Purity in Photography

Heavily processed image, not reality

I couldn’t help follow up on my last article with this. I read a photographer’s blog who was wringing his hands about “fake” images. In his plea for purity in photography he went so far as to coin a new term: “PhoTImagery” (the strange capitalism is his). He proposes the term to refer to any image that was not an absolute literal representation of a real scene.

What is purity in photography?

The argument presented was that “pure” photography – what he terms the purist photographer – consists of images made on film and processed in a wet darkroom. The end product is a photograph.

A couple of questions occur to me. For one, why stop at film? Why not define pure photography as coating wet plates in the field before exposing them? That predates film and is even more basic. The practitioner of this has to be very determined and willing to suffer for his art. That brings even more asceticism and rigor to the practice.

The second question is brought up by his assertion that the pure photographer can use “all possible techniques” in the chemical darkroom and still be acceptable. Editing negatives to remove distractions and compositing images has been done almost since the beginning of photography. Is that OK as long is it is done with film and chemicals? What would a photographer have to do to make it no longer “pure”? It is interesting that he does not count multiple exposures against the purity of an image.

Can digital imaging be pure?

The next step in the continuum he describes is the “photographer”. This is a person who does digital imaging, BUT does nothing to alter the image materially. This person is only called a “photographer”. He seems to have lost the sanction of purity, since he is not using a pristine chemical process. The end product here is still a photography, but I guess it is potentially tainted.

If you edit out distractions or (gasp) change the sky it is no longer a real photograph. Apparently only the actual scene as shot, with no material changes, is worthy to be presented as art. Of course, like in any legalistic argument, there will be long and heated debate about what constitutes a “material” change. And who is certifying this? Do we have to submit our images to the Board of Photographic Purity before publishing them?

Not real art?

Finally Mr. Gordon creates the term PhoTImigery to describe any image that was not created and processed entirely by old school chemical methods, or was composited or heavily manipulated. He labels these manipulated images as deceptive and not true photography.

Happily, he allows that art might want to do these things, but that the use of them must be disclosed. If not disclosed he claims it to be deceptive and wrong.

I thought this argument was over a couple of years after digital imaging became really practical. Unless you are a photojournalist it should be assumed that ALL images are manipulated. This is not dishonest unless you are presenting it to your viewers as depicting reality.

The disconnect

Herein lies the disconnect, I think. Mr. Gordon wants to assume that all photographs are a faithful and literal depiction of reality unless disclosed as otherwise. It seems much safer to assume that all photographs are manipulated freely unless it is stated otherwise.

We have long moved past the point where the only purpose of photography is to record the world as it literally is. There are billions of images made every day. Reality is overused. A photographer wanting to be heard among all the noise must present his personal vision of a scene. Or create a scene that may not have existed.

Is this dishonest? No, it is art. Should it be “disclosed” as not real? No, no more than a Picasso painting should be labeled as “not real”. None of my images, no matter how they are created or manipulated, are fake. They are my artistic work.

By the way, the image with this article is not literal reality. ๐Ÿ™‚ Are all my images this heavily processed? No, not even most of them. But I feel free to do what I want with my pixels.

The argument of purity makes an assumption of the intent and very purpose of photography. I refuse to be bound by someone else’s assumptions. I will follow my own path. Let me state right now to never assume any of my images are literal truth unless I tell you that they are.

Over-processing

Moderately processed natural scene

How much post-processing is too much? Is less better? Is there some magic boundary you shouldn’t cross? Over-processing is a controversial topic for many photographers.

Purity

Ah, purity, respecting reality, make no changes. This concept and value system is instilled into many photographers, especially landscape artists. I still follow Nature Photography Network. The images are often very lovely. But there is generally, to me, a sterility to them. Most photographers who post here are afraid of departing from literal reality.

In this group, as in many landscape forums I have seen, there is a real negative feeling about cleaning up distractions, adjusting color to be anything other than the actual original, compositing, or anything else that is not strictly faithful to the original scene. It reminds me of some film photographers who used to make prints with the film rebate showing to prove the image was not cropped.

The problem I have is the fear to depart from reality. Fear is not a good guide for art.

What is photography?

Is photography to be a literal recording of reality? Some people believe that it is. I used to be in this group, way back. As a matter of fact, the camera club I used to be a member of went further to say that a nature image must not show any “hand of man”. That is, there could not be a trail, a contrail, an old mine, anything not completely natural.

But what is photography, really? I see it as an art medium. Composing interesting images from “real life” scenes in front of a camera is just as valid an art as painting scenes that exist only in the artist’s mind. Just as the painter only includes what is necessary to further the image, the photographer eliminates what is distracting, either in camera or in post processing. The goal and only real measure is the final image.

In impressionism or modernism or post-modernism or any of the other isms, the artist freely pushes the medium to its limits to give his preferred interpretation of reality. And that, to me, is a key thing that makes it art – it is an artist’s interpretation of the world.

What prevents photography from doing the same thing? A modern sensor can record a scene in very high resolution, and our software tools allow us to “correct” color and noise and other artifacts to a high degree., Does that mean it is the place of photography to create images that are constrained to faithfully depict reality?

Is there a line you shouldn’t cross?

Is there a line, a limit, not to cross? Probably, but it is different for each of us. As an artist, we need to be able to figure it our for our self.

Our post-processing tools are amazing. They allow a level of control unheard of a few years ago. There is sage old advice, though, that says just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Anything can be misapplied to create garbage.

It is easy to go to the computer and over-saturate and over-sharpen and re-mix colors in garish ways to make an image into something I would never show anyone. But that line where I have gone too far is personal to me. It would be different for you.

Go for it

As I mature, I find the line is moving our toward the horizon. That is, I am finding interesting ways to express my vision using post-processing “excesses”. Is my vision moving or am I learning to use the tools better? I don’t know for sure, but it is probably both. What we discover we can do influences the notions of what we want to do.

The image with this article is a completely natural scene that has had what I would consider “moderate” post-processing. I like it much better than the bland original.

These tools that can be used to create horrible garbage can also be used with great subtly and finesse. Like with a painter, the same paint and brushes can create a useless smear or a respected painting. It comes down to the artist’s vision and how the tools are used.

Maybe asking if the image is over-processed is not the right question. Maybe the question is did the artist realize his vision? And did the vision resonate with me?

What’s the Noise?

Train performer, shot at ISO 6400. Noise is not a problem.

Noise in digital imaging. Is it a problem? Is it part of the art? Should you be concerned? Are there exotic techniques you need to learn to eliminate the noise?

Fear

Many of us have been taught to fear noise. So much so that I know people who would pass up a great shot because the image might be noisy. The fear of noise is an irrational, superstitious fear.

This seems most common in the landscape photography community. Conventional wisdom, and the teaching of most instructors, says we should always shoot at the “native” ISO of the camera for lowest noise. That would be ISO 64 for my camera. If we don’t, we are increasing the noise in our images and that would be a “bad thing”.

Have you ever examined the feared noise yourself? Do you understand what it is and what effect it has on prints? Have you confronted the monster and stared it down?

Noise Technology

The digital sensor is an amazing piece of technology. It has a HUGE grid of photo-receptive sites. My Z7 has nearly 46 million pixels. A strand of the smallest human hair would cover at least 14 of these pixels. No wonder I see dust spots!

Did you know that “digital” imaging is actually an analog process? Each receptor “adds up” the number of photons it receives for a frame. This is a scalar value, an analog signal. Each site is read out to an amplifier and analog-to-digital converter where it is transformed into a digital value. The amplification is determined by the ISO setting – dialing in a greater sensitivity corresponds to more amplification. This amplification is one source of noise. Any time you take a very low level analog signal and amplify it, some noise is inescapable.

But in addition, the sensor chip itself contributes noise. There is a phenomenon called “shot noise”. It is beyond my ability to explain simply, but electrons spontaneously generate noise. It is usually low level and it is temperature dependent. This is why your camera probably has a long exposure compensation mode. It is there to reduce this background noise accumulated over a long exposure. During a long exposure the sensor is powered for long enough to raise its temperature, leading to increased noise. The compensation mode takes another exposure, but with the shutter closed. This reads the background noise level with no light coming in. The camera basically subtracts the noise signal from the original image. It does a pretty good job.

The amplifier and the sensor noise generation are 2 significant sources of noise in digital imaging. Not the only ones, but they are big. Keep in mind that most of the writers you will see do not have a significant technical background. They sometimes give bad advice because they do not really understand what is happeningl

What does the dreaded noise look like?

Take an image with the ISO cranked up pretty high, say 12,800. Look at it at 1-to-1 magnification in your editing software. You will see that it looks kind of like blotchy sandpaper. You are seeing the 2 primary types of digital noise: luminance noise and color noise.

Luminance noise looks kind of like the grain we used to see in fast black and white film. Some people like it and it does add an interesting texture to some images. Color noise is the mottled color patches you may see at high magnification. I don’t know of anyone who likes that. Both of these types of noise can be compensated for significantly by your editing software, like Lightroom Classic.

Let me point out that noise is just a part of the image capture. It is not something that, when they see it, the authorities kick you out of the gallery or revoke your artist’s certificate. You have an artist’s certificate, right? ๐Ÿ™‚

Noise Techniques

Noise is part of the technology we deal with because we do digital imaging. We need to be aware of it and know how to deal with it, if it is a problem for us. I mentioned amplification noise and sensor noise.

To minimize noise, keep the ISO low, keep the sensor cool, and minimize long exposures. Simple. But what if that doesn’t work?

I will use me as an example. I often shoot in low light, sometimes hand held with no tripod. And I often use long exposures. Am I doomed?

Here are the decisions I generally make: if I want the image to be free from blurring caused by shake, I up the ISO until the shutter speed is at about 3x the focal length. Yes, conventional wisdom is 2x, but I find that does not work well for very high resolution sensors, even with great image stabilization. If I want a long exposure for the creative effect, I use it. Noise is not a significant consideration most of the time. And, unconventionally, I usually leave the long exposure noise compensation off.

Let me address that last one. Why would I leave the long exposure noise compensation off? The noise here is made worse by sensor heating. I shoot a lot in Colorado. Unless it is mid summer, the sensor stays pretty cool. As a matter of fact, it is often more of a problem keeping the battery warm enough to not shut off. And even in summer, it is not a problem to wait a few seconds between shots to let it cool. There have been a few times where I have gotten in trouble with this, but very few.

So what?

For me, noise is just a part of the creative balance. Sometimes I want to minimize it, sometimes I actually want to introduce it. Even for the vaunted landscapes, noise can introduce a welcome texture at times, maybe to give a grit for effect or to give subtle interest to a featureless sky.

I do not fear noise. ISO 400 is my default setting – that is 3 stops over the camera native ISO. I do not mind going to 3200 or 6400 if I need to as a tradeoff to capture what I want.

With my camera it is hard to discern noise at 400. There is not much to find at 1600. I admit, my old training to favor the lowest ISO sometimes interferes with my artistic judgment. I try to fight it.

The image with this article was shot at ISO 6400, with what is, as of this writing, an 8 year old sensor. I’m not ashamed of the noise. It I didn’t shoot at 6400 I would not have gotten the image. Good tradeoff, to me.

Noise is a traditional part of photography. It is a feature that sets it apart from painting. Black & White photography favored grain for a gritty look. Many artists like the effect. Even the ones who may not use it recognize and accept it as part of the medium. Digital noise is the equivalent.

So don’t fear noise. Accept it. Use it where you can. Understand where it comes from and what control you have. Your editing tools have ways to reduce it, and they do a pretty good job. Luminence noise is not exactly the same thing as grain, but the overall effect is not that different. Perhaps always totally eliminating noise is not the goal. Did you ever see the slider in LIghtroom Classis in the Effects panel to increase grain? Play with it sometime. It may add to your artistic vision.