In this humungous interconnected networked world of ours, in which you can welcome the planet to view your words, pictures or videos, there is a species of commenter who is a blight upon civilisation. Armchair experts pop up everywhere, wherever comments are allowed – on discussion forums, social media, websites, photo and video sharing sites, newspaper stories – you name it – there isn’t a website on the planet that hasn’t had its fair share of uninformed views from this invasive species.
Within photography circles, the battle cry of the armchair expert is ‘Shopped!’. This salutation handily identifies the poster as an armchair expert and pretty much everything that comes after that inevitable exclamation mark can be ignored. They cast an eye over the offending image, refer back to their minuscule knowledge of photography and/or that cracked copy of Photoshop they dicked around with five years ago and declare that the image is, in some way, fake. Whether it’s a landscape shot, a portrait or a still life of a tulip wedged in the arsehole of a statue of Lenin, these keyboard warriors are happy to weigh-in with their limited knowledge of everything. For a truly staggering agglomeration of armchair experts, look no further than Reddit and subreddits such as EarthPorn where Ansel Adams would be accused of being a ‘slider-crazy noob’.
The problem with the cry of ‘Shopped!’ is that if you shoot RAW files then every shot you take has to be run through Adobe Camera RAW. These files, essentially digital negatives, are the unmolested image data, totally unmodified by the camera’s built-in circuitry. They are not intended to be the finished product, they are specifically designed to be processed manually by the photographer.
Access to the raw camera data means that far more is possible in post-processing, but since the photographer is only dealing with the raw camera data and is not adding or removing pixels, such processing is not tampering with a scene, but simply an essential stage in the photographic process. Such processing is no different to work in the darkroom with film and chemicals. When your average armchair expert accuses someone of Photoshopping, however, they are suggesting that the scene actually looked nothing like the photograph. In my case and in the case of most photographers, I use RAW files because I want to get closer to the truth of the scene than the camera would ordinarily allow.
The emergence of popularity-based photo sites (500px, Pixoto etc) and the use of social media to promote photographers work has sucked the originality from a vast number of photographic styles. Even five years ago many people would have caught their breath looking at a shot of the northern lights, or the milky way over an old barn, or light painting with burning steel wool, or star trails or the view from inside a breaking tubular wave, but not anymore. The sheer volume of good photography uploaded to Facebook and Twitter every second of the day is enough to make the most incredible scenes dull.
Walking hand-in-hand with Facebook and Twitter is the modern smartphone and its sophisticated camera. No smartphone is complete without the Instagram app and its collection of built-in filters. It’s those filters, perhaps, that drive the attitudes of the armchair expert – after all, if it’s as easy as clicking a single filter button to create an effect, then surely the photographer did the same? It simply doesn’t enter their heads that all the effects in Instagram are largely based on actual photographic techniques. Light-leaks, high-key, lo-fi, grain, high saturation – it all comes from the world of film photography.
There are, of course, people who heavily modify their photographs and try to pass them off as unretouched imagery. Ironically I hardly ever see the armchair experts complaining about these images. If you’re heavy-handed enough with your sliders it seems you can slip right past the old radar. And similarly of course there are some cases where even the most mild-mannered person might take offence at an image that is being passed off as ‘natural’.
The end result of all this is that it turns photographers into apologists and puts them well and truly on the back foot. How many times do you see a cool photo with a caption like, “The colours were really like this, I have not altered anything,” because they know some dickhead’s going to come along and claim it’s all Adobe.
To Shop or Not to Shop
So let’s set the parameters here and discuss the matter with a bit of honesty. When I first made the move into digital photography and using RAW photo files (about eight years ago) I was heavily influenced by a couple of photographers. What drew me to these people was that, if asked, they always explained what they had done to an image. Consequently, if someone asks me I’ll always explain what post-processing I’ve done to an image, in fact quite often I’ll include the information up front. My rules are simple – add nothing, remove it before you press the shutter, work only with what you’ve got, don’t be afraid to show your working out.
Here are some examples of my editing. I should say from the start that these days I hardly ever use Photoshop, pretty much all of my processing is only of the RAW file and only in Lightroom. When I’m doing fusion-mapped images then obviously I’ll use an app such as Photomatix to blend the light-data of the images. That doesn’t mean I’m not proud of these photos.
The photo above is one of my most heavily Photoshopped images and, while I’ve never hidden that fact, nobody has ever picked me up on it. It includes heavy work pulling back image data in the breaking wave on the left and right to the photo and on the surfer himself. It was also sharpened selectively and the colour was carefully balanced. I did a fair bit of dodging and burning on the broken wave in the foreground and also on the breaking wave. You will also note that no pixels have been added or removed, it is not a composite, they are exactly the same image, I have simply brought out hidden image data using standard tools.
When this one was posted, someone said, “that’s not how it appears to the naked eye or a run of the mill photograph”. Firstly, that’s almost exactly how it appeared to the naked eye and secondly, what’s a run of the mill photograph then? I don’t have a flashy camera, in fact this one was taken with a four and a half year old Canon EOS-550D. It’s just a 30 second exposure shot with a polarising filter on the front of the camera, but because the armchair expert had never seen a colourful sunset like this on the harbour the accusation was that I was using some kind of trickery. Check out the before and after – the before is the RAW with no processing whatsoever, it looks washed out because RAW files nearly always do – in other words the before shot only looks similar to the scene I saw with my own two eyes, not like it.
Many of my sunrise and sunset photos are bracketed shots combined together. Why do this? Because the digital sensor cannot capture what the human eye can see, but you can get closer to it by combining multiple exposures. As you can see from the before and after above, the composition does not change, I am merely utilising the light data stored in two further shots taken milliseconds after the first one. In the first shot, the sand is quite dark and the sky is slight over-exposed, but the grass is correct. I strongly believe that this sort of processing (fusion, rather than HDR) produces a much more natural looking image which is true to what the human eye could see. I have no desire to create alien landscapes, if I did I’d learn how to use a 3D rendering suite. I also like my photos this way and I’m amazed that we’re able to include so much more actual light data in an image than we could before exposure blending.
Yes, it’s Photoshopped, but not in the way you think
There is undoubtedly a tipping point where a photograph changes from a depiction of a scene to a hyper-stylised version of it. I’ve crossed the line myself in the past, though I’ve never claimed a shot is unprocessed when it is. I’ve also gone back and re-edited many of my earlier ham-fisted processing attempts and I suspect I’m not alone.
There is of course nothing wrong with creating a hyper-stylised version of a photo. National Geographic will never print it and the neck-beards in EarthPorn would savage you if you uploaded your shot there, but so what? If you like it, if the people visiting your Facebook page like it and if you’re not claiming it’s some pristine facsimile of the scene then none of that matters. Do what feels right. If turning the saturation slider up to 100 makes you happy and it makes others happy too, then crack on mate.
The second thing to say is that the vast majority of photos start in the camera, make their way through a development application (Lightroom, Photoshop, Adobe Camera RAW, Capture One etc) and then get saved in their ‘finished’ form. This is because most photographers want to make the most of the data stored in the RAW image file. If visual information is hidden in the shadows then why wouldn’t you boost them to see it? If visual information is lurking in the top end of the highlights, then why wouldn’t you draw back on the highlights to reveal it? If you don’t want to alter your photographs in any way once the camera’s finished doing your job, then shoot in JPEG, but you will end up with inferior results to a post-processed RAW.
Armchair Experts – Wind Your Necks In
So what’s the take-out from all this. Firstly, the vast majority of photographs are post-processed in something like Adobe Camera RAW and crying ‘Shopped!’ just makes you look like an unknowledgeable dickhead. Secondly, there’s nothing wrong with post-processing and photographers shouldn’t have to apologise for it, any more than Ansel Adams had to justify the film stock he used, the tricks he employed in the darkroom or the paper he printed on. Thirdly, yes it’s possible to overcook a photo in post but that’s irrelevant for the most part since all of photography is a lie. The camera you use, the lens on the front, the length of the exposure, the aperture, the filters on the front, the use of flash – all of these things distort the ‘truth’ of a scene and so why is an HDR more of a lie than a 30 second exposure? How is using a flash to synthetically light a scene any different to cranking up the exposure in Lightroom?
Photos get processed. Some more than others. Photos presented to the public do not have to look like they came out of a scientific book on geography. If you like the photo, great, if you don’t like it then move on to the next one – there are billions out there and some of them may just meet your approval. And in the mean time – if you’re such an expert – let’s see your shots!