Photography Is the Art Of Intervention

Incredibly vibrant colors dominate this small stand of bamboo in the city of Darwin, Australia.

It's a Photo Regardless of How it's Made

Over the years I've been fortunate to receive very positive feedback on my photos. And of course, over the last 10 years or so, folks have often asked me if I use photoshop. It seems that the more they like the photo the less hesitant they are to ask. And, when they say photoshop, they're using the word generically to suggest manipulation of the image on the computer.

Opening the Proverbial Can of Worms

Actually it's problematic to answer in the affirmative although, of course, I always do.

I worked and taught photography in darkrooms for over 25 years. But things changed once I moved to a digital workflow. Initially the aim was to find solutions to technical problems (aka "fix it in photoshop") and then, as I gained some expertise, to enhance the image so that it better explored the unique relationship formed between subject, photographer and viewer

During my last few years of working with film I starting having the original film images (i.e., transparencies and negatives) scanned and then brought onto the desktop for processing, sharing and storage. Thankfully digital cameras, which I’ve used extensively since 2006, have greatly simplified that process.

There is a certain aesthetic beauty associated with film, just like there is listening to music on vinyl. But if you’re talking image quality, film does not compare with what’s possible in a totally digital workflow. And, of course, just like in the days of film-based photography, it makes a huge difference if you actually know what you’re doing.

Night time is the right time for atmospheric still lifes, such as this golden image photographed through a shop window in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Unless required to teach a particular technique I've always approached my work on the desktop as an extension of what I aimed to achieve under the enlarger. Adjustments in exposure (i.e., brightness), contrast and color continue to be made at both a global and local level. Even when employing 6"x4" postcard prints for the purpose of editing, selection and sequencing I was keen to ensure that they were processed to the highest standard possible. You see whether the one hour photo lab's printer was on autopilot, or was in the hands of an experienced operator making decisions as to exposure and color within about a 2 second time frame, all images are altered.

Of course its true to say that any form of photographic image is, at it's most basic level, merely a representation of what we perceive in our three-dimensional world. It's also true that all photographs are altered or manipulated in some form. In the world of digital photography that happens (when you camera is set to JPEG mode) in camera, without you even being aware of it.

So why do people ask if I use photoshop? Is it simply because they've never been able to make photos of the same quality and/or with the same emotional impact? Is it because they have a Leica and, perhaps, a Porsche (Hehe) and still can’t make a decent photo?

Can it be that while having a camera might, on one level, make you a photographer, then having a sharp knife should make me a surgeon. Nyet!

Trees and people reflected in a pool of water at the village of Hongcun in Anhui Province, China. 

Photography And Intervention

Since it's very inception photography has been based upon the notion of intervention. In fact, back in the early days of our craft, you weren't simply a photographer but also a manufacturer, artist, technician and, sometimes, salesperson. And the process of having a professional portrait made was, while somewhat quicker, no less artificial an experience as having a portrait painted. 

To get any photograph onto a computer it needs to be converted into a digital file. Film and paper prints have to be scanned and then manipulated so that the scan which, if it's any good, will reproduce quite a flat (i.e., lacking contrast and color) and slightly unsharp image. Applications like Photoshop are employed to bring the image back to something resembling its original quality. Whether it is further processed doesn't change the fact that all images brought onto the desktop are digital and, in one way or another, altered.

What About JPEG?

If you set your digital camera to JPEG then the original, unprocessed RAW data recorded by the camera is processed, in a jiffy, by your camera into something approximating what you pointed your camera at.

And, of course, there are all manner of things you can do to alter that particular recorded 'reality' through your choice of exposure, contrast, color rendition, image framing, lens focal length, viewpoint, etc. Heck, even your height can have an effect on the way the scene is recorded.

Flooded landscape on the Kakadu Highway between Jabiru and Cooinda in the Kakadu National Park, Australia.

Photographing in RAW for Best Quality

Using your camera, as I do, set to RAW simply means that all the original data recorded by the camera is retained for processing, by you, on the desktop. That RAW file is likely to be pretty awful to look at, no matter how good you may be as a photographer. But, remember, it’s simply data and, once processing is complete, you’re well on your way to realizing the images potential. (I’m not sure that anything is every really finished). 

What's Your Point, Pops?

All I'm arguing for is that, over time, folks begin to understand that, as in days gone by, all photos are processed and that terms like processed, enhanced or manipulated should, on one level, be taken to mean the same thing. Perhaps if folks realized that their cameras, including those within their mobile devices, are acting both as a recording device and as a photo processing laboratory they might understand that for many serious photographers workflow, by which I mean the act of making a photograph, only begins in the camera.

It's true to say that processing your images on the desktop should produce better results, but that's the reward you get for the effort, the outlay and the often difficult learning process.

Back in the days of film folks, by which I mean blokes, would often compliment me on my photos and then say "you must have a really good camera". Does having a Volvo make you a better driver? (Sorry, couldn't resist that one). The fact that some of us make the time to process our photos on the desktop is not something that should be derided by dubious questions about photoshop. It simply means we take our photography very seriously and work hard to produce the best results we can.

Exceptions To The Rule

Mind you in the world of newspaper, sports and wedding photography many photographers choose, or are instructed to adopt, JPEG rather than RAW in their usual workflow. This decision is based around notions of a non-manipulated image somehow being more truthful in the world of the newspaper photograph, and also in response to the amount of images made and the tight deadlines under which newspaper, sport and wedding photographers often work.

Image quality is also somewhat of a moot point when today’s news is used to wrap up tomorrow nights fish and chips.

Making Great Photos

I guess that most folks are probably just trying to understand how and why your photos are so different to their own. Is it the camera, a special film or filter? These days photoshop, whatever folks think that might be, is a pretty easy target. By finding a point of difference I suspect there are some who, at a subconscious level, are trying to explain away why their own photos may not be up to scratch. Forget about talent, the determining factors in the production of a successful photograph are more likely to be physical effort, passion and the application of hard-earned technique.

It is easy and fun making photos, which is one of the reasons most of us do it. But making great photos may take 1/250 second and a decade or more of experience, not to mention a unique world view and a desire to explore one’s own place in that world.  

I Have a Camera, What Now?

Furthermore, it's not the tools you use but your vision; willingness to experiment and to remain open to new ways of thinking and new techniques; together with a desire to strive for perfection that determines how you live your life and, in the long run, your legacy. And that's as true for photography, as it is for anything else.

I believe that great photos are more about the other than about oneself. And while, over time, it's possible to develop a personal style, our best work has the capacity to  touch the sublime by drawing attention to the simple inner beauty found in all things.

The Artist Maker

As artists we create everyday, but so many creative and hardworking folks are more concerned with concentrating their work on the negative aspects of our world. Long ago I determined to adopt the opposite approach. It's not a matter of turning one's back on evil, destruction or poverty. But by concentrating our efforts on the production of beautiful, life affirming images we can help tune our audience into perceiving the world in the same way. And, as we know, thoughts determine actions.

Give Yourself Some Credit

Beauty is not purely external. Understanding that beauty also comes from within can only help us to commune, at a deeper level, with a world both around us and beyond our normal, everyday perception.

The Way Forward

It's okay to seek out the exotic. After all that's largely why we travel. But the search should never be at the expense of the beauty that surrounds us everyday. After all, the search for beauty shouldn't be limited to our holidays. Should it?

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru