Great photographs don’t just happen

Great photographs only start with a camera. It takes a professional photographer to finish them and produce the prints you drool over on the screen and lust after in the galleries.

In this video, Estes Park, Colo., photographer Erik Stensland shows how he turns RAW (unprocessed) camera data into a finished print. Amateurs or non-photographers may be surprised at the amount of adjustment/manipulation involved. More advanced photographers may simply enjoy seeing how another pro works.

This is the way great photos get that way. Much of this can be done within today’s sophisticated cameras. But shooting in RAW format allows it to be done with greater precision on a computer. (That’s the best way I can explain it, knowing as little as I do.) Is it unfair or unwarranted “manipulation”? Is it what some might dismiss as “photoshopping,” using a computer to digitally alter an image, often with the intent to deceive, entertain, or add or delete information? Whether the changes are a legitimate part of the process is probably up to each viewer to decide. Some might say anything other than what was in front of the lens is a distortion of reality; they should watch the video before they judge.

Photographers have always manipulated their images in one way or another, for good reasons or bad. (Simply framing the shot and deciding what to include/exclude is a form of manipulation.) It’s just that today, instead of tinkering in the camera or darkroom, or even with the scene itself, it’s done with computers. Would you dismiss Stensland’s photographs, or anyone’s, because “they’ve been manipulated,” perhaps as shown here? Or would you enjoy them for what they are and for the skill and artistry they represent? Are you sure?

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Images © Erik Stensland. Used with permission.

 



Categories: Photography

23 replies

  1. Nice photographs for sure. I myself use a similar graphics software program for both enhancing and manipulating digital photographs. But the subject itself and the questions you pose have gone through many a heated debate and continue to do so
    .
    When the digital camera first hit the market the film purest were outraged that someone flaunting a digital photograph would presume it to be an equal to quality film photographs. But to make matters even worse, the world of photography had the gall to begin referring to some of the more well-known photographs of renowned photographers as “fine art photography”. To put ‘art’ and ‘photography’ in the same sentence sent art critics into a rage.

    There was a huge backlash from art critics and art lovers alike when photographs began to be referred to as fine art photography. Photographs have always been discredited as objects of fine art until recent years. Probably around the year 2004 or 2005 is when Sotheby’s and Christie’s began auctioning off photographs of both film and digital origin. The link below will show you some of the world’s most expensive photographs.

    World’s Most Expensive Photographs

    And of course, then there is your chosen field of journalism where the most scrutiny has been levied at the photograph medium more commonly referred to of course as photojournalism. There has indeed been a lot of photo manipulation within the journalistic circles as can be noted from my attached link. But nowhere is such enhancement and manipulation frowned upon more.

    Photojournalism Ethics

    Nevertheless, the journalistic standards remain quite stringent from a majority of the major publishers. And I suspect will remain so for some time to come. Idealistic journalism strives for the best measure of truth in its reporting and commentary and the photograph is an integral part of that process.

    Whew… well I apologize for getting a bit carried away here. But to close, I am probably somewhat prejudiced on this subject because I am a photographer but I personally believe that photography and digital enhancement along with critical manipulation is acceptable when in the hands of a freelance photographer but not when associated with photojournalism. One way to look at the whole of it is to see the raw photograph from the camera as a preliminary sketch and the editing software as a painter’s eye touching their brush to the canvas and creating a product of their inspiration.

    • You make such an important distinction between fine art photography (and it most definitely is art) and photojournalism, which can be just as well done but must adhere to the absolute truth of what it presents (a high but critically important bar).

      No need to apologize for getting carried away. It’s a subject that could be and has been discussed at very great length. And thank you for the link to the world’s most expensive photographs. Mind blowing. I was completely unfamiliar with that particular class of photograph (most expensive) and the only one I’d even seen before was Billy the Kid. Had no idea it was worth so much.

    • @ Allan G,

      I too found your most expensive photos link interesting. Inspired to search, I found these “most famous b & w photos”, also interesting:

      http://www.photographydo.com/black-and-white-photography/famous-black-and-white-photographers

      • Wonderful collection of some of the greats. I knew some of the names and some of the images. With Adams and Karsh, I knew both.

      • Hey Jim, thanks for the link. I still remain a bit ‘old school’ when it comes to photographs. Black & white photographs have always been my favorite for the most part. When you look at the subject photograph that is part of PT’s post and then you look at one of Ansel’s landscapes you’re sometimes hard-pressed to pick a favorite. It’s almost as though it were two different mediums. I have always felt that black & white photographs force you to deal with the subject matter of the photograph. The same photograph in color somehow draws you attention away from the subject to some extent and your eyes wander around the photograph drawn to the various colors. But… that’s just me. 🙂

        • Hey, Alan, it’s not just you, there are at least two of us. I agree with your analysis. My favorite portrait of my wife and me is b & w. 🙂

        • For me it sort of depends on whether color is essential to the image. For me it often is when I want to fully enjoy landscape and nature photography. Yet stark b&w drama is perfect for emphasizing landforms (Adams) or portraits (Karsh) or strong lines and shapes (architecture). I can and do appreciate both forms and trust the photographer to choose the best one for what he’s trying to convey.

  2. I have just viewed “Stensland’s photographs”, and have enough inspiration to warm my heart all day. That’s art, digitally modified or not, I love it!

  3. Somehow I think Ansel Adams would approve of digital photography and its access to artistic manipulation. It’s significant that Stensland strives to produce the same effect as that seen by the human eye, that being different from the RAW product. This is most evident to me when I view my iPhone/camera while sitting in different ambient lighting. When viewed against a sunny background the display is almost invisible but against shadows it is quite bright. The eye is remarkably adaptable and also changes dramatically as the pupil adapts to brightness in the fovea’s area. So, I agree with him, the manipulation is justified. And after all, the entire history of photography is one of manipulation, the choice of framing, cropping, perspective, shutter speed and focal depth have always been essential choices and still are. Digital just makes it easier to fine tune. Even the subject material can be manipulated. I recall that some photographers rearranged the bodies of dead Civil War soldiers to make their pictures more dramatic.

    This was very interesting, PT.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. I find the topic fascinating. It’s been several decades since I’ve had and frequently used a really nice camera and the technology now absolutely amazes me. I’m so tempted to jump in again, now that computers are in and film and darkrooms are out. But I’m just not motivated enough to justify the purchase of the really great camera and lenses that I’d want.

      I agree, too. When the manipulation is done not to misrepresent the scene or fool the viewer but to accurately render what the photographer saw, then it is not only justified but highly desirable. With Stensland and other landscape photographers, I want to see what the photographer saw at the moment the shutter was released, as though I were standing next to him at that moment. With other subjects, the goals might be different. But I want my landscapes to be as stunning, or peaceful, or angry as nature, not the photographer, created them.

      • As an amateur’s opinion I think the camera in the recent iPhone is as sophisticated as most of us need. The technology is simply amazing. For example, to capture and emphasize the detail and optimize the lighting in any specific part of a picture, one only has to touch that part of the frame before the shutter release. All reasonable hand shake is automatically eliminated. There are ways to manually control things like shutter speed and aperture but I think only professionals would want to do so.

        • I’ve got an Android (LG G3) and haven’t explored the camera options very much. But I did get far enough to realize it’s better than my little pocket Canon from just a few years ago, so the Canon was officially retired. It still works just fine, but got outclassed. By a phone!

  4. I like pretty/striking images. Skill is skill.
    Photographers should give the viewer a clue, so as not to misrepresent the image. Sometime you just want to see the reality – and sometimes magic is OK.
    ( I love it when photo bloggers show how they fiddled around and got to the final image….hard to get motivated to try it myself, though)

  5. Good stuff. Enjoyed the post and Alan G’s comments, plus those of others. My first encounter with photojournalism was in the news photography course at the University of Wisconsin. We used those old, clumsy Speed Graphic boxes. In the darkroom, we were taught how to adjust some things to make poor images sharper, but the ethics part of the course preached against other types of manipulation.

    • I never got into photojournalism. Left that to others while I focused on the journalism. But I had an entire course in the ethics of journalism and that, combined with some art background, certainly informed my opinions about photojournalism. I always enjoyed my personal cameras but never got into the actual processing. Don’t know how you guys managed to do what you did with those old cameras.

  6. I use Lightroom for my photos. I still have quite a bit to learn, but it’s a great way to organize and touch up photos. I also take photos in raw format and the always need tweaking. I do not see any problem with the adjustment of exposure, hue, highlight, shadows, etc. Before digital photography, filters and other devices were used to get that “perfect” shot. Well, now those adjustments are just done after the photo now. When it leaves this category of art photography is when an image becomes manipulated with either adding or subtracting (or both) content. For example, adding the rising moon to the photo in the video above. Now, I don’t think there’s wrong with manipulation so long as the photo is being described and categorized as such. I do enjoy creating some crazy images, though. Stuff that is obviously manipulated, and typically politically-based. Thanks for posting the video. I did learning about a setting in it that I did not know before.

    • I’m sure if I had a capable camera, I’d spend hours playing in LIghtroom, tweaking the images in all sorts of ways to get just the right look. And having been something of an artist and writer in the past, I’ve learned I’m never completely satisfied. There’s always one more little thing that needs fixing … and then another … I’m absolutely fascinated by how far photography has advanced since I had my little Brownie box camera as a child.

      • This is the first camera I remember. Was mom and dad’s. I sneak it out and take a tons of photos. Mom would come home after developing them and be so pissed because they were all pictures of the dog and cat.

      • I finally saved and got a “real” camera. The kind that had different lenses. Not top of the line but pretty decent. I have discovered just how important having a good lens matters. The lens the camera came with were okay, but when I started buying much better lenses, it amazed me how much better the pictures are. Brighter, crisper, clearer. One thing that really amazes me is the quality the smart phones have stepped up to. I have a Note 4 and the picture are incredible! A thousand times better the the Note 3, which weren’t bad either. Kinda nice, though, because I don’t have to take my camcorder with me anymore, plus if I don’t have my good camera, I can still get some great shots.

        • It was a whole new world when I got a camera with interchangeable lenses. I fell madly in love with a 70-210 macro zoom and rarely used anything else. That was several decades ago, though. Recently I’ve only had little pocket cameras that I thought were pretty good … until I got my latest phone. Now I just use the phone.

"Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance." ~ Plato

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