Is it Photo-Shopped?

Is it “Photo-shopped?”  This is perhaps the most asked question I get asked about my work.  The short answer, of course, it is, yes.  But, then again, every image on the internet is “Photo-shopped”. You see, all digital photos on the internet started out as a RAW file.  To understand what a RAW file is, you might think in terms of film.  The RAW file might be likened to the digital negative.  What you see on the internet or your phone is the print from that negative.

RAW files are not graphic files.  You can’t look at a raw file and see what it is.  It the raw data, nothing but programmer data.  To look at it, you have to have a special program that converts that data to a graphic file.  And RAW files when converted are flat, uncontrasted and not very saturated.  They are intentionally left for the photographer to edit.

Now here is the part many non-photographers don’t get.  When you look at a photo by Ansel Adams, that photo is not just a straight photograph.  Ansel Adams was not just a master of the camera, he was a master of the dark room.  That photo has been heavily modified in the dark room. I won’t bore you with the technical aspects, but photographers of old, kept the “rabbit in the hat,” not revealing all the tricks they did in the dark room.  If you were to see your favorite photograph of Ansel Adams developed straight from the negative without the tricks of the modification in the dark room, you might be stunned at how different it would look.

And so it is with any photograph you see on the web.  Either the photographer developed that RAW file himself via a program like Photoshop or the programmer who made the device modified it via some program so that you could see the photo taken with your phone.  The reality is for a photo to be viewed on your phone, iPad or computer.  It has to be “Photo-shopped.”

When people ask me if my images are photo-shopped I think what they are really asking has more to do with the degree of modification.  I think what they want to know is, did what I see, look like the picture they are looking at.  The answer depends on the photo.  Some of my photos are pretty photojournalistic in terms of representing to the best of my ability what I saw.  Others are heavily modified.

In the beginning, I was a purist.  I would do all I could to capture an image in one frame as I saw it, and then the edits I did to that photo, where simply to make the image more like what I saw with my eye. Remember a RAW file contains all the data of the file but isn’t formatted graphically.  But then I started taking night photos, and a problem came up.

You see, the human eye actually sees far more than any camera.  You might hear photographers speaking in terms of stops.  A stop is an arbitrary unit of light.  It has more to do with the exposure a camera gets.  But in relative terms, I have read that the human eye sees 22 stops of light, whereas the average camera only “sees” 11.  When I started doing night photography, I could expose for the sky but then my landscape was dark and underexposed.  If I exposed the landscapes, I would blow out the sky.  It drove me crazy.  No matter what I tried, what I saw at night, I could not reproduce it in my camera.  Then I saw a video about how the old masters would do a double exposure.  They would expose the sky in one negative and expose the land in another and mask off the two negatives to create one.  They “photo-shopped” their photos.  I knew about dodging and burning from doing it myself but didn’t know about composite printing, masking and a host of other darkroom tricks.  If the masters did it in the darkroom, I gave myself permission to do it in Photoshop.  And thus, I did my first stacked photo where I took two exposures to get the values right for the sky and land, and then mashed them together in Photoshop.  Viola….  I got what I wanted.

Then one night during a meteor shower I watched hundreds of shooting stars.  It was one of the most thrilling nights of my life.  BUT…..  While I saw hundreds of shooting stars, I only captured a few and most of the shots were not spectacular.   The one really amazing shot of a meteor I had caught at a weird angle.  To catch meteors you can’t just shoot the photo like normal.  You take sequential photos in hopes that you can accidentally catch one.  So seeing it with my own eye, I saw the path all the way across the sky.  My camera happened to catch it at the end and in the worst place.  The quandary was, do I move the meteor to represent better what I experienced?  I spent a lot of time looking at that photo, in almost a moral quandary, and then I remembered a quote by one of my favorite photographers, David Alan Harvey: “Don’t shoot what it looks like.  Shoot what it feels like.”  Any technically competent photographer can take a good photo.  Not saying that is easy, particularly at night, but I wanted more from my images.  I wanted to help the viewer of my images feel what I felt. I thought, which is more important to me?  To create a photojournalist image of what my camera caught, or to covey what I experienced.  When I thought about that, I moved the meteor to create an image more in line with what I saw and more in line with what I felt.

In five years I have taken over three million photographs. Not to brag, but in that three million photos, there are a lot of amazing shots.  The odds are kind of in my favor though; if you think about it.  If I hadn’t gotten some amazing shots out of three million photos, I would be the worst photographer in history.  Simply taking a good photo is no longer what’s compelling to me.  I want to create something more.  And I discovered something else about art.  Visual images, be it paintings, or photographs, or graphic art speak a language of emotion.  They speak without words.  Lines, colors, forms have an emotional impact.  For me, the photograph taken with my camera is the canvas that I paint on.  Some photographs are fundamentally straight, some are radically modified.  You see, I am not interested in just communicating in visual form what I saw, I am not a photojournalist at all.  I want you to feel, what I felt if that means I need to modify it, then I warm up Photoshop and have at it. 

Now here is the funny part; people often accuse me of “photo-shopping” my straight images.  I am a great hunter. I can and often get amazing shots that need little photo-shopping to communicate those emotions.  Even funnier is the photos that are heavily modified, often escape notice of being photo-shopped.  I used to go out of my way to tell people the edits.  Now, just look at my work as paintings.  It matters little to me what I took with my camera, the image you see is my painting. 

Some of my images have literally hundreds of hours of editing such as this cross.  And yet it is fundamentally straight.  Odd to explain, the image of the cross is the most “Photo-shopped”  of all my images.  You see, I had storm chased for 18 hours and was exhausted mentally and physically.  I messed up my shot.  The sight was so powerful that nothing I could image could communicate more than the night and storm and lit cross, but to make it print worthy and to look like what I saw, I spent 100s of hours working on it.  I had to edit it inch by inch over the course of a year.  The emotions of this photo are powerful to me.  The light of the cross, the storm, the night, and the darkness all add to the exhausted and disappointed emotional state I was in when I took the photo.  The hope of the symbol of faith against the storm and night.  Hope versus my exhausted disappointment.   If not my favorite photo, it’s in the top ten.  Would it matter if I added the storm?  Or the cross?  To me, no. To me, the art is far more important than the process.