Image Enhancements

Stone and snow.

Stone and snow.

Blefjell, Norway / March 2008
A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.

Ansel Adams

The Goal

My goal with my art photography, is to create artwork that portray the landscape as I see it, and that is meant for the viewer to find both inspiring and enjoyable. But to achieve this goal it's often necessary to go the extra mile and do all the work needed when the raw-file is captured in the field, and to follow up with significant work in the post processing on a computer to prepare the image for printing.

Please note that I'm talking about art photography here, not photojournalism or documentary photography of wildlife etc., which is supposed to represent an objective reality. But as as we will see, even in those types of photography the image is almost never a true objective representation of reality even if "unaltered".

Reality Check

Some art photographers claim that they do no manipulation of their images and that their images represent some sort of truth, that their images are a straight representation of reality.

While I can understand the need for, or wish for, making a documentary photo that can be used as an objective representation of reality, I believe that it's important to understand that that is not what you get if you just take what the camera (or the film in the "old" days) gave you. And it's not easy to do right. And I do not believe that you generally get any form of art by using what you got straight out of the camera.

To get a photograph that is an objective representation of reality, you really have to have the proper skills and know what you are doing, and you will have to make an effort both during capture and during post processing of the image. You have to have the a fully color managed work flow, and make an objective measurement of the the light and colors during capture to be able to match the colors during post processing of the image.

And to create a work of art you will also have to have the proper skills, know what you are doing and have a creative vision that you wish to express.

Lets take a closer look at why one in general will not get an image that really represent reality as we would see it if we had been present when the images was made, by just using film or a digital camera that gives you a JPEG-image.

The Myth of Film

Many people seem to believe that an image made on film, with no processing done in a computer, is a straight representation of reality. But truth is that the image is just a representation of reality as the engineers and marketing department of the film company (Fuji, Kodak, Agfa etc.) though would sell best in the marketplace it was made for.

The very popular Fuji Velvia that I used myself for more than 10 years give very saturated colors and gives very rich red. This made landscape images made with this film very nice and is the reason for its popularity, not that it created colors that represented reality.

And even the few films that were made to be "neutral colors" would only be correct under one specific set of lighting condition. Since light changes all the time, this means that it was almost a guarantee that the colors in an image would be wrong and did not in any way represent reality in a scientific way.

B&W images is of course even worse in this respect, they bear no resemblance to reality other than the shapes, and in some cases, the tonality of the scene. A well done B&W images is of course really nice and can be a work of art, but it bears no resemblance to reality in a scientific way and what your eyes would have seen had you been present when the image was made. If you think about it, a B&W image is really one of the most heavy handed changes of reality that is done. Most people would only find cloning in or out major elements from an image to be more manipulative and remove the image further from reality.

To get closer to true colors with film, it's necessary to measure the color temperature of the light (or be really good at judging it) and compensate with appropriate filter when the image is made.

Digital capture

With today's digital cameras and their increasingly better auto white-balance, the colors in the images are probably generally closer to reality than with film, but it's important to remember that it's probably still the marketing department of the camera maker that dictates how the images should look to be most pleasing so you will buy the camera. People want vivid and saturated colors, not neutral and true rendering of their snapshots of reality...

With digital it's a bit easier to get colors closer to real colors by taking all images with a camera that has the ability to store the image in RAW-format. Then take an image of a neutral gray-card first to establish the lighting conditions, and use that information to apply proper color balance to your RAW-files.

How We See

In addition to the fact that it's very difficult to capture an image that is true to reality, we have the added problem of how our eyes and brain is used to see. The combination of our eyes and brain is used to create an image in our brain in a way that is totally different from the way a film or a digital device capture the light.

The eyes retina has a static contrast ratio of around 100:1 (about 6 1/2 stops). As soon as the eye moves it re-adjusts its exposure both chemically and by adjusting the iris. Our eyes scan the scene constantly and adjust sensitivity to compensate for deep shadows and bright sunlight in the same scene. The brain then creates an image in our mind that can have a very high dynamic range, larger than what we today can capture in one shot with a camera, film or digital. With full dark adaption our eyes can have a dynamic contrast ratio of about 1,000,000:1 (about 20 stops).

What "No Enhancements" Really Mean

Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.

Ansel Adams

As we can see, it's very difficult to make an image that is a true representation of reality. But the good news is that outside of science we almost never need accurate colors, most of the time we only need, or want, pleasing and believable colors. Which is why film and camera makers make films and cameras that are fine tuned to give pleasing contrast and colors, not a scientific capture of the scene. This is of course OK, but we have to realize that this is just one possible interpretation of the image, and one done without considering the specific image and circumstances it was taken under.

What it all boils down to is that when someone says that they have made a straight image with no alterations, they are really saying that they did not bring any of their own creativity to this image. They did not do any visualization of how the image should be, or see how their own eyes saw the vista. They say that the engineers at Kodak, Canon or Nikon did all the creative work on their image. On all their images. They just pointed the camera and pressed a button. How sad, impersonal, lazy and boring is that?

Artistic Freedom

I do not object to retouching, dodging. or accentuation as long as they do not interfere with the natural qualities of photographic technique.

Alfred Stieglitz

Rather than limit our creativity and vision to what the camera can record and the engineers and marketing department at Canon found to be "nice", I think it's sensible to always make a raw-file and personally enhanced each and every image to bring back and recreate as much as possible of what was felt, seen and visualized when the picture was made.

I feel that giving each photo such a personal touch allows me to better share my vision and inspiration of the natural world around me and to share what I saw, felt, and experienced. I believe it is this personal connection that makes images truly unique, allowing us to view the world through the photographers eye.

So for me this means that to make the image I want, I clone, I change the colors, alter the contrast, and sometimes even remove things that look ugly in the image. I sharpen the image. I modify reality. What you see is then not exactly what I photographed, what you see is the world as I saw it and as I want to show it, not the version of reality as defined by some engineers and marketing people in a big corporation.

Conclusion

Don't let your images be a representation of the view of the marketing people in a big corporation. Choose to express your own vision.

Ronny A. Nilsen
Norway, October 2008

Examples

This is some examples of the kind of enhancements I'm talking about in this essay to bring out the images I saw and visualized at the time i made the image.

Example 1: White Sands storm approaching

This image is a combination of 2 images taken with a 90mm T/S lens stitched together in PhotoShop to create one large panoramic image. I could not have taken this image in one shot as the camera I had with me did not have enough resolution to print as large as I want after cropping.

Most of my panorama images is made by using this technique as described in my essay Build a View Camera with your Canon 5D.

The image Stone and snow at the start of the essay is done in a slightly different way as it's a combination of 6 images stitched together in PhotoShop to create one large panoramic image. I could not have taken this image in one shot as the camera I had with me at the time did not have a wide enough lens. And besides that, after cropping the resulting image would have been to small to print as large as I want.

Example 2: Morning Mist

The first image below is an unaltered image straight from the raw-converter (LightRoom) just as it was recorded by the camera, a Canon 5D in this case.

But this is nothing like what the landscape looked like at all! I was drawn to this scene because of the soft light from behind me to the left that made the autumn colors in the foreground glow, and the clear blue sky that came in as a wedge from the right. It was a beautiful morning. The birds were singing and all else was quiet. Life was good.

It took a lot of work to bring back what I saw at the scene, that the camera missed at it's default settings. The final image below is what it became after I worked on it on the raw-converter I found to be best for this image (Bibbel pro) and PhotoShop to bring out the image I had visualized and actually saw at the time I made the image in the field. The real image was there all the time, I just had to find it in the raw-file.

Morning mist

Morning mist

Valdres, Norway / September 2006

Example 3: Fence In Winter Fog

This image is more or less a straight color image out of the camera with almost no adjustments done. This is what the scene really looked like. The technology got it right this time. But the image did not end up this way by accident. I made a conscious choice that this was the image I wanted. It's not because I didn't visualize what I wanted in the field, or that I don't know how to make it different.

Fence in wintwer fog.

Fence in wintwer fog.

LÝrenskog, Norway / January 2006

Example 4: Coal mine #2

This image might at first glance look like it has been altered with a heavy hand as I have removed all color and made a B&W image. But the original color version was in fact almost monochromatic, I just though the image worked better in neutral gray than the blues of the color version.

Coal mine #2 v2

Coal mine #2 v2

Longyearbyen, Norway (Svalbard) / March 2006

Usually I prefer color images, but sometimes I find that the strongest image is made by going in a more abstract direction and remove all colors.

Example 5: Old barn

This image had some trees in the foreground that I cloned out to make the field in foreground simpler without the distraction of the trees sticking into the image from the bottom.

Old Barn

Old Barn

Flesberg, Norway / December 2006