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This Blog is where I intend to share a variety of things related to my photography, including posts with my thoughts/opinions, as well as analysis of photographic work, and tutorials related to Photography. 

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The Case for Photo Editing: Why I Edit My Photos

Posted on June 29 2020

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I have never been shy about the fact that I process my photos. I do not pretend that my photos are perfect representations of what I saw, and that is usually not my objective.

     When people ask about this, they are often put off by this fact, and may recoil by saying "That's not real photography" or something to the effect of "Nature's beautiful already, why change it?" and this always puzzled me. To me, editing is the process of taking something anyone can see with their eye, and elevating it to become art. As long as you are not trying to pass something off as photo journalism, why is the process so important when determining how "good" it is?

     This objection to altering nature's beauty suggests that there is this blurry area between "Photojournalism" and "Digital Art" and nothing is supposed to exist between those things, no matter how forthright or open you are about your process. Either, "that image is a photograph" or "that image was created digitally". I believe this kind of thinking is restrictive and harms photography as an art form, and is a result of the medium being so new when compared  to classic art forms like drawing and painting. 

    I am often reminded of some of the Art History classes I took in College, and how Art has evolved from practical symbols and iconography to more advanced and accurate representations of reality, to finally arrive at a place where we feel comfortable delving into non-representational work and abstraction. While this has occurred in traditional art forms such as painting and drawing, it doesn't seem to have bled over into the newer media of Photography, because we work with a tool that is actually capable of quickly capturing reality.

     For some reason going outside of representational, photo-journalistic work is still frowned upon and I often hear remarks along the lines of:  "Photography is about your Compositions and Storytelling, not your computer skills!"  The knee-jerk reaction is to demonize the digital process, because it is fake, untrue and impersonal. I often find that there is only "well done" editing and "bad" editing, and the distinction focuses on how "natural" it looks in the end. The only acceptable level of editing seems to be editing that is indistinguishable from nature. 

     That being said, I understand where this reaction comes from. There is a disconnect between what happens behind the scenes to get amazing photographs, and the general public is led to believe all great images are SOOC (Straight of out Camera) and perfect representations of reality, and this perception isn't even limited by the digital age. Old School methods of photo-retouching existed long before "Photoshop" and they were always a hush-hush type of secret among photographers and editors.

     Speaking of Photoshop, the program garnered a bit of a bad rap due to its use in portrait photography to distorting the human figure in extreme ways to influence the viewer/consumer to have unattainable aspirations. There is also the fear of using the program to create "fake" images with the intention to deceive viewers or distort reality in order to sell a particular narrative. The thing that both of these uses share, is that the artist/creator did not disclose that the image had been altered. This is not a good way to utilize photo editing, and I don't agree with that type of practice. I am exclusively talking about Photography as an art form, and how editing can be a tool, similar to how different types of paint are a tool for a painter. 

     People don't usually get upset when viewing work created by masterful painters such as Van Gogh, because they understand that it is a work of art- despite being done in a plein air method  with the intent to represent a real subject in the natural world. We understand that the artists' perception of this scenery is the art, and while he certainly painted what he was seeing, the resulting image wasn't a photocopy of reality. 

Vincent Van Gogh, “Olive Orchard with Mountains and Disk of the Sun,” 1889, oil on canvas, 29 x 36.5 in., The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, William Hood Dunwoody Fund

Vincent Van Gogh, “Olive Orchard with Mountains and Disk of the Sun,” 1889, oil on canvas, 29 x 36.5 in., The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, William Hood Dunwoody Fund

    When we look at this image, we know that the brushstrokes are creating the feeling of radiant heat from the sun, and add a level of movement to an image that, if done representationally, would not be present. The exaggerated colours and the faded, washed out tones help reiterate the hot arid environment this painting is depicting. Sure, these are all things that would be obvious, based on the location and subject matter, but it helps convey the mood a little better. Now if I were to take a photograph of that location, why wouldn't I also alter the image to best convey how it actually felt to be there? Wouldn't that be a truer representation of the subject? Instead of just seeing a direct copy of the place or animal we witnessed wouldn't it be more valuable and more impact we can describe visually how it felt to witness that scene?
Not only that, but many of the artistic choices in that image are strictly aesthetic ones, such as what Van Gogh chose to include and exclude to make a more focused composition. As a general rule we accept the painter's "edit" of reality because it makes it a more powerful image, and is a reflection of that painter's artistic eye. 

     Why does this same perception not exist in Photography? Nature is imperfect and fickle and doesn't not care to cooperate with your artistic vision. A lot of the challenge with photography is left up to the sheer luck. You can plan a photo and the perfect composition all you want, but at a certain point its usually at the mercy of weather conditions, positioning/behavior of a wild animal, and timing. Persistence and patience will increase the chances significantly when it comes to achieving your vision, but often the resulting image is still going to fall short of the picture your created in your mind.

      These variables make Photography challenging and engaging for the photographer in their endless pursuit of "perfection", but usually this effort is lost on the viewer. As Photographers we have all found ourselves saying "That would have been a perfect composition, IF the animal only stepped a few inches to the right,  and the mood would be perfect IF a cloud passed over to diffuse the light a bit." We are conditioned to say "oh well, maybe next time" instead of giving in to the urge to digitally move the subject into the appropriate composition, or enhance the subpar lighting. Or worse, it's possible that some images are the result of baiting animals to get in the right position or physically removing distracting plants or branches, which can have harmful effects on the natural environment on a large scale. 

     This brings us to another question... Does post processing de-value the efforts and persistence of the photographer who staked out for hours in uncomfortable positions and came back to the location hundreds of times to get the "perfect" photo? I don't necessarily think so, because the opposite can also happen. A complete amateur can just happen to take an incredible photo on their phone and have no idea why it works, or how to reproduce the effect. Is the photo "perfect" to its viewer because of it's authenticity and effort involved or is it "perfect" because it is pleasing to look at? If photography is about using your artistic eye to "see" an amazing shot, then knowing how to correct and improve a bad one should also be included in this process.

We don't value abstract art because it's technically difficult to create, but because it's effective at making us feel, and is interesting to look at. 

     You may prefer representational work over abstraction, but I think both are valued in the art world, and I think the same should exist within the photographic community. I believe there is a place for both, and often times when reviewing my own work I feel like minimal editing is the way to go. However, there are times when I see the potential in an image and am not quite ready to give up on it. I only ask that those changes are admired as an artistic choice, and not demonized for being "fake" or "deceptive". 

Below I'll include some images, including the often secret "before" shot to de-mystify the editing process. It seems silly that I have to say this, but there is no "make this picture pretty" button, and no preset is going to hand you the perfect image. I spend time experimenting, adjusting and constantly making micro-adjustments before I come to agree on a final edit.... and even then I often go back and revisit some of my old edits with new knowledge and perspective. 

 All "composite"  photos (photos where I change the sky or background)  are made photos that have also been taken by me, and I prefer to source from photos I've taken from the same day and/or location.

Iceland Waterfall

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The original photo was taken on a rainy evening in mid-summer which made this popular spot in Iceland almost completely empty (the figure in the photo was the only other tourist). Unfortunately that also meant flat lighting and dull skies, but the mist and haze was so captivating I thought I could work with it. I took a throwaway photo from the next day when there were beautiful skies, and merged it in. I was going for a "Bierstadt" painting sort of look, so I clarified, dodged and burned some focal points on the cliff that had amazing texture to imitate that signature look "painting" look. 

Barred Owl

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The original photo of this magical moment of meeting a barred owl in a snow storm just wasn't cutting it for me. Because of where the owl originally perched, I only had a boring snowy background to work with and the fact that it was snowing heavily was completely lost. However, I caught a photo of the owl flying into a field moments later that highlighted the beauty of the snowfall, and was able to use as a background to bring the "magic" back into the photo.

Lone Buck

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I took this photo from the drive-thru of a coffee shop, so to say I wasn't adequately prepared is a bit of an understatement. Luckily, I quickly reached for my camera  and took a couple dozen photos before the buck disappeared. I was in love with the incredible contrast of the white bark and the dark forest, but in my haste to focus on the buck the beautiful birch was cropped out. However, thanks to the power of editing I was able to reunite them both again. 

Black Bear

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Full disclosure, this black bear photo was taken in Parc Omega, where this black bear was in a captive environment and the photo was shot from a vehicle. This is likely the only safe way I could get this close of a shot of a bear with the gear I own. That being said, although I loved how sharp this portrait is, the original shot was pretty lackluster. Instead, I tried to accentuate the texture , and bring the focus in to it's face with some heavy vignetting.

Butchart Gardens

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There wasn't much to add to this incredible shot of Butchart Gardens in mid-April, but in order to get all the detail of the garden, I had to add the sky back in from an underexposed shot. In addition to this, I was able to creatively combine dozens of shots spread out over a couple minutes to mask out the tourists from the original photo.

Fox Kit

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These Fox kits called this neighborhood culvert their home, which made them easy to watch, but pretty challenging to photograph due to the dark lighting. I also wasn't thrilled about having a man-made structure in the background, despite it being a common behavior for foxes to build dens close to humans. I just loved the curiosity in this Kit's face, so I cropped in on it and added a strong vignette to focus in on the kit's expression. All further edits were focused on making sure the kit's eyes were front and center.

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  • Mark Brickley

    2 weeks ago

    I cam to your site as you are one of the few photographers using Pentax gear, and having just discovered it myself I was interested, however I read and considered your blog entry with interest. I think you are right but the danger, it seems to me is not altering an image to make it better, any camera digital or otherwise does that but rather editing it in a way that makes in inauthentic of the feeling and experience you had taking it, ultimately unless the finished image contains something of your response to the subject and indeed of yourself then what is the point. Thought,provoking stuff.

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