Just recently I had an image go fairly viral on Google+ with over 2700 +1s, 795 re-shares and 500 comments, it is an image of Perth city with several lightning strikes behind it, the image was published in The West Australian newspaper and on several news websites at the end of 2011. It has also been licensed to FESA and several insurance companies for use in their publications. Here is the image:
What I really didn’t expect was the amount of criticism and elitism about it.. there were many emails, messages and comments about this image and a few people even took the time to sit down and write blog posts about why I wasn’t a photographer and how this isn’t photography, based on this image alone. I really only took the time to respond to 2 people who were actually reasonable about their responses, if somewhat misguided. The more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I want to respond to the general public on this topic.
First question I have to answer is: how was this image created?
Good question. This image is made up of 4 images overlaid on top of each other, but it’s not technically a composite image. I’ll go through the process from start to finish: I set my camera up on a very sturdy tripod and did a 30 second exposure of the city while waiting for the storm to get closer to the city. There were no lightning strikes during this 30 second exposure. That image is the city skyline and the river in front.
I then waited about another 2 minutes for the storm to arrive.. it arrived in style with multiple lightning strikes in under a minute, the technique I was using for capturing lightning at the time was to put the camera in bulb mode, use a remote, open the shutter and then close it immediately after a decent lightning strike, this stopped the image from over exposing.. it also doesn’t allow for a good exposure of the city though. I captured 3 really decent lightning strikes before I had to run for cover from the rain.
Post-processing: I opened all 4 images in camera raw, changed the white-balance so that it was all the same then opened them in photoshop, I layered the images over the top of each other with the city image on the bottom. I masked out the sky in the city image and then used the “lighten” blend mode to have it so that only the lightning strikes showed in the sky and the parts of the clouds that were illuminated by the lightning and city lights. I then flattened the image, applied some contrast adjustment and then sharpened it to prepare it for printing. That’s it, there was no adding of elements that weren’t there or removing of elements that were, nothing magic and very achievable with film and a dark room.
Second point.. and the more important point:
Is post-processing cheating or deceptive and make you less of a photographer?
It depends on the type of photography you are doing, what your message is and who the intended audience is. Generally I would say a resounding no to all of these questions. The world english dictionary defines a photographer as one who “takes photographs, either as a hobby or a profession”, it doesn’t add in a caveat “unless they extensively post-process the photographs”. There are many different genres and categories (and sub-categories) of photographers, the only thing uniting them, is they take photographs with some sort of exposure of a light-receptive medium.. whether it is the latest and greatest DSLR, an iPhone or a home-made pin hole camera and some film in a shoe box.
I can’t say I like or enjoy all types of photography, but I’m not the intended audience for all types of photography either, that doesn’t make those categories any less valid.. I quite enjoy using my iPhone camera and creating pieces on it when I’m out and about, even when I do have my dSLR with me, it helps keep photography fun for me.
In photography, there are really only two categories where there are very strict guidelines on post-processing, they are documentary and journalism. The guidelines are that items can’t be removed or added and the image mustn’t be manipulated from the “truth”. The goal of the photo-journalist or the documentary photographer, is to provide an unbiased true account of what was really happening, and as such any major manipulation can be classed as deceptive. What is allowed is colour alteration to show the image in black and white or sepia, but more and more there is some styling being added to the colour alteration as well.
When it comes to most other types of photography, the raw unaltered “truth” is rarely the goal of an image, you aren’t usually there to document something or report something. Many times the goal is to capture a moment or a memory, to tell a story or to convey an ideal version of reality or an experience. The very best photographers in most categories of photography are exceptional at telling a story or conveying their vision, they are exceptional in their post-production work as well. I’ll give a few examples from a few different categories:
According to Amercian Photo Magazine (a very credible and respected source) the top wedding photographer in the world at the moment is Marcus Bell of Studio Impressions. Marcus is a very widely respected photographer, he has been the recipient of many awards for his photography including some of the top awards here in Australia, the AIPP awards. Marcus’ work is not extensively manipulated, but it is very much enhanced with colour adjustments, contrast adjustments and general post-processing techniques. Marcus and his team are very good at what they do. I’m a huge fan of their work and was very lucky to be able to shoot a wedding with Marcus as his second photographer a few years ago now, I doubt my photography skills at the time impressed him at all.
Another Australian photographer who has topped the American Photo Magazine list is Yervant. Yervant’s work is highly stylised and extensively post-processed, it is a cross between fashion and wedding photography and I love it. He has been named as one of the most influential photographers of this generation. Please notice, both of these artists are referred to as photographers, not photo-artists or any other weird title that you want to try to give them.
Commercial / Advertising Photographers:
This category has zero rules when it comes to post-processing, these guys create the classic car images, the nike shoe ads, the sports drink ads and a myriad of other images. Their goal is to show an ideal reality incorporating the product. Most of the time they are using many multiple images to end up with the final image, no one calls them cheaters for “failing” to get it in one shot or for post-processing their images. Two photographers that top this category for their stylised images are Joel Grimes and Dave Hill, both of these photographers are exceptional with their control of lighting and exposure to get the base images they want.. then they are even better in their post-processing to get the final image with the message they want to convey. They get paid exceptionally well for their skills as well.
Another couple of photographers worth looking at in this category are Chase Jarvis and Zack Arias, both incredible with their control of light and even more incredible in the way they give back to us beginners! While Zack doesn’t appear to extensively edit his work, his work is usually well lit with artificial light, if you are going to be picky about post-processing not representing a “true” image, then surely adding artificial light into it as it is taken also falls into the same category!
2011 AIPP Australian Landscape Photographer of the year was Christian Fletcher, Christian’s work is varied in style and his work has changed a lot over the last 3 years. Looking through his entries for the APPAs last year, they were all post-processed, his top image very much so:
This is the most credible awards ceremony and competition in Australia, it is very difficult to come out on top, yet his images are very much stylised and post-processed, using multiple images to create one final piece.
For me, I don’t post-process most of my images this much, maybe that’s why I’m not in the same league as Christian Fletcher or any of the other top photographers.. more than likely it has more to do with my photography skills rather than my post-processing skills though. I’m happy with what I’m currently producing, but constantly looking to grow more and learn. I’ll be entering the APPAs for the very first time next year, but I’m under no illusions that I’ll do well in them, we’ll see what happens.
The major difference in photography comes down to what the photographer is trying to achieve. There is a huge difference between the message of an artist (landscape, wedding, portrait, commercial, advertising and fine-art photographers) and a documentary style photographer (photo-journalists, documentary, travel and sports), many of the examples I have given can quite easily spread across the both styles too.
Many wedding photographers shoot in a “photo-journalistic” style for the majority of the day, staying out the way and not directing anything.. but when it comes to the creative session or location shoot, they are directing and making things happen in order to create beautiful images that tell the story of the couples love for each other. For me, I’ve come from a background in wedding photography, for me I used a mix of the 2 styles, combined with artistic post-production to create an album that tells the story of the day. I also aimed to really capture the emotion and experience of the day, not necessarily 100% document what happened, but rather create images that record an ideal version of reality!
Now that I’m primarily shooting commercial and landscape photography, my message has changed somewhat, and as such my style and methods have changed in order to convey that message. For me, when the post-processing is “louder” than the actual image and the message, then the image is somewhat of a failure, this is why I don’t particularly like the over-stylised HDR images many are doing, but that’s my own personal taste.
I hope this gives you something to think about when it comes to post-processing, I believe it is an integral part of producing an image that conveys the message or vision you want to get across. That doesn’t make those who don’t post-process any less of a photographer than those who do.. or vice versa. It all fits under the banner of photography!
Would love to hear your thoughts on it in the comments section!