On vision and postprocessing

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Before and after – starting point of RAW file in color (right), final presentation mono (left). Is that ‘photoshopped’? To most audiences, it probably is; but it’s no different to using black and white film, processing with a certain chemistry and doing a little dodging and burning of the print. Nothing has been added or removed that was not physically present in the original scene.

Though the mainstream population has now been firmly in the digital era of photography for more than a decade, I’m sure we can all remember a recent time when we were asked ‘so how much photoshop did you do?’ when presenting an image. The misconception that a good image must have some degree of implicit trickery is problematic; to the public, ‘Photoshop’ has become synonymous with ‘digital illustration’, ‘compositing’, or worse, ‘deliberate misrepresentation’. As much as we do our best to explain that Photoshop is really no different to the darkroom and chemical processes of the film days, we are at best regarded with some skepticism. But it does beg the question: why not use all the tools at one’s disposal, and what’s wrong with it if we do?

I like to use the cooking analogy: the scene is like a supermarket; composition is like selecting and preparing your ingredients; actual cooking is capture, and Photoshop is no more than control over the final presentation – plating, if you will. In the process, we transform raw ingredients available to anybody using techniques we must learn and hone into something that not everybody can make. The higher the skill of the chef, the greater the transformation: but it does not happen in plating. As far as a fairly ‘conventional’ dish goes, taste does not change whether it is heaped in a pile or daintily positioned on a beautiful plate and garnished with suitable visually attractive accompaniments. However, I think we would all rather eat the well-plated dish – even if it would be completely lost after the first bite.

It’s the same with photography: the subject (main ingredients) can be the same, but the result can be different. (Ironically, in food photography, said components are often replaced with inedible ones because they photograph better – now that is the culinary equivalent to misrepresentative Photoshop work). Modernist cuisine may not be to everybody’s tastes, but it’s impossible to argue that sometimes things have to be served in a dry ice bath to avoid them melting and diluting – which would alter the final experience to the diner. Similarly in art, we often cannot separate the idea from the presentation. This I think is where we cross the line from ‘straight’ photography to art and conceptual work. Much as the medium matters in ‘traditional’ art – an image that works as oil on canvas would have completely different impact as pencil on rice paper, for instance. The same is once again true for food and photography.

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That isn’t grill smoke.

Yet somehow photography has not transitioned beyond the expectation of literal representation quite as well as the other arts – granted, a lot of this is because of the nature of the medium. I think the literal-ness of it is both key strength and weakness: the illusion of reality is present by default, and photographs are assumed to be of ‘real*’ objects or scenes that exist in three dimensions beyond their representation. It means that we can easily create the feeling of being there, even if that physical configuration of elements does not exist (or cannot exist). This perhaps creates trust issues: as an audience, are we being deliberately and maliciously deceived? Has anything been added or removed that was not (or was) there in the original physical scene?

*What constitutes ‘reality’ is an entirely separate philosophical discussion.

In a lot of situations, this is of course undesirable: reportage, documentary, evidence-gathering etc. Never mind the subjectivity involved in composition – which itself is an act of selectively deliberate exclusion and may imply certain chains of causality or narrative. It is the expectation of fidelity that causes problems: manipulation is wrong. We expect a hamburger to contain real meat, and not some strange chemical derivatives. But in cases where perhaps we are open to something different – modernist cuisine aside, some Asian vegetarian dishes contain very convincing 100%-vegetable-based simulations of meat – then I think we have to ask ourselves not so much ‘why do it’ as ‘why not’ and ‘how can we make the most of it?’ So long as the audience is open, I think the outcome can be worthwhile and positively received.

Even before we hit the point of postproduction manipulation, we can already present alternative realities by arranging our ‘sets’ and lighting in a way that is not normally seen. We are still subject to the constraints of physical reality, though – gravity, for instance. This is where we need postproduction help. Whilst I almost never do the latter myself, and try to achieve everything in a single shot (without composite lighting, even) – this is the expertise of photographers like Guersky, von Wong and others, for instance – I am starting to wonder what else could be done if I adopted such techniques.

I suppose it’s almost like learning a new language: we have to first learn the basics (in this case, the part where we make the postproduction convincingly real) before we can dream in it, much less be fluent and lyrical. Figuring out what the limitations of the language are – or more like which limitations of our existing visual language we can now overcome – is the challenging part. But I think that’s the thing with creativity: though restrictions force us to find ways around them, it’s getting over our own inhibitions that really let us make great leaps forward. MT


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  1. My ETSY listing photos get informed quite a bit by my interest in cinema. I am fascinated by the lengths to which film crews go and the contrivances to which they resort (at every stage) in order to make their final result *seem* natural.
    When a customer is inspecting one of my hand blown paperweights by hand, his/her brain is automatically rendering an impression of the size, weight, texture and optical properties. These things get very quickly lost in a 2 dimensional image without quite a bit of deliberation, skill and sometimes trickery.
    It is safe to assume that most of my customers will not display their purchases under a fresnel spot light with a snoot. But I use those things sometimes to get an image with almost no distracting reflections. When conditions permit, I do like to try some shots on my actual sunlit window cill but have to pay very close attention to camera angle and depth of field. I often prefer my completely fake living room “set” with the tungsten soft box (with strips of gaff tape standing in for window slats). Each item of mine is a little different and my methods are always evolving. It keeps things interesting and fun.
    On the post side, I find some corrections and/or manipulations are indispensable to best convey the colors and luminosity of my subjects. (I would now really hate to try and make do without the exposure curve adjustment in Photoshop.) It should be objective in theory but one’s personality will inevitably influence the endless stream of deliberations. (As one of my favorite song lyrics states: “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”)
    And of course there’s always retouching.
    When only one out of 500+ customers has complained that my photos were misleading, I feel I’ve done a pretty decent job of not going too far. Much more often I hear that the photos do not “do the real item justice”. I accept that as the intended compliment to my glassblowing, but also take it as a cue to keep improving my product photography.
    For gallery prints where the photo IS the art, there is of course more more creative license. But my mindset is surprisingly similar; I’m just trying to do the utmost justice to my subject. Shooting product, the subject is an object – for my personal stuff, the subject is a mood or a memory.

    • I think you’re still very much on the ‘safe’ side of the line though: you’re not portraying them in a way that is completely impossible to see if you didn’t have the right light. Given that in real life, the lighting on the object is dynamic and we see it with two eyes, I don’t think this is a completely unrealistic portrayal. It would be different if you were adding or removing reflections/ transparency or changing colours etc…

      • Thanks for looking things over! :o)
        I must confess, I have in the past experimented with blending different lighting setups as layers in Photoshop. I abandoned that path rather than invest the energy required to make it not look fake. (Also I devised a very low tech practical alternative that gets it all in one exposure – you watch shots were a partial inspiration for that.)

  2. You’re in good company with your philosophy:

    “It is rather amusing, this tendency of the wise to regard a print which has been locally manipulated as irrational photography – this tendency which finds an esthetic tone of expression in the word faked. A ‘manipulated’ print may be not a photograph. The personal intervention between the action of the light and the print itself may be a blemish on the purity of photography. But, whether this intervention consists merely of marking, shading and tinting in a direct print, or of stippling, painting and scratching on the negative, or of using glycerine, brush and mop on a print, faking has set in, and the results must always depend upon the photographer, upon his personality, his technical ability and his feeling. BUT long before this stage of conscious manipulation has been begun, faking has already set in. In the very beginning, when the operator controls and regulates his time of exposure, when in dark-room the developer is mixed for detail, breadth, flatness or contrast, faking has been resorted to. In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability.”

    Edward Steichen 1903

  3. But if it isn’t grill smoke, what is it?

  4. Well Ming, beautiful model and fine photograph but saying in your words-Nothing has been added or removed that was not physically present in the original scene- is a bit far fetched to me old eyes. Physically present is girls skin pigment seen in her right hand which is b/w graduated (removed or made absent) upwards her body and curtains. Or I should better see the optician?

    • On second thought, maybe your formulation is legally correct as the colour in b/w photograph is physically still there but is made invisible by the technics used.

    • That was the point: the presentation has been changed, but I haven’t say removed a lamp or changed the carpet texture.

    • Frans Richard says:

      One could argue that the starting point of a RAW file is actually a mono image. A sensor does not really record color and certainly does not ‘know’ what the ‘real color’ of a scene is. The only ones who could know what the ‘real color’ was are the people present when the image was taken and even then this is influenced by the way someone experiences the scene (one could be colorblind, under influence of alcohol, or whatever). The RAW data captured by a sensor must be processed by either the JPEG engine in the camera or on a computer to create something we can see. In both cases the way the image is processed is influenced by parameters we set, in camera or on the computer, like white balance, saturation, sharpening, etc. So one could say a color image is as much an interpretation of ‘reality’ as a mono one. Is the mono image created by removing color or is the color image created by adding it?

      • You are not creating colour by adding it , you are trying to reproduce the colour your eyes remember having seen the visual reality which if I remember is not b/w with RGB filters layer on, but I could be wrong if we delve in the subparticle gravity fields world.

        • At the photosite level, sensors are luminance-only; the bayer array is added on and colour is interpolated from a supposedly ‘known colour’ filter plus the absolute luminance level afterwards.

          • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

            I know Ming, more then hundred years ago there was RGB filtered b/w photography ( Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky). It was not sensors I was thinking about, it was cone cells, , butterfly wings, bees and flowers and so on, to be exact 🙂

  5. Per Kylberg says:

    This is a very intriguing and important discussion! Photography is never “objective” as I see it. Take the war photographer: Turn one direction and capture the bold soldiers storming towards the enemy…… Turn the opposite direction and capture the place for wounded and dead…….. Two very different aspects of war.
    Then about post processing: I see it as “implementation of my subjective perception of the scene captured”. My capturing machine cannot apply my perception, it just records. Hopefully my photographic execution is good enough to fulfill my intentions with the photo session, but very likely not to 100%. Reinforcement needed i PP. (To me, the scene itself sometimes is just a tool like the camera is.)
    The final image should visualize my intention and my perception not just the scene. If viewers react emotionally an intellectually to my image – then it is ART and I have reached my goal.
    There is a very big difference between “strengthening the message” and “cheat the viewer”. Unless the “cheat” is obvious and part of the artistic message.

    • I agree: photography is never objective because the very act of composition is one of discrimination and exclusion – by excluding anything, you potentially change the interpretation of the resulting image. There are no absolute judgements or positions without complete information, and how often do we have that?

      Enhancing what is there is permissible – but I think replacing it/ cheating is not, as you say, unless the expectation is not one of fidelity.

  6. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Apart from being reminded of all those people who bark “opinions” at you, I am startled that this is an “issue”. As you so rightly point out, Ming, retouching and dodging and so on have been with us since the beginning. For example, no matter what wetting agents you used to avoid the problem, throughout the analogue era there was always the risk of a portion of the emulsion not being exposed to the chemicals required to develop it, or perhaps not even exposed (as adjoining particle had bee) – so out with a very fine brush and a high power magnifying lens, a touch of pigment, and hey presto, here’s your print.

    Photoshopping, in my mind’s eye, is stunts like replacing someone’s head with someone else’s. I can’t recall anyone trying to turn a Boeing 747 into a biplane, but if they did, that would also qualify.

    I understand that reputable photographic competitions have strict rules limiting the amount of retouching etc which is permissible, but nothing which would disturb that simple pair of examples.

    And having spent much of yesterday working through some very sharp, self-opinionated opinions from a couple of people posting most unpleasant comments on other people’s websites, I really think it would be a good idea if people stopped trying to use these “comments” as a forum for taking pot shots at other photographers. Can’t we all try to be nice to one another?

    • In an ideal world, yes. But I think the difference will always be one of education – without understanding, no tolerance. So, out come the hatchets…

  7. Dimitris Kaioglou says:

    The photographic process is a very good example of the philosophy behind “what constitutes ‘reality’ “.
    I agree with everything you state here.
    It’s the same thing our brain does when seeing.

    • We could take it a step further: if somebody with bad eyesight and no spectacles thinks blurriness is reality, who are we to say that is isn’t reality for him?

      • Dimitris Kaioglou says:

        I was under the impression that in philosophy, one step implies all…

        • I think in philosophy, even the definitions and logical frameworks are open to debate 🙂

          • Dimitris Kaioglou says:

            I forgot to add the smiley in my previous comment ( I always take it for granted 🙂 )
            Anywho, in a world of blind people, would they really be blind ?
            And that’s my original point, in which I guess we both agree 🙂

  8. Very interesting post on postproduction. We should all think about it. Personally I very much agree with everything that you expose. Thank you.

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