Drawing the Digital Line


I’m in the process of updating my website. As part of the update I felt it important to make a statement about digital processing of photographs and where I draw the line between straight mechanical reproduction and image manipulation to the point that the result becomes less photography and more digital art (or whatever you want to call it). I find that a lot of people, photographer or not, are concerned about this issue. Below is a draft of a page explaining my point of view. See what you think.

Often times when I am showing my work, people ask me how I create my images. In the past they were referring to what camera gear I use or how long I expose the film. However, in this digital age, what many people are really asking is what kinds of manipulation do I perform on my computer to “artificially” alter the colors, backgrounds, or textures of the scenes. The a priori judgment is that if you process images using a computer then you must be “faking” the images in some way.

First lets clear something up. Manipulating photos did not suddenly arrive with the advent of digital technology. People have been fiddling with their images for many many years. Double exposures, layering negatives, filters in every imaginable color and texture, chemical toning, you name it and someone has probably done it to a photo with nary a computer in sight. Digital technology certainly has made manipulations easier to do and has removed the barrier of requiring specialized skills and possibly expensive hardware so that now anyone with a PC and a few bucks to spend on software can join in the fun – but all these shenanigans are nothing new.

The choice of when, where, and how much image manipulation to use has always and will always lie with the individual photographer and not in the tools themselves.
I believe that the distrust of digital image processing comes not from what can be done, but instead that it can be done so well that it cannot be detected. No one likes to be made a fool.

105-756.jpgWhen I encounter a work, I interact with it. I “appreciate” it. Part of my appreciation (especially with natural scenes) often comes from my belief that what I’m seeing actually exists. I can enjoy not only the beauty of the image itself, but I can also tap into the primordial sense of comfort, enjoyment, fear, or excitement  that nature variously stirs in a human soul.

To find out afterward that the mist filling that valley wasn’t really there at all or that the bright red autumn foliage on that tree was actually dull brown or maybe that the tree wasn’t even standing there in front of that mountain, it was pasted in from some other shot and by the way so was that full moon in the background. That’s a shock. I feel that the artist has lied to me.

So my thought is – if you want to mess with your images, by all means knock yourself out. It ‘s your call as the artist. Just be sure to tell me about it upfront. Make the sky green and the grass blue for all I care. I’ll take the image for what it is, just don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes.

So where do I personally draw the line when processing my images?

I take a conservative approach to my photography. As I said before, I think that this is especially important since I claim to be a “nature photographer”. I want to use my skills and techniques to illuminate the inherent beauty of nature; not overshadow it.

I do as much upfront with the camera as I can rather than relying on software to do things on the backend. I like being in the woods and taking pictures not sitting in my office staring at a computer screen trying to “fix” a poorly shot image.

So I spend a lot of time fiddling with each shot – getting the right angle – shifting my position to get the scene from its “good side”. I zoom in, zoom out, change lenses, speed up the shutter or slow it down, wait for the sun to come out from behind a cloud or maybe wait for it to go under. I use a polarizing filter to cut the glare off the surface of the water or maybe I remove the filter in order to capture the reflection of the blue sky. I don’t use many of the whiz-bang features of my digital camera. I prefer to do my own light metering and rely on exposure bracketing and I do my own focusing.

When I get home and start processing my photos, I make gentle adjustments to exposure, brightness, contrast, highlights, and shadows. I crop some images (although it pains me to lose pixels that way). I adjust the color balance only so far as to remove any tints applied by the camera when it incorrectly reads the temperature of the light.

I use a pretty low end image editing software package that currently costs less than a hundred bucks and I don’t even use a fraction of the features it provides. I never cut out blank grey skies and replace them with puffy white clouds. I never slice my images into layers, fiddle with the colors, and recombine them into “false color” images. I don’t combine elements from multiple photos. I don’t add textures or paint effects or fake mist. Once in a blue moon I will convert to grayscale, but I’m just not a monochrome kind of person so I don’t do it much.

Using a digital camera eliminates a lot of the dust spots and scratches that used to go along with film. Still, I drag my camera equipment through the woods for miles, up and down hills, through water, in all kinds of weather. Dust and dirt and water get all over it. This stuff always seems to show up on the images no matter how often I break out the cleaning papers. This is where the clone tool comes into play.

I use the clone tool sparingly. I remove spots and lines caused by crud on the optics of the camera. Sometimes there is the odd shiny spot on a wet rock or pinpricks of bright light between some branches that are distracting to the overall image – I’ll clone these out. On the other hand I have never found it useful to try and remove large objects like entire tree branches or tripod legs or power lines from my images. I just relegate those shots to the reject pile and vow to be more careful with my framing next time.

The final step is sharpening. I like nice sharp edges – no soft focus effects for me. My goal is to sharpen enough without going so far as to distort or degrade the image. This is always a tricky step.

That’s about it – nothing too fancy.

So if you look at some of my images and you think I must have artificially altered the colors or added textures or something, let me assure you that it ain’t so. Nature is just weird like that sometimes.



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8 Responses to “Drawing the Digital Line”

  1. barbara Says:

    I love your post and agree. I fiddle with the basics some. But mostly my photos are what I shoot. Truth in shooting – I like that concept.

  2. Bernie Kasper Says:

    Great shots Mark, I have mixed emotions on the subject, personally a little color boost here and there or a B&W conversion doesn’t bother me at all. But some of the HDR stuff I see has a really strange look to it that I am not sure I like in a nature shot :)

  3. forestrat Says:

    Thanks Barbara and Bernie.

    I was thinking of trying some HDR just to see what it can do. In theory the idea of a really wide exposure latitude sounds pretty neat. The camera could be more like your eye. When I get some time we’ll see how things go in practice. The examples I’ve seen have been pretty strange looking too.

  4. Walter Benjamin Says:

    Please, do not hesitate to visit me at my web page.
    for the most up-to-date observations at the state of the world, vis-a-vis “Internet Culture” today, and the state of MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION and LOSS OF AURA.

    I harbor most congenial feelings toward yo,u and nurture petite hopes, deep within the annals of my being…
    that this has not been too forward, and that this first email may prove portentous of future intellectual connections.

    Perhaps you will aid in my explorations and subsequent Crusades, as it were.

    Walter Benjamin

  5. forestrat Says:

    OK, so at first this comment by “Walter Benjamin” seemed like some sort of bogus spam type trick – the typos – the odd use of english. I decided to check it out before I blew it away.

    The link leads to a blog supposedly run by Walter Benjamin’s ghost since the real Walt died a while ago. I found the blog to be a little trippy, but it did lead me to read Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

    This is a pretty thick piece to get through (he uses a lot of big words), but it had some very interesting points that relate to this post.

    You can read the essay in its entirety here: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/modern/The-Work-of-Art-in-the-Age-of-Mechanical-Reproduction.html


  6. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    That Walter Benjamin comment did at first come across spammy, but the purple prose seemed to reveal a more eccentric mind at work.

    I will check out that essay.

    I like your thoughts on enhancing the photos to a minor extent, basically like a more powerful darkroom in the old days, but still keeping the reality of the scene before you. I feel cheated too by moons and clouds that don’t belong. I also like to play with more extreme alterations, and I have done a little HDR experimentation. I often enjoy the results.

    Without a decent shot to start with, usually all the “enhancements” will make a not very good photo worse, I find…


  7. lookingforbeauty Says:

    I appreciate your philosophical explorations on the use of digital photo manipulations. I’ve not really thought it out too much before.
    I do a lot of photos of artwork (my own) for use on the Internet and sending out for submissions, so I often crop off edges or skew the image back into it’s original shape when I’ve not got a truly “squared” image of the work.

    I work with a Sony Cybershot digital with 12 time optical Zoom. It was a choice I made because I’m finding heavy equipment more difficult to cart around now that I’m getting old and creaky. This camera is light and does most everything I need it to. As with you and your camera, I only use a fraction of it’s features. In fact, when I had some difficulty with it, my nerd nephew said,”Auntie, have you read the manual yet?” and this was two years after purchase. I don’t think I know where the manual is!

    That being said, I use Adobe Photo to enhance my work. I’m not a professional and don’t know how to get around some of the results that the mix of my good camera and my pointandshoot techniques produce.

    Especially with art work, I will readjust the colours to come back to what the image really looks like. (That’s one of the major advantages of the digital camera, for me.) I’ll sometimes sharpen images as well.

    I take landscape imagery primarily for painting notes where I don’t have enough time to make sketches. I may use three or four or more images to assist me in remembering colour or shapes as I recreate or synthesize my emotional response to that image in a painting.

    Every once in a while, I will get a great image out of my photos, not just an informational one, and it goes untouched, unless I’m cropping out an unfortunate car part, since I take a number of photos while waiting at red lights or quickly from the side of the highway as I’m going somewhere, too short on time to get out and photograph.

    Sometimes I will crop out a major part of an image I see that my 12 times zoom will not get near enough to. Then I want all the extraneous stuff out so that I can concentrate on the image I was trying to capture. But of course, this remaining image would only be good as reference material for a painting and never good enough to publish as a photo.

    On the other hand, I enjoy totally transforming an image with digital pyrotechniques. I’m just dabbling with it, so I’m not producing anything stellar, but it’s fun. From an artists point of view, it’s far away from being photography and becoming something else. I’ve got to run. I’ve appointments to keep, but I’ll try to pull out some examples on Artiseternal.wordpress in the next few days. I was looking around for something to chatter about.
    I enjoy your post. It keeps me thinking. And I just love your photos.
    All the best – I’m waiting to see a few more of your gems.

  8. forestrat Says:

    Thanks for visiting – I’m glad you’re enjoying my posts.

    As I work on improving my photos, I find I’m spending more time learning about all kinds of art and art theory. I think it gives a fresh angle on things rather than just the same old photographic texts. I like the insights you give on your blog.

    Unfortunately holidays, poor weather, and annoyances like having the car in the shop have kept me out of the woods for a few weeks. I think I’ll be able to get out this week though.


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