The Real Versus the Beautiful (Part 2): The Power of the Processed Image

The Real Versus the Beautiful (Part 2): The Power of the Processed Image

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

Ted Gore

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

The Dirty Quarrel by Ted Gore

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.

Flection

Flection by Ted Gore

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!

Panorama Imagery

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.

Perspective Blending

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.

Torre Del Terror by Ted Gore

Focus Stacking

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.

Log in or register to post comments

58 Comments

Denis Trudeau's picture

wow this is a great post, very well writen and informative.

Daniel Laan's picture

Thanks, Denis. Glad you liked it.

R W's picture

Does anyone have any good articles on Focus Stacking "how to" ? I can't seem to find a good one and this technique is something I could really benefit from.

There's a few things I can't stand with a lot of landscape photographers these days. But first, let me start by saying I actually love these kinds of images by Gore and others, that make use of the techniques listed here.

1 - the stories of "hardship" to get the shot. First, it's a little obvious when the caption for every photo has one of these hardships. Second, I've shot with many fellow landscape guys, and unfortunately, too often, the tales are embellished or not even true. Sadly, I've lacked the balls to call them out on it in front of everyone. Lastly, who the hell cares if you faced a grueling hike and barely made it with a minute to spare to catch the glorious sunset. I don't. It doesn't change what I'm looking at. I don't care if you backpacked 10 days into the remote wilderness to get the shot, or you were able to drive right up and take it. I enjoy the actual photograph.

2 - the justification for using the processing technique, and the wording chosen. "blah blah blah to overcome the limitations of this or that". You're putting a cute little spin on what you're actually doing. But that's fine if you do it. And worse, there's people who will deny they did this or that to the photo. Who cares!! The end result is what matters. Why are you so afraid to say you spent some time in Photoshop (or whichever is your preferred digital manipulation software) to achieve the look? You don't have to justify your art to others. It's what *you* like, what *your* vision sees. Don't apologize or justify it.

Great images man, but holy crap, man up and stand up for what you're doing and what really happened. There's no shame if you shot the mountain from inside your truck. There's no shame if you did some perspective blending. Admitting it or denying it have literally 0 effect on every single one of the pixels in the image.

Leigh Smith's picture

I think the problem is that people are too afraid to separate documentary photography and art photography. They are two completely different things. And we're making it worse by trying to hide that fact.

Daniel Laan's picture

Yes, I agree on that part. Trying to cover something up has never helped society. It's troubling that being secretive about this has its roots in fear. Fear of being copied. Fear of others who might be better at it than you. If that doesn't block the creative spirit, I don't know what does.
Thanks for your input, Leigh. :)

Daniel Haußmann's picture

My mentor during my IT studies told us - no on cares if you had hardships to get where your task required you to go. It can be somewhat interesting. But a photo taken 1m next to your car can be more interesting than a photo where you had to hike for 6hours. So yeah, pretty much the result counts. The story behind is something for a more limited audience.

Daniel Laan's picture

True words. It maybe a limited audience, but its never just one. Otherwise we would just tell that story when asked about, right? :)
But I love the adage: "It's not the destination that matters; it's the journey that counts". That doesn't help or discount any photograph, but it does make the photographer carry on and press that shutter a couple of more times.
Thanks for sharing that, Daniel!

Ted Gore's picture

The story behind how I got the shot from Patagonia is not embellished, it is exactly what happened, and I told it here because it is relevant to why I had to do what I did in processing in order to create the image... which is WHAT THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT, in case you missed that. I tell lots of stories with my images because they are relevant and enjoyable to hear. It adds to the experience of viewing them, and I've heard that time and time again from those who see my images. 'Wow the image is great, but the story you wrote makes it even better!' As for your second 'concern'. Yes, I do these things to overcome the limitations of the camera, again... that's WHAT THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT. I do not feel shame about what I do, I'm not afraid about saying what I do in photoshop(did you even read the article or the SCREEN CAP of my photoshop layers?), and I'm not trying to put some 'cute little spin' on it as you are suggesting. So don't tell me to man up and stand up for what I'm doing. Nothing you've said here adds anything to the conversation, it's just accusations based on assumptions.

I will also add that the hike to get the particular shot in Patagonia that Ted is talking about is very grueling and the weather and lighting is absolutely unpredictable. For anybody who hasn't been there, it would be impossible to have the slightest idea of what it took to capture the image without at least some sort of story, as Ted mentioned.

Andre Goulet's picture

I really like to hear the story behind the photo too. Mostly because it reminds me that if you want to get the photo that not just anyone can get, you might want to consider working for it, or doing something different than the next person. I've carried 30lbs of gear 26km to get a shot of a tiny fossil, which ended up on the cover of a magazine, all because I was willing to put the effort into it. If I was lazy, that income wouldn't have happened. Understanding the scale of effort to get a distinguishing photo is important to upcoming photographers. Videographers all know this. The hours and hours of work for what is often 2 minutes of footage... photographers have the same effort to deal with, if they want to stand out.

Daniel Laan's picture

Thanks, Andre. With that much physical and psychological backstory put into a photograph or piece of film, it has bound to have some personal meaning as well. I recon that helps significantly in fighting for the right of that image, no matter how good or bad it is. It sometimes is a good idea to step back and just let the image sit for a while; let it drain emotional attachment. The power of the image should come into its own a good time later. Excellent story you've shared. It also outlines the fact that nowadays everyone can record something that happened, but there are a handful of photographers who actually have the willpower to go the extra mile, sometimes literally.

TJ Jackson's picture

The story can add to it, but there is a slippery slope in each story becoming some Peter Lik-esque drivel like "it was the single most arduous journey of my life but all worth it when utter serenity and inner peace was revealed through the lens of my trusty PhaseOne". That garbage doesn't help photographers. If you stay true to what the story is, it can add some kick, but all too often we read stuff that fits better in pulp fiction.

Alex Noriega's picture

Indeed. But that's Peter Lik. Ted's story isn't like that.

TJ Jackson's picture

True here. But the point remains that backstories are so often done and so hyperbolic that people start to look past them. When every photo has the most amazing backstory, none of them do. So context is good so long as you don't go crazy ... Unless it was crazy. And even then, brevity is key.

Daniel Laan's picture

Haha! That's Lik for you. :)
No, being honest to anyone is the path to enlightenment. That hyperbolic story you mention is where it gets interesting. Visual storytelling too, is at the disposal of the photographer. Boosting contrast and getting close to your foreground subject are tricks to emphasize aspects of that visual story. I think people get carried away with telling the same story in words as well. It's not like you're helping the visually impaired see again. Acceptance, brevity and being humble help in conveying that one sentence where you actually state that it was crazy. It's like the boy who cried wolf. I think that Ted's two stories portrayed here aren't alike. 'Flection' tells about him wanting it all in one image, and overcoming the limitations of something that's trying to mimic human vision, whereas 'The Dirty Quarrel' tells the tale of arriving too late for the composition and having to put together what you saw as you arrived. Thanks, TJ!

Great article Ted! And great job responding to negativity! I'll never understand why people can't just go out and shoot and enjoy it without getting caught up in WHAT OTHERS DO and negativity like this. I use to get flack in the past for posting the story (non embellished) connected to the image, and so I let negative people influence that and I stopped. But then I got a flood of communications from people following my work asking me why I was not sharing like I used to. They LOVED the stories! So, I still do it, but with maybe more care so that people don't jump to the assumption of embellishment or that it has anything to do with ego. I always shared, because I have always loved the story behind images. Always have always will, including yours! Keep marching on. I'm inspired.

Daniel Laan's picture

Wonderful words. Thank you, Mark. Keep close to your heart and continue what you do well. It sounds like quite the learning experience.

Rob Timko's picture

Dude just had a contrary opinion..

....in case you missed that.

"did you even read" his post?

Jesus you sound like a douchebag.

Ted Gore's picture

Ya know what, I have to deal with haters all the time, and this often happens. I come out and defend myself, and boom, along comes someone else to call me a douchebag, or say I'm angry... am I not allowed to defend myself when someone wants to make accusations about me or my work? Excuse me for being angry that this guy wants to tell me to 'man up' and tell me that I'm ashamed and afraid to talk about what I do with my processing, or imply that I embellish my stories when he's absolutely wrong about all of that. So yeah, I'm angry, and I said something back to the guy. If that makes me a douchebag, then so be it. Thanks Rob.

I’ve personally shot with Ted before and done workshops with him. The first time I went shooting with Ted in Death Valley we hiked 3 hours around the dunes to find a composition. At a point I was so exhausted that I just wanted to stop anywhere and shoot, but he kept walking and looking for a better composition until he found something he was content with. That’s what differentiates good and best photos. Saying that a history behind a photo isn’t true because another photographer was caught in a lie it’s just nonsense. For me the end results it’s not what just matters. When I like an image I want to know everything from how hard you worked to get the shot to how you post processed it. Ted tells the entire process from how he got the shot to the final product. Starting from the journey to the post processing which he explains in detail in his videos. So I’m not really sure what you mean by man up and tell what you’re doing, and if you don’t like the story just don’t read it. It’s that simple.

Daniel Laan's picture

Thank you for your view! Appreciate the input. For some of us, part of the net worth of a photo is actually the story of how it came to be. I personally can get really excited about going out in the wild, hiking for days and taking that shot. But I agree it doesn't contribute anything to what you see as an end result. It's either a good photo, or something that could benefit from improvement. The hardship that you mention, comes from improving that same shot over and over again until you get it right. Often times it's not that easy to travel halfway across the globe and redoing that shot.

I'm sorry you don't find anything there for you in the story telling part. Many others do. And both standpoints are absolutely fine. It's just that it doesn't cost a whole lot of trouble to write up a great story along with the photograph. If you don't care for the tale of hardship, strife, hours of processing or any of that; there's nothing that keeps you from skipping it and moving on.
Again, personally, I love to read about how an image came to be. It inspires me as an artist and helps me get out of the mindset that photography is meant to capture something there and then. But in photojournalism's defence, I do want to read that things have been altered compositionally in favour of a more pleasing piece of art. We all have been to that swimming pool that looked idyllic in the folder, but was little more than a sink when we got there.

Martijn van der Nat's picture

Great Article! Cannot wait to read the next part!!!!!

Daniel Laan's picture

Already working on it, Martijn! Thanks a lot!

Eddy Van Keymeulen's picture

Just a great article with so much information that 24 hours is really to short - thanks Daniël

Daniel Laan's picture

Thank you, Eddy. Appreciate that!

I think that it's very important to be clear with your audience when you have made significant edits in post. I was in Patagonia this past week and was fortunate to see the very view that Gore's Dirty Quarrel image captures. To me, his image significantly manipulates the actual view. The added foreground simply doesn't exist where the "background" picture was taken, which feels misleading to me.

I 100% respect and appreciate his work from the art perspective, I just think that audiences can be very easily misled when it comes to this type of editing.

EDIT - I mistook the location where this picture was taken, but the point about editing at times creating a misleading image is still relevant (albeit not to Ted's image, in this case).

michael andrew's picture

Imagery, Composites and Photography are all different things.