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.”