Why Hardcore Purists Can't Make a Quality Photograph of a High Contrast Scene

Why Hardcore Purists Can't Make a Quality Photograph of a High Contrast Scene

Purists say they don't edit their photographs at all and they don't have to if the right camera settings were used. I'm fine with that philosophy if cheap old low-end cameras are used and they only can shoot in JPEG mode. Otherwise this approach is a complete waste of money on expensive cameras.

What I Call “Editing”?

Editing an image is the process of software manipulation that gets us from the information captured by the sensor to the image file we either see on the back of our cameras or we deliver as a final photograph. Even the raw files, although looking flat and low saturated, are altered by the camera's internal software to give us at least an idea what the image looks like. We always receive an automatically processed image that we can decide if we would further enhance or not.

When I talk about editing in this article I mean the amount of processing of an image to a certain level. As this degree of manipulation is quite subjective, let's agree that we will edit the image only to a point it doesn't look over-processed.

What's the Problem With High Contrast Scenes?

Scenes of high contrast are those that have very bright and very dark areas where we usually expect to see details. Whether you shoot in JPEG or raw mode you let the camera decide how it will distribute the immense amount of data from the sensor into a file. As I said, the raw file is also automatically processed but contains more information that the JPEG. In both cases you can edit and redistribute the data clustered in certain parts of the histogram but the raw files give you more room to play without affecting the quality of the image.

Sunset - the original raw-look image

Sunset - the original raw-look image

The Purist Way

You shoot in JPEG which means you "edit" the photographs in camera with its current image mode controlling the contrast, the vibrance, and the sharpness of the file. If you shoot in raw mode and you're a purist, you will probably only use the contrast and saturation sliders or a "default camera profile" preset and never touch anything else. In both cases you will end up with an image like below.

After basic contrast and saturation similar to the JPEG rendering by the camera.

After basic contrast and saturation similar to the JPEG rendering by the camera.

The Need of Image Enhancement

This is the histogram of the raw file from the last image:

Histogram of the raw file

As you see, most of the information is clustered in the shadows and in the highlights. This is what the camera decided was right for the scene. If you agree with it you will get the results above and throw in the garbage all the valuable information you've paid for when you bought an expensive camera. In other words, photographing a scene and using what the camera thinks was right is almost like using a fully automated mode. If the information from the source file is redistributed by a human being who knows better than the machine how the scene should look, the result is the following.

Edited sunset image

Edited image (without detailed retouching). Just overall highlights, shadows, blacks, whites, and saturation changes.

Here's the histogram of the last image:

Histogram of the edited image

You can see that the information is more evenly distributed and there are more midtones brought into the center of the histogram. The preset information in the raw file was based on the decision made by the camera's internal processor. This doesn't mean you have to agree with it, but you can alter that preset. After all when shooting in raw mode you are meant to do it.

How Did I Edit the Image?

In order to make a basic brightness information redistribution and gain more from your raw files you have to use the controls for highlights, shadows, blacks, and whites in your raw file editor. Here are these settings in Lightroom and Capture One Pro:

HDR tools


Being a purist is a utopia. The proper philosophy is to use the optimal camera settings that will help the sensor capture the most detail it is capable of. Editing an image doesn't always mean you are trying to save a bad photograph. In the example above, editing was used to distribute the captured data in a way that looked more pleasing and natural to the human eye ignoring what the machine algorithms thought.

If we want to have a quality result we should never let an expensive camera have the final decision on what a scene should look like. Cameras are not that smart and probably won't ever be. You better use the information in the files you've paid big money for and bring your photos to life.

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Johnny Rico's picture

I've never heard of the term photo purist before. Didn't know this was a thing. Also isn't editing the same as culling through photos. Post-production, toning, retouching being the actual manipulation?

Marcus Joyce's picture

Yeah, and they ignore this:


Dodge/burning in the darkroom on film.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Culling is like choosing a good musical instrument, say a guitar. Editing is like playing notes on that instruments. Purists are just playing 6 notes without touching the fretbar but just pulling the 6 strings. The notes sound right and beautiful, but this is not what this instrument is intended to only do. Those who know how to use the information in the raw files are those who know how to play skillfully on the instrument.

I fully agree with this article.
Those "purists" are a strange bunch, and for sure, Ansel Adams did not belong to them... 😊
Perhaps he did not use the "right" camera settings...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That was a funny one :)

michaeljin's picture

Actually, that would depend a lot on which era Ansel Adams we're talking about. There were certainly times in his life when he could have been considered a dogmatic purist.

I think the only setting most "purist" would use is 'M"

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The "M" mode is neither for purists, nor elitists, nor working photographers. This is the most normal setting for anyone who wants to have control over the exposure. If semi-automated or fully automated mode is used, not all exposures will be the same and sometimes the camera may change the exposure because of an element in the frame that wasn't present in the previous frame.

Ed Sanford's picture

If anyone knows and appreciates photographic history, they understand that a purist was a photographer that controlled the process from click of the shutter to production of a print. A real purist was a photographer who mixed his own chemicals from scratch to insure perfect dilution of a chemical formula. These photographers that are referred to as purist in this article are just lazy people. I meet them all the time. When local photographers ask me how I make my images, their eyes typically glaze over when I tell them about using raw files and processing them in Lightroom. They are not purists. They want to make good images, but they don't understand that a jpg out of a camera will not make a good image. More importantly, they don't want to put in the work that will help them become skilled at the craft. Ansel Adams, and the great masters spent far more time in the darkroom than they did in the field. That's a purist.

Joe Black's picture

What a great response! Ed if you don't mind I will print this response and read it to anyone that asks me "do you photoshop your images".

Ed Sanford's picture

Go Ahead! That one makes my head explode. If you really want to stop them in their tracks, ask them what they mean by "photoshopping".

Jon Kellett's picture

I do obtain a perverse pleasure in asking that, but it's rare that people ask any more - It's my impression that people simply assume that all images are 'shopped.

That is both depressing and exciting: Depressing that photography has fallen to such lows that "good" images must be "edited" and exciting because it presents the opportunity to educate. People who learn a little tend to want to learn a bit more, this excitement can be contagious. Not bad for business either :-)

Travis Pinney's picture

The "Marketing Director" for the company I work for told me, "Real Photographers don't have to edit their photos" after seeing some of my car photography. This coming from a guy that doesn't have the foresight to clean his Iphone lens before taking a picture and posting it to the companies IG page, or making sure the cars don't look off-color or have blown out reflections/highlights.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Couldn't have said it any better!

David Cannon's picture

They do edit their photos indirectly. They allow their camera to edit their RAW file by adding some color, contrast, and sharpness, and then spitting it out as a JPEG.

Ryan Mense's picture

But, but, Moose Peterson said...

George Hart's picture

Most of today’s “purists” haven’t been in a darkroom so they have no clue what and how the MASTERS achieved their final prints as artwork.
They’re clueless digital wannabe news photographers. If that’s their aim they need to buy a ticket to Syria and put themselves in harms way and go get the shot and see how pure they can get it.

Timothy Turner's picture

It has become impossible to have an open and friendly conversation about different approaches to getting a picture taken, whether it's jpeg raw or whatever. Your mean spirited remark indicates that you are very impressed with yourself, a lot more than you should be, "if you shoot jpeg then you are useless to the human race" When I post a photo on this or other social media web site I sometime get many compliments until I disclose that it is a jpeg, then the hateful and mean spirited remarks come flooding in.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

There's a saying among sound engineers: If it sounds good, it's good.

The same with pictures: if it's good, it's good. If there's anything that can be made better for an image it should be an objective remark based on sound arguments.

If a scene is of low contrast nobody will ever notice if the image has been shot as a JPEG or not. The high contrast situations are where JPEGs fall apart and this is only if we need detail in both shadows and highlights. Let's say you want to photograph a silhouette against a sunset. You don't need raw files for that.

It's all about the right tool for the job. Raw files are universal but they require some tweaking. If someone shoots bazillion frames per job, they obviously don't want to shoot raw or tweak files. If one shoots 5 files per job, raw files are the best way to go.

Timothy Turner's picture

And this could have settled the entire discussion.

Michael Yearout's picture

Being purist is utopia. That says it all. At least in this context.

Jon Dize's picture

Every time I hear the word Photo Purist, I think somebody just is not thinking as well as they should or has not been around long enough. I wrote this PROSE about nine or ten years ago, the first time I hard about these Photo Purists. I will share it again, it's more fact than opinion. http://dizeman.com/photoshopyesno/

michaeljin's picture

A photo purist would have probably used a GND filter just like someone shooting slide film.

Lots of people just shoot in JPEG or use simple presets on their RAW files because they'd rather spend their time doing actual photography rather than sitting in front of a screen tweaking sliders. I'm pretty much that type of person. I shoot in RAW, but 99% of my stuff goes out with a simple Lightroom Preset because I don't want to be sitting there staring at photos, adjusting sliders, making masks, etc. It's only a very select few that I am really invested in that I'll pull into Photoshop.

Anyway, I take exception to a couple of the statements here:

1. "If we want to have a quality result we should never let an expensive camera have the final decision on what a scene should look like."
This is just nonsense. You can get a quality result with built-in JPEG files if you know what you're doing. We didn't have Lightroom and Photoshop to depend on when we were pushing rolls of Portra or Velvia through very expensive (at the time) film cameras and people still got plenty of good results. The key to getting quality results isn't shooting in RAW to edit the files. The key to quality results is understanding your equipment and medium and understanding how to work within their limits to produce the best results.

2. "Cameras are not that smart and probably won't ever be."
Cameras are pretty smart and they're only going to get smarter and more capable with time. Given the rapid advance of AI technology, it's really only a matter of time that our cameras become able to take advantage of that in-body—probably via a wi-fi connection to the cloud or something to offload the processing requirements.

3. "You better use the information in the files you've paid big money for and bring your photos to life."
80% of the results will come from 20% of the effort. If you want to spend the rest of that 80% of your effort chasing a 20% increase in results that nobody but yourself or real photo geeks will probably notice, that's on you.


Oh, and I think that the second photo (the edited one) really doesn't look all that great and oddly enough, I actually prefer the first one. I might be in the minority on that, though.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The edited photo in the example looked exactly as my eyes saw it. This is why editing came into place — to make it look as my eyes saw it, not as I wish it looked.

This is the reason why the camera's JPEG doesn't work: it just doesn't represent what I see with my eyes and that is why I shoot with the "right settings" so that I get the maximum detail by the sensor and then I tweak the sliders (a 10-second work) to bring back what I saw with my eyes.

When photographing a lower contrast scene, then the JPEG may be perfectly enough if it's been shot well, but for high contrast images, especially back-lit ones, the camera doesn't really know what to do. This is why the cameras are not that smart. They can't be sure if you want an overblown window or a visible sunset sky together with a barely visible front subject or a pure sillhouette. This is a personal preference that can't be guessed with an AI.

Statistics don't show 80/20 numbers. Statistics show that quality photos come from the hands of those who know what they do, know their tools (their cameras), their files, and know how to handle any lighting situation so they come up with a high quality result.

When a professional (say) guitar player plays three notes they don't sound the same as if an amateur plays them, because the professional knows how to pull the strings, use vibrato, bend notes, and apply dynamics. The same in photography.

Nicolas KIEFFER's picture

Do you realize you are saying exactly the same thing ?
The only little difference is the mindset.

And sorry, but that HDR situation shown as an example of "not being a stupid purist" is just not adequate. Even a purist know he'll have to deal with overblown highlights or blacked shadows in such situation. And the middle path keeping more data from lights and shadows will never give perfect results => need RAW editing to get best of both world.

What "purists" don't like, is those people making tons of editing, coming from an average shot to get a nice but heavily rebuilt pic.

We see many photos praised over IG that are so much overprocessed and/or photoshopped. The limit between photography (and its editing) versus infography (take a pic, whatever it is, and built a new from it) has always been difficult to size, you even do it yourself.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The commenter in the beginning of this thread said he's perfectly fine with the blown-out highlights.

The edited image is not "HDR" in terms of HDR software using several exposures. I just brought back details from highlights and shadows using the respective sliders. This is what the eyes usually see.

When someone makes a masterpiece out of an average image, this is also some kind of art unless it looks badly edited. The badly edited photos are those that make editing sound like a dirty word.

michaeljin's picture

I'm fine with blown out highlights or blacked out shadows if they're not important to the image. Generally if I'm shooting film, I'll exposure by using a spot meter and placing the blackest shadow of a scene where I care about detail at around Zone 2.5 and when I'm shooting digital, i'll meter off the highlights instead, placing the brightest area where I care about having some sort of texture at around zone 8. Everything else falls where it does and if the dynamic range exceeds the medium, then for film, I'll probably use a GND filter and for digital, I can just bring it up in RAW. But that's not to say that I can't use filters on a digital camera. I don't use them because it's a lot easier to do it in RAW than it is trying to get it right in-camera the way you would need to do with film.

The example above is a poor one because the solution would have been to either use a GND or meter off the sky and pop a flash on your foreground for a hint fill if you really wanted the detail rather than a silhouette. It also hinges on a ridiculous argument that the camera is too dumb to figure it out. The camera only does what you want it to do. It's just a tool. If you're hoping that your tool can read your mind rather than taking direct control of it, it's a failure on you as a photographer, not a failure of the tool. The last time I checked, there was nothing that suggested that you have to shoot in some sort of auto-exposure mode to make a JPEG file.

I stand by my assertion that the original photo as taken is still better than the edited version, which looks very clearly over-processed. You might have seen that second photo in your mind, but I guarantee you that you didn't see it like that with your actual eyes.

I wouldn't consider myself a "purist" in any way, but your statement that a scene light that would be impossible to capture properly in-camera without shooting in RAW and post-processing is just false. Yes, it would require more work and more thought, but it's possible. HDR and RAW files just make it a lot easier.

TLDR: This shouldn't be framed as a RAW vs. JPEG argument or some argument about photographic purism. It should have been framed as a "learn how to expose your scene properly and use GND filters when necessary" argument.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

This example doesn't show how to save an image, but how an image has been taken into an account so that both highlights and shadows are preserved. It's fine to have blownout clouds at certain places at sunset. It's fine to have almost dark places in the shadows. In this photograph I metered for the clouds allowing them to be overexposed about one and a half stops. This gives me information in the shadows and later I pull the highlights down a little. Otherwise I will bring too much noise in the image. This is something you probably know well. The image was properly captured in camera. It wasn't saved in post. The sensor gives enough information so that knowing what I did helped me turn down the highlights which I preserved enough to make the shot looking as I saw it.

The gradient filter won't help, because I have dark areas all around the borders of the image. Flash won't look natural, because it will light the nearby objects almost with the same intensity as those in the distance. I also draw and every painter will tell you that the objects closer to the viewer have the highest contrast. This means they will be darker as they are in the current image. If I wanted to have it lit with flash I would have had some object that would motivate it, like a camp fire or someone with a lantern.

In this case I kept it natural just helping the camera with the information I wanted to have in the final shot, because this is what I saw with my own eyes.

michaeljin's picture

For this particular scene I would argue that the preservation of shadow detail here is simply unnecessary and there would be nothing wrong with letting it fall to the complete black of a silhouette as you meter for the sky.

When speaking with photographers, it's amazing how often I hear detail, detail, detail, as if you had to preserve every single little detail in order to photograph a scene. This simply isn't true. It's not the way our cameras see a scene because it's not the way our eyes see the scene either.

The brain and eyes do a very good job at adjusting to different parts of a scene when we're focused on them, which is why I don't doubt that you mentally constructed the edited image in your mind when you looked over the scene. But light behaves the same way regardless of whether it's your eyes or a camera so at any given moment, the original photo you took is probably a lot closer to what you're seeing vs. the ultimate composite that your brain creates as you survey a scene.

Anyway, like I said. This has nothing to do with photography purism and everything to do with having a vision, knowing your tools, and executing. A person just shooting in JPEG for the sake of a belief that it will be a truer representation of a scene is doing themselves a disservice since JPEG is just a RAW file that has had a preset slapped on it by the camera. It's not fundamentally different from if you had taken a RAW file and lapped a preset on it yourself in Lightroom. The only difference is that by doing it all in-camera, you've lost all flexibility and no longer even have the potential to change your mind down the road.

If you're going to shoot JPEG, at least shoot RAW+JPEG.

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