Dodging and Burning

Classic Rocky Mountain Balck & White. This exhibits strong use of traditional dodging and burning.

I have mentioned dodging and burning before, but usually in the context of black & white images. Dodging and burning is much more general than that these days. They are techniques that should be known by all photographers.

History

We usually think of dodging and burning as something associated with black & white photography. This is because this is where they were invented and first applied. Ansel Adams and the masters before him used dodging and burning extensively to achieve the artistic look they wanted.

The technique has its roots in the chemical darkroom. Photographers discovered that during the sometimes minutes long exposure of a print, they could change the tonal values of the print by withholding or adding light to selected areas.

Remember that these black & white processes were built around negatives. That is, on the print material, the more light it receives the darker the area is and the less light it receives, the lighter it it. In the limit no light at all will give the white base of the paper.

Hence the origins of the names. The printer (a person creating a darkroom print) might use a small tool, usually a circular or oval shaped piece of paper on a stick, to shield a region from some of the light. This holding back some light was called dodging. It made the dodged region of the print lighter. The printer could also add light to a region, usually by cutting a small hole in a sheet of paper and using it to shield everything except the hole from the light. This was called burning. It made the region receiving extra light darker.

In today’s digital processing, the terms are archaic. I remember them by thinking that burning sounds like it would make it darker. They might better be called just lightening and darkening. In my LIghtroom process, I call these layers just “light” and “dark”.

What are they now?

In the more general sense, dodging and burning are a means of selectively changing the tonal intensities or other properties of regions of an image. We can do this in great detail now and it is not at all limited to black & white images.

I am fairly confident in saying that all images you see a professional fine art photographer print use dodging and burning. The artist may spend hours tweaking the relationships. It is so easy now and we have so much control relative to the chemical darkroom days that it would almost be foolish not to. It would be passing up a great opportunity to enhance the visual experience for your viewers.

Digital post processing

Virtually all software tools that photographers use have the ability to selectively adjust tones in regions. The different tools may use their own names for it, but they all do about the same thing. I will discuss Lightroom Classic and Photoshop since I am familiar with them.

Since we edit on a computer using software tools, we are no longer limited to it being a real-time “performance” in the darkroom. Artists back in the day had to repeat the lengthy dodging and burning process for each print. Now we can do it once to create our “digital negative”. Editing becomes a pleasant creative process we can enjoy in our office with a nice glass of wine and some relaxing music playing.

And because we are no longer limited to black and white and chemical processes, the range of what we can adjust is greatly increased. We use the same techniques to selectively adjust colors and sharpness and contrast. It is even almost trivial to remove distracting elements.

It’s a great time to be to be a photographer!

Lightroom Classic

Ah, a marketing blunder by Adobe. Renaming “Lightoom” to “Lightroom Classic” was an affront to photographers and a thinly disguised attempt to push most users to the (reduced capability) online version. Thanks. Now that I have that off my chest let me just say that I will call the product just “Lightroom”. Know that I mean the desktop version where I have all my images stored locally.

That out of the way, Lightroom is a fantastic product that is vitally important to a large percentage of photographers. It is where we store and catalog and search for and edit our image library.

In addition to everything else it does, Lightroom has very capable dodge and burn tools and they are being enhanced all the time. At the time I am writing this, Lightroom version 12 was just released. It adds some significant new features.

Lightoom has several selection tools for dodging and burning and general editing. They are called the linear gradient, the radial gradient, the brush, and color and luminence range. In addition, there are “AI-based” features to aid in selecting the sky, the subject, people, and objects.

The purpose of all these tools is to select a certain region of an image to modify. Once we have a selection there is a range of editing that can be applied, such as exposure, contrast, texture, clarity, dehaze, temperature and tint adjustments, saturation, and sharpness. This gives us a very fine degree of control of the look of our image, down to arbitrarily small regions. And a wonderful bonus is, all adjustments in Lightroom are non-destructive. Everything can be modified or rolled back however much we want, even all the way to the original image.

Photoshop

Lightroom gets more capable all the time and is used as the exclusive editing tool for many photographers. But Photoshop is the granddaddy, the patriarch. While Lightroom makes it easy to do a lot of things, Photoshop does not restrict us from doing anything. We can mash, bend, distort, replace and modify any of the pixels in an image. You can combine multiple images together. You just have to know how.

Adjustment layers with masks are a primary means of local adjustments. These layers can be used to do traditional dodging and burning adjustments. There are even tools in the Photoshop tool bar that do dodging and burning, but I would not suggest using them, since they directly modify pixels. The ability to use a non-destructive workflow is important in Photoshop. At least, it is important to me. Some people disagree. Do whatever works best for you.

There are probably 2 main ways to do dodging and burning in Photoshop: 2 curve layers or 1 overlay layer. The first uses 2 curves adjustment layers, one set to lighten about a stop and the other set to darken about a stop. Each has a black mask. By painting in white areas in one of the masks we can selectively lighten or darken.

The method I more often use is to create a layer filled with 50% gray and a blend mode of Overlay. Then when I paint lighter than 50% gray on the layer it lightens or darker than 50% grey it darkens. I like this better because it is only one layer and it is more intuitive to me to use white to lighten and black to darken.

Either method is easily alterable and non-destructive. Each can be set up by a simple Photoshop action.

It has been edited

So in today’s photography world, assume any image you see has been edited – a lot. It is easy. It makes our images better. We are making art, not documentary.

There are photographers who think any modification of an image is wrong. They are, of course, free to feel that and act on their beliefs. I feel sorry for them. They are severely limiting their artistic potential. And they are probably “stretching the truth”. They do some color and contrast correction. Maybe a little dodging and burning and vignetting. Take out an errant twig sticking in from the side. Be skeptical when someone tells you an image has not been modified. What is the limit of “purity” vs. “artifice”? Who sets the rule? Why should there be a limitation?

Dodging and burning and related transforms have been used since the early days of photography. Masters like Ansel Adams would never have become famous without them. That is why it took many hours to print an Ansel Adams print. Most people would say it was worth it.

If you are doing photography today, I believe you need to master dodging and burning and all the related tools we have to work with now. The tools are there for us to use to make our images better. The concepts are timeless, only the technology changes. The editing controls are there because we need to use them to achieve our vision for our images. Not using them is like tying one hand behind your back. Maybe it makes a statement, but it artificially limits you for no good benefit.

Secret Revealed: The Meaning of Art

Contemplating the power and vastness

I may be expelled from the artist guild for revealing a closely guarded secret. I want to talk about the meaning of art. Maybe it is not actually a secret. Maybe I just don’t understand.

Objective meaning

Without getting pedantic, we have to talk a little about meaning. This is a deep study in itself that we can only shine a little light on here.

Something has objective meaning if it creates the same idea in your head that it does in mine. A stop sign has meaning for most of us, but only because of training and convention. A user manual describing a feature of a product has meaning – or it should; many are poorly written.

The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung said:

No individual symbolic image can be said to have a dogmatically fixed generalized meaning.”

I think he was saying that we all see something different when we look at an image.

Pictures consist of marks on a 2D surface, such as canvas. We see the marks as lines, shapes, forms, and colors. How we perceive these marks determine the meaning we get from it. Two people viewing the same image: one dismisses it as uninteresting, the other breaks down in tears because it invoked a deep symbolism or meaning or memory for them.

Some things, like documentary photography or photo journalism, seem to have meaning. They at least motivate a certain response fairly consistently. Even so, the meaning is often not exactly what the creators meant, because everyone is in a different place. So I have to wonder if the work truly has meaning. Another question is whether it is really art. If the focus is meaning, is that at odds with art? Just asking.

Feeling/emotion

I spent most of my career as an engineer. Talking about and dealing with feelings is pretty alien to me. But I have discovered that art is all about feelings. I would go so far as to say that if art doesn’t invoke an emotional response in the viewer, it is probably a failure.

For decades I took technically good, well composed pictures of the natural world. Mostly landscapes. When I look back at them now I see most of them as completely boring. There was little discernible emotion there. I just showed what it was, I did not attempt to give a glimpse of how I felt about it. I was making documentary images, not art. Today, in the same situation, I would strive to bring you my interpretation of the scene, with my feelings prominent. Or if I can’t figure out how to do that, I might take an image for a record of it, but I would never show it to you.

The left brain/right brain model is useful for describing the logical vs. creative sides of our nature. I don’t want to imply that I have or believe we should switch totally to the right brain creativity. Life works best in balance. We have both natures for a reason. I strive to develop my creative side to an equal level with the logical, analytic side I have emphasized most of my life. But at times I also just let my right brain side run free to see what it creates.

Where does meaning come from?

Artists react to and bring out things we may not consciously be aware of. Creativity is a strange and murky process.

John McGlade, an artist and free thinker from Australia, expressed it very well in a Quora answer to a question: Does art have a meaning that only the artist knows? Please pardon the long quote, but this is good stuff.

NO! A piece of visual art may have meaning for the artist who made it or not. If you mean meaning statable in words then artists and the public may have no clue, of an artworks meaning. The visual arts are done precisely because words are insufficient to hold the concepts alluded to in the visual arts like painting, sculpture, photography, plays and film. The artist may say or discover or may have no idea of the meaning in their work just by doing it. (Some artists, contrary to popular belief, may have no idea of why they do their work or what it means, nor do they care!) But the moment other minds see the work, because of their individual and unique thinking and perceptual patterns, they will bring their own impression of what the work may mean to them. As an artist, at every stage of my creativity, I will try to put into some words that hunt around what my work may be about. That’s the exciting thing about doing art, I am groping around in the darkness of my mind and it’s ideas, to discover what my mind is trying to tell me. It’s the same for the public, the artist is highlighting some aspect of their experience, but there’s no guarantee that other people will see it the same way as the artist. Meaning, for our complex human minds, is more than just words, it’s a whole conglomeration of words, images, feelings, impressions, prejudices and perceptual biases into one gigantic scrambled omelette of being; and every omelette is unique. Artists may not be as smart as you or they think they are. They are just highlighting what they have noticed and we are free to take our perception on what they present.

Do I know what it means?

Like Mr. McGlade highlights, in the art I am currently doing I often have no idea when I am working on a piece where I am going with it or what it means. I just follow my feelings at the time and see where it leads. Even when I get done I may not know what it “means”.

After I set it aside for a while and think about it I might be able to figure out why it moves me. Maybe even what it seems to be about. Sometimes I can state a meaning – for me.

I have said before that for art, I am not much of a planner. I react and trust my intuition. So I often do not have a crisp understanding of what I have created.

Why?

But maybe that is not enough. Maybe I owe it to myself and my audience to ask “why”. If I am caught up in a creative mood and making something I really don’t understand, I wouldn’t interrupt the process. But maybe later.

If a gallery requires an artist statement describing a work, I confess that I sometimes have to make up something. Because I honestly may not have words to describe what I meant. Sometimes, though, being forced to write it makes me examine myself and my work . It can be a good exercise to try to express our feelings and intent. Our meaning for a work may emerge over time. It is sometimes hard to force ourselves to go through the introspection required to dig it out.

Questions?

Perhaps one of the purposes of art is to make us ask questions. Could that be the meaning of some art? Maybe we should not look at an image and quickly say “I don’t like it”. A better response may be to ask our self why we feel like we do on viewing it.

Great art, art that stays with us, leaves us feeling like we are on the brink of discovery. That if we keep pushing and examining ourselves we might reveal a great truth. It could be that the unanswered questions are one of the reasons for art. I like William Neill’s quote:

I would rather make an image that asks a question than one that answers one.

Make art

We have enough people going around wringing their hands, promoting their own causes, and painting the world as bleak and depressing and hopeless. I believe art should generally be a positive force in the world. Art to bring us joy, to encourage us to reflect and be mindful, even to aspire to greater things.

That is the direction I will take with my art. You can accuse me of having blinders on, of having my head in the sand. Maybe. But it is easy to point out suffering and ugliness. It is harder to bring joy and encouragement. That is my goal. So I would say my art has meaning, but it may only make sense to me. That is OK. I hope it has some meaning to you, but it will be a different meaning, because you are a different person with different values and experiences. If I can raise some interesting questions I will have achieved something.

I apologize to the galleries that require artist statements full of deep thoughts and meaning behind my images: sometimes I just make something up. There is a meaning to me, but it might not seem significant to state it. It might not even be possible right now. But I will keep thinking. Some emotional or intuitive things can be destroyed by trying to precisely describe them.

I like what E. B. White said about analyzing humor. Paraphrasing it:

Analyzing art is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

Art is a conduit for feelings and emotions and understanding that cannot actually be expressed in words. So, does art have meaning? It is meaningful. It is powerful. Art moves us in different ways. Art can even change our lives. But it may mean one thing to me and something completely different to you. Perhaps it is better to say art creates meaning.

Thinking Black & White

Example black & white image

It seems to me I have been seeing and thinking in black & white more lately. Not seeing the world as black & white. Things are not that simple and clear cut. No, seeing the world as black and white images. That is the interpretation of reality I am leaning more to these days.

Contribution of photography

I believe black and white is one of the great contributions of photography to the art world. Yes, at the time it was a technical limitation rather than an artistic choice. The processes and chemistry of the late 19th century through mid 20th century could only create monochrome images.

But the look stuck. It became associated with photography, with “reality” in image making. It helped establish photography as a distinct art form from painting.

Because that is the medium they had, the practitioners of it became extremely proficient at creating beautiful, artistic images. A good artist learns how to use his tools. Some people say their achievements of the old masters of black & white photography have never been equaled. I’m not so sure. We can do a pretty good job today.

Not obsolete

Most people view black & white images as obsolete today. Why do that when we have a wonderful world of color imaging? Why throw away all that rich color information?

The reality is that black & white is still a unique and vibrant art form. It can create very captivating images. Well done and well printed I believe we can still rival the best of the “old masters” like Ansel Adams.

There are magazines that only showcase black & white. There are galleries that only accept black & white works. Some artists only do black and white. Why? Because many art lovers look to it as a wonderful medium for conveying emotion and feeling. It is still quite popular.

Advantage of black & white

But why? What advantage does black & white have? These days, since we have an equal choice between black & white and color, there must be a reason to chose black & white at times.

Black & white is an abstract medium. Eliminating color brings a new and different view of the world. Without color the image becomes shades of tone and forms. It creates a whole new way of looking at things. It is clear that it is not just a representation of reality, it is an interpretation, a new view. The photographer could have worked in full color. So black & white was a conscious choice to show something different.

Being so different, it is immediately set apart as something to be looked at in a new way. That helps with the reinterpretation of the scene. Plus, many viewers appreciate the pure tonal variations without the distraction of color. It becomes a new type of art.

So creating black & white prints is no longer a technical limitation of the medium, it is an artistic choice. We use it because it can better express our view of the scene.

Why now?

As I said, it is an artistic choice. Some subjects seem to work better in black & white. There is a lot to be said for removing color distractions and focusing attention on tonal variations. Shapes and form and relationships take on a new prominence. It is a different interpretation of a scene.

And the technology now shifts the work from the darkroom – in the dark and where you are breathing all sorts of chemicals – to the computer – in the light, maybe with a glass of wine nearby. Sounds more pleasant and creative to me. The masters, like Ansel Adams needed to make a number of test prints to work out the “map” of the dodging and burning and sharpening and spotting required to create the final print they like. Then they, or more likely their assistant, would spend many hours in the darkroom hand creating each print. Each print required hours of work.

Now technology lets us push the time consuming work up front. I may spend hours on the computer working with an image to get it exactly the way I want. Then in a matter of minutes I can print it. If my systems are set up correctly, the print is a very good match of what I created on the computer. And I can push the button again and produce perfect duplicates every few minutes. The computer and printer technology completely changes the game. No more colored filters on black & white film, no more long sessions in the darkroom in possibly harmful chemicals, no more having each print be a performance piece that may of may not match the artist’s template.

Technology-wise, this is the best time in history to be creating black & white prints. Artistically it is a great time, too. The world is saturated with color prints and black & white seems fresh and unique – a different point of view. It is time for a resurgence of black & white. At least for me.

Reality is Overrated

Realistic, but not real

Is this controversial for a photographer to say? I hope so. 🙂 Photography used to be the land of total realism. Not so any more. Photography for me is purely artistic expression, with little concern for reality. That’s because reality is overrated.

Reality – the good

There is a long and honored tradition of highly realistic landscape and street photography. When you think of landscapes, you might think of John Fielder or Art Wolf or Ansel Adams. For street photography maybe it is Henri Cartier-Bresson or Jay Maisel or Elliott Erwitt.

All of these artists were true to the reality of the scenes they found. Of course they looked for the best composition or the right light or the dramatic expression – that is why they are recognized artists. But the photographs they took were not modified at all, other than routine spotting or color corrections.

Is their work good because they only shot reality? No, their work is good because they are great artists. I could walk outside and shoot a picture looking down my suburban street and publish it. It would be absolutely real and unmodified. Would it be good art because of that? Not to me.

Reality – the bad

Following up on the point about shooting down the street, a picture isn’t good just because it is reality. Reality can be boring. It can be depressing. It can be dreary and banal. While there may be a time and place for these things, they are not where I want to spend much time.

I am not a critic or authority. I would never say such subjects do not constitute art. But don’t get caught up in the post-modernism depression where you don’t view art as worthwhile unless it is depressing or banal. That is just one passing movement led by some people with a very dark world view.

Be yourself. Express your own values. Like, and buy, what you like.

Assume no reality

Photography has become much wider and more diverse than it was a few decades ago. It used to indeed be true that “a photograph didn’t lie”. You could believe what you saw. Not anymore. Photojournalism may be an exception, but in today’s climate, I wouldn’t rush to ascribe too much credence to any particular image you see on the news unless you know the circumstances. News has become just a business, not a guardian of truth.

A lot of artists, including myself, no longer consider it necessary to represent reality. Now, some of my work is extremely detailed, with sharp, crunchy texture and edges. I actually like doing these sometimes. It is almost reveling in the detail that can be captured by my sensor and lenses. Quite the opposite of some of my blurred, low texture images.

But if you see one of my images with super sharp detail, don’t necessarily assume it is reality. Even when I am going for crisp and detailed, I am not at the same time representing to you that it is reality. It could be manufactured. Even if I know that it is real, it could look so abstract to you that you could not describe exactly what it is.

It is art, not a documentary

My point being that I am making art. I think most “artists” are making art. Enjoy it as art. Don’t be disappointed if you find out it is not reality. I’m not sure there is much overlap between art and reality.

Art may speak to universal truths and bring deep insights into our lives, but it does it through its metaphors and imagery. It does it by touching something within us. In the same way that Shakespear gives us a lot of insights about life, even though his stories are fiction.

So don’t assume photography has to depict reality while painting does not. Both are art.

It is art, not reality

I will go out on a limb and state that art is not reality and it cannot be. Art might show a representation of reality. Even a very realistic representation. But the art is not the reality. Art is a 2 or 3 dimensional object you look at.

To take an example that may be easier to comprehend, it is like a book. An excellent work of fiction may create a reality in our mind, but that reality is what we interpret from what the book describes. The places may seem real. The characters may seem real and alive to us. But they are feelings the author has communicated to us through the words. Not reality itself.

I am drawn to joy

On a personal note, I am drawn to joy and things that are uplifting. Even when my images are dark or showing bleak mid winter scenes, they are not depressing. At least, not to me. I try to find a hopeful angle on my art.

For instance, I love finding certain types of old rusty trucks and cars. After surviving for 50 to 90 years, it seems these relics have something to tell me. They have resisted the elements far longer than most things. They may be beat up and rusty and out of service, but they are still there defiantly. That is the joy to me in old things like this. They are still standing and making a statement; they are not junk. There seems to be something significant about that generation. Some quality that makes people want to keep them. A 1952 truck is often still around in 60 years. I don’t expect that many 2022 trucks will still be in as good a shape after 60 years.

The picture with this article is composited from shots of some old vehicles. It is detailed and sharp, but it is not “real”. No object I know of in the world actually looks exactly like this. That doesn’t keep me from creating it. I could even represent it as something that could be, even if it does not currently exist. But realism or potential realism is not an important consideration for me. I only care about if I like it. I do.

What do you think?

Evolution of an Image

Very abstract created image. Representa the evolution of an image.

Not all images follow the same life cycle. Sometimes it is pretty straightforward. See a scene; click; some post processing; done. Other times the path is winding, even circular. It is impossible for an image to be ready for a final print right out of the camera. Sometimes that shows an evolution of the artists perception of an image.

Of something

A lot of very good pictures are simply images of something. We find a lovely or interesting scene and we take a picture. Yes, we work the scene, find a good position to make a good composition. Wait for great light. Then make the shot.

It represents something real and concrete. It is what it is. There is nothing abstract or surreal about it. No hidden meaning. As I write this I am on a trip going through a part of the country that has lots of beautiful trees. I am shooting a lot of pictures of trees. Just because I like them. And they’re all around.

Most of these images, though, are ending up being just pictures of trees or fields. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, but they are straight forward record shots of a scene I saw. It is the rare one that seems to actually have something deeper to offer.

About something

A goal is to bring something more than just a “here is what I saw”. I hope to occasionally make a statement or observation that will be helpful or insightful. Hopefully, I can bring you something more than just a pretty picture. I can only reveal to you what I emotionally reacted to at the time. It is up to me to react to the scene and be able to bring some of that to you.

This is a wide grey area. One person’s “depth” may be another person’s “duh”. My perception of the significance of something may be different from yours. All I can do is to say what I think. I cannot control how you receive it.

And the degree of depth or insight will vary all over the place. An image may have insight on something of human nature, or it may be humorous, or it may be ironic, or it may make a statement about the march of time or environmental issues. Good images do not have to be deeply serious. Few of mine are heavy commentary on social issues. My reaction to the world is governed more by joy and gratitude.

So when you see my images, assume they probably have some insight I have perceived about the scene or subject. It may not be dark and depressing, but that does not take away from my intent to say something.

A life of its own

Sometimes, though, an image takes on another direction, a new life. I occasionally recognize that the original image is not complete or fully formed. It may need to be combined with other images or heavily worked to change it into something different.

Take the image with this article for example. It started out a fairly interesting shot out of a favorite restaurant window. This particular window had 100+ year old glass that was wavy and distorted. Blurred in the background were some downtown buildings, trees, awnings, etc. I liked the scene and shot it repeatedly until I captured the impression I wanted (many lunches there!).

But I was not happy with it as it was. It was an abstract view of downtown, but it was too abstract to be an effective representation of a downtown street, but not abstract enough to become something completely different and interesting in it’s own right. So I decided to go much further.

Ah, the joys of Photoshop. It is fun to play sometimes. I added textures and played with colors and saturation and hues. Some overlay patterns gave it more definition and shape. Pretty soon it had nothing to do with the downtown scene I originally liked. If you sat where I shot the picture and looked out the same window, you would not recognize it.

The image now has a life of its own, completely independent of the original scene. I like it. It is a fun creative exercise. But I have to find the right base images to work with. And I have to form a vision of where I want to go. Only a few images are good subjects for such a treatment.

It means what it means

Coming to this point requires me to address the question of what does an image “mean”? Can a picture have a meaning? Does it have to?

There seems to be at least 2 opposing groups. Some say a picture is worthless unless it means something. The other says very few pictures can have an actual meaning, except for some photojournalism. As in most things in life, I range somewhere in the middle. Generally I say don’t take yourself so serious. A good picture can just be a nice, pleasing picture. If I have the opportunity to make images with meaning I usually will, but I don’t want the meaning to get in the way of the quality of the image.

I get frustrated with people who are so sincere and focused on something that is important to them that they feel everyone must share their angst. Lighten up. First make art.

I do make images with meaning, especially if I am shooting a project that is fairly serious. When I have the filter of a project in mind my focus tends to narrow to the subject. But unless it is a particularly dark and depressing subject, I want to concentrate first on making art. I tend to avoid the really dark and depressing projects. That is just not me and I don’t think they would make your life better.

Summary

The vast majority of the billions of photographs shot each year are record shots of something. They serve to capture a memory or mark an occasion. This was their intent and the work for that.

A small percentage of photos and paintings go further and reveal something interesting. Maybe it is a new insight on a subject. Maybe it is just the artist’s emotional reaction at the time. But we look at them and often agree that they bring something deeper than just a snapshot.

Or sometimes a picture becomes a thing in itself. Not a representation or even an interpretation. It just exists as a new creation. A lot of abstract and surreal art is like this.

In my case, I am a lens-based artist. That means I start from something concrete – an image – rather than a blank canvas. Sometimes as I live with an image and think about what it could be, I morph it into something new. That is the case for the image with this article.

I’m not saying this is a desired evolutionary path for an artist or that some steps are better than others. But artists tend to evolve their skills and viewpoints as they mature. I have observed myself moving through a progression. More and more of the images I like are abstract.