The answer is that photographers (like painters) are artists who use cameras and post-processing (including Photoshop or something like it) to convey an emotion or idea. The raw material for creating an image is captured by a camera instead of a brush, but the process of pre-visualizing, responding to the subject, selecting the elements and framing the image, deciding on camera settings to capture a particular mood and finally, post-processing so as to enhance the narrative, mood and meaning of the image are all artistic decisions in common with artists in other mediums.
Let’s start with pre-visualizing. This is the process of deciding what kind of image, mood or idea to capture with a camera. As an example, I began planning in January for a shot that could only take place in August. This amount of lead time is not unusual, rather, it is the norm. The shot I had in mind was to have the oldest trees on Earth (5,000+ years) as a foreground for the Milky Way, which at about 3.7 billion years old, is some of the oldest light in the universe. The mood I wanted to induce in the viewer was awe, humility and a deep sense of connection to the infinite.
You might ask why I didn’t just go to that location in January, when I had the idea? The answer is that in January, there are sub freezing temperatures, 100 mile an hour winds and the road is closed. Oh, and the Milky Way isn’t visible in the Northern hemisphere in the Winter. Why August? I wanted to catch the peak of the Perseid meteor shower on August 11th and 12th. I thought the streaks of flaming interstellar debris would help to bridge the connection between Earth and sky. One last element had to fall into place and that is that on that particular Perseid peak (August 11/12) there was no moon.
You might argue that I could have had the idea in July or August and just driven up to get the image on the spur of the moment. Actually, starting to plan in January allowed me to do more research, buy a tracking mount for my tripod that followed the motion of the stars and allowed for a longer exposure without creating star trails as the camera exposes the motion of the Earth. A lot of practice in my backyard was needed to learn the equipment, find an exposure that allowed me to get enough light without getting too much camera “noise” (little speckles of color), the right focal distance to get both near and far objects in focus despite having to use a wide aperture (f-stop), the right lighting, etc. In other words, after I had the idea and started to plan, I also needed to practice because the moments I would have to get my shot would be a few minutes, not hours.
Pre-visualization was also a necessity to get a moonbow at Yosemite Falls or the appearance of a waterfall of fire at Horsetail Falls. Like seasonal blooms, animal migrations and other natural occurrences, these events only happen a few days each year, and only for a short time on those days. A lot of practice and preparation goes into getting ready to capture those shots. When the conditions are right, there is no time to make a lot of decisions. Seconds count. Practice and pre-visualization are needed to “get lucky”.
Staying in the moment.
I will say that for everything I do to pre-visualize and prepare, the actual conditions at the time of the shot require quick thinking to the point of automatic reflexes to capture what is actually present. For example, in the shot above, the Milky Way began to appear at dusk while the sky was still light. I raced to find the best frame, set up my tripod, align the tracking head with the North star, set up a lantern to light the tree and then dial in the camera settings that got the best exposure. By the time I had set up, the sky had gotten darker but there was still enough light to outline the distant Sierras in red - something I had not anticipated..
I am reminded of a conversation with an impressionist painter friend, Sergio Ladron de Guevara. I was at an exhibit of his work and could examine his originals up close. What struck me was the energy and intensity of his brush stroke. When I commented on that to him he said, “Ah my friend, you have seen the essence of my art. The freedom and passion in my stroke means everything to me. I visit a beautiful place, soaking up the sights, sounds, smells and feelings, let it touch deeply within me, Then when the time comes that I sit down to my canvas, I let all of that loose as quickly as possible. In my time at the easel, I try not to think or analyze, just let the paint flow.” I told him that it sounded a lot like the Zen art of calligraphy. He agreed. (for more on his work, see http://theartofsergio.com/).
I told him that I strive for something similar in my photography. Despite my best efforts to prepare, when the time comes, that time is usually very short. The light is changing, the subject is moving and I have to act quickly. I also have to remain open to the scene and let it touch me. I have to be willing to throw out my preconceptions and just react. Despite the adrenaline of the moment, the fatigue, cold or other environmental conditions, I do best when I can hold a clarity of mind, balancing intensity of focus with receptive stillness.
A basic skill of any visual art is to frame the subject in a way that supports the emotional impact or story of the intended image. A painter can decide to just move that mountain over closer or get rid of that building, but a photographer’s choices are more limited. While it is true that I will take out minor distractions in post production, I don’t click the shutter if there are major compositional problems because they will never look right no matter what I do in post production.
Most often, I have to move my body to get a better angle that blocks out a distraction, creates a better leading line or balance in the composition. I may changes lenses, zoom in or out of the scene looking for a better composition. If framing and composition didn’t matter, you could just point your camera anywhere and get a good shot. As most people who have tried have discovered, that doesn’t often work.
So when you ask me, did it look that way in person? I can truthfully answer that it did look that way if you looked in the right direction, at the right time with the right selection to frame the subject. I left out the car to the left of that beautiful nature scene and I crouched down to block that billboard with a tree. I also made the subject more interesting by focusing sharply on the subject while defocusing background, placing the subject on an imaginary line dividing the image into thirds and creating a leading line that takes your eye into the distance, etc. These are the same skills that the painter employs, but while the painter has more hand eye coordination to transfer the scene onto canvas, the photographer has more technical skills with the camera. They both bring their vision and intention to create their composition.
I mentioned defocusing the background. Focus is one of the skills to master in photography. Another big issue is balancing light and dark in an image. The average person thinks a camera sees what your eye sees. This is not at all true. Our eyes are constantly flitting around to various points in a scene, changing focal length so quickly it appears that everything we see is in focus. The camera has only one focal distance. Everything closer or farther from that focal plane is more or less out of focus, depending on how far it is from the focal point. (The camera in your phone or a point and shoot camera gets everything in pretty good focus, but nothing is perfectly focused).
Our eyes make balancing the differences between light and dark seem easy as well. In addition to the eyeball shortening and lengthening to make near and far objects seem in focus, our pupils dilate and contract to make dark areas brighter and light areas darker. Our brains assemble these images into a seamless whole that gives the impression that we see everything in focus and that we can make out details in both bright and dark areas. The camera can’t do that either. It has one amount of light that it can let in at any one time. Sensors in a good camera can record about half the range of light as can the human eye. Photographers may compensate for this by taking multiple images of the exact same scene, allowing in varying amounts of light and blending them together, or by adjusting the image in post processing. I generally do the latter.
Mt Timpanogos view unprocessed.
In the image above, there is little detail or color in both the dark areas and the light areas. The camera sensor cannot "see" well in the extreme range of light this image depicts. In shooting it, I made sure the brights weren't clipped on the histogram. It's easier to recover color and detail in the darker areas of the image than in the lighter areas. A white sky will look white no matter what you do in post production to bring out the detail and color.
The image below is similar to the one above (from a little different angle, without the foreground tree), but has been developed to bring out the detail and color in both the sky and the shadowed foreground. The developed image looks more like what I saw in person than the raw image above. What I did in Photoshop to enhance the scene was to increase the contrast and color saturation to shape the light to dramatic effect.
Mt Timpanogos view after developing in Photoshop.
Part of what makes a properly exposed and developed photograph pleasing to view is that our eyes can rest on the image, not struggle to compensate for varying intensities of light and various focal distances found in the natural scene.
Then again, the camera can see things that the eye cannot. For one thing, it can resolve distant objects better than I can. It can see in the dark better than I can. Were those distant or dark objects actually visible? Not to me but an owl could have seen them. The camera can see “slower” than us as well. Slowing the shutter speed makes water look like a smooth blur. A slow shutter speed is also what makes dark objects visible. For example, I could see a rainbow at night with my eyes, but only as a silver arc. The camera sensor could see it in full color because it could gather light longer than my eyes could. Compensating for the limitations of the camera and making use of it’s advantages are some of the artistic decisions that go into making an image.
Yosemite Moonbow as it looked to the camera.
Yosemite Moonbow after post-processing.
In addition to enhancing the color, I separated the sky from the stars and blurred the sky, giving a greater illusion of depth when you see this print in person. Little adjustments to contrast, color and sharpening/blurring can make a dramatic difference in the final print.
Now that we have an image, how do we develop it? In all likelihood, it has areas that are too light and areas that are too dark. There may be distortion in the image from the shape of the lens. The color cast of the image may need to be corrected (the camera makes color decisions based on pre set criteria). Areas of the image that were too light or too dark will likely need to have their color enhanced because much of that information was lost to the sensor. There will likely be “noise” in the image, requiring some blurring or other techniques to get rid of this artifact of technology. All of the above has to be done to make the image look like it did to my eye when I was pressing the shutter button. That might be an hour of my time in post-processing.
Can I use software to make the image look better than it did person? Of course I can, and I do. You can think of photo enhancement as being like adding make-up to a beautiful face. A little bit can enhance what’s already there. Too much can turn a beauty queen into a clown.
A lot of what I do with software is to create an illusion of depth by blurring the sky compared to the foreground. That is another case of using software to try to recreate the experience of actually being there. I may re-crop an image. I may enhance color or sharpness in some elements of an image. I may darken or lighten areas of an image to guide the viewers eye through the scene (shaping the light). I may remove small distracting elements. These are all the same artistic decisions made by other visual artists. Understanding of what can be done in post production then guides my decisions in the field.
My goal is to convey the emotional experience of being in a beautiful place in nature. Be it serenity, awe, humility, gratitude, I hope to evoke in the viewer what drove me to capture the image in the first place – minus the freezing cold, exhaustion, wind, mosquitos, sore muscles, etc.
I love to watch people's reactions when they view my work. After gasping and clutching her chest while looking at one of my images, a woman said to me, “You find the beauty in your heart reflected in nature. With your photographs, you bring that beauty home to share with us.” I replied to her, “What you see is the beauty in your heart. I just put it on the wall.”
So yes, I do use Photoshop. But then again, chefs cook with pot and pans. Don’t let it diminish your appreciation of the meal.
What follows is an example of what I do in post processing.
Lago Cerro Torre before processing
As you can see, it is an amazing location. I was in Argentina and wouldn't have another chance at this shot. The hike to this location was 12 miles round trip. I awoke in time to hit the trail at 4:00 AM. With four other photographers, I hiked uphill at a brisk pace (wearing a backpack full of gear) to get to this lake before dawn. I went as fast as I could go, nearly running on the trail and picking my way more slowly over a quarter mile jumble of boulders in the glacial moraine surrounding the lake. The temperature at the lake before dawn was just above freezing. I could still see the stars as I balanced my tripod and myself on that jumble of boulders, being careful not to fall. It would be a bad place to break a bone. What you see above is my third shot, having dialed in the focus, aperture, ISO and time settings on the first two.
After everything I did to get the shots of the lake that morning, I was disappointed that nothing really captured the angular beauty, rawness and mood of the place. I developed other photos from later in the sunrise, but came back to this one because I liked the red light on the snow capped peaks and the additional light from the moon. Still, the image looked dull right out of the camera.
I should note that to my eyes, the lake was darker and there were small ripples on the surface. At one point, there was a grinding, groaning, gurgling "whoosh" coming from the darkened lake. It sounded like the Loch Ness monster but turned out to be an iceberg rolling over. That's how dark it was.
The steps I employed to bring out the beauty were as follows:
I opened the raw file of the image in Bridge (similar to developing a film). I used the black and white sliders to bring the blacks to the left of the histogram and the whites to the right of the histogram, creating a wide tonal palate in accordance with Ansel Adams Zone Theory. This increases the contrast and dramatic interest. I then used the color corrector tool to find the most neutral gray in the image and calibrate the color to that. After a few small tweaks to the hue, luminosity and saturation, I opened the image in Photoshop.
Once in Photoshop, I could separate elements of the photo into different layers. I selected and created layers for the sky, the water and for the white of the ice and snow. The ice and snow looked too blue to me, so I desaturated that color and brightened it a bit. I blurred the sky, getting rid of small imperfections and making the mountains stand out in contrast. This creates an illusion of depth. I did not sharpen the mountains or any other element of the photo. Because I use a 50 MP camera and good lenses, there is plenty of detail in the rocks and ice crystals without sharpening.
Blurring the water took the most time, as it was difficult to separate the icebergs and shoreline from the lake. The water was already pretty blurred because I used a slow (20 second) shutter speed to get enough light and because I wanted to blur the water. This shot was taken before sunrise, mostly lit by the moon in the upper left but also by the coming dawn over the horizon to the right. Because much of the color information was not recorded due to the low light conditions, I saturated the colors of the lake.
After removing imperfections in the water and sky (due to dust particles on the lens and a small rock in the lake), I created a dodge and burn layer over the image to guide the viewers eye by making some areas a little lighter or darker.
Finally, I cropped the image to put the subject, Cerro Torre (that insane spike of rock) on a line at the left third of the image, eliminating some boring foreground water in the process. This also brought the large iceberg closer to the viewer, creating a stronger leading line.
Because of the detail work in the water and ice interface, the whole process took about two and a half hours.