Photoshop Not Required: How an Artist Creates His Photographs in Camera

Photoshop Not Required: How an Artist Creates His Photographs in Camera

Abstract truths and concrete reality are where John Dykstra strives to create photographs. At first, people may confuse Dykstra’s work as images and not photographs, but they would be wrong.

I like to use three words when dealing with content developed with a camera. The first is "picture", which to me is something that was just snapped with no real effort made to create art. A picture can still be exciting and artistic. The second is "photograph". This is where an attempt was made to create something that required controlling light, subject matter, composition, and various other attributes. And finally, the third term I like to use is "image". To me, an image is something that started as a photograph and was heavily developed using post-processing. All are fine in their own ways, it's just a way for me to categorize for my personal use.

When I saw Dykstra’s work for the first time, I naturally thought that he was creating images using a fair amount of post-processing. Even if he were, I would still find the images to be impressive. I’m a photographer that uses post-processing to adjust, not to create images. I wish I had the skills to create images using post-processing, but I don’t. However, when I learned that Dykstra was creating these photographs without digital manipulation, I was delightfully surprised.

Dykstra takes the flatness of a photograph and uses anamorphic illusions to trick the eye into seeing depth and dimension to his photographs. He captures this in-camera instead of digitally manipulating the photograph in post-processing. Dykstra explains “I didn’t even pursue it because I was tired of seeing Photoshop composites. I pursued it because it was, first and foremost, effective in telling my story and carrying forth my vision of the world.” Dykstra has a deep interest in the personal perspective or viewpoint on life. And as Dykstra told me "...the way we experience reality differs from person to person.” so, therefore, each of us experiences his photographs differently. Yes, I realize this is true for all art. However, I find that Dykstra’s photographs do not scream a message to the viewer but instead let the viewer develop their own perspective. 

Dykstra doesn’t just create his photographs for the message contained in his work. “I’m very drawn to the process because of the creative problem solving involved. It can be a challenge, but I love how the process gives me permission to create photographs that I had never seen aside from my own imagining,” explains Dykstra. “A solution for one problem might open up a world of opportunities and ideas you wouldn’t have arrived at otherwise. It’s exciting. It forces you to work outside the box, and then it gets your creative juices pumping as well.” I think this is something more photographers can practice and that can lead them to create more interesting photographs. Exercising this problem solving develops a skill set the photographer can pull from when new obstacles arise later on. This isn’t to say the Dykstra doesn’t use any post-processing as he explains “First off, I want to clear the air by stating my opinion that there is a difference between editing and manipulation. I still adjust tonal curves, contrast, white balance, sharpness, etc. Manipulation, on the other hand, has to do with moving pixels or introducing foreign visual elements from a different photograph.” Dykstra also told me that he didn’t go completely manipulation free until the end of 2017. He likes to hold himself close to the standards of a professional photojournalist when it comes to post-processing.

Problem-solving doesn’t mean Dykstra is a protectionist when it comes to defects in his photographs. It is quite the opposite for Dykstra, as he tries to embrace the defects and would love to be able to master defects such as overexposure, improper white balance, diffraction, fringing, and aliasing for their expressive potential. As Dykstra explains “We’ve seen how many prominent artists from art historical movements were unpopular in their time for the very reason we love their work today. They abandoned the conventions and standards of their time, to win their freedom to experiment and explore new territory. Critics saw them as amateurs for all the perceived defects in their paintings, but they wound up pushing the boundaries of painting to influence countless generations. Post-impressionists, for example, were seen as outlandish because their works appeared unfinished, but now we have movie after movie about the life of Vincent Van Gogh.” Perhaps more photographers should embrace this philosophy and set their photographs apart from others.

I asked Dykstra if he saw his photographs as a documentation of his combined artistic efforts. A way to conveniently share those efforts, or does he see the photography as equally artistic in nature? Dykstra told me he sees it as both. While the sets are created specifically for the purpose of the photograph they could be considered a piece of art. And when the photograph is created using the art developed for the set, then the photograph itself becomes another piece of art. But Dykstra doesn’t keep the scenes created for the photograph.  They are either disassembled or destroyed. “But realistically I conceive the photographic prints as art objects themselves, and that’s how I approach them.” Dykstra adds “All the markings on the glass and walls, the anamorphic illusions painted on set, the entire thing is designed with the surface of the print in my mind. Especially speaking in terms of creative vision, without the photographic dimension, the painting, drawing, and set building alone would fail to express the entirety of my vision. The work I do speaks specifically through and upon the photographic medium.” So while the art of the scenes permits the creation of the photograph art, the final piece of art is the photograph itself. As Dykstra mentioned earlier, he uses the anamorphic illusions to create his art that requires both the scene art and art of the photograph.

As for the equipment Dykstra uses, he told me he is currently shooting with a Pentax 645Z because he loves to print giant photographs with incredible detail. For lighting, he relies on three Paul C. Buff E640s. Along with the Buff lights, Dykstra loves his LTM Pepper 100 watt fresnel tungsten light. Of course, there is one piece of equipment that is critical to his anamorphic illusions. I’ll let the readers guess what this piece of equipment is by posting your guesses in the comments below. I’ll follow up with the answer after a few guesses are listed.

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43 Comments

Great article! I really like his work!

Jon Dize's picture

I get so sick and tired of this No Photoshop Esotericusbullshiticus! Which is why I wrote the following prose, going on 10 years ago. http://dizeman.com/photoshopyesno/

Dear Jon, I read your prose. I agree with a lot of what you write, and I think artists definitely should "create or build without restriction or the confines of definition." We should be free to express our creative visions in the most suitable means possible! For me, right now, practical effects and minimal to zero manipulation best deliver the message of my vision.

I love composite work and the things that are possible with photomanipulation. I used to do a lot of it myself. One of my favorite photographers is Noell Oszvald, who composites several images together in every one of her minimalistic images. There are several other photographers whose work I admire, who also use digital manipulation to create their work.

There are a lot of great ways of going about photography and this particular path is mine.

John Horwitz's picture

No argument that ALL photography is manipulated; the difference being that once you alter an image 'enough' it ceases to be a photograph and becomes digital art.

What is particularly bothersome is that mr Dize articulates so much animus in his diatribe! It's just a picture;

Photography has been used too often to simply document our lives and the inherent creativity of the media is overlooked or dismissed as 'easy' when compared to more traditional art forms. It is a process whose many practitioners debate form or content yet rarely achieve technical competence or aesthetic clarity.

Take a time-out, or not...

Douglas Turney's picture

As I stated in the article all forms of artistic expression are fine and it doesn't matter if post processing or in camera or lighting or any other form is used. I posted an article about John Wilhelm who uses lots of post-processing. You might want to check it out https://fstoppers.com/composite/dad-poses-his-children-out-world-images-.... This article was about John Dykstra's approach to making art. It was not a Photoshop vs No Photoshop article.

David Love's picture

I think it's more about people discounting composites as not true photography. No matter what you do to the image, in the end, people see a photo. They like or don't like it. If movies have to green screen everything to tell a story, no reason why we should be left out because we can't afford to have sets built. I would spend more time going after people that pose dead insects or drugged frogs.

link doesn't work. finally an article about a white male photographer that inst centered around race

Matthias Kirk's picture

Finally a comment that injects some reactionism into a discussion about artistic approaches.

thank you. i hate PC correct bs because it goes past what it should be about, the Art

Rifki Syahputra's picture

yeah, this is good

John Horwitz's picture

Some of us know how to do this, for everyone else, there's photoshop.

Jon Dize's picture

Do comments like that make your nipples hard?

Dan Ostergren's picture

That's a really weird question.

John Horwitz's picture

Why do you want to know, jon Dize ~ are you looking for a date? I'm not gay, and even if I were, you aren't my type! BTW, that's one BIGLY-HUGE-MONSTER lens you have there.

Jon Dize's picture

Not a weird question at all... Some spit and spew because it makes them excited or makes them feel TALLER. It's a psychosis.

Jarrett Rathert's picture

you make a claim like that, and have no photos uploaded. Totally calling bullshit.

Jon Dize's picture

Who are you talking to... or AT?

Jarrett Rathert's picture

I'm talking to the person I replied to..... pretty obvious.

Very interesting use of chalk. Adds perspective and a certain vibe at the same time.

Is the critical piece of equipment a projector? Or maybe some tether tool that connects to a tablet or a phone to see what he's doing from the camera's POV? My bet is on a projector tho.

Geoff Thompson's picture

I think the critical piece of equipment is his imagination.

I thought about that one and I was like "Nah, he said piece of equipment".

Eric Robinson's picture

While I really love his work and respect what he is doing I think we have to move away from this holier than thou stance in regard to using Photoshop. In my opinion it matters not a jot how the image was produced as it should stand on its own without the need for a backstory. This of course excludes documentary images which must be shot with no manipulation,mmmmu. People who like John’s work may be interested in the work of Scottish Artist Calum Colvin who creates complex 3D scenes which he then photographs.
http://www.calumcolvin.com/Burnsiana.html

Yes!!! More of those please

Mr. Turney, your definition of an "image" does a terrible disservice to all photographers who made great and wonderful IMAGES before the age of Photoshop.
of course, Mr. Dykstra is making images with his camera! and he's doing it the old fashioned way - in the studio, instead of in the computer. point is, your definition seems awfully restrictive to me.
as Mr. Robinson notes, how the image was made matters much less than the image itself.
congrats though being open-minded about it enough tow write the article.

Douglas Turney's picture

Hi, flexible fotography. I realize that my definition of image and photograph are only my way of segregating content into different categories. I also do not mean to imply that a person who creates a photograph is not an artist. Controlling composition, lighting, subject matter, etc. does make a photograph a work of art. That's why I tried to distinguish between a picture and a photograph. I also didn't mean to offend anyone who develops content using some sort of post-processing where the digital file is modified. When I say photograph and image, I only differentiate them for the purpose of the method of reaching the end objective - NOT the quality of the work or the ability of the artist. I also understand that there doesn't have to be a thick line between the two.

I try to use pictures, photographs and imagines in my writing here to help provide a way of differentiating methods and not as a way of judging.

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