Sunday, 23 February 2014

Photoshop... photographic tool? Absolutely!

"Pimakka" - Levi, Finland.
This shot is a 180-degree 6x "portrait" photograph stitched panorama. I used this method to capture a high-resolution image of this wide scene for enlargement, and would simply be impossible to execute on film or without photoshop.
Hello again everyone!

Today I'm going to touch on the oft-debated subject of post processing work in fine-art photography.
We all hear the word "Photoshop" bandied about, and quite often it's used as a derogatory term, to insult someone or put a photographs merits down.

There seems to be this idea among some people out there that any photograph that is displayed, printed, shown in a gallery, shown on facebook, instagram, twitter, shot on a camera or even considered as a possible shot, should be completely unaltered from capture to print. That's all well and good. Where this idea came from and why the term "photoshop" is used in a negative sense though, is quite beyond me. You'll often hear "That's been photoshopped" as someone views another person's work. The simple matter is, that almost all photographs created at least in the last 7-10 years have been touched with photoshop at some point in it's progression from capture to display. Film is drum scanned into a high resolution file and tweaked in photoshop or lightroom, digital SLRs and medium format digital cameras capture images in a RAW format, that in 99.9% of cases is imported into Adobe Camera RAW, a plugin of... you guessed it, Photoshop! Despite how much people seem to despise it, photoshop touches almost every shot you see on a daily basis, no matter how marginally.

So that brings us to the point of the argument. How much post processing work is too much? Should the photographer try and replicate the scene they saw before them, try and replicate the scene they envision, or leave the image "as-shot" in camera? The answer is up to the photographer and how they want to display their vision! Photo documenters such as news photographers and wedding shooters may choose to do very little processing work to keep a raw, unedited look, whereas landscape, architectural and art photographers may work as much or as little as they need to bring THEIR vision to life in print or on the screen. The final decision is up to the photographer.

Fujifilm literally changed the way we view landscape photography in the 1990s when it introduced Velvia, a highly-saturated and very "contrasty" transparency film, which is possibly the most popular film for landscape shooters still in use today. Does velvia 50 look like reality as your eyes see it? Absolutely NOT! It makes landscapes just look better. So much so that all of us who shoot landscapes digitally chase the ideal blend of tones and contrast to get the velvia look a lot of the time. Why? Because it just looks great! If used inside it's physical limits it represents an idealized vision of a scene, just as tweaking a shot using levels and vibrance/saturation might do in photoshop.

So why do we all shoot in a RAW format from our digital cameras? RAW formats give us an uncompressed (and uncompromised) version of our original shot. We can adjust the exposure (within reason), white balance, contrast, colour vibrance and a myriad of other subtle adjustments without damaging the original file, or introducing unwanted elements into the shot. Invariably if you were to show someone who isn't schooled in photographic post processing work the RAW image straight from camera, 90% of the time they'd say "YUK! That's so flat... where's the colour?" RAW files capture huge amounts of detail and dynamic range, most of which isn't visible in the original capture, but the data is there in the file. This takes a certain amount of "massaging" to bring it to it's full potential, especially when working on photos captured in particularly trying lighting conditions, such as sunset or sunrise. How much or little that is is up to the photographer.

I personally like to bring a realistic view of what I saw before me to my limited edition photographs. This may involve a little post work, but generally not as much as people would think. I have developed methods of shooting a scene to get it close to right in camera, then just tweak the rough edges afterwards.

At the end of the day, love it or hate it, post processing has been around long before digital, and will stay around long after we're all gone. Film shooters used to use view cameras to bring things into sharp focus, they'd dodge and burn during printing to increase contrast and exposure compensation, they'd cross-process films in strange chemical combinations to bring out colour detail... and now, we drum scan and shoot raw, use graduated filters and bring details out using software as a tool, not as a crutch. We use the tools available to us.

Do you think Ansel Adams would shoot medium-format digital and use photoshop to process his shots if he were still with us? You bet he would! It's time to stop thinking of photoshop as "the P-word"... a swear word. It's a simple fact of photographic life in the digital age.

Have a great week everyone.

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