In my last blog entry, I talked about enhancing digital photos, about RAW versus JPEG digital images.The blog was about people asking, “Is this photo enhanced?” Other similar questions I hear include “Does this photo show what was really there?” or “Has this photo been ‘photoshopped’?” or simply “Is this photo real?”
This subject warrants more discussion than just one blog, especially since the last one was largely a rant. When any camera takes a photograph, the lens opens up and allows light into the camera. For digital cameras, the light falls upon a photosensitive digital sensor (for film cameras, it falls on a photosensitive chemical coating on film). The digital sensor is made up of thousands of tiny small sensors, each sensor making up a “pixel” in the image. The light falling on each sensor is recorded as a different value. At this point, the camera can save the recording as a RAW file, or can process the raw electrical data and save it as some other file format, the most common being JPEG.
A RAW file is not really an image. It is simply a data file in which actual values from the digital sensor are recorded. While some special computer programs can view the information stored in these files and show them as images, most cannot. For example, Photoshop cannot directly show a RAW file as an image. It must first be processed and converted to an image file (such as a PSD, TIFF, or JPEG file) for Photoshop to show it. These special programs are RAW converters, and they have to process the information to show a RAW file as an image. Adobe Lightroom, which I use, is RAW convertor program (with many other features as well). A JPEG file is an image file, it presents information that can be viewed by many computer programs without future processing. It has already been processed. When a digital camera takes an image as a JPEG, it processes the sensor data into an image file. This means that the camera is doing some interpretation of what the image data is supposed to look like. Essentially, a RAW converter program, like Lightroom, does the job of the camera – it processes the sensor data to make an image file. However, it allows the photographer to control the process (rather than letting the camera control it).
Of course, further processing is possible. Either the converted RAW image or the JPEG from the camera can be further processed in Photoshop (or other photo editing programs, such as Picassa). Who is to say what looks the most like reality, the RAW file, a JPEG processed by the camera, the RAW file processed by a RAW converter, or that same image further processed in Photoshop? I can’t answer that question; I don’t think anyone can.
But how about this question, which one makes the best looking image? Or which one best represents the art of the photographer? The answer to those questions can be answered, but the answers depend on the individual and the particular photographer. For me, a RAW image processed by the photographer and then optimized in Photoshop best represents the art of the photographer. And that is my typical workflow. I shoot RAW images. I import those into Lightroom. I do not accept the default RAW processing, but customize it for each image myself. Then, if I’m serious about an image, I further process it in Photoshop. It’s a lengthy process, but it gives the best representation of what I am trying to achieve with my photography – my art.
I’ve illustrated this blog with a series of five images. All were recorded at the same time, from a single click of my shutter. This image of two ships along the Tacoma waterfront was taken with a shutter speed of 25 seconds and an aperture of f/18. One image (first below the featured image) is the closest representation of the RAW image visible – it is the RAW image processed by Lightroom with all the controls set to zero. The next image in the series is the RAW image processed with the Lightroom default settings. The next image is the same scene processed by the camera as a JPEG (my camera allows images to be recorded in both RAW and JPEG formats – a feature common to many DSLRs and some higher end point-and-shoots). The fourth image represents how I processed the RAW file. And the final image (the featured image at the beginning of the blog) is my RAW processed file than further optimized in Photoshop.
Which one do you thinks looks the most “real”? Which one looks the best?
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?