Stay with me, there is a method to my madness.
It’s a bit of a tutorial for non-photographers. Trained photographers can go on to the next post.
People who know me know that I was in the Pentagon on 9/11, about a hundred yards from where American Airlines Flight 77 hit.
But that’s a story for another day.
The point is, the very next day, on September 12th, 2001, I was back in the Pentagon trying to get into one of our locked offices by means of a crowbar (our keys to the office had been destroyed in the attack).
I needed to get in to retrieve some classified material, when an overzealous military police officer saw me, crowbar in hand going at the locked door, and having no idea who I was (despite the fact I was in uniform), tackled me, handcuffed me, and arrested me for attempted breaking and entering into one of our Navy offices.
After bringing me to a holding facility, I was able to clear up who I was and what I was doing, and was released within the hour.
(By the way, I forgave him. The world was going crazy.)
Have you ever been arrested?
Years later, a job application required me to answer the question, “Have you ever been arrested?” I debated how I should answer.
A literally truthful answer would be misleading, since I had not been arrested in the manner intended by the questionnaire.
On the other hand, if military files had documented the arrest, then saying I had not been arrested could be construed as intent to mislead.
In the end, I decided to answer “yes,” but included a lengthy explanation to remove any concern of criminality.
What a mistake that was.
While the hiring entity understood the extenuating circumstances, and had no concern about my “criminal past,” the fact I had answered “yes” to that question mandated the extrapolation of the pre-hire investigation down lines of inquiry that would not otherwise have been required.
T’s had to crossed, I’s had to be dotted, creating a great deal of extra work for a company that genuinely wanted to hire me.
I eventually did get the job, but not before they said, “We wish you had just answered ‘no’ to that question.”
Can a truthful answer sometimes mislead?
The above experience taught me a lesson.
It’s possible to mislead by means of a factually correct statement.
If the answer does not conform to the precise nature of information being sought, then a literally correct answer may confuse more than it enlightens.
This lesson came to mind on July 7th of this year, during the reception for my photography exhibition at the Cooley Gallery in Leesburg, Virginia, where the question I was asked most often was, “Do you use Photoshop?”
A literally correct answer to that question may in fact be misleading, for reasons I will get to in a moment.
But before I address that issue, I’d like to go back in time to a simpler period in photography when the buying public had no reason to ask such questions.
Or did they?
Ansel Adams and Photo Editing
Ansel Adams is, of course, one of the originators of the style of photography I pursue.
But what most people do not know it that he was initially trained as a jazz pianist, picking up photography later in life.
He carried that love of music through to his photographic work, often employing musical expressions when describing his technique.
Drawing from his musical background, one of his favorite sayings was “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”
Said more explicitly, a symphony is founded on a piece of presumably immutable written music, the composer’s score. Yet nobody denies the conductor her right to express her own interpretation of that score by means of an individualized performance.
Hence, it’s perfectly acceptable for a conductor to “lean into” a score to deliver her musical vision.
And so it was with Ansel and his photographs.
Although he always began with a technically perfect image imprinted on a negative (the score), he also always “bent” or edited the image captured on the negative to match his own artistic vision (the performance).
For him, everything was about the delivery of the vision. One of his other favorite sayings was “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
He created his “performances” by means of darkroom editing, and he did so with gusto and zeal.
Ansel believed that at least 50% of the artistry of photography occurred in post-processing, the editing done in the darkroom.
One of the most famous examples of Ansel’s proclivity to heavily edit an image to convey his artistic vision is his “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.
In his original print, the sky was quite bright, the town and savannah have a similar tonal structure causing them to blend together, yielding an image that lacked contrast and “visual separation.” The low-resolution image seen here is close to the image captured on the negative:
Using Ansel’s musical conceit, this image represents the composer’s “score.”
Over the course of decades, Adams modified this image substantially, darkening the sky, lifting the shadows, and adding contrast and definition to the foreground.
Although he was never perfectly satisfied with the outcome, the prints produced near the end of his life looked something like this:
This, then, was his “performance.”
Note the wonderful use of negative space, the strikingly expressive tonality in the foreground, the bold snowcapped mountains against bright lenticular clouds, the wonderful differentiation in the brush.
It took a lot of processing to make the image this good.
(Ansel is also the one who coined the phrase, “You don’t take a photograph, you make a photograph.”)
I have never heard anyone say they preferred the first print (the score) to Ansel’s ultimate vision (the performance).
This image is the most complete manifestation of his statement, “A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”
Would Ansel have used Photoshop if he were alive today?
Absolutely, unequivocally, yes!
The difference between how Ansel made art by means of his post-processing techniques, and how it’s done today, lies in the difference between the darkroom Ansel used and the Lightroom (as in, Adobe software products) in use by modern, digital photographers.
Ansel used techniques such as dodging and burning to modify his images in the darkroom. He used the timing of chemical baths to enhance tonality and contrast. He used masking techniques to bring out clarity in specific parts of an image.
In Lightroom, and in Photoshop, those effects are still called dodging, burning, tonality, clarity, and masking, but they are all effected using software rather than chemistry.
But the outcome is exactly the same.
But I’m a purist! I don’t want post-processing!
From this point forward, since the word “Photoshop” has acquired a verb connotation in colloquial usage (as in, to “Photoshop” an image), I will use the word “Photoshop” in its generic form, to mean any software program used for post-processing or to enhance an image after its captured. That would include Photoshop, Lightroom, Adobe Raw, Aperture, Apple Photos, Pixelmator, Paint, Autodesk Pixir, Picasa, whatever. (Sorry, Photoshop, but you have been “Kleenex’d.”)
Some people seem to believe that image post-processing (manipulation by software) is wrong and should be avoided at all costs.
Let me be clear about this: all professional photographers post-process their images.
Let me say that again: all professional photographers post-process their images.
Because digital cameras do not produce actual images, instead they capture digital files made up of ones and zeroes produced by a proprietary algorithm invented by the camera’s manufacturer, a translation must take place from the native or “raw” file produced by the camera, to transpose that file into some kind of image.
The camera’s interpretation of the image is probably nothing like what the photographer had in mind when she made the photo, but at least it’s a visible image rather than a stream of ones and zeros.
What? My camera doesn’t make my photo?
Well, it does and it doesn’t.
I don’t want to get too technical, but what a camera really does is translate photons that impinge on its sensor into a digital data stream that can be translated later into a photo. This is done by means of something called a “transfer function” that was created by an engineer working for the camera’s manufacturer.
A version of that translation must take place inside the camera for you to be able to see the image on the LCD on the back of the camera (or in an electronic viewfinder).
But there is no reason to believe that the translation your camera’s manufacturer selected is the correct translation for the scene in front of you when you captured it, or anything like what you really saw when you made the photo.
In my case, some engineer at Nikon who wrote the translation algorithm for my camera decided how my images should be manipulated in post-processing to make them viewable.
If I don’t redo the post-processing myself, then I’m simply relegating the post-processing decisions to that engineer. I’m sorry, but I don’t accept that the post-processing judgement of a Nikon engineer is better than my own.
That’s why all professional photographers have to post-process their images.
Photojournalists don’t do post-processing, do they?
Of course not! That would be unethical!
(Psssst…. actually, they do. They just may not talk about it.)
The notion that it would be unethical for photojournalists to employ “Photoshop” is silly on its face.
Photojournalists color-correct their images, since the captured photograph will look different depending on the temperature of light present when it was made. (The camera’s sensor does not sense light the same way the human eye does, so images have a different hue depending on the ambient light, and this has to be corrected for.)
That is post-processing.
Depending on how a photojournalist exposes his image, there may be areas of the image that can’t be viewed because they are too dark or too light. In those cases, even photojournalists must employ “Photoshop” to correct the exposure and highlight the event he was trying to capture.
That is post-processing.
What should NOT be done by photojournalists is the addition or subtraction of physical features that were present when the image was made.
That would be unethical.
So what do people mean when they ask “Do you use Photoshop?”
It has become axiomatic that fashion photographers use Photoshop to do things that most photography disciplines would consider inappropriate: they manipulate the look of their models by making them skinnier, removing blemishes, changing the appearance of faces, adding things or people who weren’t actually there when the image was taken, and so on.
When most talk about using Photoshop, this is what they thnk it means.
The word “Photoshop” has been hijacked to mean substantial, borderline unethical, manipulation of an image to create a “more perfect” human, or to create a physical situation that did not exist at the time the image was made (Uncle Bob missed the family reunion so we’ll just Photoshop him in), or to create a false reality by addition, for example, of a lightening strike that did not occur, a person or animal that was not there, and so on.
I do not do any of these kinds of things to my images.
Nevertheless, like Ansel, I too believe that at least 50% of the art occurs in post-processing.
So do you use Photoshop?
A truthful answer would be “yes.”
But just like I once said “yes” to the question “have you ever been arrested?” when I could have said no, I fear that answering the question “Do you use Photoshop” with a “yes” actually can mislead the person asking the question.
I never use Photoshop in ways people normally think of when they ask me, “Do you use Photoshop?”
So what do you use Photoshop for?
Nothing that Ansel Adams wouldn’t do.
I color correct. I adjust tonality. I lighten shadows when they are too dark. I darken highlights when they are too bright. I crop. I sharpen an image as appropriate to the print size to enhance detail. I remove blemishes or errors from the image.
To illustrate this point, here is one of my more popular photos.
The first version is a straight translation of the unaltered raw file, converted to JPEG by the Nikon algorithm, so it is essentially straight out of the camera.
In other words, this image was post-processed by the Nikon engineer who wrote the camera’s algorithm.
I call this image “Manhattan Skyline at Dusk,” and here is my digital negative, my “composer’s score”:
You will notice that although the image is good, it lacks contrast, it’s a bit washed out in tonality, and it has a distracting pole in the bottom center as well as a stray rock in the lower right.
But importantly, note the light beam emanating from One World Trade Center. It’s right there in the raw file. (One of my questioners at the exhibition questioned whether I had “Photoshopped” that in. Obviously, I didn’t.)
After I completed my post-processing, here is my final image, the “performance”:
You can see that I added contrast, removed the distracting foreground elements, added my logo, removed a tiny center-photo light streak caused by a passing boat, I added some sharpening to the lights in the skyscrapers, and that’s pretty much it.
Subtle changes, but important to the overall look I was pursuing (a “decisive moment”).
And of course, the dilemma is that if I answer “yes” to the question “is this image Photoshopped,” people will believe I may have added elements to the image they find remarkable: the still water, the magenta clouds, the light beam from One World Trade Center, and so on.
But the truth is the still water was caused by my use of filters to generate a long exposure, the magenta clouds were caused by Sulphur vapor lights from the city reflecting off those clouds, and the light beam was created by the One World Trade beacon itself.
So, you tell me. How should I answer this question? I’m open to ideas.
In the meantime, I refuse to give a yes-or-no answer to the question.
And if you ask, you are just going to have to hear me out.
If you like my work, please share with your friends!