How Much Processing?

Extreme post processing

I guess this implies several possible questions. How much is too much? How much am I allowed to do? Should a final image look as “close” to the original photography as possible? This has been a dilemma for me until recently. I’ve come to the position that any amount of processing is OK, as long as I like the result.

My history

I started out my creative journey with the mindset of an engineer. Photographs should be an exacting match to the scene. This led to an emphasis on technical skills, warmly liked by engineers, emphasizing precision. Creativity was finding the right scene, not something that might be developed in later processing. In fairness. these were the days before Photoshop.

Later on, I became heavily involved in my local camera club. Our club was great – better than any I encountered in the surrounding communities. But still. there is a collective think that tends to permeate these. One of the mantras in our organization was “no hand of man” in landscape shots. I was generally OK with this, but I thought sometimes that some shots could actually be improved by relaxing that constraint. But I played along.

It came to a head for me at one contest where I got rebellious and submitted a photo that had a bit of a Photoshop twist in the clouds. I had Photoshop by them and was getting frustrated that “Photoshopped” images were generally disapproved in our contests. After winning the blue ribbon I let them know how it was created. There was a lot of discussion, ranging from it should be disqualified to what’s wrong with that? I kept my blue ribbon, but that was about the end of my involvement in camera club. I needed to stretch, not be constrained.

I bring these up to let you know that I came from a background of avoiding heavy post processing. It has taken me a long time to give myself permission to get creative or even liberal in post.


I never had a darkroom, so I never internalized how much manipulation took place there. As I learned about it, one of my reactions was “they’ve been cheating all this time”.

My investigation of darkroom capabilities brought me to finally understand Ansel Adam’s famous quote that “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.” I began to see that famous photographers had always felt free to bend and modify their images in post production. Some of Ansel Adam’s assistants say it usually takes many hours to print one of his images. This is because he requires such extensive work in spotting, bleaching, burning, dodging, etc.

One of the most extreme examples is his famous image “Moonrise Over Hernandez”. He had to capture it very quickly and the negative is flat, low contrast. It require a lot of work to print to his expectations. Ansel removes clouds and greatly changes the tonality and contrast of the print. So the takeaway is that the print is an interpretation of the negative. Anything is fair. I have come to believe that if Ansel had Photoshop he would do much more than he did.

A new understanding

So in my own journey, I have come to a place where I do not feel so constrained by the original image. An image is raw material. What is important to me is what I can visualize it becoming. As I become more skilled at tone correcting and color enhancement, my vision is being extended. If I don’t like that building or person in it, take them out or move them. If the sky is weak, replace it. Maybe this isn’t a great image on its own and it needs to be composited with one or more other fragments to create something new.

I finally discovered – or allowed myself to accept – that this is art, not reality. The reality of the scene need not be a hinderance to what I might envision making of it. What becomes even more important is my vision as an artist and my skill in working with the image. An image is not just what it is, it should be what I want it to be.

The image at the head of this post is an example. It is made up of 2 images and the final result does not look like either of the originals.

Never believe a photograph. It is not truth. It is always subjective, if not outright modified.

Let me know what you think, and check out my online gallery for more examples.

Image Library vs Creativity

Mountains at dusk

I recently wrote 2 articles that seem, on the surface, to be contradictory. In When The Flash Goes Off I discussed the cognitive theory that we recognize images we like based on a library stored in our mind. In It’s Complicated I argued that there is a creative side of our mind that discovers and creates new things. Which is right? I believe both are. It is recognition from the image library and creativity, not either or.

I believe that when I am searching for images, the mental library is being scanned all the time. This is a fairly conscious activity. I have asked my mind to let me know when there is something there that I probably want to be aware of. This is the active hunting phase.

Here is an example from a recent shoot. I was near Leadville Colorado. One of my favorite areas in the world. Cruising around the old mining area I came on this scene below. I love old mining cabins, beaver ponds, ice, mountain views, and historic areas. So those are all filed in my image library. This hit on all of these. It was immediately obvious that I would have to stop and work on this scene. No chance of going past it. My head was exploding.

Colorado Mining Cabin, Late fall

Vs. Painting

By the way, why does this hunting work much better for photography than for painting? Because a painting is constructed from nothing. The canvas starts blank. The artist must decisively choose and place every element wanted. The camera, instead, constantly receives massive amounts of information. Every place the camera is pointed and every time the shutter clicks, there is a complete, fully formed image. The photographic artist’s job is to sift, reduce, minimize, compose, organize this embarrassment of riches to select what would be a worthwhile image from all this. A completely different mindset from painting. And this is why the mental image library works to locate promising scenes.

Where is creativity?

Contrast the mountain cabin above to the image at the top of this post. This was taken on Loveland Pass in late fall in the early evening after sunset (burrr – very cold). This image was preconceived before I got to the location. The reason I was at Loveland Pass was specifically to look for this. I challenged myself to explore the concept of “dark” and this was one variation that formed in my mind. I had never taken an image quite like this before. This one, as a matter of fact, is a composite of several time exposures.

I hope this is perceived as a valid and fresh take on the concept of “dark”. I hate the phrase “out of the box” and seldom apply it to myself. Maybe because I fought long and hard to never let myself be confined to a box. Too many people toss it off casually. The trouble is, it’s easy to say it, but doing it takes a lot of discipline.

So this was not a result of my mental library. It was a new creative event. I consciously pre-visualized the image rather than recognizing it as I passed by. Actually, it was too dark to have recognized much of anything.

So where did it come from? In this case, I posed a project for myself and that got the other side of my subconscious mind working on solutions. This is one source of creativity. Other creativity drivers are looking for connections, asking “what if”, and seeing examples of other work. The subject of creativity is too big for here. It needs other posts.


Mental image library or “out of the box” creativity? Yes, both.

These are not in opposition. Rather they are just 2 different aspects of our marvelous minds at work. They are complementary. Together they are 2 of many tools we have that allow us to see and create great images.

Your Transformation


In a Luminous Landscape article David Osborn said “The subject is not unique to you – your transformation is. ” This seems significant. Unless an image is an illustration or completely created as fantasy, the original is out there for anyone to see. The reason many people can paint or photograph the same subject, yet create fresh and unique works is because of what they add – their transformation.


My friend Cole Thompson calls this your vision. He says:

Years ago when I was challenged to find my own Vision, I immediately faced a dilemma: I really didn’t know what Vision was. Sure, had a vague idea but I could not define, identify or even understand it.

I had this notion that it was some sort of creative ability that you were either born with or not. This caused me great apprehension as I set about to find it: I feared that I might be one of those unfortunate individuals who did not “have it.” That scared me enough that I actually questioned if I wanted to go down this path: what if I discovered that I didn’t have a Vision?

Well, I did go down the discovery path and I did find my Vision. With that discovery I learned something very important:

We all have a Vision, every one of us is born with one. Unfortunately for many of us, and this was my case, it can become buried when we conform, follow the rules and value other people’s opinions more than our own. For some of us, me again, my Vision was so buried for so long that I came to believe that I didn’t have one.

As a summary he concludes:

Vision is simply the sum total of our life experiences, that allows us to see the world in a unique way.

This was captured very cleverly by a French priest and philosopher:

Everyone looks at what I am looking at but no one sees what I see.

Félicité Lamennais

No one sees what I see

In my interpretation, it implies that each of us individually perceive something different about each scene. We”transform” it differently because of our viewpoint and experience. This is our vision coming to play.

If we do not transform a scene and make it our own, we are at best just a web cam pointed at the world and recording the events that happen in front of us. You look at a web cam for facts, e.g. is it raining there. You are not tempted to print out one of its images and hang it on your wall. It has no soul. No vision.

My history and experience and values are different from yours. This means I see most things differently. As an artist I am not only free, I have a responsibility to interpret an image according to my personal filter.

An experiment

Try this experiment: take a couple of artist friends with you and go together to some location – any location. All of you spend, say, 15-30 minutes photographing the location. No fair getting more than about 10 yards from anyone else. Then go back and compare your images. Yes, probably you will all shoot a “record” shot of the location. I often do for context. But if the artists are each confident in their own vision they will begin to diverge. At the same location and almost the exact same position, you will see different images.

Maybe one artist sees in telephoto. Maybe another see wide angle. One is drawn to “intimate landscapes” (in the style of Eliot Porter). Another thrives on chaos and another captures order and serenity. Black and white, dynamic composition, high key, low key, extreme color, ask are reasonable approaches..

The point is that there will be different results at the same location because each artist sees and perceives the scene differently.


So like Cole Thompson, I give up wondering if I have vision. I do. It is the effect of my life experience, history, education, values, and outlook. Because it is unique to me, I see something different than you.

This is powerful and good. Life would be a lot more boring if it were not true.

It’s Complicated

A surreal landscape

Last time I wrote about the cognitive theory of vision that says we have a library of images stored in our mind and we automatically match them against scenes in front of us. This time I will say, it’s complicated. Nothing in life is that easy and straightforward. The simple theory can’t explain everything.

To reference one of my favorite quotes from The Count of Monte Cristo (movie version). “it’s complicated”. Life and art is. A model, like the model I described last time, is a simplified version of reality. It may be useful to explain some things, but it cannot fully describe real life.

The safe path

If it is true that we are drawn to reproduce images we already know we like, we get stuck. Now, I think many people would acknowledge that this is true and they spend much of their career remaking the same images. Maybe they are OK with this. It is, after all, safe and comfortable.

I can only speak for myself, but safe is not my goal. Safe gets boring and all the same. If I were a wedding or portrait photographer I’m sure I would have a different attitude. I’m not, so I can get as far “out of the box” as I want.

Where is creativity?

If we only remake images that match our mental library, where is the creativity? Where is that spark that takes us completely outside the normal? What causes a change of direction?

The answer is: I don’t know for sure. But I know it happens. While I believe creativity is a learned process, it is undeniable that it sneaks up on us unexpectedly sometimes. Maybe we intentionally go out looking for something new. Maybe a familiar scene make us ask a question that leads us in a new direction. Sometimes we might have just had something weird to eat and it sparks our brain in a strange way.

Be receptive

I believe creativity is something you can practice and stimulate and cultivate. But those things only encourage it to happen. When it happens, when something new hits you out of the blue, you need to be receptive to it. Sometimes our natural reaction is to resist the risky new “thing”. We may not even recognize it as an entirely new direction at the time we first see it.

Embrace the new idea. Run with it and see where it goes. At worst you decide you don’t like it. Better to have tried and failed than to not try at all. At best, though, it may change you. It may be a new viewpoint on the world.

Think of Bilbo in The Hobbit. He did not want to leave home, but he came back changed in ways he could never have imagined. Most of us are not inviting life changing experiences like that when we follow a creative instinct. But it may be a close as we come.


I’m an artist. If I go through life taking the same pictures over and over, because that’s what is in my mental library, I am stale. I thrive on creativity. I enjoy following my curiosity to find new things. I am refreshed by expanding my vision in new ways. It makes me grow. It keeps me young.

I embrace creativity, not for its own sake but for what it does for my vision. When I grow to a new place in my art I find I need to add some new images to that mental catalog and maybe remove some that I do not care for any more. That is life. That is growth. It’s complicated, but awesome.

Let me know what you think!