Am I a Photographic Cheat?
by Mark Schacter
I recently had the good fortune to have a book of my photography published. “Roads” was released in 2010 by Fifth House Publishers, and my forthcoming book, “Sweet Seas. A Portrait of the Great Lakes,” due to be published in fall 2012.
Publication creates opportunities – book signings, camera club meetings, exhibitions – to speak with people who care about photography. Inevitably, the “cheating” question comes up in these encounters, and it’s a question that deserves a thoughtful answer.
I imagine Luminous Landscape readers have been involved in one side or the other of a conversation something like this:
PERSON 1: Did you take those with a digital camera?
PERSON 2: Yes. I use a digital camera.
PERSON 1: So do you play around with your images?
PERSON 2: All of my photographs have been manipulated with editing software.
PERSON 1 (with furrowed brow): Isn’t that sort of cheating?
I digitally edit my photographs with Photoshop by Adobe and DxO Optics Pro by DxO Labs, and I have been PERSON 2 in the scenario above. While some photographers believe we have moved beyond the need to discuss the “cheating” question, I disagree for the simple reason that I keep hearing the question being raised. To develop a response, I need to be clear about what people might mean by suggesting that digital image editing is “cheating”. It seems to me that two senses of “cheating” are relevant. First, there’s the idea of dishonesty, as in, “That used car dealer cheated her. He sold her the car for a lot more than it was worth.” Second, there’s the idea of deliberately breaking rules (and being sneaky about it) as in, “He cheats at cards.”
The dishonesty/deception argument is, I believe, based on the view that image editing distorts reality. We pretty-up the picture to make it more eye-catching. The finished product doesn’t “really look like” the scene that was in front of the camera. The breaking-the-rules argument is based on the related idea that the role of the photographer – especially a landscape photographer – is to present subject matter exactly as it really looked.
Once you begin to probe these arguments you uncover questionable assumptions. The dishonesty/deception argument assumes that the untouched image is a faithful copy of reality. But we know this isn’t so. Even the best digital sensors don’t have the capacity to render shadow and highlight detail in the same scene the way the human eye does. And lenses introduce pincushion distortion, barrel distortion, chromatic aberration, and the like. The irony is that if the goal is to produce a faithful copy of reality, the image must be manipulated!
As for “breaking-the-rules,” where is it written that the landscape photographer’s role is to produce a carbon-copy of reality? Who says we shouldn’t manipulate an image to make it as powerful as possible? And, by the way, what would the no-manipulation “rule” mean for black and white photography which, after all, presents a radically altered image of the real world?
Another point: Why is the “cheating” question asked of the digital photographer but not (usually) the film photographer? Why is it assumed that film photography is more faithful to reality than digital? This too is an assumption that falls apart. It’s no secret that film photographers have their own methods of altering reality. They select particular films because they render light and color in particular ways; darkroom techniques and the choice of photographic paper also affect the finished product.
The question of “cheating” leads to discussions that are beside the point. The only discussion that matters is about what it takes to produce good photographs that viewers linger over and remember. Whether we use cameras that capture light on film or electronic sensors, some element of manipulation will be involved in producing good photographs and will always be integral to the creative process.
Consider the photograph Hatch Covers (Fig. 5) which will appear in the upcoming “Sweet Seas. A Portrait of the Great Lakes.” I shot it while aboard the M/V Mapleglen, a 730-foot freighter carrying 26,000 tons of grain from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Port Cartier, Quebec. I sailed on the Mapleglen for 5 days courtesy of Canada Steamship Lines. I took the photograph on a wet morning at the eastern end of Lake Superior as we were heading to the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie Michigan. The texture of rust and peeling paint on the hatch covers over the cargo holds caught my eye. The diffuse light, sheen of rainwater and juxtaposition of red marine paint and leaden gray sky made the scene all the more attractive. I thought that if I could portray these elements well, I could convey what it felt like to be standing alone on the deck of a lake freighter on that damp summer morning in the middle of Lake Superior.
Fig. 1 shows what I started with – the unedited RAW image, taken with a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III camera and a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L lens, set at 17mm. The exposure was 1/32 sec. at f/10, ISO 100. I used a polarizing filter to modulate the glare created by the water on the hatch covers. You can see immediately that the image is underexposed – something that a quick glance at the in-camera histogram would have made clear to me – a mistake, but not a critical one because digital photography is forgiving of non-major exposure errors when you shoot in RAW mode.
At the moment of taking the photograph I am more concerned about composition than exposure. I’m content to get the exposure roughly right because much about it can be altered in post-processing. But I want to get the composition as close to perfect as possible. The image needs the right architecture from the very start. Exposure is a technical question; composition is artistry. Apart from minor cropping, there’s no software fix for flawed composition.
In the evening in my small cabin on the Mapleglen I review the images captured during the day and decide that image in Fig. 1 is a “keeper.” I like its structure, with the diagonal line leading the eye to the dark cloud looking almost like a hand in the center of the sky. And I’m drawn to the image because it suggests a story: Why is this ship so weather-beaten? What’s in its past? What cargo lies beneath the hatch covers? This image has the potential to become a good photograph.
At home some weeks later, I begin the digital editing process. First I adjust the RAW file. I use DxO Optics Pro, whose capabilities for editing and converting RAW files I find much superior to Photoshop’s. The challenge here is that the image has large areas of shadow detail and highlight detail. As mentioned, the limited dynamic range of sensors (and film) makes it impossible to capture the full range of light values in scenes like this. One way to deal with this, in the digital world, is to bracket a few exposures of the same shot and use the “HDR” function in Photoshop to merge the images automatically. But I prefer a more “hands-on” approach (which may in any case be your only option if you didn’t think to bracket the image in the first place).
I do two separate edits of the same RAW image, adjusting first for good detail in the highlights in the upper part of the frame (Fig. 2) and then for detail in the shadows in the lower part of the frame (Fig. 3). In DxO Optics Pro I tweak values for Exposure Compensation, Gamma and Local Contrast. I also use DxO Optics Proto correct for image softness that is unique to my particular combination of camera body and lens. Then, again with DxO Optics Pro, I convert each of these RAW files to uncompressed 16-bit TIF files. I open the two files in Photoshop, and put both of them, as separate layers, into one Photoshop file. I position the image corrected for shadow detail (Fig. 3) on the top layer, and erase away the overexposed sky in that layer. The result is a composite image (Fig. 4) that shows the foreground corrected for shadow detail and the background corrected for highlight detail. I now have a working file of what will become, after a few more Photoshop adjustments, the finished product.
I crop the image to move the horizon line off-center. I use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer on the top part of the image and a Color Balance adjustment layer for the entire image to warm up the colors a little. I do separate curves adjustments on the upper and lower parts of the image and a Shadow/Highlights adjustment to change the appearance of the sky slightly.
Is the finished product (Fig. 5) a good photograph? If I didn’t think it was, I wouldn’t be showing it to you here. But you might disagree, and we could have an interesting discussion about that. Is Hatch Covers the product of “cheating”? That discussion would be a waste of breath!
Mark Schacter lives in Ottawa, Canada.
His website is www.luxetveritas.net