Earlier today, I had a short online conversation about photo editing with a photographer friend. We were discussing a photograph I took the other day which had a dark foreground (rocks) and a brilliant background (sunset). You can see that photo here.
The conversation was a simple one, about how I had dealt with a dark foreground and bright background when I couldn’t use a Neutral Density filter. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, ND filters help bring the brightness of the sun down a few f-stops so you can shoot the photograph without blowing out the sky or darkening the rocks into an unrecognizable silhouette. Our eyes do it automatically, but cameras can’t. ND filters allow photographers to capture those stunning sunsets that none of the rest of us can ever seem to duplicate.
Jeff Sinon, the photographer friend with whom I had the conversation, is a very smart man, and an absolutely phenomenal photographer. He immediately asked what I used for editing software.
You see, he KNOWS that photographers simply cannot shoot what any average person’s eyes can see at sunset without editing or using filters. It’s simply impossible, given the light-sensing capabilities of the cameras that we have available to us.
It is sometimes necessary, such as with that sunset, to use editing software to accurately represent what the eye could have seen naturally. Unfortunately, I can’t use any photo editing software without feeling guilty that someone is going to think I cheated.
I’m starting to think there’s something seriously wrong with me, because I cringe every time I open up my photo editing software.
Perhaps I’m leaning way too heavily on my photojournalism background. I love everyone else’s photography, and readily support and champion their rights to use editing software like Photoshop or Lightroom as they see fit. For example, I wish I could make photographs that look like Jeff Sinon’s; he’s an outstanding nature photographer and writer of the blog, “Jeff Sinon Photography: Nature Through The Lens“. I think he has an amazing talent.
Then there is Matt Yeaton, an old family friend and photographer in New Hampshire, who clearly used photo editing software in this photo of a blue door, with incredible effect. He’s has a great eye, and I would never presume to tell him not to use a photo editor program.
My own brother uses Photoshop as well; he has digitized people out of an image and manipulated colors to make some stunningly artistic photographs. Roy even put his own head onto a Star Trek officer’s body once, to make himself a Starfleet Commander! And I thought it was awesome.
All that being said, however, as a former photojournalist, I have a really hard time using it myself without worrying that someone’s going to think I’ve faked my photograph. It’s my own personal ethical issue, and I deal with it all the time.
Now keep in mind, I’m not personally digitizing in extra elements, or even digitizing them out. I own a Mac and can’t afford the Photoshop suite I wish I could buy, so there’s no way I could do it anyway. The problem I have is that I was trained in journalism and photojournalism, so even though my brother once taught me to use a black-and-white enlarger to create a photo of a Hawaiian Airlines jet landing on the Kamehameha Highway on Oahu using two different negatives, I feel that any photograph I publish via this blog has to be as realistic as I can make it. There have been many cases of photojournalists being fired for Photoshopping images, so you can see that it is taken very seriously in the media, and I am in total agreement with their stance, as it relates to photojournalism.
Additionally, as much as I appreciate the judicious removal of an obnoxious stain on a shirt or a pimple that wouldn’t normally be there, I also feel that the potential for Photoshop abuse is very real. The recent petitioning of major magazines to remove Photoshopped models is a case in point. It’s hard enough on our daughters (and sons!) to grow up in this world without the false reality of unnaturally perfect bodies and abnormally smooth and unwrinkled skin.
All that being said, I ran up against a conundrum the other day. What do you do when the photograph you take simply does not represent the reality in front of you?
Case in point:
Last Monday, we went to a local pond with the girls. My husband discovered it when I was out of town, attending a teacher workshop at Cornell University. As soon as I was home, he vowed to take me to see it.
It is a nice little Parks and Recreation swimming pond set in the woods here in Maine, about 45 minutes away from where we live. The girls were delighted to swim in the roped-off swimming area, watched over by my husband and myself, as well as the Parks and Rec lifeguards. It was a delightful little spot, which I’ll be blogging about as a Monday Challenge next week, and was a nice way to spend an afternoon.
As we watched the girls, a family of four floated past in their canoe. Quick as a flash, I had my iPhone out and ran forward to the water’s edge to focus on the family. The juxtaposition of the brightness of the Dad’s tie-dyed shirt and the light color of the canoe against the brilliant green of the trees was just too tempting. And although they looked at me kind of funny, I took several pictures anyway, one of which is below:
I’m sure you’re thinking the same thing I was when I looked at the photo on my iPhone screen:
“What brilliant green trees?”
I was so frustrated! I have noticed, time after time, that the images rendered by my digital devices (iPhone, Canon 10D, Canon Powershot) do not truly represent a scene as I saw it. My Canon cameras, excellent optics notwithstanding, always come out a bit grey compared to the reality of what I saw. The photographs seem just a bit dull. I’m sure there’s an explanation for it, but what you see with your eyes just cannot be accurately recorded–unless you’re using something like a $36,000 Hasselblad DSLR, a camera which I would love to have but, sadly, cannot afford.
Unless I win the PowerBall jackpot, of course…
As a photojournalist, as well as a photographer/artist, it’s frustrating and annoying to snap a picture like the one above, because when I am shooting photos, whether of nature or people, I am so taken with what’s before me that I simply have to capture it. Much as it drives my family nuts sometimes, I will walk around, crawl on the ground, climb up on top of things, trek through the mud, or even just stand in place for fifteen minutes while a crowd dissipates to get my shot. It takes time, but when I see the picture I want, I have to go after it. I have no choice.
It’s like learning how to see differently–sometimes when you become a photographer, you end up looking at life as though you’re seeing it through a lens. Pictures suddenly appear, sometimes when you least expect it, and you simply must capture that image and display it so others can see what you have seen.
That’s really the goal of any photojournalist: putting the audience in the place where history is being made, so they can witness it for themselves.
Which brings me back to the first photograph, above. It’s WRONG. It’s NOT what I saw. But some might say it’s what my camera recorded, so it’s the real photograph.
Except…it’s not. The camera’s imaging software, the optics of the lens, something was off, and the photograph came out dull, uninspired, and not at all true-to-life.
Immediately, on-site, I opened my favorite in-phone photo editing software, Snapseed (which, by the way, works better on my iPhone and iPad than it does on my Mac), and I went to work.
Why did I do it then? Because I wanted to compare the edited image with what was right in front of me. I wanted the colors to truly represent what I saw. And when I was done, I held my phone up in front of me so that my husband could see both the edited image and the trees in the background simultaneously, and I asked him whether the colors were true.
And he said YES.
This is the edited photograph:
This photograph, the edited version, represents what makes me feel the most conflicted. This is what I saw, and it’s what I shot…but in order to recreate it, I had to do some photo editing to adjust the colors. And if I am adjusting the colors, does that mean that this photograph is no longer “real”? It’s not what came out of the camera, but it does truly represent the colors as I saw them that day. And unless I’m on-site and compare, is what I’m reproducing truly what occurred? Or am I “boosting” the colors, and making them “unreal”?
Which photograph is the “real” photograph?
Keep in mind–I have no problem whatsoever with non-photojournalist photographers who Photoshop in beautiful, jaw-dropping, dramatic colors, even if they weren’t what they saw on-site. My brother Roy is a professionally-trained photographer, and he and I have had many discussions about photography being about a gorgeous image that makes people happy versus straight realism.
I get it. I just have a hard time with it myself. After all, if I shoot a photograph of St. Ann’s at sunset, and I overdo it so it is beautiful but doesn’t represent reality, how many people who see the real St. Ann’s at sunset will think that I published the equivalent of a photographic lie?
That’s the sort of thing that makes me crazy about photo editing.
Will I stop photo editing my pictures to try to truly capture the colors, as I saw them at that time and in that place? Of course I won’t. But I can’t help but continue to feel that twinge that somehow, as a photojournalist, I am “cheating the system”.
I guess this is an ethical question that will continue to bother me as long as my digital cameras do not truly render the colors properly in my photographs.
It’s days like this that I miss Kodak Tri-X film. At least then I didn’t have to fight with ethical dilemmas, because the photographs I took did represent a black-and-white view of that moment in time, and they went into the newspaper accordingly.
How do you feel about photo editing? How about photo editing as practiced by photojournalists? Is it okay to adjust colors, or even boost them–or is that cheating? If a photojournalist has to edit a photo to accurately portray reality, is that okay? Yes, there are definitely policies in place to help guide photographers, such as those published by DigitalCustom, but how do we actually know if a photographer has gone overboard? And what, then, if they have?
Someone did query me several months ago about the colors in one of my images, and what I (possibly wrongly) perceived was an implied criticism that I had “boosted” the colors. And it made me cringe.
I talked it over with my brother, Roy, and he didn’t see any problem with it, even if I had. However, I didn’t like the (perhaps unintended) implication that I had cheated, particularly because my primary goal as a photojournalist is to portray what I actually see.
Yes, I will continue to edit photographs to try to accurately portray reality, even if it makes me feel conflicted to do so. I will likely also continue to struggle with the ethical dilemmas therein, particularly when the editing I do is not on-site, and I have to rely solely on my memory to render the colors I saw correctly.
UPDATE: I just re-read this, and now I worry that I am coming across as disdainful of anyone who uses Photoshop. This is not so! Anyone not currently working as a paid professional photojournalist should be able to use any editor, and work with their images as they see fit.
Furthermore, I don’t want to come across as though I am accusing photographers of “only getting good shots because they Photoshop them”. That’s also totally untrue. You can Photoshop the daylights out of a mediocre photograph, and what you will end up with is a brightly-colored mediocre photograph.
Photoshop does not make the photograph–it takes a photographer with talent and an eye for an image to do that. Photoshop is simply about enhancing, and the ethical dilemma I face as a former professional photojournalist is how much I can use photo editing software without compromising the original image.
Should it matter anyway, since I’m not working as a paid professional photojournalist right now? No. However, the habit is ingrained; hence, my dilemma.