borrowed from Marc Adamus

In 1989, fifteen years before digital photography became the preferred medium for today’s photographers, the idea of Photoshop was born on the heels of what had been 30 years dominated by the color film photographers. Color film is inherently difficult to modify to any great extent in processing and the days of Black and White masters like Ansel Adams who often spent weeks manipulating images through careful darkroom processes were less popular than they once had been. Adams would say that the image taken in the field, although very reliant on proper technique, was merely the canvas from which to work his processing magic. At the time of the advent of Photoshop, however, the mainstream photographers often relied on a much faster and easier route to the final image by forgoing additional processing. The actual chrome or negative was itself the definitive success or failure of the image.

Today, the most frequent question I am asked as a photographer is not whether I use Photoshop (obvious), but how I use Photoshop. There is a great misconception among the public that photography like mine is somehow “created” in Photoshop, quite possibly because of exposure to too many Hollywood graphic effects, videogames, etc. I point out that throughout the entire history of the photographic medium one’s technique in the field must be perfect. This has not changed today. The abilities that define great photographers are first and foremost how to seize the moment and make it theirs, reacting quickly and precisely to often rapidly changing situations. No amount of processing in today’s digital darkroom can ever fix a bad composition, an out of focus image, create great light or change a mid-day sky into a sunset. No matter how much processing I apply post-capture, I have to be in the field 250 days per year on average doing everything possible, everything all generations of photographers have done, honing my skills and collecting days and weeks of failures before that rare moment shows itself and the successful initial capture is made.

An overwhelming number of photographers in the modern age use some amount of digital processing to enhance/optimize their images. A digital image, after all, is MADE to be “processed”. In it’s native (RAW) form, a digital image pales in comparison to, say, looking at a Velvia chrome on a light table. A digital JPEG file is not nearly as efficient as a RAW, where all information is saved and must be optimized by a RAW converter. I would say 90% or more of all professional digital photographers shoot in RAW. The advantages are simple. It’s like having every type or combination of film and almost every filter from which to choose to apply to any image. My RAW images are optimized of course, in an effort to pull out the best possible colors, contrasts, details, etc., but if no such colors, light, subjects, etc. exist in the file, they are usually difficult or impossible to just make up. The image is then imported to Photoshop, where additional optimization takes place, including the digital blending of different versions of this exposure or maybe even completely separate exposures taken as close to simultaneously as possible.

I would like to underline the fact that my business depends in part on the fact that the actual subject matter you see in my images was really there. World-renowned publishers contact me to license images for such uses as Calendars, Books, Posters, Fine Art Prints, etc. In many of these applications, the images are going to be viewed by a public that might actually find themselves at the places I have photographed. It would be a tragedy for me to have someone view my images and then arrive at that place themselves one day and see that there really is no lake, stream, mountain, etc. That is the unique relationship the photographic art has with reality itself, and I can not compromise that.

So what do I mean by “blending” different exposures if I’m not altering subject matter? Simple. The camera is not a perfect tool for capturing the type of light, contrasts and three-dimensional depth we perceive with our eyes and it will never be. In the age before we had the ability to ‘blend’ like we do now, photographers, myself included, relied on all sorts of tricks in the field to overcome the limitations of the camera but often with results that could never possibly be as accurate as those that can now be applied digitally. Sometimes, it was simply impossible with the film medium to record and image that was entirely in focus or exposed correctly throughout. For example, one could use a graduated density filter to darken part of the image so they might be able to record both the bright sunset sky behind a mountain AND wildflowers in the shady foreground below, but not without unwanted darkening occurring at the transition line between lighter and darker parts of the filter, causing one to have to sacrifice proper exposure of the mountain itself just to control the sky exposure. Today, we simply take one exposure for the sky and another for everything else and blend them, hopefully by hand in Photoshop to achieve the most accurate results without compromising the result by leaving it entirely up to the computer. In another example, I am shooting a narrow slot canyon and see these wonderful patters and layers from near to far. I can compose the image beautifully, but the camera is incapable of recording both the foreground and background in focus at the same time, so I take two successive images or more at different focal points and blend them, reproducing what I saw with my eyes but the camera could not capture.

There are innumerable examples of how to use digital post-processing to more precisely record a scene but all of this MUST start with proper technique in the field. In fact, my process in the field today is often more difficult, more complex and more creative than it ever was or could have been with film. Absolutely, digital photography and basic tools like RAW processing make it much easier for your average Joe to make better images. Digital is certainly more forgiving if mistakes in exposure or such are made. That said, it’s the extra complexities applied to the process in the field that often are THE reason the best work being produced today is still that much better than the rest. It’s not uncommon in my practice in the field to have to think about doing a blend for depth of field (or to avoid compromising sharpness by shooting at small apertures), another blend for exposure, a blend to get water motion right, etc. to ensure that I optimize every part of my image. Just to think about this all in the field and bring back the right exposures to fulfill my vision of the scene has taken considerably more practice than learning how to use a colored or graduated filter in the film days, and has also opened new creative avenues. Anyone who thinks of digital photography as a ‘crutch’ of sorts, simply does not understand these processes and the precision with which they must be executed in-camera as well as in processing.

As we’re now into the second decade of the new millenium, the debate that started 20 years ago with the introduction of Photoshop – whether or not to use it to ‘manipulate’ the initial capture is disappearing. The public perception always lags behind the state of the art, but finally most people have come to tolerate and even respect the digital art, realizing that the relationship between reality and photography does not have to die with it. Still, it’s very unfortunate if completely predictable that there are a few who still cling to the belief that the image that comes strait from the camera is the only ‘real’ photograph, and everything else is chalked up to manipulation. Those people may not have any comprehension as to the roots of photography – those who knew Ansel well would tell you he would undoubtedly be a Photoshop guru were he alive today. At the very least though, these people have yet to come to grips with one of the fundamentals of history itself that teaches us the inevitable – those who refuse to evolve and embrace new ways become themselves obsolete. No one is ever going to come along and do away with digital post-processing. It’s here to stay, so we may as well learn the facts and learn to embrace it as part of the art.