. I believe I am a lot smarter than the camera and don’t need to auto anything. And by shooting in RAW, I do post-processing, at least to some extent, on all my photographs. Many more have some Photoshop work done as well. And, like you said, that work is so that the final image conveys my take on the subject. Thanks for commenting.

      September 7, 2011 at 8:04 pm

  3. Very nice approach to a subject that will be debated for years to come. One of the Ironic things is we all see differently so not only when we are out in nature but also when we see the photo that has been prepared for our view. I some ways photography allows us to show the magnificence of nature at a given point in time as we saw it. However, what it can not show is what we heard at the time, how we were feeling when we saw the image and all those things that we saw but decided not to incorporate but may still have played a role in the image we process. We also may process the image in different ways over time as what we wish to portray changes.
    For those of us lucky enough to be able to do this we often see and feel in the photo something far different than someone viewing only the photo would see. One of the my goals is to show something that entices others to go out and see what is there for themselves and enjoy not only the visual but the sound, smells, the warmth of the sun and the gentle droplets of rain that make up a small part of our world.

    September 12, 2011 at 5:43 am

    • Well said, and so true. While we may be trying to evoke a response or an emotion from the viewer, we cannot control them or their response to our photography. We often don’t have control over our own visions – as you state, we sometimes go back and re-process images in different ways – sometimes subtle changes, sometimes major differences.

      September 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm

  4. Pingback: On the Beach « joebeckerphoto

  5. ks

    Congratulations to your award – like this pic. 🙂

    May 1, 2012 at 9:25 pm

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