The processed photograph is growing more popular. Whether that has to do with the technology involved in image processing becoming more accessible to many is up for debate. Maybe it is a gradual shift of the human perception of what we call the art of photography. I have asked a handful of professional landscape photographers to contribute to the case of the processed photograph, making this second part in this series more practical than the rather philosophical first article.
A Real Landscape Photograph?
The very highest rated digital landscape images on the web today are indeed baudrillard-esque renditions of what a photographer saw in his mind’s eye. We have covered that a given photographer’s physical perception may differ from what any other’s pair of physical eyes make of the world, but what about the growing popularity? If you are shy of quotes by arguably the most influential landscape photographer who walked the Earth, you should look away now.
I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop. – Ansel Adams
Of course, Ansel Adams was right in the sense that the "electronic image" would bring many possibilities to the table for the photographer versed in the digital languages. With computers becoming available for the masses and jobs requiring one to work with computers, it's only natural that more of us became computer literate. And with photo editing software growing more accessible and user friendly with every iteration, it wasn’t long before the interpretation of the digital camera wasn’t enough for the avid photographer. Today, many digital cameras output the capture in the JPEG image format, an 8-bit file format that translates data into a visual representation on a device that can display it. But since modern cameras are capable of capturing much more than 8 bits of data, and both the web and computer monitors are still based on 8-bit display of images, you effectively let the camera throw away data by recording in the JPEG file format.
I am sure that someone can and will comment on how many bits of data we typically collect with a modern full-frame camera, but I’m not here to do so. The fact of the matter is: Many photographers decide to take the processing of images out of the camera’s equation and into their own hands. In doing so, the photographer controls (more of) what the audience gets to see. That’s why we record in the raw format. But how do you create an image that has not been digitally manipulated from a raw file in the first place?
National Geographic puts it this way:
Our biggest ask is that the photos stay true to your personal vision and to what you saw. Please avoid heavy-handed processing. We want to see the world through your eyes, not through the excessive use of editing tools... Don’t harm or manipulate the subject or its environment for the sake of creating an image.
Personally, I could not agree more on respecting the subject or its environment. But what is "heavy-handed processing" exactly? National Geographic clarifies by outlining some of the techniques used by photographers. While dodging and burning is allowed and cropping is too, the tolerance of HDR imagery is not that new. To enter in their photo contest in 2014, high dynamic range photography wasn’t allowed. But the following year, bracketing multiple images to retain detail in the shadows and highlights of high contrast scenes was allowed. Other techniques, such as time stacking, the process involved to capture the sky at a different time than the foreground, were not allowed.
There is one more Ansel quote I would like to share before we start things off with an interview with professional Landscape Photographer Ted Gore.
No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create, or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions, and emotions and to build confidence in the creative spirit. – Ansel Adams
USA Landscape Photographer of the Year for 2015 was California-based Ted Gore. I’ve talked with Gore about the story behind two of his terrific works of art and asked him which techniques he uses to overcome the limitations of human vision or the capabilities of the digital camera.
The Dirty Quarrel
Gore captured this stunning shot in Patagonia on a whirlwind of a morning that involved him hiking two miles up a rocky river bed to an area he had never been and did not know exactly how to get to. After the river bed, Gore pushed through dense forests of lenga trees, and at one point, he gave up. Getting bored with sitting around, he made another attempt, but this time, he was successful. All of those setbacks caused him to get to the general location too late, so he didn’t have time to adequately hunt for a composition, as he arrived just when the light on the mountain was exploding. In addition, a chunk of glacier was calving off and falling into the lake below like a waterfall.
In regards to human vision vs. capabilities of the camera, Gore tells us that he knew that even despite not having a foreground, he could take images of the light on the mountain and the ice falling into the lake and in processing pair those exposures with a foreground he could find at a later time, since the foreground would not receive any direct sunlight during the morning. After the light finished, Gore went and found a nice and colorful dwarf lenga tree, set up the composition, and took a series of exposures to capture the entire focal range due to the camera being fairly closely situated to the tree. In processing, he was able to bring all of these elements together and essentially recreate the scene that he experienced but was unable to capture at one specific moment of time due to time constraints and physical and photographic limitations.
Gore was on his way out of Oneonta Gorge one day as he began getting down low and started looking at the reflection of the light on the canyon walls on the surface of the shallow water. The curvature, ripples in the water, and the reflections in this image are quite staggering. He noticed that some larger rocks just below the surface were causing the reflection to bend a bit due to disruptions in the flow of the water. He turned the camera on in live view mode and brought it right down to the surface of the water in order to get an even lower perspective. The close perspective and the wide angle of the lens further exaggerated these curves; Gore knew he had something interesting compositionally.
The bottom tip of his lens filter mount (Fotodiox Wonderpana) was literally in the water, and he had to take a very complicated series of focus-stacked images in order to get focus from front to back. Due to the low light in the canyon, Gore was having issues with shutter speed as well. Shorter shutter speeds were looking best, but were not possible without wider apertures and higher ISOs. Shooting at ISO 1600 gave him less than ideal quality in the files and and wider apertures made the focus stacking more difficult because of a narrower depth-of-field range. On top of that, the shape and character of the reflection changed with every exposure.
He ended up shooting many exposures to try and achieve the best looking reflection at each focus point. All in all, he used a total of approximately 18-20 raw files for the blending of the depth-of-field and the extremely high dynamic range of the scene. A screenshot of a portion of the blending layers illustrates this. So, in terms of Gore's vision versus a camera's technical limitations, this is the most extreme case of using many techniques in processing to overcome those limitations and realize a creative vision.
Without large amounts of processing, a shot like this is absolutely not possible.
Dynamic Range (HDR, Luminosity Masking)
I’ve started to wonder how Gore would compensate for the expanded dynamic range in a scene, and it’s clear that he doesn’t bracket like a maniac just for the sake of it. Luckily, these days, the sensors are doing a fantastic job of capturing plenty of dynamic range. Gore shoots with a Nikon D810, and he says that the sensor picks up shadow detail so well that he actually “exposes to the left," or just slightly underexposes his shot. He finds that he can usually capture a scene in one exposure, and if he’s not shooting towards the light, it’s easy to get it all in one shot. The exception is shooting straight into a really bright sun, which then requires typically one more darker exposure, maybe a third on the rare occasion. He otherwise rarely finds himself needing to bracket exposures.
Gone are the days of nine or five shot exposure brackets. Although sometimes, when I’m around other photographers, I still here those rapid-fire bursts!
Wondering if he also prepared in the field to print gigantic prints, we discussed the idea behind panorama imagery. Are available lenses just not wide enough, or is it the resolution he is after? But Gore isn’t that fussy about really high resolution images. But he does sometimes shoot multiple shots, rotating the camera in order to get the stuff into frame that he needs. The reason is that he finds himself wanting to utilize the effects of the wide angle distortion for creative reasons, or in tighter spaces, he may not be able to get everything into frame he is after.
On the web, I’ve noticed wide angle shots, but with huge mountains in the distance. Naturally I wondered if Gore too has a certain technique he employs to compensate for a wide angle lens’ distortion. He disclosed that he uses multiple zoom lengths and combines them to overcome the limitations of pincushion distortion. This happens in wide angle lenses where objects in the middle of frame get squished down smaller, and this can have an undesirable effect on objects like mountains that are a little farther from you. If you really want a nice wide angle foreground, but the mountain ends up too small as a result, you can use another longer focal length shot and blend those two together in processing to create an image that more closely represents what you might see with your own eyes. Gore has a processing video that shows specifically how he does this technique for his image Torre Del Terror.
Our eyes are very good at quickly focusing from one point to another. In a given landscape scene, our brain works to combine tiny glances at objects to compose that scene into a single picture. Gore has a technique that overcomes the softness due to diffraction when stopping down to f/22. The concept is simple and just involves taking a series of images including focus points from the front of your scene to the back, but at an aperture setting that will typically be the best for the lens you’re using. Focus stacking is a technique he thinks that any landscape photographer should be very familiar with doing. Gore thinks that it is absolutely necessary for wide angle closeup foregrounds. Long lens images, however, can be very problematic with depth of field when you are shooting through layers or objects of varying distance from your vantage point.
Time Stacking and Compositing
Does he sometimes shoot different scenes to combine into one work of art? What about the same scene, but with many minutes apart, effectively creating a time stack? He, nor anybody else can say what the rules are for this kind of thing. It all comes down to what you want to do as an artist. Gore doesn’t have problems with other people manipulating their images, and he’s not concerned if the photographer doesn't choose to disclose that either. He doesn't combine different shots from different scenes, as he wants to present the landscape, the permanent objects that exist on our planet, as they are in nature.
For example, Gore wouldn’t place a lake in front of a mountain that doesn’t exist there. With photographing ephemeral and dynamic objects, he does take some liberty if he feels the need. He cares a lot about composition. Together with processing, this is really where the identity of the artist comes through. If he has a great composition, but a sky that isn’t ideal, he will sometimes use processing techniques to enhance it to better support the scene, but he certainly makes it clear that he prefers to capture everything he needs in as few exposures as possible.
As far as time blends go, Gore likes to stick with using exposures that were taken within the moment of the "event" — sometimes only a couple minutes, other times, such a moment may be 30 minutes to an hour — it just depends. But he keeps it all in the realm of believability and is more concerned with presenting his viewers with his experience at a natural location, rather than what he was able to capture in one frame at one moment in time. You won’t find Gore combining a sunset with a Milky Way or anything like that. It’s just a bit too fanciful for his tastes.
But again, I have zero problems with someone else doing it, I just won’t be giving it any Facebook likes because I just don’t find it appealing.
Local Adjustments (Dodging and Burning)
Gore uses dodging and burning to build up dimension in the scene. This involves accentuating light and the way it interacts with the objects in the land. He does a lot with emphasizing how light can shape an object and in doing so makes it pop out of the scene. His opinion on dodging and burning is that it gives an effect that is more representative of being in a natural place and experiencing it with your own eyes.
Finishing Touches (Orton Effect)
I think that the glow is a nice touch, however artificial. And I do love it personally. It turns out that Gore doesn’t use it on every part in an image, as Orton works to add atmosphere to a landscape scene and can enhance the feeling of depth and dimension. It’s something that should be used sparingly and applied in a targeted way. It's a different process than just adding glow, which is more of an effect used to enhance the presence of light in a scene.
It's clear that Gore knows what he's doing and that he isn't bothered with what others think of the techniques used to show a scene he experienced. And in that, I think, lies the answer to our problem. It's hard for many of us to judge any photography on its merits, as it bridges the gap between perceived reality and imagined art. Did the pioneers of photography and the technology involved ever claim to capture reality? Or was it more along the lines of capturing the moment? Without there being a consensus about the nature of reality, photography should be considered a form of art.
In the next part, we’ll feature a couple more professional landscape photographers, as they share their view on the processed image. Before we do, we would like to know what you do to convey a sense of being there with you. Which capture and processing techniques do you use to create art from photography? Let us know in the comments if your mind’s eye is more leading in photography than your physical eyes.
A big shout out to Ted Gore. His images and words were used with permission and inspired me to go out and experience the outdoors again.