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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Previous comments
RiShawn Biddle's picture

"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."

Except that photography is all about manipulation, editing and sometimes, rebuilding an entire photo. This is because a photo doesn't accurately detail any situation.

A scene shot at 35mm will look different than if it is shot at 100mm or 250mm. A portrait shot in harsh light will look different than one shot with softer light. This is before you get into the darkroom or put a digital file through Lightroom.

Every photo is a display of editorial judgment and manipulation. When you choose to shoot a scene with a 35mm lens instead of a 50mm or 100mm, you make an editorial judgment. When you dodge and burn, you are making an editorial judgment. Even the decision to use RAW or JPEG involves an editorial judgment. And given that we all see color and other things differently, this means a certain amount of manipulation.

The question isn't whether photos are manipulated. There is no such thing as a scene purely shot. The question is to what degree can photos be edited or manipulated. And that depends largely on the context; what you are allowed to do in fine art photography you are not allowed to do in photojournalism. Beyond that, it is all fair game.

As for the RAW versus JPEG question: Doesn't matter. All photos require editing. The question is whether the file you use works best for the editing you may have to do. Which still means that you have to get it right in camera regardless of the type of file used.

michaeljin's picture

"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."

Why are you depending on the camera to know what to do? Shoot in manual and you'll know what to do and you'll know exactly how to get the result that you're looking for. Grab a spot meter, grab the important part of your scene and place it in the zone that you want to. Yes, some scenes have high dynamic range and if you really want to represent detail across that whole range, you might need to shoot in RAW and edit or you might want to use a GND like plenty of photographers have done long before we had Lightroom, Photoshop, and HDR. Same difference.

The problem that you're illustrating is not an issue with shooting in JPEG. It's an issue in shooting in JPEG without taking into account the inability to manipulate the file. Treat shooting in JPEG like shooting slide film. You have to get everything right in-camera on the spot because JPEG files aren't really great for editing after the fact.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Why do you assume I depend on AI? I said quite the opposite? Why do you assume I don't shoot in manual? See what you have quoted.

The image has been show the following way: I metered for the brightest clouds (not the brightest sky behind them). I allowed them to be overexposed by about 1.5 stops knowing this will give me enough detail in the shadows without having to introduce too much noise if I didn't overexpose the clouds.

GND filter won't work, because the bright spot is in the middle of the image.

Lightroom, Photoshop, Phase One, whatever are tools where you tweak the information from the raw file. If you were given a real raw file you will get an almost gray file. The software before you even see the file on your computer already made tweaks to that file based on predefined presets. If you let it be, it's your choice. In this case I used what my sensor was capable of in order to preserve the information I wanted in both shadows and highlights.

A similar process would be performed in with film.

michaeljin's picture

Why make the argument that your camera doesn't know what's important to you if you're not using AI? Why make a statement that your camera can't figure it out if you don't use AI? If you're not using AI, then you can't blame your camera for anything. As I said, if you are shooting manually, then you ought not to blame the camera for anything other than simply malfunctioning because you're controlling all of the decisions.

In the film references, I specifically note slide film because not all film was equal and processed in the same manner. Working with a RAW file is pretty much akin to working with B&W film except with exceptionally more granular control. E-6 film (and to a degree, C-41), however, was not brought into a darkroom and subject to the same type dodging and burning. With E-6 specifically, you had extremely limited dynamic range and the film didn't have the latitude to allow for the type of margin of error in regard to exposure that we happily abuse today.

Shooting in JPEG, which is a format similar in the sense that everything is pretty much baked in, should be compared to shooting E-6—not film in general.

And you're correct in saying that a GND filter would probably not have saved you in this scene. One of the benefits we enjoy today is the fact that we have options that simply weren't available to use in the film days. A slide shooter, if they selected that particular composition, would have probably lost the detail in the trees and let it be a silhouette. A person shooting in JPEG would probably have to make a similar decision.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I see we agree on this one. Here we are talking about intent vs. possibilities. My intent was to capture the scene as I saw it, not as my phone sees it. Knowing what my camera sensor likes and doesn't like I exposed it this way (my dial is on M since the purchase of the camera), because I know my camera's files have problems with bringing up shadows in post than taking highlights down. For this reason highlights have been overexposed to a certain extent and if you notice the sliders in the raw editor, the shadows are not much edited, but highlights are taken down. This means no in-camera overall adjustment could be made to photograph that scene.

But if it were a non-high contrast scene, then a JPEG is perfectly fine if you don't plan to heavily edit it or use it in a heavily-edited composite.

Ed Sanford's picture

".... 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."

You still demonstrate your realization that photography is more than one step. Time in the darkroom is not the essence; finishing in the darkroom is. Simple is often enough...

michaeljin's picture

Photography is not more than one step. Photography is taking the photo. The processing of the image is not photography. It's editing. I always thought the whole musician analogy was a poor one. The way I see it is more in terms of the way music recording is done:

1. Composition/Previsualization - Composer designing the piece,
2. Capturing the Photograph - Musician technically executing the composition.
3. Film Development (if shooting film) - Recording Enginner because it doesn't matter how well the musician played if the recording breaks down.
4. Culling - Producer who is directing the project and selecting which tracks and takes make the cut.
5. Editing - Mixing Engineer who takes the recorded tracks and applies edits to highlight or downplay certain pieces.
6. Printing or Optimizing file for web (Toning for analog) - Mastering Engineer who takes the final 2-track or stems and make necessary tweaks to optimize them for the final medium.

Obviously there's some cross-over as the particular project be it photographic or musical might involve individuals acting in more than one capacity. In the case of photography, composition is more often than not tied with the act of photography, although you certainly might have instances in higher budget productions where the person operating the camera is not actually in charge of the composition. Likewise, there are some differences between roles for analog photography as the process of darkroom printing is essentially both the editing and printing phases of the digital process.

Whatever the case, each of these are completely separate tasks required to bring a final product from concept to human eyes. The actual act of photography is only one of those many steps—the technical capture of the image. You can very much argue that everything else could be a completely separate discipline.

Ed Sanford's picture

I totally and absolutely disagree with you. You used a lot of words but I won't address each one. Capturing an image on film was just the beginning. In fact if you go back to the wet collodian plate process, the photographer had to mix the chemicals, paint them on the plate, load the plate into the camera, shoot the image, and then process the image and harden the plate by developing and fixing it before it deteriorated. Then, the plate was used to make a print which had to be projected via contact onto paper, then developed, stopped, and printed. If desired, the photographer toned the image for permanence. I still divide that into two basic processes. One in camera, the others in chemistry. Digital has combined these process through technology but they still exist. Notwithstanding all of that, let's not lose the point of the article. The article described the purist as one who believes that photography is done with a camera alone. Throughout history, the purists did all of the process that you and I both described which I maintain are two basic processes. By the way, you've admitted the same basic processes in what you do. The only difference that you've articulated was time spent in post camera process... I've already conceded that point to you. Because these debates can go on ad nauseum, I've made my final comment on the issue. Therefore the last word is respectfully yours.

michaeljin's picture

So you absolutely disagree with me, but you won't address the actual points that you disagree with. That's a pretty good way to avoid any actual debate, I guess.

Photography is photography. Editing is editing. Printing is printing. Three different words for three different activities. (Although I suppose analog printing could also be considered photography since you're essentially photographing onto the paper, but I'm pretty sure that you get what I mean.)

Photographers back in the day in the wet plate era had to do everything by themselves largely out of necessity. In modern times with roll film and digital, it's not uncommon at all for a photographer to just do the technical work of capturing the image while the rest of the work is left to people who specialize in editing, retouching, printing, etc. Even prior to digital photography, it was pretty common for plenty of notable photographer to shoot, drop off the rolls or sheets of film at a lab to have them developed, and have a professional printer do their prints while they were off presumably doing better things with their lives.

People like to romanticize this shit and talk about how many hours Ansel Adams spent in the darkroom perfecting his prints as if a photographer had to take control of every single aspect of their image editing and printing in order to be considered a serious photographer. In doing this, they lose sight of all of the great photographers of the past decades went about their business by clicking the shutter and letting other people handle the rest.

Yes, capturing the image is just the beginning. If you want to put it in front of eyes, then you will need to incorporate other processes. No, those processes are not photography nor are they part of photography any more than recording and mastering a mix should be considered part of playing a cello. A person can photograph every day of their life, never print a photo, and never show his work to another soul and he would be no less of a photographer for doing so because photography is capturing the image.

Anyway, whatever. It doesn't matter what you happen to believe just as it doesn't matter what I happen to believe. I'm just glad to hear that you won't be responding to this because I don't want to continue this non-debate either. Take care and best of luck in your endeavors.

Lou Bragg's picture

Purists = Middle Age Religion
Hardcore = No Religion
The rest are just... photographers.

Pedro Quintela's picture

Well if we take it to an extreme, even using good lenses spoils the "purism" of a scene.
I love shooting and editing. Achieving what I had in my mind on my computer makes me smile every time, because it means that I can use both tools.

I really liked the article. Thanks for sharing.

Jim VAIKNORAS's picture

I think the real question is at what point does a photograph cease to be a photograph and become an illustration. I know there's a line, I'm not sure we have figured out where it is.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Every photograph requires editing whether it's going to be highlights, shadows, saturation, contrast or a detailed retouching. The first part is mandatory unless you ignore the abundance of data your image sensor gives and you want a result with cut corners (like in the example with the backlit image).

This is applicable both for digital and film (especially).

The editing described in the article has nothing to do with an illustration. It is just adjusting the brightness and saturation levels that were preset by the camera software and stored in the raw file. Think of the raw file as of an baking product where you have all the ingredients. The camera suggests a recipe but doesn't bake it. If you don't like it you can bake a different one. This is what I call a "basic editing."

michaeljin's picture

"Every photograph requires editing whether it's going to be highlights, shadows, saturation, contrast or a detailed retouching."

So how on earth did people ever shoot slide film?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

If slide film can't be processed I would agree with you.

See my explanation on how I shot this image above and think for yourself if it was an accident saved in post or a carefully managed process.

michaeljin's picture

I don't doubt that it was a carefully managed process. You're making specific decisions based on what you know about your sensor's capabilities. However, you give the impression that the original file that you showed was all that a JPEG shooter could achieve, when it's not true. It's just the result of the original starting point of your carefully managed process.

A person shooting in JPEG knowing that they would not edit the photo would not have exposed the scene like that in the first place (assuming that they knew what they were doing). You're shooting with a RAW mindset and using a JPEG shot with that mindset to make a point against shooting in JPEG. You should have shot a RAW image and then shot the image as it would have been shot if you knew you couldn't pull that detail back and then compare the two.

I guess more than anything, the problem I have is that the clickbait title of the article certainly doesn't foster sensible discourse:

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

They absolutely can, but they have to approach it from a different mindset and realize that certain compositions or certain images might just be impossible.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

They can if they edit the file in camera. This means they have to tweak a profile, take test shots, tweak it again, and again. This is way more guess-work than working with a raw file where you know what kind of information can be brought back or not.

Also, I haven't seen a camera that brings back just the highlights (which I did). If there is such a camera, it's again a slider that you tweak in the camera. This is called editing. If you know what your sensor is capable of and what the software in the camera does to high contrast scenes, it's far more convenient and way faster shoot for the highest information in the raw file and then enhance it on a calibrated monitor.

In my case it took me 10 seconds for that image mostly to bring back the highlights I preserved in the raw file, put some saturation and a little bit of blacks, because of the low contrast raw file. This is way quicker than making countless of test shots tweaking camera profiles that can mostly do overall adjustments, not just highlights or shadows (or at least mine can't).

Jim VAIKNORAS's picture

I think I would have just exposed for the sky, the detail in the trees are unimportant

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I like it as realistic as possible the way I saw it with my eyes (seeing detail in the clouds and in the trees because of the warm soft light that still shone) and that's why I prefer my edit.

Deleted Account's picture

The only "Purist" seems to be you in the way you think your opinions are objective.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

This task can't be accomplished in camera by a person who says "editing is wrong." The only way this can be done is by making a custom radial (sort of) graduated filter which is quite expensive and it's not worth it just for saying "it's done in camera." That's the article for. If that statement is true, this is an objective opinion. If it's false, there have to be sound arguments.

Deleted Account's picture

HAHA oh gosh, an objective opinion?

Jordan McChesney's picture

Being a purist is all fine a good, as long as they don't tell me how to enjoy my photography.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

...and as long as a purist doesn't tell others that the camera makes the best decisions and photos do not have to be edited. There's nothing wrong to agree with camera's automated decisions, but it is wrong to tell that they are the best and for this reason no editing whatsoever is needed.

Jordan McChesney's picture

Agreed. Everyone should be allowed to enjoy photography however they want to.
Besides, it's a well known fact that cameras don't see light the way we do, so saying "you don't need to edit photos" seems to be advocating for inferior photos.

michaeljin's picture

I've yet to hear a single purist tell someone that the camera makes the best decisions. More often than not, they argue that YOU make the best decisions by taking manual control of your camera. In essence, the camera doesn't make any decisions at all. Yes, the JPEG has baked-in processing depending on your profile, but you just select the right profile for the job the way you would select the right film stock for the job.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

If profiles that make overall changes can do the job, JPEG can be fine. But if dodging and burning is required no profile won't help. You know that dodging and burning was not invented by Adobe.

Let's see how a profile in camera would help do the job: You take a shot and judge it on the back of the screen. Maybe you use the histogram? Then you tweak the profile and take a shot again. After a few shots you have a baked in JPEG.

If you know what your sensor is capable of and to what extent it can preserve highlights and shadows you can simply meter the scene and take a single shot. This is what I did. I didn't tweak camera profiles, because I would miss the moment. In this case I took 3 shots with the same settings trying different compositions.

michaeljin's picture

People didn't dodge and burn slide film nor did the vast majority of photographers shooting C-41 color dodge or burn either—most of them were dropping their film off at labs, which just applied overall exposure adjustments.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I don't see a problem with that.

As someone said above: they were happy with the image that was straight out of the camera (in the article). I wasn't happy with it, because this was not what my eyes saw. I preserved the shadows. If you see, the shadows are almost the same intensity. I just brought back the highlights, because the camera wasn't able to do that. The "contrast" slider in the camera won't bring only the highlights, but would change it all. Working with the "highlights" slider is like burning the highlights but in a quick way without making masks. This is quite convenient, I would say.

I personally keep my images with very little editing, because I almost exclusively use strobes, but there are times when I need to help the camera, because it doesn't understand how to bring only the highlights down. I just preserve them with the appropriate settings.

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