Sunday, March 16, 2008

Like Father, Like Son...

Look at that technique! And that's my F4 and 80-200 F/2.8 Nikkor. I could do w/o the tattoo, however...

Have Camera, will smile!

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Post-Visualization and The Philosophy of Post-Processing

Over the past year or two, I've tried to divert my attention away from baseball, and on to photography (or something else). The problem I've encountered is that these two interests can very much merge. So, naturally, when a photography conversation started up at a new-from-old baseball community, I had to join in.

In this thread of conversation, the topic of post-processing came up:
One of the things I've noticed, on Flickr and elsewhere, is how much photographers in the digital era use post-editing software (Photoshop mainly) to fix/enhance/alter their pictures. I have to admit, this is probably my biggest pet peeve about photography these days. I had this argument with my DP instructor at the community college I attended as well. My basic belief is that the camera and the photographer's eye/sense of composition are the only two tools in photography. The rest is graphic design. But the two should be two very seperate things. I firmly believe in no post-editing, unless it's in-camera, or if it's for a specific purpose (such as fixing up photos that need to be used for something specific, such as wedding photos). I guess I kind of see using Photoshop to fix up pictures as cheating, in a way.

Anybody have any thoughts on this? Am I starting a debate? bye1.gif

I thought my response was worth stashing over here:

I'm honestly still struggling with this topic a lot myself. But the more and more I think about it, the more I'm very comfortable with heavy post-processing in the digital darkroom. Here's why:

When I was a photography student, there was no such thing as digital -- well, yeah, technically there was, but it was saved for NASA shuttle missions and for international cutting-edge media work (and the cameras were fairly archaic and started at 5-figures). In the black & white darkroom, we learned techniques for dodging and burning, boosting and cutting contrast, and creating special effects. We also learned how to tone prints using selenium and sepia toner. In the color darkroom, we learned how challenging it was to get color balance correct, especially when you're using the dodging/burning techniques you picked up in the black and white darkroom. And once you do acheive your goal of a successful print, there are inevitably imperfections caused by dust that either settled on your negative in the enlarger, or any number of ways. I learned techniques for spotting and hand-retouching prints that became very important the more I printed my negatives.

Having spent the better part of three years of my life in high school and college in the darkroom, I learned that producing a print was just as much of an art form and technical challenge as getting a good negative/slide was. Post-processing was very much a part of the game. Even Ansel Adams, the master and co-inventor of the Zone System -- probably the most important guide to exposing pictures correctly -- incorporated post-processing into his pre-visualizations. And, he'd often revisit some important images as he developed new techniques and post-processed these negatives in new ways. But every single print he made was post-processed in the darkroom (boosting contrast, selenium-toning, dodging and burning, etc...) Clearly, there were very few film photographers who could pre-visualize their art from exposure to print. Most of the ones that could excel at it were well-established artists. It's not an easy thing to do...

After taking the better part of 15 years off from serious photography, I got back into it about 3 years ago when I bought my first Nikon. I bought an 8008s in anticipation of getting into the Nikon system for transitioning into the digital world. Since I knew a thing or two about editing pictures in software, I would always have my pictures put onto CD when I had the film processed. I bought a few lenses and a flash, and hacked my way into re-learning how to properly expose and compose pictures. After spending countless hundreds of dollars on film processing, I was finally able to convince my wife that a dSLR would be a good investment.

In some ways, I bet she regrets giving me that blessing. But in others, she's clearly seen how I've re-captured my old talent for photography.

One of the ways I've recently kept this passion alive is by discovering the world of post-processing in Photoshop. Yes, as you mention, there's a lot of intersection between the work of graphic designers and the work of photographers in the digital darkroom. But really, Photoshop (and other tools) allow you to do the same manipulations you would do in the "analog" darkroom -- but make it much easier and faster. In the color film darkroom, there's not really much of a safelight (as there is in the B/W darkroom). Rather than being able to develop your prints in trays (as you can in the B/W darkroom) and see your image unfold in print, you have to develop your prints in tanks. I discovered very quickly that this was not a fast process. I'd often make 2-3 test prints to develop at the same time, as you had to wait the better part of 15 minutes before you could even see your print (nevermind the drying time needed to really make sure your colors were correct).

In the digital darkroom, I can take this 15 minutes and be mostly done with my corrections. And I can generally have some touch-up work done as well. Printing, of course, is still very much a challenging part of the equation, and requires even more processing (not to mention a good understanding of monitor and printer calibration). But these days, many digital photographers do very little printing (and are more concerned about getting their pictures distributed on the Internet), so that's something they never learn.

The bottom line is that while I initially agreed that heavy post-processing should be considered "cheating" I don't anymore. In fact, I'm starting to accept the philosophy that post-visualization (looking at a collection of images you've already made and seeing the deeper image within, after you've already clicked the shutter and "developed" the image to your computer) is a new and exciting strategy that the digital era is ushering in. Post-processing really only becomes "cheating" when you're a photojournalist or a forensic photographer and you're doctoring a scene to tell a different story. The AP standards, though, for manipulative photography are quite challenging and really go too far, IMHO. That includes things such as in-camera sharpening, etc. You're starting to see camera manufacturers incorporate special (expensive) software to verify that a digital image hasn't been altered in any way. To me, those sorts of things are only important for legal and forensic photography.

Post-processing, however, for artistic purposes is very much NOT "cheating." When it's incorporated into the exposure, too, all the better. Things like panorama stitching, distracting object removal, HDR, and other special effects are very much a part of photography in the digital age. Obviously it's very important to start with a good exposure and composition -- it makes things easier and faster in the long run. But post-processing is very much an important part of the art (and science) of photography these days.

And, really, where DO you define the line between "cheating" and non-cheating post-processing???

I'll do another much longer post on why I believe post-visualization might be something worth exploring -- a positive side effect of Photoshop and digital imagery. Maybe it's because my pre-visualization skills are still very raw, or it might be something worth further exploring. Maybe it already exists as an artistic philosophy, and I've missed it or it's called something else.

Anyway - the images below I made for comparison's sake. I needed to grab some images from my D1H to showcase it for a potential sale. I'm starting to get more weddings scheduled, and while the D1H certainly can handle it, I'd prefer to get something newer or with more pixels. Not that 12x18 isn't big enough for me, of course. But I was asked by someone potentially interested for a recent photo or two. So, I went into my "darkroom" and shot another series of water droplet photos.

The concept of post-visualization and post-processing can sorta be demonstrated in this image. Again, I was just shooting some snaps trying to grab something relatively interesting to send along. To me, post-visualization can incorporate SOME pre-visualization, but it's mostly involved with looking at a picture within a group of pictures and seeing something deeper -- that you might not've seen the first time around or before you fired the shutter.

I'll get more into this later, I hope, but there are certainly times when I see something new in an image I cast aside at first glance. In the photo below, I started looking a little deeper, and tried to salvage an OK-but-not-fantastic photo that even post-processed has some issues.

Straight out of the camera, only rotated & converted to JPG:

Processed for exposure (and BW conversion) in Capture NX, and touched-up, mutilated & cropped in Photoshop CS.

I dunno -- I kinda like the effect. It's certainly helped a somewhat flawed capture of a spontaneous moment in time.

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If you'd like to use images in this blog post, please e-mail paul(at)