Are you real or not?

If you’ve been hanging around this blog or my photo feeds for a while, you know I present images as close to reality as I can. At least most of the time. I do use pretty sophisticated editing software, but I don’t go really crazy with the sliders. I don’t do over-saturated HDR images or crispy images with too much clarity or sharpening. But this old dog is learning some new tricks.

Realism v. fantasy – it can be just a subtle shift and that’s the territory I needed to explore. Whenever I see an image that in my opinion is over-processed, I wonder what the photographer is trying to make up for. Like men driving super-sized pick ups; it smacks of overcompensation.

Distant winter warning

But it doesn’t have to be drastic. Small changes in processing can have big results. Take these two shots of the Menominee North Pier Lighthouse. The top one is slightly de-saturated with more local contrast to bring up texture. It isn’t radical, but the effect is noticeable. What’s your first reaction to each one? How do your eyes move through the images differently?


Mostly that’s how I go about finishing my images; with small changes to bring up the best results. But go ahead and give yourself permission to play. I especially like to try this when the original shot is extreme in some way to begin with. As if reality itself is pushing me. Daring me to take it further.

Outlander tribe

Of course in photography there are no rules except your own, and mine have changed. These next three abandoned building photos were shot within a few hours and in the same area, but their individual aspects and attitudes cried out for different finishing techniques. A little fake moonlight, gritty despair and the open sunshine of hope.

Make yourself wait
Undermining peace
Gerald’s house

Expanding your vision can take time and a willingness to step away from prejudices and misconceptions. Letting go of reality just a little. For many beginners a black and white conversion is an easy choice because most processing apps have an auto mode for this. Learning to play with monochrome using white balance, curves and color levels takes some practice, but it is worth it. If you’ve got a non-destructive type of software – it’s only ones and zeros and you can reset any time or save different versions and take a vote.

Color driven from your eyes

So how best to bring out the strengths of your photos? Individually or as a series? For me, it depends on how I’m going to present them and if the light stays the same. As I mentioned above, extreme presentations of a scene can sometimes invite extreme interpretation in post. If the light is consistent, I will usually try to keep the final images of a piece, using subtle tweaks to suit each one, but maintaining a unified look and feel. If the light shifts throughout the day it’s easier to alter processing styles because the scene has already changed so much. They wouldn’t look the same on their own so you can either emphasize that or use a heavy technique to force them to match. I prefer to change it up.

This first shot is from the same hour or so on the shore of Lake Michigan and it looks colder and more forbidding than some of the others.

Baptized in ice

Jagged ice with just a little more saturation seems friendlier somehow.

A nearer world

You know that I cannot resist a leaf in snow, but even I get a bit tired of the same old treatment every time. Recently I played with some looks in Luminar to bring up different aspects of mood, light and intent. This first one uses the Tears in Rain preset, the second a Parchment overlay, while the third uses Peruvian Desert – all three have been adjusted just a little. All were found just feet and minutes from each other in my backyard, but you’d never know it. Using Luminar has freed me from some habits long established from only using Lightroom for years and years. I still use both, but I feel more playful in Luminar. I also find it easier to go overboard with that application and sometimes I tone things down when the file is returned to Lightroom.

When the embers hit the clouds
It’s not my time

Because reality is my default position. I think it’s because I shot film for so long that I’m rooted in reality. Back then, unless you had extensive darkroom facilities, it was difficult to experiment with processing. The easy way was to shoot say tungsten film outside in the sun. Or use a push or pull process with film even if your exposure was good (push processing was used to fix underexposed film, pull for overexposed, but you had to know you’d goofed before developing – it’s done with the film itself; it’s not a printing technique). Now, with everything being ones and zeros, it’s a lot easier to play with pictures and I’ve only just touched the surface.

Blue above, blue below
Snowshoes needed

Semi reality. If many of the photos below were shown to you one at a time, you’d never see that things are subtly different. It’s pushing the boundaries, but only a little to serve what I think is the best in the pictures and because I think photography is strongest when showing what was there. How it really was without (much) interpretation from the person wielding the camera. That’s what separates it from painting and other visual arts where the product can be created away from the source; from nothing except imagination or memory. Photography incorporates the real world and can be filtered through a person’s imagination. It’s the difference between a photo of a naked person and a painting of one. A picture has immediacy and a sense of seeing into someone else’s world. It’s zestier. Racier. More there.

For a long time that aspect of photography kept it from being considered a serious art form by many people. Pictures weren’t worthy of great museums. It was judged to be too caught up in mechanisms, machinery and technology. But I am not a technician. I am an artist; only my tools are technical. It’s like telling a sculptor not to use a chisel or a hammer. Tools are what make art possible. From merely functional, tools changed from implements of survival to implements of inner life.

Frozen voices
Forgotten story
Too late to make it home

My imagination and vision are what inspire the images I take. That and my wonder of the world around me. Of course I need to know how to manage a camera and have a basic knowledge of line, composition, exposure, framing and focus. But my photos still have to be completed with software. They have to be taken to the fullest extent of my intention or my capability. Maybe even whimsy. That takes skill, experience and yes…artistry.

I also have to be mindful of what makes a picture strong, what makes for a good picture and then enhance those things, not try to mask a weak shot with fancy software work.

Phew. Didn’t mean to get all philosophical you you, but it’s something that almost every photographer wrangles with. Especially in this era of the easy cheat (like replacing skies or creating composite images without owning up to it). We are being reduced to mere technicians again and I won’t be put in that little box.

2 thoughts on “Are you real or not?

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  1. Your thoughts on post processing are interesting. For instance, the lighthouse with the very subtle post draws the eye to the red. The one with more intense colors is as appealing, but has a very different flavor.

    A friend of mine bemoans his lack of perfection in his pictures and doesn’t feel “real” when he pushes things in post. Reminding him that Ansel Adams worked magic in the darkroom, and telling him that the digital darkroom is a different manifestation of the same thing calms him down.

    So, what is my point? My point is that how we choose to manipulate a photo can vary from day to day. Our mood, our focal interest, our happy adventures into play. All these will influence us. This year, I am taking color pictures, but the ones I am putting up online on my photo blog are all black and white, without comments. Why? No idea really. I don’t feel like talking with a photo too much at present. At home, though, I am having a blast with creating presets that are weird and strange. The black and white manipulation is helping me see things differently, such as looking at edges and contrast, always big issues for me in photography and painting. Lacking depth perception may also play into it.

    So, yes, play! By all means, play. It expands your horizons and pulls you into new avenues of exploration. I think that color play is important for expression of emotion. I increase colors as I see colors and react to them intensely. Others might see texture. Sometimes intense color reflects the intense light of day that a less-intensely colored does not. Nothing wrong with that. Tomorrow, you may want something different.

    Thanks for the post and thoughts on post – I think a lot of photographers my feel “guilty” about too much manipulation, but it is also part of the growth process in any craft or art – what is your voice?

  2. OMG I meant to reply and then completely spaced.

    I find that constraining myself to black and white forces me back to basics and helps me be more deliberate in my process. I reject more scenes – unshot – than I do in color. It’s oddly freeing.

    I haven’t created too many presets because…well I just haven’t. Really I only did it for some more swamp photos since they were all basically the same in terms of content, exposure and light and I wanted the processing to be consistent.

    Funny what makes us feel guilty as artists. I think there’s too much expectation involved…comparing ourselves to others instead of doing what makes us happy and fulfilled. So many people ask me if photography is my profession and I always say no, that making it a job would take all the fun out of it. That isn’t exactly true, but I think it would happen a little. It’s happened with me and my jewelry business a little, so that’s how I know. So I’m leaving my photo life alone as a joy and something fun and makes me feel fizzy when I’m doing it and I miss it when I’m not.

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