In Defense of Post Processing

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In Defense of Post Processing

A recent photo I posted of this butte in southern Utah generated a small amount of controversy because of my use of perspective correction. I wanted to write this post to defend our rights as creative artists, because I see this type of negative attitude towards anyone who manipulates a photo in any way that strays out of the ‘accepted’ processing methods.

What is perspective correction you may be asking? First you must understand the physics of lenses and how they distort the scene. When you use an ultra wide angle lens like I did on this photograph (15mm FF equivalent), objects close to the lens are enhanced to look larger, and objects farther from the lens are diminished greatly. Also, anything placed near the edge of the frame gets stretched out from the distortion. The idea of perspective correction is to blend in another image with the diminished object stretched out to bring it back closer to what it looks like in reality, not what the wide angle produces. This can be achieved by warping the object in Photoshop, or by taking a second exposure in the field, with the object positioned on the edge of the wide angle’s frame to stretch it out, which is what I did with this image.

The whole point of this process is to bring the image to a point closer to what I experienced as a human being, this is massively different from what a lifeless black box with glass can ever capture. We experience life through an incredibly complex system, it is not just our eyes that see, it must be processed by our brain which interprets what we see. It puts focused attention on certain objects that may be important to us, and ignores others. It patches together information that may not even be there. For a fascinating in-depth look into this, read Vision and Art, The Biology of Seeing.

Getting back to my image, the argument against it was I stretched the butte out to unrealistic proportions. Keep in mind this is coming from a photographer who had photographed at this location before, I make this distinction because photographers see the world differently than the average person. Most photographers believe the dogma that what comes out of the camera is the only ‘reality’, and that any modifications made to what the camera produces gives photographers a bad name.

Let’s break this image down to it’s ‘pure’ elements. First up is the raw file taken with the ultra wide angle, notice how small the butte is? You may think this is closer to reality, but only in the context of what an ultra wide angle lens sees. The difference is, I was there and experienced this in person, and let me tell you that this butte is very large! When I look at this photo it does not accurately represent what I saw that day, plain and simple!

In Defense of Post Processing

It is a widely held conclusion that the human eye sees at a focal length near 50mm, but if you have ever looked through or taken a photo with a 50mm, you will know that the lens is very normal, it does not change your perspective via distortion like a wide angle does, or magnify your view like a telephoto, but you will also notice that it is nothing like the human experience. This is because our eyes are constantly moving around, evaluating the scene around us and constantly stitching that information together to produce our view of the world. We can look at the ground in front of us and see it in that 50mm view, look up towards the butte and instantly change our focus and perception to see the butte in that same view, but all stitched together as one seamless blend.

To prove the butte is not overly stretched, below is a photo taken with my iPhone, which has a lens equivalent to 41.5mm. This is close to what the eye sees, but still a little wide, therefore diminishing the butte. You can see I stretched the butte slightly more than what is seen here, I think this is accurate to what I saw, maybe a touch over done, but only a slight amount. In no way do I think this is a gross misrepresentation of what I experienced.

In Defense of Post Processing

In Defense of Post Processing

I feel like the least realistic part of this image (in the purist’s eyes) is the sky, which likely would never be questioned because it was achieved ‘in camera’ by using a 10 stop filter to blur the clouds, how is this considered okay, and correcting the butte to make it look more realistic is not? That is delusional! Of course I am not saying that it is not okay to use a filter for this, I just wanted to point out the hypocrisy. I intentionally blurred the clouds because this gave a better interpretation of what I saw/felt experiencing this in person. The clouds were moving quickly across the sky, something you would never know seeing a photo taken at a normal shutter speed which froze the clouds in time.

This modification of ‘camera reality’ happens all the time in photography. If you have used a slower shutter speed to blur water, or used a really fast shutter to freeze water you are guilty of modifying this reality. Yet it is accepted because you can do it in camera, the stretched out butte in the photo below was done in camera just by placing it on the edge of the frame, if I posted this photo by itself rather than blended into another, is it suddenly acceptable?

In Defense of Post Processing

I also changed the mood of this photo through the use of color toning and burning/dodging to convey what I felt standing there. It felt dark and foreboding as storms were moving in and out of the area, and I wanted the photo to convey this feeling.

The vast majority of us are not photojournalists, we are artists. As artists we should not be held by the same code of conduct that a photojournalist is held to. This is an important distinction that needs to go mainstream, everyone should know the difference between a photojournalist that is documenting vs. an artistic photographer that is conveying their vision of the world onto a two dimensional medium.

This leads to a discussion of whether we should disclose what we have done to an image in post processing. I believe that it is not necessary unless the modifications were so dramatic that the scene could never be experienced in reality, like putting in a moon when you are clearly facing North. This leads to false expectations of reality and therefore should be disclosed. I do not feel that we need to disclose if we exposure blended, burn/dodged, perspective corrected, etc. I feel this diminishes our legitimacy as an art form, would you expect a painter to reveal the specific paints, brushes, or techniques they used to achieve a painting? I do feel it is valuable to share this information for the benefit of new photographers, it can be frustrating seeing photographs that you are unable to produce because you either do not know how to achieve it, or you feel uncomfortable doing it because the purists will call you out, and try to belittle your work. The general public does not need to know how an image has been modified in the realms of artistic photography, they only need to know that it is art, and the artists interpretation of what they saw, not what the camera saw.

“If we limit our vision to the real world, we will forever be fighting on the minus side of things, working only to make our photographs equal to what we see out there, but no better. ”

— Galen Rowell

This beautiful quote from Galen sums up what I am trying to convey. Galen also stated “I am intent on preserving the integrity of still photography.” These two quotes may seem to contradict each other on the surface, but I feel it is where they meet, we find creative fine art nature photography. Images should not be so overly processed that they do not resemble what you could experience in reality, thus I try to keep my processing within the bounds of what can be perceived as reality, and still convey what I felt and experienced being there as a human, not as a black box.

David is a professional landscape and nature photographer originally from Loveland, Colorado who is now traveling the American West full-time in an RV with his photography and life partner Jennifer Renwick, and their two cats.

David has published an eBook called Nightscape and has in-depth videos on post processing. David and his partner Jennifer Renwick find joy in teaching others photography in their photography workshops, and through their blog.

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16 thoughts on “In Defense of Post Processing”

  1. I believe an iPhone camera has an equivalent focal length of 30mm. At least that is the equivalent focal length indicated by several of my software applications.

  2. I LOVE perspective blending! I have been doing and teaching many innovative approaches for years now. The lens does not render reality as the eye see anyway, so why can I not play with perspectives?

  3. I can tell you for 100% certain, Galen would most definitely have used a 10-stop filter to blur the clouds, but he never would have stretched the butte; ever. As for tonal dodge / burn, he’d do it as a minor effect, but he’d likely choose not to print an image shot from one of his slides if the the light wasn’t making the scene special. He’d be true to the light and scene he captured in camera without inventing it.

    His statement leans more toward the idea of understanding how film (not just the camera, but slide film with it’s exceptionally limited exposure range) would see the world differently than our eye, and how to capitalize on that difference through understanding to make the images captured on film turn out more dramatic than what our eyes would have perceived. But he wouldn’t have invented or altered the landscape or lighting in front of him.

    And in case you’re wondering how I can express this with such certainty, I spent nearly a decade working for him.

    Cheers,
    – Gary.

    PS: Nice shot, though. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your insight into Galen’s world Gary, I respect both of you greatly.

      After all the comments on here and facebook I have done a lot of contemplation, and realize we should all just be honest to our own art. We can’t be bothered with what others think and do, we must create our art the way we want to, otherwise photography will never be accepted as a fine art.

  4. Perspective correction has never been an issue. In fact, if you photographed with a view camera on film – possibly the purest form of photography – you could apply such a correction in-camera.

  5. An excellent post, as usual. And while I tend to agree with the premise of your article and most of your points, I can’t help but feel the digital art is having a negative effect on fine art photography. The problem I see is that there is a grey area between image editing and creating digital art and often a lack of openness on which the creator is presenting. And when complicated editing and blending methods are used it taints photography for the viewer.

    All to often shots that have been painstaking planned and finally captured in the field are dismissed as Photoshop because the viewing public is starting to think that’s how all “great” images happen. I’m certainly not saying that using LR or PS is wrong, just that when image manipulation takes the place of planning, effort and integrity photography looses some authenticity in public eye.

    I tend to shoot a lot of long and very long exposure for my images. And you are correct that they are surreal and I am altering the documentary view of the scene. But I am not the least bit shy about mentioning this technique. What gets me is that many folks who defend digital manipulation don’t come clean about the images they create. Almost as though the know the viewer will respect their image less if they know it was a digital creation.

  6. Well said David. I’d also like to add this quote: “No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” Ansel Adams

  7. Arete Tula Edmunds

    As photographers even Ansel Adams and many other famous photographers use to dodge, burn and remove objects in the darkroom. What makes what David did any different?

  8. I agree that the modifications you made to the image are at an acceptable level. I also feel that saying photographers are artist so there should be no limits to the modifications we make to an image is wrong and I don’t believe that is your position either. I see a significant difference between a “digital artist” and a photographer. As a photographer I should not take a clear blue sky and add clouds just because I can in photoshop or place a model on a beach when I shot her in the studio. That is a different art form from photography that I call digital art. By saying I am a photographer I am accepting the boundaries that come with that title and one of the most important is share with the person viewing my work the most accurate image of the location/event/person that I experienced when I took the picture. If that means I need to use perspective correction then I will. And if I feel the need to alter an image in a way that is not accurate to the experience then I will declare that image digital art and not a photograph.

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