The Excited Photoshopper

Sky on Fire - Mowbray Park, Wollondilly New South Wales.

Warning: My reference to “Photoshop” in this article is a proprietary eponym. That is to say, it is not meant to be brand specific. It is a phenomenon of English vernacular that through common use, popular brand names often become a generic word encompassing all items of similar purpose. See Kleenex, Band Aid, Coke, Frisbee, Polaroid…

I've wondered over this attitude for many years. Truth be told, I have in the past prescribed to this idea, whilst at the same time employing the use of various digital processing software almost universally. One pretty much has to, unless you’re happy leaving your 6x4s buried in an album for the rest of time. This has naturally led to a measure of internal unease as I wrestled with the spectre of hypocrisy.

So what then, is NOT cheating?

I have to laugh these days when confronted by a self-proclaimed purist of the photographic arts who chooses to flaunt their piety in the face of us digital manipulation heathens. “I like to return to the purity of simply capturing the image” is the gist of their mantra. “So” I retort, let me understand your position. You stand before the breath-taking artistry of nature, imbibing the majesty and feeling the awe that is the earth-mother-goddess. This Buena Vista is absorbed through the miracle that is your eyes, and can then be appreciated by unfathomable mystery that is the human mind. In order to share this purity, you interrupt your line of sight with metal/polycarbonate alloy chassis box housing a multi-layered silicon wafer rectangle meticulously pock-marked with (insert number here) million photo-receptive light cavities which digitally convert the analogue light signals through an anti-aliasing array into electronic signals stored digitally on Electronically Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory flash memory drive. But first, you insert a metal/polycarbonate tube housing multiple machine-crafted glass lenses in order to mechanically bend the light from this wonder of life in several different ways and to flatten all three dimensions into a two dimensional representation.

By this time, as I’m about to launch into the diatribe about the supposed purity of uploading your image through Instagram/Facebook/Pinterest via encrypted algorithms to convert your digital file into light pulses pushing the packet data down optical fibre…. You get where I’m going here right? But the disinterested party has now switched completely off, and usually disappeared in a cloud self-righteousness leaving me like the lone-nut muttering to himself while passers-by throw coins into my camera bag mistaking me for a mentally-ill homeless person.

But all I’m really trying to say is this.

The biggest single manipulation of any view, is made by putting your camera in front of it.

Whether your capture device of choice is a 2MP camera phone or a 50MP Hasselblad, no camera yet in existence can see the world with anywhere near the quality of the human eye. To be brutally honest, cameras destroy scenes. Everything that follows regarding post-processing, is simply trying to force the outcome to better emulate, better communicate the emotion and experience of being present in that particular time and place. Remember my last entry – every picture must tell a story. Well, I want to tell MY story, share MY emotional reaction to that view. My camera can tell its own story if it so chooses, and given the smarts of modern DSLRs I would not in the least be surprised if at night, while I’m snoring, she sneaks out of my camera bag and interacts with the world under her own social-media pseudonym. But while ever I’m still in charge, it is important to tell my own story.

Now, there are some caveats here. I do think it is akin to cheating to purport an image to be something it isn’t, and this is the example often cited by anti-Photoshop advocates. Let us imagine that I take a photo of a pigeon in my garden. I then use image editing software to paint its plumage bright green, give its tail some flourish, and proclaim to the world I have been the first to photograph this new species in the hope of personal acclaim. This has been famously evident with dubious photos of UFOs, Bigfoot and just about every photo of a ghost. But that is the exception, not the norm.

My camera is somewhere in the middle of the pack. It does a fair job, but it is rare that it captures what I intend it to see. What indeed, I see. Contrast is my greatest nemesis, in Photog-speak, High Dynamic Range (HDR). What I see are beautifully saturated blue skies melding into orange and magenta sunsets, colour-contrasted against the deep green grass painted with swathes of golden light rim-lighting the taller blades. What my camera sees is white, blown-out sky and black, shadowed foreground. This is not the story I want to tell. Now, there are a number of ways to fix this, any or all of which I might employ. Physical GND filters are a good start but the same result can often be attained with a virtual GND in Photoshop (or other generic, non-brand specific digital photo editing software). So I now ask this question;

Philosophically speaking, what is the difference between a physical and a virtual GND?

Technical merits aside, quality for quality, whichever method I choose I am still employing an artificial device to alter the light intensity of nature, in order to force my two dimensional representation to tell the story as I am at that time, feeling it. So the real question is not whether to post-process, but where to stop? I could probably, with a lot more skill and knowledge than I currently possess, turn that hill across the road from my house into a pretty good likeness of the Matterhorn under a winter storm. But that, by my own definition, would be cheating. So I developed my own guidelines that can be succinctly defined as:

Does the finished product genuinely reflect the story I am trying to tell about the beauty I experienced?

Notice, I did not use accurately, but genuinely. Am I being true to my vision? Am I being true to my emotional memory? If the answer is NO, then I’ve either gone too far, or not far enough with my post processing. Occasionally, I get lucky, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to improve an image that comes out from my camera. But if that defined the limit of my creativity, then my gallery would be very small indeed – and not the better for that either. So I am richer inside, I am nurturing my creative outlet, by employing Photoshop, and I make no apologies for that.

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