Ansel Adams' work is lauded everywhere, though not by everyone. On it’s face its hard to find an artist with a greater impact on his field than Adams' had on ours. His photographs are awe inspiring, and largely in Black and White. They were instrumental in furthering the conversation on composition and lighting in landscapes. They reached out to a massive audience, calling in wonder to the world about the areas he visited. Most importantly to me, they played a huge role in developing conservationism and awareness of areas near to my heart.
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
— Ansel Adams
In conversation recently I heard the argument that Adam’s work is demonstrative of what is an ‘acceptable level’ of editing. They demonstrate great composition, focus, bright and vast panoramas, and constant emotion that begs a person to feel what it’s like to ‘be there’. Furthermore, the argument went on to say that they are a representation of unedited photos, partially due I think to the relatively archaic nature of the tools he had at hand. This really got me to thinking, spurring a personal journey to answer the questions of whether or not editing should happen, and to what extent is acceptable. Using Ansel as my guide, as the pontificate asked, I’ve formed the following framework for my own process.
For what it’s worth, Adam’s photographs were taken through massive effort. Hiking was more prevalent then, as there were less roads, though more access if you were willing to walk. Camera’s and tripods were huge, bulky and heavy. Taking the image also required an incredible understanding of the tool itself, and an even greater understanding of the ultimate tool's ability (the photographer). They required dark room skills and an understanding of a specific result in the eventual post process before closing the shutter. He didn’t have live view to get immediate feedback, adjust his process and take another image. They had to be taken mindful of the end result from the very beginning, the process I contend will have the most impact on the quality of the photo.
Today, we often see and hear it lauded that a picture hasn’t been edited at all, “straight out of the camera”. This could be a reaction to filters (again, relatively ancient tools). In social media and the like, or a reaction to other post processing that either really makes an image pop positively, or does so with a negative result (for instance HDR images taken ‘too far’). While this statement has some merit, it also implies a lot more than I think the person speaking may realize. There's some logic to go through in this conversation.
As early as pinhole cameras started to show up over a hundred years ago, and likely even before, people have been arguing on the purpose of photography. Should a picture be taken straight from camera and not touched? Does that make it more legit and a better representation of the ‘facts’, ie; the moment, the place, the feeling, the skill and effort of the photographer are all part of these facts. I have five points I used to work through this topic. I recognize that the answer is entirely personal, and in fact mine has changed over time and I believe will continue to evolve. The following questions helped me form my current belief and parameters around which I edit.
1. What are the negatives?
2. What is an ‘edited’ photograph?
3. What are the positives?
4. What is the intent of the image?
5. What is my framework?
Negatives to Editing
To me these lists are all subjective and thus never ending, but I will attempt to highlight a few possible negatives.
I feel like most of the negative reaction is to something that doesn’t feel ‘real’. For instance, fake skies often give this impression, as well as incredibly brilliant subjects and darkening objects with less appeal. Other things are often added as well, like planes or hot air balloons. However, those are only additive. One of the goals for most images is to get away from distracting elements, which is subtractive. The eye likes to be able to know what to focus on. For this reason, darkening or blurring (hello Bokeh) do those things. Taking that as far aw we can, pieces of the actual image can be removed in post. A breathtaking vista can be completely ruined by power lines, removing them, I feel, is an edit that most editing naysayers may still be comfortable with. But, removing an encroaching tree or branch, or the photobombed in the background… could be going too far. Or is it? Does fake color really imply a bad image? Using Adams' style, tell that to the Black and White aficionados toady, who are paradoxically taking photos with more information and removing a lot of it, in order to portray a feel in the image. Black and White theory walks and illustrates our argument well; is it more, or less, edited? Taking out the color in today’s age represents a massive edit to the available information, it is reductive. However, that same process a hundred years ago was part and parcel to capturing as much information as possible.
Is it a negative than to create the image and then remove the color, thus limiting the perception of the photo, giving the audience guidance on what to feel? Is it a farce of an image, an untruth?
A person asking the question or making the statement on whether a photo has been edited is assuming some things.
The first implication that I see here is that an edited photo is a fake photo and thus not a real photo, somehow devaluing it. Also, that a line should be drawn wherein a photographer is no longer representing ‘truth’, but is now ‘just’ producing art. There is a feeling in this that a photo should look ‘true to life’ in order to remain authentic. Finally, and I think most pointed, that ‘straight from the camera’ is the truest or most accurate representation of the above points. Which brings me to the second point:
2 What is an edited photograph?
I feel that when this is said, the author is referring to editing or post processing outside of the camera. Some points need to be made here, and I’m sure what I bring up won’t exhaust the number of others that could be illustrated.
When a photo is taken, whether digital or film, a whole lot of editing of the medium is done ‘in camera’ at the moment of exposure, to it being displayed on the screen. The camera itself is both the tool of the photographer as well as the framework in which creation happens. As a framework, it is the limitation that the photographer is working within in order to create. Light being pulled in and recorded on a sensor (speaking high level and digitally) is in itself a function of the camera being used. It is a limitation. In other words, if we are going to draw a line on ‘editing’ then we need to draw a line on which camera and lens should be used to edit.
The process of taking a photo is in itself an edit of the surroundings.
Depth of field, available light, available color rendering, composition, etc, are all affected by the physical action of closing the shutter and viewing the resulting image. Were we to say an unedited photo is the best photo… what camera represents the most unedited rendition? You see, at the very heart of the argument, editing is what we are doing! And to say that an unedited photo is, for instance, the snap of your smart phone, is sort of silly, as the amount of editing being done by the algorithm in your phone is precisely what that phone is relying on in order to produce a ‘good result’. The iPhone 7 takes photos that are less visually impressive than the latest and greatest, as a result of a whole lot more computation being done to create it as much as less information being gathered. However, who decided what is less impressive, and which is less edited? Obviously, the older the camera the less computation being used to create the image. If we want to go to the least edited… we are going to be going back to the days long before Ansel Adam’s work, to images that are almost unviewable but no less demonstrate the best of the art at the time.
Ironically, this photo could be straight from the camera. However, in order for me to create this same image, it would take a tremendous amount of editing. Cropping, structure, color, you name it, would have to be changed or removed, people and costumes and toys would have to be aded. So, for my mind, I think I’ve settled on this fact: every photo, at the click of the shutter, is an edited photo. All work done to create an image is an edit.
Now, if we were to take that same argument the the less editing the better, all the way into post processing, then we would be want to rely on JPEG’s as, that format is recording and displaying more editing and less information, straight from the camera. Which is why photographers prefer RAW, as it does the opposite, recording MORE information and displaying less editing, allowing the artist more room to make an image. When a person takes a RAW image and imports it to Lightroom for instance, it represents the most information that the resulting exposure could produce in that camera set up. However, on screen, raw photos often appear blown out or dark, or whatever mix of the two were created on the canvas initially. For instance, I generally expose to the right, meaning I expose the image as far to the right of the histogram as it will allow without blowing out the highlights. I feel that doing so allows me to capture the most available information for that photo. Shadows are rendered as bright as possible and highlights are kept within the bounds of usability. As such, the live view playback and initial upload appear to be poorly taken exposures. However, adjusting those sliders brings out the best information that is recorded within the camera, producing the best result for the photo I took. This could be considered an edited photo… but really that version of work is closer to the real dark room days than the version from a phones screen would be, as the artist has more at their control, and thus the burden of creating a good image lies heavier in the their hands than any iPhone currently creates. This logic than follows in all edits involved in adjusting available color, light, contrast, etc… The information is there on the canvas, as brought in from the natural world, through an aperture (I shoot manual, so I edited that as well) unto a sensor and into my PC. That logic follows no matter how deeply we go back to the process required before any pressing of the first button, all the way to a final result. The whole experience is editing. To me, the foundation of the argument then relies on admitting that every single photo taken is an edited representation of the subject. Where we draw that line seems to be an entirely personal decision.
What is the intent of the image
The conversation, for me, then turns to the foundation of taking that image in the first place. Pictures are always taken with an intent. We could be just documenting a place and time. We could be trying to relay a certain mood and feeling in that image. We could be trying to make a point with it. The list of these goes on and on. I feel that the best images are created intentionally, and thus the intent has been really pondered, and edited, before the lens cap is even taken off. How deeply we ponder that intent and shoot accordingly tends to portray the best imagery according to our resolve. As such, my answer to this question goes back to this point. The amount of editing needed is an answer to the question of: what is my intent?
For instance, wanting to capture a moment in time, as snow is dumping onto a mountain, a quick snapshot of highly piled snow by my car could suffice. But really thinking through it, I'd like to create a mood wherein the cold and advancing storm are contrasted with snow falling and deep snow is paramount. Finding a tree that is buried, taking a picture from the top down, exposing to catch the light on the falling snow and still freeze it in motion, using a tripod to do so, framing the subject close and bright and the advancing storm in the far background as dark and moody and finally shooting in RAW, especially since the dynamic range of this image is so deep. Then, I may be shooting several images and compositing them, because capturing all the available light in that scene is nearly impossible in a single shot, and then there's combining them in post… until I'm sitting in front of Lightroom to compile them together to single frame... and then bring out the best of the focus and color and light available in that final image. My intent drives the process with which the editing is pursued, my audience defines the fences needed for presentation.
Again, this is my logic. Applying it then implies that editing is not only a requisite part of the process, but it is unavoidable! This isn’t only in the realm of landscapes either. Whether documenting a war or a brilliant sunset, or a person's studio portrait up close, editing happens. Editing is the process through which the artist gets their intent across to the audience. Editing, whether reductive or additive, is at it’s heart the responsibility of the artist. All editing that promotes the intent of the artist and the intended response from the audience, is good editing. The amount of editing allowed in good taste then relies on the photographers skill in portraying it and the framework in which the audience is comfortable viewing it.
This is a high level discussion on this argument, but from it I can get to my own, very personal, conclusion on how I will shoot, and thus edit, a given photo. Given that all photography is in itself an edit of an eye’s perception of moment and place, editing is inherent in my work; my personal process and intent, as well as the intended audience’s desired outcome will drive how I take and process an image.
Ansel Adams' reductive photography, all produced with the color ‘removed' (read, not recorded) is an interesting study of this. He made stated;
“If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph.”
— Ansel Adams
My intent then is to MAKE and then present photographs which excite a particular emotion or feeling in a viewer. My walk as an artist will evolve within this constraint based on my audience as well as my ability as a photographer to make photos. My goal is to understand my subject, my tools and my audience and then become skilled enough in the art to communicate those things. There are really no fixed bounds to this. The boundaries are in my own ability to portray what I intend, as well as the audiences demand for an outcome. For instance, sending out shots on instagram is a great sandbox, where there really are no rules, outside of the constraints and 'tools' within instagram. However, a landscape photography contest both lists out and implies a quiet order set of rules. Some of those rules are relevant to the viewers intent as much as the artist's. Taking those things into account help us arrive at a personal theory on how and what to edit.
Finally, to illustrate in conclusion, the following photograph required: me getting to a high position, using a tripod and an ND filter to gather light and warm the image, and a five second shutter time to edit the amount of light I captured. It required a desaturation of color to get the soothing light I was intending, and brightening of specific highlights glaring off the resort, in order to carry the eye where I intended and want it. A huge amount of work was done by my camera to do it, and a fair amount of editing was performed in Lightroom. However, it stays true to the intent I had when taking the image. You're seeing the coldness of the mountain environment, the approaching nightfall, the glare of haze from the valley floor. The crop is limiting the expanse of view I could have used with a 14mm, by using an 80mm prime lens to focus the subject. Most people will not be offended by the subject, as it 'feels' true to the moment and doesn't imply any lies about where I was or what happened in front of me. There is no leg up needed for this image to stand out and be seen, as the forum presented is my own, so no bending of rules are implicated. This is how it happened, straight out of my head.