What Was “Really” There Anyway? – Reality and the Camera RAW File

RAW or cooked

So, I am a photographer. I’ve spent thirty plus years trying to work combinations of light and light-sensitive materials into personal visions. In the beginning most of this involved shooting color slide film, black-and-white negative film, and when the first two were not available I shot in color negative. There were dozens of emulsions available in various speeds and from various companies. Each responded to light in a scene with its own signature blend of contrast, sharpness, grain, saturation, strong, and weak colors. Kodachrome was saturated and contrasty. Ektachrome had bluish shadows. Fujichrome had warmer shadows. Tri-X was grainy. Pan-X was flat… and the lists went on. Each shooter of-course had their own preferences and the emulsion helped shape their look and their style. Much as a painter’s style would express their personal vision of what was “there” in the physical world, so these emulsions became something like artists’ palettes for the photographers. These, in-turn, had some significant impact. Though a photographer was “capturing” something from the existing world… whatever was being captured was at the same time being colored by the stylistic choice of materials and processing (as well as the more obvious factors such as cropping, focus, timing, and exposure.) A photograph therefore was a type of interpretation… a stand-in or analog for what was “there.” While there was some direct link between the two, the photograph and the scene were in no way identical, and no wholly “natural” representation was being made. A photograph was, and still is, artificial… like all art.

The reason I’ve made this long-winded digression from emulsion to artifice is so that we can take a step forward in time… a step to just a few hours ago. Today I work with digital files. The preferred format of these files is now something called “Camera RAW.” The advantage it claims is its attempt to bypass all of the individual quirks and biases of film emulsions and to record more-or-less raw information from the camera’s sensor, though even that varies between camera make and model. So though recording “raw” data is the goal of the format, the whole scene has not jumped into the camera with no alterations waiting to be revealed by the printers of the world. The camera has just recorded a version which is not too strong in any particular tonal direction. A more accurate description is that a Camera RAW file is a manufacturer’s representation of the scene with flattened-out values for exposure, contrast, saturation… etc. The RAW file is a starting-point that then has to be rendered by software into a visible file or screen display. If you set your camera to save files in JPEG format, the camera takes that information first as a RAW file, alters it, and then renders it as the JPEG that the camera saves. It makes a decision on how to present the image based upon the built-in or user specified conversion settings.

Now I need to add that while it is possible to view the unedited RAW file with no corrections, it is generally a dull and lifeless looking thing with less energy in it than even the blandest amateur film emulsion from the days of slides and negatives. This is where the individual styles come in. We photographers who shoot our work only in RAW format make our own artistic decisions (we choose our “emulsions” if you will) when we are importing the files into our computers with photo editing software. Unlike the old days however there are all means of contrast, luminosity, hue, saturation, sharpness, grain, noise reduction, and on and on from which we choose our look. From these we then personalize our visual toolkit. The RAW file itself has none of these decisions in it, but it is usually accompanied by a .XMP file which is like a map of the photographer’s instructions for best viewing and rendering the file. If a printer or a magazine starts with a RAW file they either use these instructions or else make their own interpretation based upon their aesthetic vision. They then present the public the final image viewed with through this “emulsion.”

Which in a twisted roundabout way brings me back to this morning. I had submitted some photos to a publication. The art director had approved them, but thought the colors were too saturated to blend with the magazine’s style, so she’d asked for less-saturated versions and/or the RAW files. These were sent straight-away and all looked to be going well. This morning I received an email from her indicating that the editor in the Production Department was having issues with one image. I e-mailed this fellow to see what I could do to help. I received a reply that read simply:

“At [our magazine] we use images with very little manipulation and only to help the image through the printing process that is why I like to see the raw file.”

I was puzzled. So what does this mean? The editor already has the RAW file and several rendered versions from me. He’s not overtly saying that he doesn’t like the look of the rendered file, or that he can’t get the RAW to match it, or even that he can’t do something in between. This guy seems to be saying that if he dragged one of the knobs or sliders far enough to make the picture look like I wanted, then it would offend his sense of what was “natural.”

Concerns of this nature can be quite justified and our guy was not being unreasonable to raise them here, though he and I were clearly drawing our lines at differing points for the representation of nature. The effortless sense of capturing “reality” that film users had when they would make one decision about cropping and focus, one decision about exposure, and then send the rolls off to the lab is now clearly more complicated. Digital files are easy to tweak and edit, with values that can be adjusted wildly. Even the most basic file viewing programs also include the ability to edit. We now have the power to pump up the saturation of a field at dusk until the blades of grass glow in the shadows like neon signs, the power to take the seagulls from a few different sunsets and paste them all into one sunset, to remove signs, or replace whole buildings with nothing but flowers. We have all seen shots of fall foliage so warped in color that the reds are lavender. There are several well-meaning tools such as HDR, with its ability to combine exposures and compress a broad range of tones into a single photograph, a range much closer to that of the human eye. Though it possesses great potential, through under-developed programs, amateur presets, and a lack of experienced users it mostly just gets abused to make those crazy looking pictures with gray highlights. There are many, many photographs out there that through digital excess are terribly aberrant in their representation of nature. So, no fault to this fellow for wanting to weed those out. Though I must point-out that there were no borrowed seagulls or swapped skies in the shot we were discussing. I’d just tried to keep detail in both the bright sky and dark shadows while toning down the flash that I had been forced to fire by my lack of a tripod.

Let’s go back to that natural simplicity of film that I’d mentioned above. Even then there were complications, but with film they were just not as obvious. You see, neither digital sensors nor film really take in light the way that the human eye does. Unlike the eye, both actually build the light up from a given length of time and then compress it into a single photographic instant. They gather light and then add it all together. The differences caused by this method start to become more apparent with either very long, or with very short exposure times. Take, for example, low light photography. Moonlight, starlight, streetlight, fire, lightning, and various man-made sources of light all occur in the physical world but require longer exposure times to record them in a photograph. Even in the days of film, by leaving the shutter open for these longer periods of time, the light which was naturally hitting the subject could build-up into a visible and sometimes dramatic exposure. For shorter shutter times this was roughly akin with our visual experience of the scene, but as shutter times exceed multiple seconds often it looked quite unfamiliar. Though our eyes would correct for the lime-green cast of an older streetlight when we viewed it in-person, film did not. Was the resulting green other-worldly looking night-scape then less “natural” that a daylight scene of the same location? The dull afterglow of a sunset could light-up the sky in a shot with a minute or two added to the exposure. This was just the accumulation of natural light hitting the clouds and reflecting back upon a piece of film. Was it natural or was it not? The answer, of course is that it was neither and both at the same time. The long exposure and the short exposure alike are artifice, representations. Even as photographers we are still on that same slippery slope with the painters, somewhere between real and fake, just representing reality and not presenting it. All conceits to the contrary are self-deception.

We could take this even a bit further back into the days of black-and-white film, in case someone would suggest that we look to a time or style in history for those simple days when film just “told it like it was.” Nature and landscape photographers always like to throw around names of the purists of the craft, and none get thrown so often as Ansel Adams. Far from being the most natural, he also routinely used “manipulation” both before and after recording the image. Today’s equivalent of these processes are some of the mainstays in photo editing software. To change how various colors translated into black-and-white he would start with a colored filter over his camera lens. The Black-and-White filter sliders used today in camera RAW and Photoshop are analogous. Then he used a technique called The Zone System to control the contrast range of the scene. It consisted of using a spot meter and gray card to measure the average exposure, measure light reflected from several individual spots, adjust the camera settings to manually set the darkest visible point in the photograph, and then either over-develop or under-develop each negative to manually set the brightest point in the photo. It is actually a bit more complicated, but for all intents and purposes this is somewhere between the “levels” and “curves” adjustments that digital photographers use today. No matter how far back you go looking for the simpler times when photographs had that natural connection to reality, it can never be found. We always just relied upon things like pre-made film emulsions, standard exposure settings, and commercial lab chemicals to push these decisions back under the proverbial rug regarding our re-presenting the natural world.

At each historical turn, from orthochromatic black-and-white film to panchromatic black-and-white film to three-layer color negative film to slide film to digital sensors, purists claim that a true representation of reality has finally been found while experimenters claim they are finally free from all of the constraints that the old technology had imposed upon their personal vision. Both camps have their subsequent battles of words while the actual pictures being taken by each still seem to fall into that middle ground somewhere between representation and expression. For obvious reasons photographers have never been able to be totally free from the physical world, but for reasons that were less-obvious neither have they been able to be totally true to it. Each time the technology changes these arguments start anew as if the ultimate form of photographic presentation were just around the corner.

Let’s finally come back to my editor. Has he discovered the artistic high-ground from which to produce photographs that are free of manipulation? I would suggest that he had settled upon one solution to the dilemma that works for him. It is not the only solution and I don’t totally agree with it or we would not likely be on this little mental journey. To be afraid to make any aesthetic adjustments to the saturation, tone curve, or hue is to relegate photographs to a dullness that even the cheapest film emulsions have surpassed for at-least fifty years. It is to encourage mediocrity and thus move photography backwards into the digital age rather than forward into the digital age. That said, and though we disagree, the thing to keep in mind is that neither he nor I have an exclusive claim to what was really there before this image got “manipulated.” With film it was no easier to find the true record. It was just easier to overlook the level at which interpretation entered the picture. With digital CCD sensors and image rendering programs we have certainly taken a further step away from claiming a natural connection with a real “raw” image. To even see the image takes millions of calculations by multiple cameras, computers, and printers. There was never a single un-manipulated image, and we are now that many more levels removed from the natural visual information that the photographer saw before he or she raised the camera. Starting from the loosely-named RAW data we only have a choice among more or less credible representations, and have to weigh them against the more or less aesthetically pleasing representations. A RAW file is deliberately unfinished. The work that takes place after the image leaves the camera is a crucial part of any digital photograph, the part that emulsions used to be doing for film photographers. Photographs marred by the excesses of digital processing are an easy and obvious target, yet there are also plenty of potentially great digital photographs that are stunted by apathy, laziness or lack of post-processing skills. No more good is being done by deliberately adding to the numbers of under-worked images than to the numbers of over-worked ones. This is an equal failure of judgement and taste.

So the offending photograph was back there at the beginning of this article. What was really there? It comes back to this. It always will. There is no more fundamental answer. “I was there. This is what I re-present as what I saw. This is my image. I am the artist. You’ll just have to trust me.”

Water Part 2 – Photographing Lakes and Oceans

As the title implies this is the second installment of a series on photographing water. Last time I covered rivers and waterfalls. Today let’s cover lakes and oceans. At the outset I must apologize for treating oceans as if they are just big lakes. With their dynamics flows and movement they deserve a separate article, but maybe at a later time. For our purposes today oceans are just big lakes whose far shore cannot be seen.

The Problem with Photographing Lakes

Have you ever heard something like this? “The lake was so beautiful. It just sparkled in the sun. The sand was clear and white. I never saw skies so blue, water so clear. You should have seen it. Oh wait I’ve got a picture here. Just you wait until you see it…,” a phone or a print is shoved in front of your face. There may be some expectations. You may get your hopes up just a little but, sure enough, this is what you see:
bad“Well, it’s not a very good picture. You really had to be there.” Even if they don’t have the photo with them, that’s OK. You already know exactly how it’s going to look. Maybe their spouse is standing in front of the water with the horizon line cutting them off at the neck, maybe there is a round orange ball of a sun about to take a dip,  but no-matter the minor variations, this picture is pretty-well standard. People are generally terrible when it comes to pictures of lakes and oceans.  No matter how you split it, it is water and not-water with a line between them.  If the above scenario is familiar to you then it should be apparent that lakes come with challenges of their own.
With that in mind, what is missing and how should a photographer add it? Lets look at two things: 1) Perspective and 2) Complexity

 Perspective – It is only in relation to other objects that we get an idea of the shape, size, blueness, calmness, or any other feature that might give a clue about this body of water. The far shore or a plain horizon line does little to help with this.
 Complexity – Even if you can’t get a perspective that expresses the shape or size you can still include some foreground detail to add a bit of complexity. Patterns work best for this as they add interesting features without adding clutter.
The most popular attempt to add complexity is a sunset. I went to school in a city with a very large lake on its western edge. Every day there was, and still is, anywhere from a few to a few dozen students with cameras who would walk to the very edge of the lake, get out of the way of any obstacles blocking the shot, hold the camera at eye level, zoom in as far as their lens would go, and take the exact same picture… the same as the one they took yesterday… the same as the person next to them is taking… the same as at every other west-facing lake at sunset. I have taken some of these… we all have, but in terms of adding perspective or complexity this is level 1 out of 10. Even in the case of a spectacular sunset, this is still just a photo of a spectacular sunset. Instead you should aim for a spectacular photo of a sunset. Then, when the sky cooperates, a spectacular photo of a spectacular sunset is what you get. What parts of this ritual has made these photos go poorly? All of them: standing too close, zooming all of the way in, removing all objects in the foreground, and holding the camera at eye level.

Toward a Solution for Photographing Lakes


Get Back and Go Wide – The far shore of a lake is the least informative and least useful. As the body of water gets larger it becomes even less so, until it is just a straight line, and even techniques like the Rule of Thirds will not help you make that line more interesting. An interesting foreground is the most important factor in any good nature photograph. This is a general principal that extends beyond pictures of lakes. It is equally true of all landscape, sunsets, rainbows…etc. It is just more useful for lakes since you don’t have much else. The near shore of the lake is what you have to work with. Step back, get out a wider lens. Try to include something to show how large, or rugged, or blue the lake is in relation to the near-shore objects that you include. Don’t lose track of the reason that you are widening your view not to take in more of the water, but to get something in the foreground o add perspective. Anyone who has ever gotten out their wide angle lens to try to show the size of the ocean has experienced this first-hand. The far shore will still give no perspective and no indication of size. The horizon line just shifts a bit higher or lower and the boring static shot is unchanged.


 Get High – No, not that way. Natural bodies of water always are situated in depressions. Is there a hill or mountain with a view down onto the lake? Shorelines are complex shapes the cannot be appreciated fully from the same height as the shore itself. This also is very good at relaying information about size and how the lake fits into the overall landscape. The farther up you are the more useful that far shore becomes again as well.


 Get Low – You’re down at the shore but don’t have the time or ability to try the high shot, What now? The closer you get to foreground objects, the larger, taller, and more prominent they become in relation to the background. The shore in front of you is probably filled with features such as stones, grasses and other plants that can gain prominence and help make the shot if you can get the camera down lower. Sit, squat, lie, or use a rotating viewfinder to get the camera down as low as possible. It will give a new perspective to an otherwise boring shot and provide many framing options where none existed before.


 Reflections – reflections are an excellent way to show the stillness of a body of water. They give perspective, complexity, and context so they are very powerful, and are one of the few instances where the far shore becomes more important than the near shore. To emphasize the pattern of the original and the reflected copy it is even acceptable to have the flat horizon line running the whole width of the photo, though you want to avoid putting it right in the middle. Usually it’s best to put the horizon somewhere between the midpoint and one-third of the way from the top.
Please Step Away From The Lake
If you can’t get up or can’t get down, get back. There are still interesting shots to be made by putting foreground objects between you and the water. There are two basic techniques for this  – screening and framing.


Screening – A screen is a shot taken though something that adds an overall pattern to the subject while still leaving the main subject recognizable. An obvious general example would be shooting through a wire or fabric screen. An example of where it comes into play for photographing lakes would be shooting through the silhouette of tree branches to show the lake.


Framing is a separate but related concept. It can also involve silhouetted objects in the foreground. It is exactly what the name implies, using the objects in the foreground to make a frame around the central area of the picture. Framing can range all of the way from an object or group of objects, such as leaves or even a literal window frame, bordering a central subject on all four sides. On a smaller scale the framing can be a right-left or top-bottom border. It can range all of the way down to multiple separate objects on all sides surrounding a clear center.


All types of framing are just specific examples of a more general best-practice in composition- keeping the edges active. I’ll cover composition principles in the next installment of this series. Briefly, make sure this is activity along all four edges of the picture. Make the framing deliberate. Add context. There are many landscape photographers, myself included, who believe that a good landscape photo should have not have any totally empty edges. To keep the eye active and think interested at least one object should enter or exit the photo on all four sides. Empty sides, empty water at the bottom, and empty sky at the top weaken your composition.


That should give you a good place to start. None of these above are hard-and-fast rules, and each situation will have different challenges and opportunities. They are more like reminders. The next time you are standing a few feet from the shore with the camera at eye level and pointed-out at that straight line across the water… think. Is there a better way to show this that doesn’t require telling other people that they “really needed to be there?”


Framed Prints From KeithEdmunds.com Now Available In Rutland


Great News – Many of the prints that you see here at www.KeithEdmunds.com are now available locally  for purchase, already matted and framed. People have been asking, and I don’t blame them. Ordering online is not for everyone. Sometimes the lists of available sizes and surfaces can seem just a list of numbers on a page. There is just no substitute for actually being able to see the final print and see it in the frame.

Rather than  wait for shows and fairs to display my work and leave prints open for days in a tent, my intention has always been to get it into shops locally and across the state. To that end Keith Edmunds Photography has been lucky enough to team-up with The Purple Chandelier Boutique here in Rutland, Vermont.

Locals know The P C has been a popular shop for unique gifts,  decor and collectibles but what they may not know is that the boutique also has a commitment to supporting and carrying the work of local artists.

They are at 269 North Main Street in Rutland, so stop in and pay them a visit. You can visit their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Purple-Chandelier-Boutique/572433682797790 Hit the “like” button when you are there and show your support. More info is available at their homepage here: http://www.purplechandelierboutique.com/

Photographing Water – Part 1 Waterfall Photography and River Photography

Water – photographers love it… and for good reason. It seems to make any scene more interesting with its movements, highlights and reflections. It generates its own atmosphere, shapes the land around it, even its own weather.

So you want to get those great shots, but the pictures are looking a bit flat, they just seem to miss the mark. You get the feeling that those photographs in the magazines were shot in some special expensive and distant place or they must take thousands of dollars in camera equipment.

Not so. It is just that different bodies of water have different tricks to getting the core “feeling” or “essence” down on film. There are only three things you really need. 1) a camera (film or digital) that allows you some control over the shutter speed and exposure, 2) a tripod. This is essential. The water should move, not the camera. Any scene worth photographing will require a steady camera, and most need a shutter speed longer than you can hold by hand. 3) a bubble level. It is not essential but it is highly recommended. Lakes, ocean, and even narrow streams always are perfectly level. If your camera is even slightly tilted they will give you away every time.

Rivers and Waterfalls – This is nothing new for the advanced photographer, but for the amateur looking to get some solid foundations for taking better picture of moving water, the long and short of it all comes down to how long your camera stays open. You need to choose a look for the shot. I think of the styles as Drops, Churn, String, Milk, and Mist. The key to this is the shutter speed and you will absolutely be needing your tripod here.

First things first you will need the right light. Check the weather first. If it will be bright and sunny, not a cloud in the sky… forget about the river unless you are going to swim. Direct sun will (almost always) ruin your shot. Even for very short shutter speeds sunlight will combine with water’s reflective highlights and wash them out beyond repair. It will also prevent you from using a shutter speed slow enough to have any control over the texture.

Go to the rivers when it’s cloudy, at dawn, at dusk, or if you absolutely must brave the noonday sun, wait for a passing cloud. A neutral density filter can be a big help here, but they always reduce sharpness, add more surfaces to collect dust spots, and add a slight color cast. There is really no substitute for a good dark cloudy day, especially for waterfalls.

So, you are on the tripod and level. You’re ready to shoot. How do you control the texture and feel of the flowing water in your photos? On to the specifics:






Drops – This will be the only bright-day photograph you will be able to do at a river. Hazy or sun-behind-the-cloud is still best. Shutter speeds of 1/500th of a second or faster will freeze moving water. There will be clear edges and a well-defined shape to individual drops of the wet stuff. There are also clear and sparkling highlights on them.

Churn – 1/30th of a second to 1/125th of a second still gives defined edges to give the feeling of movement and splashing, but the drops combine into waves and foam with less distinct highlights.

String – Splashes be come flows at shutter speeds between a half and 1/15th of a second. For waterfalls the movement of the water draws-out into long strands almost resembling string.

Milk – at about one second to five seconds with the shutter open flowing water gets a milky feel. This is especially popular with scenic waterfall shots. Those expensive far-away looking shots I mentioned above are usually nothing more exotic or complicated that this. The only equipment involved is the tripod.

Mist – at shutter speeds that exceed five seconds the water resembles mist. It becomes a bluish white ghosting that hovers above and around the rocks of the river’s bed. Photographers often use those more extreme technique to give a softer or more tropical feel to waterfalls.

Give these a try. If you are shooting with a digital camera why not give them all a try? It will cost nothing but a few minutes of your time and you may get a new and unexpected perspective just by altering that one variable – time. Good luck and happy shooting.

Find more Waterfalls at KeithEdmunds.com

Find more Rivers at KeithEdmunds.com


 In this week’s post the “what’s new” is pretty obvious. Everything is new. The site, studio, twitter, blogs and I’m still working out the bugs, but spring is almost here. This has eaten nearly every minute of the last month but it’s time to get back out on the road. It’s time for new images. So for the future there will be some real news here, real goings-on… not just pages about making pages and asking you to look at my pages.

While all of that is well and good, and maybe even necessary for the launch of the site it will get old fast. So this space will be used surely to showcase new photos and cool locations I might have visited I intend to use this also for photo lessons, tips and tricks and interesting things to help you take your own great photos, because it is not that difficult. Photography is actually quite simple, and interesting, and it makes you more interested and attentive to the things at which you are pointing the camera.

I’ll share some of my techniques and thoughts, and certainly a few of my favorite spots to visit and shoot. Leave a comment, tell me what you might like to see or maybe what you already like and want to see more of. I’ll cut this short as I have to finally add this page to the site and get cracking on October, November, and December 2013 pictures that are still unedited and unpublished.