Yep, I’m going there. Get a mouthful of hot coffee ready to spit. If you have angry emoticons, now will be the time.
Let me start with a disclaimer. The following is not meant to be interpreted towards anyone else’s work. I am not trying to dictate a manifesto to the community, instead jotting down some thoughts that have been guiding my hand more and more as the years go on. So why publish this? Because it is undoubtedly one of the most common questions I am asked! And, it’s a lot to explain.
I have come to think of myself as an artistic photographer, at least that is the intention of my work. I constrain my photographic art with two opposing principles, which I will argue the points of below.
1. If I manipulate an image too much, it’s not photography.
2. If I don’t manipulate an image enough, it’s not art.
That last point was the cue for the purists to spit the coffee, in case you missed it.
I’ll start with point #2, since I think most of us can agree on point #1.
Art has never been about reality exactly as it is. It is reality reimagined, reality improved (or destroyed), reality through a thousand different mirrors. If art were limited to strict interpretations of reality, how much less our lives would be! Therefore if you dare to call yourself not just a photographer but an artist, you had better be manipulating your images. Before I get neck punched- let me examine the definition of the word.
1. to treat or operate with or as if with the hands or by mechanical means, especially in a skillful manner
2. to manage or utilize skillfully
3. to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one’s purpose
It is a word with both positive and negative connotations.. An artist can skillfully manipulate a sculpture by the first definition, but when people say a photograph is too manipulated, they are using the not so great definition of the word. Trickery. Illusion. Unfair means to serve one’s purpose. That sunset wasn’t that colorful, those stars weren’t that bright, etc.
I proudly manipulate my work by the first definition, and attempt to steer clear of the third, although the gray areas here are bigger than the Death Valley playa. It is my opinion that when you have the best tools ever created for controlling the look, feel, and color of your images, (as we all do in 2018) it is silly and archaic not to use them. Indeed I would argue it is almost neglectful, if you really care about what you are creating!
How do I manipulate my images? Let me count the ways, in descending order of importance.
No other decision will shape your portfolio more than what you choose to shoot. And yes, flying to Iceland for a week will most definitely come under any definition of manipulation- if it didn’t radically change your photos, you could just stay in your backyard! Choice of subject will define who you are as an artist more than any other decision you make.
2. Lens and composition
The choice of lens and the arrangement of objects in a scene can completely change the look of a place to the point that it is unrecognizable. Perspectives can be very deceptive. A wide angle lens can make foregrounds tower over distant mountains. Telephoto glass can compress and layer tiny scenes in the distance.
3. Post processing
The least important aspect of your work as a photographer. Don’t believe me? There are pros who shoot film and don’t even bother! That’s not to say it isn’t important at all, of course- just that I can change a lot more about my images with where I stand than I ever could on a computer. And yes- I find the notion that using digital editing is somehow different from the myriad of other ways we manipulate our images to be strange indeed! Imposing your intent on a scene is always what artistic photography has been about.
Looking at the above categories, I can come to no other conclusion but that every one of my photos is highly manipulated. I choose the land, I choose the light, I arrange the composition, I process. Each and every one of these steps is either intentionally or subconsciously guided by my mind, which has been shaped by my life and experience. I will make choices that will differ from what anyone else would have done. Cumulatively it makes my voice different, even if only a little. That is an important part of what makes art! Remove the intent and guidance by the artist’s hand (manipulation) and you are left with a snapshot that literally anyone could have created.
So now, can’t I put a giant moon behind the milky way behind a rainbow over the grand canyon and call it good? Do I even need to leave my house anymore?!?
Well, now we bump our heads on that Opposing Principle-
If I manipulate my images too much, they are not photography.
Yes, ever since the beginning of art, it has been about manipulation. And photography as art has not been excluded from such- but there is a very important caveat. Outdoor photographers have always been seen as emissaries of truth. Witnesses to wonders, spectacles so seldom seen that they unfold once every several lifetimes, or perhaps never again. By choosing to label myself as a photographer rather than a digital artist, I can’t help but feel I have a responsibility to carry the truth to my viewers. No matter my personal intentions, the viewer will have an expectation that they could one day climb that very same peak, feel that wind in their face. That feeling is a big part of the magic of photography- to be awed by what exists! I cannot completely disregard the notion that the magic is under assault these days, and I see that digital manipulation is somewhat to blame. People don’t believe what they see anymore. It saddens me.
About a year ago, one of my favorite photographers posted an image of great and simple beauty- a lake, with glowing peaks towering above still waters. The image was almost immediately assaulted on social media. I don’t remember the exact words, but the basics were- “I’m tired of all this Photoshopped beauty.” The processing was subtle and tasteful, and the lighting completely natural to my eye. It broke my heart, not only for the artist who was unjustly assaulted, but also for the assaulter! How jaded do you have to be, to doubt even the most basic presentation of natural beauty!
I have encountered people who doubted milky way photos, not because of the processing- but because they didn’t believe you could actually see such a thing! They literally did not think the milky way can be seen. One of my strongest childhood memories is from time spent high on Colorado nights, looking up at that vast and dusty expanse and feeling so very small (in the best possible way). Such sights used to be a quintessential part of human existence, during times when we spent more of our lives outside than in.. I hate that people don’t believe such beauty is real anymore. I can’t, won’t add to that.
I should say that I don’t hate things that are created- not at all. There is amazing, powerful digital art created by people who are absolute geniuses in the field of compositing and CGI. I love that stuff! Yet, how long will it be before one can get to the front page of 500px with an image of somewhere that simply doesn’t exist? It’s starting to happen already. I have seen foregrounds from Norway in front of the Canadian Rockies, and foregrounds from Utah with Sedona spires in the background. I was impressed! The processing looked great! Yet, it is not something I would feel comfortable calling a photograph, were it mine.
Of course, I realize that I am firmly in the Gray Zone with my own work, and surely many would judge it unrealistic. Everyone must forge their own path in this brave new world, and I am A-OK with being judged- it’s just part of putting your work out there. To allow myself to critique my own work in accordance with the principles above, I have made a three level reality-rating system. It’s a bit like the hurricane scale, but with less destruction and terror.
Cat 1- Things that really happened.
Pretty self-explanatory, but I should elucidate that something that could not be seen with the eye can still fall under this category. For example, long shutter speeds blurring water- really happened, although it didn’t look like that to my eyeballs. Stars and milky way- same deal, provided they are not edited to look like space fireworks. Infrared is another good example- you’ll never see it, but it is still firmly in the realm of Things That Exist. Heck, let’s throw monochrome in here too. At the risk of another neck punch, I will say that I consider most forms of warping in this category as well. Why? Because wide angle lenses distort the heck outta stuff anyways. Don’t believe me? Take a wide angle shot with an object in the center, then another with the same object in a corner. That object will be 48493 times bigger and stretched to all kinds of crazy. So yeah, I think reasonable warping is fair game. Focus stacking and bracketed exposure techniques to overcome the limitations of equipment also fall in here.
Cat 2- Things that could have happened. Embellishments. Enhancements.
Suppose I have a nice waterfall image, but it would look a bit better with some bluer water? Or, a night image with a pesky plane that I remove? Maybe change the white balance significantly one way or another to give a summer or winter feel? What about those night shots where the foreground is lit by late twilight but the stars are from 30 minutes later? That actually happened, just not at the exact same time. Those stars did twinkle over that very same landscape! Light painting, orton effect, dodging and burning, this is the category for that stuff- things that are enhancements to what was actually there. They are not entirely the truth, but are more real than fake. This is a very important area, because this realm is where true creativity in post-processing can, and has been, elevating the art to new levels over the last 10 years or so. It’s also dangerous ground for me, as I can easily slip over into…..
Cat 3- Things that could not happen.
Blatant fakery. Sky filling moons on wide angle shots. Stars in front of clouds. Things that could never be, no matter what conditions transpired, no matter what lens you used, no matter where you stood. Impossible places that could not exist without photoshop.
If you hadn’t already guessed, my goal is Cat 1 and 2 style images. I will throw in examples of all three below.
I hope that clears up any questions you may have about what you are seeing when you view my work. As always, feel free to contact me if you have any further questions. And please, do not take this as a critique of YOUR work, it is most definitely not. I will say that we are certainly living in exciting times for the art!
To conclude all of this- imagine in a few years, remote controlled DSLRs with a pan/tilt/zoom function start appearing in locations like Tunnel View in Yosemite, and are rented out hourly via the web. It would certainly reduce impact to heavily traveled places, but will the art be different when people start creating images from places they have never seen with their own eyes? It’s only a matter of time. And don’t even get me started on AI- Google is teaching neural networks to create landscape imagery from Google Earth photos. How do you feel about art that is created without human intervention at all?
Interesting times indeed!
I've heard other photographers speaking about "staying relevant" and it has always made me scratch my head. Relevant to whom, exactly? This art, this adventure we have chosen, it is not defined by likes, faves, commentary or recognition- never has been, never will be. It's a long game.
One day, you and I will both stop creating images, whether we want to or not. Time will see to that. And when you do, what do you want your art to have become? What will be the point of it? Personally, I hope inspiration to others. Not inspiration to photograph, mind you, or even to venture to certain parts of the world- but inspiration to appreciate life itself. Sunlight filtering through foggy trees, quiet times spent by soothing waters, starry nights above... So many sacred, miraculous moments that you will be lucky enough to savor for your brief spin on this watery rock, if only you remember to do so.
Creation itself is an act that needs to have no final destination in mind. (Indeed, it is often more productive if unguided.) What is the point, exactly, of sticking your toes in warm sand, or stealing a kiss? It feels good, and that is enough. Let it be enough for your creativity as well. An artist is a person who is in love with the world, and art is the expression of that love.
How could love ever cease to be relevant?
See the most current update...
Hey Guys and Gals, I have been busily nerding out on a new web sharpening action for landscape imagery. (Not to say you couldn't use it on cat pictures, just that it is untested- and there is a small chance it would rip a hole in the spacetime continuum....)
What do you need to use this action? A semi-modern version of photoshop and a reckless sense of adventure should do.
So what is it, and why is it better than what you are using now?
First off, I didn't say it was better! It's just different. It is free, and the more tools in your toolbox- always a good thing, right? Long story short, I am very into editing, but not the repetitive, boring stuff like dust spot removal. With all the sharpeners i found online, getting rid of pesky halos around ridge lines, tree branches, etc is both necessary and very dull work. I wanted a "fire and forget" type sharpener, that could handle whatever I threw at it and still come back with natural results.
In a very general overview, this action sharpens your image, and then hunts down and zaps any areas where haloing or over sharpening occur. If you thirst for more technical details, keep reading- if that's enough for you skip to the next section. Specifically, first it sharpens your image based on the popular method that I believe was invented by Alex Nail, and is also used in the popular TK actions. It involves resizing your image in different steps and sharpening at each point. It also resizes a completely unsharpened version of your source. Next, it runs analysis to determine areas with strong micro contrast. Then, it generates a mask to reduce or eliminate the sharpening in those areas. It outputs the result of the masked sharpened layer combined with the unsharp layer, then it runs the whole analysis/output process two more times to make sure all those pesky halos are zapped. The final, 3x analyzed mask is applied to the fully sharp layer. Next, the image is analyzed again on a broad scale to determine areas of overall lightness and darkness, and a sharpened layer free from the halo masking effect is allowed to bleed into the original image at 50%, to allow spectral highlights to appear in the darker areas of the image. (think water glinting on dark rocks in the foreground, stuff like that) Finally, a shadows luminosity mask is created, and applied to both of the previous layers, which are now in a group. Phew!
It has 3 output resolutions- 1080 (instagram), 2048 (Facebook) and finally Retina, for high DPI displays. If you like it and you find it lacking in a certain resolution, message me and I'll see if I can add it for you. It also has 4 flavors- Strong, Mid, Light, and Natural. Natural uses full strength luminosity masking and no spectral highlights added for the most halo-free viewing experience. Strong has NO luminosity masking and full strength spectrals, for the most apparent sharpness. The other two fall in-between the Strong and Natural settings. Enjoy, and feel free to let me know what you think!
Sharpening actions updated to 2.4, thanks to Kane Engelbert for the great suggestions! If you haven't done so, do yourself a favor and check out Kane's work.
- Simplified the options, now there is only Strong and Natural presets. Strong uses halo masking, natural uses halo masking plus 50% lumo masking to keep the sharpening out of the highlights. The default is a bit strong, the intent is for the user to adjust opacity to taste.
- Many new size options including 900, 1000, 1200, 1400, 1600, 1800, 2000, and one for the new instagram vertical size 1080w x 1350h
- Spectrals layer works well on traditional landscapes but results erratic on abstracts and such, therefore the default is now off and can be turned on at users discretion to add unmasked sharpening into darker areas.
- Should be a bit faster on large files IE d850, etc
- Default strength now 50% for Natural, 100% for Strong
Perhaps you're familiar with a technique called focus stacking, or Depth of Field (DOF) blending- a multiple exposure technique where a series of images are taken with different focal points. This is done to create a final image with more in focus than a single shot would allow. The first use of this technique was in the sciences, for documentary shots of very small objects such as insects or microscopy. It has since become popular with macro art photographers, and as of late it's been popping up in landscape photography.
With macro subjects of flowers and insects, depth of field is incredibly thin- even with small apertures. The benefits of focus stacking are pretty obvious for this sort of photography. Yet, with a wide angle lens, DOF is already quite large. So why would you want to use a complicated technique, when you can just back up a little and get everything sharp? The main reason is compositional flexibility. Sometimes in a technical art such as photography, your equipment can limit your creativity. DOF stacking can allow you more freedom. If you use a wide lens, you already know that position is absolutely critical to composition. Using DOF stacking and a 14-24 mm, I can get within inches of a mossy rock, stream, or icy pool, turning tiny details into leading lines or eye catching, interesting shapes. If I get close enough, the entire bottom third of a vertical shot will be a patch of ground about the size of a magazine, with the background still able to include a good size mountain range! This allows an enormous amount of compositional variation. If you haven't tried it, give it a whirl. What's the worst that could happen? :)
The basic method I use is as follows- first, I find my composition with a combination of either looking through viewfinder/live view or test shots. Next, I set up my tripod to accommodate the comp. (Don't be tempted to do the reverse- setting up a tripod and then looking for comps will make you miss a lot of great options with a wide lens!) By the time I find what I'm looking for, my tripod is often fully collapsed and my lens is quite close to the ground. Even a movement of a few inches completely changes the composition. I look for strong leading lines, repeating patterns, and subjects that will complement my background subject. Once I'm happy with everything, I take the series of shots. (Manual focus) The first shot is always focused to infinity. Next, I focus a bit closer, while leaving enough overlap of sharp areas to allow easy blending. I repeat this until every part of the composition is in focus for at least one exposure. I find that I can cover the entire possible focal range of the 14-24 2.8 Nikkor lens (at 14mm/f16) using 5 shots. Some pros use only 3 shots, but I'm not quite that confident in my manual focusing yet! :) Note that many lenses zoom out a bit as they focus closer, so allow a little wiggle room in your composition for cropping later. And finally, be aware that a flat subject such as rock or ice will lend itself to much easier blending than a bunch of flowers blowing in the wind- for reasons of both motion, and the added complexity of blending subjects that are separated from the background by a large distance.
Once the images are in the computer, I make any RAW adjustments to all files simultaneously. I then stack all the images on top of each other in Photoshop. I use either auto or manual alignment to line everything up. The final step is hand blending with masks. (Personally, I haven't had much luck with the auto blend in Photoshop, or any other automated focus stacking software.) Manually blending the images can be quite easy and quick, or incredibly painful and slow- it mostly depends on your subject matter and proficiency with masks. A hard edged brush with 100% opacity is a good start. Take your time and check everything twice, it's easy to miss spots.
When I started using DOF blending in my own photography, there was a lot of hit-or-miss experimentation. Every DOF stacking calculator was for macro stuff and rather useless for wide angles. Having a bit of free time one day, I made an Excel calc that allowed me to put in desired aperture/focal length, and get a suggested set of images to take. Keep in mind that wide angle DOF stacking does not require the use of this, or any other calculator. Getting out there and learning how your particular lens works in various situations is the best method for mastery. Still, if you'd like a general set of guidelines to use starting out, want to test out specialized nighttime configurations, or just want to see what 5 shots at 600mm/f11 will getcha- I hope you find it helpful.
Some useful links-
Master of DOF blending and dark overlord of editing in general, offers advanced online workshops that are in depth and incredibly helpful. Also kind of sassy, which I appreciate.
Another guy with painfully good photo skills, has a series of editing videos that cover DOF blending and a ton of other stuff.
As stated above, there is no substitute for learning in the field. Marc doesn't have any online vids, tutorials, blogs, or facebooks- but the tours he offers are unlike any others. I went and it was definitely one of the best things I have done for my photography.
And final disclaimer- nope, none of these guys gave me any money. I recommend them because I've personally benefitted from their knowledge, that is all. :)