Light, camera, actions!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Ever come across an utterly breathtaking panorama and take a photograph only to be dismayed that it looks nothing like what you "saw"? You're not alone. It happens to all of us, and probably more often than not. You see, your camera records light, much of which your eyes cannot see. And instead of recording light, your eyes interpret light. Cameras also struggle with scenes containing different levels of light, or exposures. Photographers traditionally have gradient filters to darken areas of a scene and bring the entire scene to the same exposure. With the advent of digital, the same thing can be done electronically... whether combining multiple exposures into one image or through the use of actions in Photoshop, among other tricks. In the last few months I've started (on a limited basis) using a set of actions called Totally Rad Actions (TRA). Generally, I prefer a light touch when using these to enhance a part of a photo, or to bring the exposure back to what I saw in my mind's eye. These are powerful tools, and I decided to see just how far I could push a photo using actions in Photoshop.

Below is a photo I took last Fall in Yosemite, CA. As we left Curry Village for Camp 4 and rest, over my shoulder I spied beautiful alpenglow on Half Dome. I knew exposure was going to be tough, but could not be bothered to dig out my gradient filters or tripod to get multiple exposures. I'd wing it and hope. Needless to say, my image stunk. I got near the exposure I wanted on Half Dome, but the old tree in the foreground, the field and forest in the background just went flat and gray. My original exposure is below:

Ugh. Not my best image by a mile (or several). But now, with my trusty actions, maybe there is hope for this exposure, which in my mind is vivid and sharp still to this day. So, I open up Photoshop and use the TRA Yin/Yang action to lighten the foreground and background, without touching Half Dome. I also edited out some tree branches in the top right corner:

Better, but not what I remember. It's still pretty flat. Bring on TRA Green With Envy action to breath a little life into the field and trees in the background:

Closer to what I remember. I also ran Yin/Yang again on the cliff. Yosemite granite is light gray, sometimes bordering on white. Now it's more what I remember. But with everything else lightened, the sky and Half Dome now feel a little washed out. Enter Big Blue action to darken the sky and the alpenglow a touch:

Voila! Not much of this image is "as shot" any longer, but I have something that more accurately portrays what I remember, and after all, isn't that sometimes the point of a photo, to capture a moment in time for future recollection? I am still a traditionalist, trying to nail my exposures and composition "in-camera", and to tweak as minimally as possible, but it's cool to see what you can do when fully embracing the "digital dark room"!


Stewart Green said...

Good job Eric. You're absolutely right...the camera does not see what the eye sees. A camera, whether digital or film, is woefully inadequate to capture light, tone, texture, and color. Our job as photographers is to use all the tools we can to interpret and reinterpret what we see. Sometimes that interpretation requires creative darkroom or Photoshop work to recreate our original vision.

But changing a photograph also raises the question: Is manipulation of a photograph ethical? On the surface, I want to say No, that manipulation and alteration changes the "reality" and "truth" of the image, but after digging beneath the surface and after shooting a million or so photographs I know about the inadequacies and fallibility of equipment and film and flashcards and lenses. They just don't compare with our eyes.

I've always said a photograph is a "selected fiction" because a photograph does not portray reality or what actually is out there, instead it is a poor imitation and a mere representation of the world. As long as we don't intentionally lie with our photographs or misrepresent the subject matter, it's okay to change, alter, mend, splice, color correct, and sharpen our images. And thank god for's a hell of a lot easier than slaving away in a darkroom!

Eric McCallister said...

Thanks for visiting Stew! I agree! I've held out for the longest time unwilling to "alter" my images, and still don't 99% of the time. The example above illustrates the power of some of the new(er) tools out there and how a "tough" or "bad" exposure can be brought back more in-line with what I saw (or remembered seeing). It can be a slippery slope because it is so easy to "edit" images today, but as you said, so long as we're honest with clients and ourselves I believe it is OK.