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

For me the description of a purist is a person who adheres to any sort of arbitrary rules that somehow anoint them as "saintly" vs. "heretical".
It is a construct designed to create a "priesthood" of practitioners who are to be revered and respected by the unwashed.
Not interested in their problems.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yeah, it's like a religion.

JetCity Ninja's picture

iirc, ansel adams never visited a 1-hr photo lab.

today's use of "purist" has been perverted.

michaeljin's picture

I'm not entirely sure there's such a thing as a "purist" in photography by any consensus definition.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I agree with the sentiments of your article, but there are so many incorrect terms, I find myself wanting to argue with you most of the time.

Firstly, the term "editing" refers to the culling/selecting process. You edit your body of work to create a portfolio. I realize 95% of photographers use this term incorrectly, but what you're referring to is retouching.

Secondly, you refer to hardcore purists and cite some examples. In 15 years of photography, I've never encountered anyone who is like what you've implied is a major problem. I regard myself as a purist in that I'll only retouch the image in the raw convertor and make minor tweaks in photoshop. I will never composite or do things like stretch out mountains.

I have a deep admiration for people who do this sort of thing well, but I prefer to think of them as illustrators. My interpretation of a purist is someone who will not change the truth of a scene using post production methods (i.e. make the sea blue when it was brown).

Way more of a problem than purists are illustrators who claim their work is untouched. For example, people who drop milky way skies into every landscape image. It cheapens the authentic images.

Dominik Vanyi's picture

Great article Tihomir - very true.|
There is a term that describes those 'purist' more aptly: LUDDITIES !! Whatever the term though, one thing those people who do not edit photographs are certainly not is PHOTOGRAPHERS... because ever since the technology of photography was invented photographs were manipulated / enhanced / edited, etc..

michaeljin's picture

"There is a term that describes those 'purist' more aptly: LUDDITIES !!"
Or maybe they're just people who have more interest in capturing moments than they are with doing subtle fiddling with sliders or creating masks because they care more about the content captured in the photo than little details that probably don't matter all that much.

"one thing those people who do not edit photographs are certainly not is PHOTOGRAPHERS... "
I don't think Robert Capa did a whole lot of his own developing, editing, or printing. Just sayin'...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

As I said above, there's no problem with someone who decides not to edit images. The problem is when they feel to be more than others who edit or even preaching that the best image is not the edited one.

If the cameras could capture what we saw with our own eyes, I would be more than happy. However they don't always know what to bake into the file, but they give us levers to tweak so we can make the image what we want. For example the image in the article looked exactly how it was edited.

Each camera is different. Some tend to produce more details in the shadows, others like the highlights, others favor the red hues more, others favor magentas or greens. They are like different film stock. When you use a particular film stock or a camera you know their peculiarities and you shoot accordingly. When you see your digital camera's best work is to produce such and such file but give you a certain room to adjust certain areas it's not wrong to do that. It's the same as if you tweak in-camera profiles, but it's way more slow and judging by the non-calibrated back screen of the camera is prone to errors... and all this only to say that "it was all done in camera." It's not worth it.

Rick Pappas's picture

To those who would call themselves a "purist" because they don't edit their images, I would offer this: Your image will get edited. If you do it as an untouched jpeg, the guy who designed the algorithms on the chip in your camera will create that edit for you. If you shoot in raw, you will be responsible for the fulfillment of your vision for the image.
Your choice.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

And raw files are also processed by the camera and the raw processor software on the computer. They are just left a little less saturated and with less contrast but again are pre-set. So it's always the choice between us and the algorithms.

Rick Pappas's picture

A difference here is that the raw file coming out of the camera is not meant to be the final product. Yes, the camera creates a visible image from raw data...even embeds a small jpeg to display on your camera LCD, but I have never once taken an unedited raw image, converted to jpg and sent it out.

The "purist" believes that everything should be done "in camera" and it is that jpeg that is the image that gets posted digitally or sent to the printer. So, the decision remains as I mentioned above...either you as the photographer can complete the photographic process, or you can have a computer chip do it for you.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Keep in mind a JPEG can't have just the highlights down, because everything else looks good (or at least I don't know a camera that does this).

Deleted Account's picture

not once did you mention dynamic range. 7 stop camera vs 13 stop camera?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The dynamic range doesn't automatically correlate to the baked-in JPEG image or the presets applied by the software you are viewing the raw files with. This is what the commenters who don't edit their images strive for.

The dynamic range gives you possibilities. It's up to you if you're going to use them. The camera I used had a humble 10 stops of dynamic range. Even 7 is enough for this situation.

You are right that dynamic range is very important, but I didn't mention it, because I wanted to stress on the fact if a simple situation like that requires making our hands dirty and defame the pure craft of photography by moving a highlights slider so we can take advantage of the dynamic range we paid for.

Deleted Account's picture

I think the dynamic range of a camera does relate to the baked image, especially when you are talking about high contrast images. I don’t like to mess with my own photos (I am a professional retoucher) i am not the purist you describe but consider myself to be a natural photographer. I just think bringing jpg and raw into a conversation without any other consideration is misleading for a amateur to understand (I don’t consider myself a professional potographer).

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yes, it relates to the baked image but mostly for a raw file where you can make changes without affecting the quality that much. In both cases (raw and JPEG) the camera made decisions based on the overall image brightness and contrast. The right answer here was to darken just the highlights and the midtones without affecting the shadows. This is not what a camera usually makes, because it would drain the battery very quickly making such predictions, guess work, and masking just for purist' sake.

David Pavlich's picture

I saw the title and just knew what was coming! :-) I've been serious about this stuff for about 5 years or so. I used to get into long, protracted "discussions" about purists and processing. I found it just about useless, so I shoot and process the way I see things and don't worry about those that disagree. It's easier this way. ;-)

But, there are always exceptions; sports photography. Many sports journalist/photographers shoot in Jpeg simply because they have to get the shots out of the camera and into their offices so that they can have reports quickly. They simply don't have time to process their stuff.

They are very good at having their cameras set for specific situations and are quite sure that as long as focus was achieved that the shots will be good enough for what they are trying to convey.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Please put an emphasis on the words "high contrast scene" and "quality" in the title. Sports photography or photojournalism is not about high contrast or quality. It's about capturing the moment and if you had a chance, you could capture it beautifully and of high quality, but that's not of that big importance. It's not about being a purist there either. Lots of photojournalists use semi-automated camera modes just because it may cost them their job to miss a moment. They are not doing that for being a worshiper of the purist religion. It's their way of doing their job. And we surely enjoy their work, because it tells a story.

The article is not about whether we should always or never edit our work. It is about specific scenes of high contrast where the point is not to cover an event and capture a moment, but to create an image of high quality. Not all famous photojournalistic images are of highest quality, because it's not about quality there, but about the moment. The article doesn't come even close to that area which has its own specifics and requirements (that I completely agree with).

Deleted Account's picture

Where are these "Purists" and where are they saying these things? Maybe I'm not paying attention but this seems like a made up controversy. This article could really use some references.

If there's really a community of people saying this then I can support your argument but I just don't see this as being anything to worry about.

...There's even zero opposition in the comments... I just hear an echo chamber of agreement.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Read the comments again. You will see people saying the picture would have been taken in manual mode with the "right settings" and would have been done all in-camera using camera profiles and filters. Go in Facebook and read the comments there too. You will find people saying this can be done in camera with filters and camera profiles.

While many photographs can be made in-camera in JPEG mode, this one can't (at least with the current cameras on the market). It's not the typical situation for a graduated ND filter where the sky is the top half of the frame, nor it is a low constrast scene as if you turn your camera south or north at sunset.

Deleted Account's picture

"Read the comments again."

Ok.. And? Anyone who is arguing with you (on FS) is pretty much saying that you're stubborn and that it's ok to have blown out highlights or dark shadows if it fits in line with what the photographer wants. Just because you like flat low contrast photographs doesn't mean everyone else will love them too.

"You will see people saying the picture would have been taken in manual mode with the "right settings" and would have been done all in-camera using camera profiles and filters. Go in Facebook and read the comments there too. You will find people saying this can be done in camera with filters and camera profiles."

Maybe you should stop reading internet comments if you feel like you need to wage war upon a minority opinion through an internet article... Never make a YouTube video on this, you might lose your mind reading the comments.

"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"

How can you be fine with that if later you go on to say that even a JPEG is edited by the camera? If that's the case then you shouldn't have to argue anything other than "Purists can't call themselves Purists if they shoot digital because even JPEGs are edited"

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

"Purist" is a utopia, as I said. This means, it's not real by the modern definition of "not editing anything."

The article is not about "editing is wrong" or "editing is right." The article is about solving a problem where you have to make a photograph the way your eyes saw it where you have trees forming a circle and in the middle — a bright sunset sky. Imagine this is a task from a client and you have to solve that problem the most efficient way (something working photographers have on a daily basis). Would you ask the client to pay you for a custom radial graduated ND filter to make that in camera? No. You will do the best to preserve the detail in the raw file and spend 10 seconds to bring it back.

OK, someone would want to make this all in camera because of making it all in camera. In the real world this is only for making someone feel good about it and enjoy their work.

This is a simple task that has to be accomplished. I'm not a landscape photographer by any means. I use such backgrounds for compositing when the project calls for that and this is the reason I need all the detail and my natural taste is for low contrast images, as you have noticed. The article is not about personal taste which everyone has. It's about solving a problem which can't be solved by people who say "editing is wrong" unless they do something that could be very expensive (like a custom filter). I don't like editing, but I do it when I have to get the job done. I'm happy when something is done in camera. Different cases, different solutions.

Deleted Account's picture

Not everyone is going to be a professional commercial photographer. Some take photographs and them them in art houses or just for their own enjoyment. You still seem to be on a crusade to convince people that you know best on a subjective topic.

"It's about solving a problem which can't be solved by people who say "editing is wrong" unless they do something that could be very expensive (like a custom filter)."

The cost is clearly something you're adding to justify the WHY you like to edit instead of getting it in-camera. Let it go man. It seems like you're the only one so hell bent on making people see it your way. There's a million ways to skin a cat. Yes some are going to cost more but the argument isn't, "whats the cheapest way to do it?"...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

As, I said, the topic is not subjective. Someone says "you don't have to edit anything." You show them a situation where they can't go without doing it. This proves the philosophy false. A simple logic for anything that pretends to be an absolute truth.

A filter that would do the job has to be precisely made so that it fits just right for the holes in between the leaves where you see the bright sky. The cost of this filter would be close to ridiculous :) I know that it's possible to write "War and Peace" with only dots (like a printer, but manually), but is it worth it and what's the point when the result would be similar to writing it with letters? People judge by the end result. Anything else is just for someone's personal self-esteem which makes them king of their own imaginary kingdom, but this has no use in real life. People have to live a real life.

What I say is: editing is inevitable in such situations. This doesn't mean editing is bad or editing is mandatory. Editing is editing. The "no need for editing philosophy" is like someone saying that no cooking is required to eat a grilled chicken, because they can buy it from the store or from the restaurant. Of course, sometimes it's not required, but that's not an absolute truth, because you may need to do it for your children when they ask you :) One case wrong and the "absolute truth" is proven wrong.

Deleted Account's picture

Or some people would just be happy either blowing out the sky or not having a ton of detail in the trees... You seem to be missing the point. I'm not arguing that you can get the same dynamic range in camera 100% of the time. I'm saying some people are ok with the limitations and they work within them. You keep insisting that everyone needs to have a ton of dynamic range in their imagery which is just your opinion and not objective. No one is debating the cost to create the image in camera either. You're setting up straw men and then arguing with yourself.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Let me say that again: It's a task, not what someone enjoys or not. Some people enjoy not editing photographs on the computer and that's OK. The problem is they say that this is the example of how things have to be done. I show a case where this can't happen. Period.

Deleted Account's picture

You want a cookie or something? You're whole topic is moot.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The comments and responses say otherwise.

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