Purity in Photography 2

Pseudo Landscape. Not an actual aerial image. Art, not reality.

Because of its nature of recording the scene in front of the camera, people assume that photography is some kind of “pure” imaging form. That is, that what you see is reality. I take opportunities when I can to dispel this myth. Never assume purity in photography unless it is explicitly presented as such. This is a theme that just won’t go away.


Our excellent digital sensors do a pretty good job of reproducing what the lens images onto their surface. For good and bad. Because of this, some people assume that photographs represent exactly what was captured.

This is just an assumption that in no way restricts me in my art. And it does not restrict anyone else unless they make the explicit determination to not do any manipulation. What the sensor records is often just a starting point in my photographic vision. Not an end point.

It is so easy now to alter images that you should always assume it has been done.


From nearly its beginning, artists have manipulated photographs. Black and white film photographers quickly invented ways to alter their images. Sometimes these were done to overcome limitations with the technology of the time. Sometimes to correct or improve the images, for instance by “spotting” defects and removing distracting objects. More and more commonly alterations were done for artistic improvements.

For fun sometime look up a “straight” print of Ansel Adam’s famous Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico compared to one of his later interpretations. The later is almost unrecognizable as the original. Does that mean there is something false about the later prints? No, it is considered one of the great examples in the history of photography. The artist chose to alter it heavily to make it appear as he wanted it to look.

It is never safe to assume that a photograph exactly represents reality.

What is truth?

Is a photograph “truth”? Is it some form of purity? Why? What makes you assume it is?

The technology of its capture process leads some people to assume a purity or truth that may lead you astray. Yes, the sensor recorded all the light falling onto its surface, but there is still a long journey from there to a finished image.

Some might say that Photoshop eliminated truth. That is overstated, but not entirely false. The positive statement is that Photoshop enabled greater artistic expression. Photoshop and other image manipulation tools, along with powerful home computers and large disks, opened a new world of creativity to artists.

Now most photographic artists do extensive manipulation of images. Photoshop, Lightroom Classic, Capture One, and other tools open new worlds of creativity to photographers. Photographers have always done this, but the modern tools add new power and possibilities.

But this power is just a modern convenience. It has always been true that images are created in the artist’s imagination. A great example is Albert Bierstadt, a German painter who helped popularize the American west in the 19th Century. His paintings created a lot of interest, but they were often, let’s say, fanciful. For example his work Rocky Mountain Landscape does not depict any real scene I have ever found in the Rocky Mountains where I live.

The artistic view is that an image is the expression of the artist’s vision and feeling for the image. It seems the truth comes from within rather than being a property of what is represented.

What is the intent of an image?

Does this manipulation make an image less “true”? That depends on the intent of the image.

Maybe it seems obvious, but any image presented as truth must be true. If I see a picture in a news article that claims to show a certain event, it better be exactly that. If it is altered to manipulate the scene or misrepresent the event, that is false and the reporter and their organization should be severely censured.

In my opinion no AI generated “news” or images can be presented as truth. They were generated by a machine rather than being a direct capture or observation of an event.

Let’s go a little away from news and talk about a portrait. Must a portrait be a literal, completely truthful depiction of the subject? Well, they never have been. Portraits are always “retouched”, maybe altered extensively to hide blemishes. Perhaps to make the subject look slimmer or taller or a little more handsom. So a portrait should be a recognizable representation of the person, but do not assume it is literally true.

But I live in the world of art. Art is fantasy and imagination and vision and creativity. We should never get confused that art is reality. I am free to do anything within my image that I think expresses my artistic vision. This makes Bierstadt’s Rocky Mountain Landscape acceptable art, even if not reality.

Don’t waste your effort thinking photographs are always reality. Most do not even pretend to be anymore. Photographs are another artistic expression, unless explicitly presented as reality.

Today’s image

A high altitude aerial? Maybe. Maybe not. Since I have been talking about photographic art not being real, it might be best to assume this isn’t exactly what it seems.

I won’t say more about it now. This is part of a series I am working on.

If You Can’t Beat ’em

Refelctions over airport operations

You have probably heard the old phrase “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. It can actually be pretty good advice for some situations. Sometimes it is better to abandon your preconceived assumptions and respond to the actual conditions.


Many famous artists, from Ansel Adams onward, preach that we should previsualize the end result before we shoot. One accepted meaning of it is that the photographer can see the final print before the image has been captured. In other words, based on his experience, the photographer knows what end result he will be able to achieve before pressing the shutter release.

Mr. Adams, ever the teacher, broke it down into 4 steps:

  1. Need or desire for the picture. Why are you taking it?
  2. Discovery. Recognize the essential composition that can be made.
  3. Visualization, the process of anticipating what the result will look like.
  4. Execution. Doing everything right to make it happen. This is image capture through post processing.

I would not go on record as disagreeing with Ansel Adams, but I think there are a few assumptions wrapped up in this that we can look at. The advice may not be a universal truth.

For one thing, if you are a commercial photographer contracted to get a certain image for a client, yes, planning and previsualization is important. Also, if it is a “one in a lifetime” situation where you know the opportunity will never repeat for you, be very diligent and make sure you get the shot you want when you have the chance.

But another angle I don’t think I have heard talked about is personality. Some people are naturally planners. They work best when they are following a carefully thought out script. They need a high degree of structure in their environment. Other people don’t work that way.

Generational changes

And consider the differences in technology and capability of editing now compared to Mr. Adam’s day. You can see that we tend to favor a different style of capturing images.

For Mr. Adams, making an image was slow and expensive and fairly difficult. A lot of heavy gear had to be set up. Looking at the upside down color image on the ground glass of his view camera and trying to visualize the resulting black & white print took a lot of skill and experience. And the 8×10 film sheets were expensive and he could only carry a limited number with him in the field. So yes, previsualization was necessary in that generation.

Now, though, digital imaging is “free”. And we have great sensors and real-time histogram displays. Most of us can immediately see a fair representation of the captured image on our camera screen. We know what we captured.

Since the images are basically free and quick to do, we can “work a scene”, shooting and looking at the captured images while we hone in on the result we want. We should seldom have any question of whether of not we captured the image correctly. The larger question is, did we get what what we want. It is not uncommon to shoot several or even dozens of images to finalize the result we want.

Trying to force it

Now I will readily admit that I am much more in the “no planning” side. I enjoy spontaneity.

Something I see at times that makes me sad is photographers who go out with a rigid expectation of what they will accept. Many of them tend to battle against conditions they cannot overcome and go away disappointed. Maybe even feeling like a failure.

In deference to the planners, I love this quote from a great planner:

β€œIn preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Dwight D Eisenhower

Thinking through the situation and trying to anticipate what may happen can give great insight on what we may decide to do. However, once the battle starts, e.g. we are in the field to make the image, nothing is likely to go as planned.


When we discover that our plans are falling apart, we can double down and try to force it to work, or we can adapt and reevaluate what we can do.

One aspect of creativity is to be flexible, to adapt to the situation and make the best of it. Make the best of the situation. Perhaps you got to the great scene and it is raining or snowing. Not what you planned. Use it. Get what you can. The result may be even better than what you planned.

One of the principles of improvisation artists is that each step is “yes, and…”. That carries the momentum forward to the next step. Whenever you say “no”, it blocks the flow and makes it hard to go forward. So don’t block your flow. Respond to whatever situation you encounter and creatively figure out how to use it.

Let it flow

As artists, we are trying to creatively interpret the world around us. I find an ideal to enable this is to get into a flow state. This seems to be a peak of creativity and energy and concentration. This lets us work with the situation rather than fight it.

Previsualization can give us an idea of what we want to achieve. We might even make the image as planned. But never overlook the opportunity to make a more compelling and engaging image.

Maybe we do not get the image we anticipated. Often we get a better one. But even if it is a disappointment, as long as we did the best possible in the situation, we should be happy. I have said before that it is better to be lucky than good. But this is not luck. It is creatively adapting to circumstances.

Today’s image

This is a “bored at an airport” image. While waiting for a flight I wanted to capture scenes of airport operations. But I was frustrated by the reflections I could not eliminate. They were interfering with the image I had in mind to create.

But on some thought, I discovered that maybe the reflections were integral to the scene. People waiting patient and trusting while a huge amount of complex logistics of running an airport went on just outside. Outside of their interest and curiosity. They just wait like cattle until their flight is called.

This was definitely a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” situation. I think the resulting image is better than what I originally set out to make. What do you think?


Wide histogram, single capture image

My last article sang the praises of HDR processing. I don’t want to over sell it. Today I will try to balance it by showing we typically do not need to use HDR.

The good

My previous article attempted to show when and why to use HDR. There is a time and place for it. In general, if a histogram shows more than about 7 stops of needed information then I would consider HDR, if the subject and situation allows it.

The example I used was a scene with the sun visible in the frame but where I also wanted to preserve the deepest shadows. Back in the film days we had to use a split neutral density filter over the lens to try to compress the dynamic range in these situations. Whenever you would have reached for the split ND filter is the time to consider if you can use HDR instead.

The bad

But HDR has some problems and limitations. There is the dreaded “HDR look” that most people want to avoid. In addition, there are problems with subject movement and extra processing steps to do.

When HDR first became available, people tended to go crazy with it. It was almost a symbol of showing off the new technique. The HDR look was over compressed with flat tonality and lack of true whites or blacks. Sure, I could shoot that scene with a 20 stop range and make a print. Too bad it looks weird. It became almost a cliche. Many “serious” photographers shunned it as looking artificial. It got a bad reputation.

But the problem was how people used it, not the technique itself. Almost any technique can be over used to create unappealing images.

There is also the problem I mentioned with subject movement. To create a good HDR image there must be very high correlation between the pixels of each exposure bracket. That is, there can’t be significant movement.

And there is the extra processing. This is not too big of a problem anymore. We can quickly do HDR processing from within Lightroom or Photoshop or your software of choice. It is probably easier now to do it than it was to adjust a split neutral density filter and figure out the exposure.

Why we don’t usually need it

Trust your sensor and the processing software on your computer. Modern high-end camera sensors are amazing. They record the greatest dynamic range of information that has ever been possible in photography. I’m sure it will only get better with new generations of equipment.

My camera records a far greater range of information than it is possible to print. Prints are my gold standard. They are the expected outcome of my work. A surprising fact to many is that, although it is hard to compare because the physics are totally different, the effective dynamic range of print media is around 6 to 8 stops. So making any print has some aspects of dealing with HDR data, since the captured data is probably much greater than the final print.

OK, so I am shooting a high contrast scene. I am careful to allow a little space on each end of the histogram, so say I am dealing with about 12 stops of range. The reality is that, for most needs, this can be used to make a great print.

But that 12 stops of data has darks that are down dangerously close to an unacceptable level of noise. And the brights are dangerously close to clipping. Is that imperfection OK?

How to process extreme ranges

This is not a tutorial on photographic processing. You can find too many of them on the web. I will just give some suggestions. In Lightroom (Classic – the only version I think is worth using) just the 6 controls in the Tones section of the Basic panel can do wonders. And I seldom use Contrast, so there are really 5 most important ones.

Use Whites and Blacks to set the overall white and black points as desired. Then I often use Exposure to balance the overall tonal range. Finally I use Highlights and Shadows to fine tune the tones.

These simple adjustments, along with some tweaks in the Presence section, can do amazing things to “rescue” most images. These are probably an 80% fix for most situations.

Of course, when I select an image to print, I will spend a lot more time working on it. A lot of work will be done with curves and masking and doing fine adjustments. Sometimes I will send it to Photoshop for very detailed tasks that cannot be done in Lightroom. Editing an image can take many hours. Most of us are pretty obsessive about our work.

My point here, though, is that most single captures have enough data to make a great print or other final image. Sometimes we just have to work with it a little.

Maybe you don’t want it

The look of your final image is an artistic decision. It is not dictated by the “reality” of the original scene. You or I as the artist decide the look we want. What we decide is “right”, at least for us.

So I may not want to create a perfectly balanced image that retains all the tones and data of the histogram. I may want to crush the blacks to make a moody, low key image. I may want to over brighten the image to make an ethereal scene. It is not written anywhere that the final print must look exactly and faithfully like the original scene.

This is where artistic intent comes in.

It is not numbers

I want to end with the point that we are creating an image, not manipulating numbers. Well, we are manipulating numbers, but that is not what counts. What counts is the look and expressiveness and quality of the finished product.

Photography is the most technical art, but do not be dictated to by the technology. Do not let someone say you can’t do something because the numbers are wrong. All that counts is the final art you create. Emotional response trumps technical excellence. How does it look to you?


The image today is a full histogram spread. Single capture. I think this kind of thing comes out OK. What do you think?


HDR image. Smokey sunset in the Colorado mountains.

HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range, is a bad word to some photographers. I think they have been overly influenced by some bad early use of it. It can be an excellent tool for certain kinds of images.

Dynamic range

First, though, what is dynamic range? Dynamic range is a measure of the span between the lowest level signal that can be used and the highest level. In most electronic systems the high end is limited by the point where the signal starts to clip or distort. The low end is limited by the point where an unacceptable amount of noise intrudes. For photography it is that range from the darkest value that is usable to the brightest value that doesn’t clip to pure featureless white.

Modern digital sensors are far better than ones in early digital cameras. High end sensors now are rated at between 13 and 15 stops of dynamic range. That is incredible. Early sensors had maybe 5-6 stops.

But like many things, the numbers are misleading. It is not that the camera makers lie, just that they do not quantify what they really mean. So my sensor may technically have 14 stops of range, but I cannot really use all of that with no cost.

If you want to jump in to a little more technical depth, check out this article.


There is this problem called noise. It is worse at the dark range of exposure. We call what we do “digital photography”, but the reality is that a significant portion of it is based on analog signals. The information coming from the sensor is analog and it has to be amplified and digitized before it is actually digital data. Electronics, even the wonderful systems available now, have a certain level of noise in analog circuits. It is not a design fault, it is basic physics that cannot be entirely eliminated.

So when we capture an image that has a wide range of brightness values, it needs to be processed a lot in order to make a good print or even a good image for social media. A lot of this processing involves boosting the dark values to a more usable level.

But, the darkest values are close to the noise level of the electronics. So boosting them also boosts the noise. You have seen this when you brighten an image a lot and notice it looks very grainy and even blocky.


Enter HDR as a technique for mitigating the problem. HDR software takes several exposures, usually referred to as an exposure bracket, and combines them into a single image with a compressed dynamic range. Typically 3 exposures are used: one overexposed to make sure shadow data is good, one at the correct nominal exposure, and one underexposed to get all the highlight data.

In combining this data, the software can select highest quality exposure value for each pixel. It uses sophisticated algorithms to “compress” the dynamic range. That is, it makes the brightest areas less bright and the darkest areas less dark. I could not explain the exact algorithms used.


This sounds great. What is the problem?

There is actually little problem with HDR as a concept. The problem is, when it first became popular, it was often abused by many practitioners who applied it in a heavy-handed way. Images with the dreaded “HDR look” were obvious and often scorned. The HDR look is an over compressed image with few real highlights and few real shadows. Everything has a bland sameness to the tonal range.

The look rightly was looked down on by “serious” photographers. It tarnished the technique as a whole. That is unfortunate, because HDR is great for some things.

When to use it

HDR can create images that could not otherwise be made and it doesn’t have to be obvious. If a scene has extremely high contrast then HDR is often the only means to get the results we want.

Way back in the olden days we had to use graduated neutral density filters in front of the lens to darken the brightest areas, usually the sky. This would pull the dynamic range down to a reasonable range to capture in one exposure. It was the “analog” equivalent of HDR. Of course, this involved adjusting the exposure to try to anticipate the final capture range. It was tricky, but it was the only way to do it.

Now with HDR, no one I know uses split neutral density filters except the remaining film photographers. Except in one case.


HDR has one Achilles Heal – subject movement. An action scene is very difficult for the HDR software to build a good result.

If only some small parts are moving, like grass or leaves shifting with the wind, the HDR software may use “ghosting” algorithms to try to work around the movement. If you are trying to photograph a high contrast action scene, like a car race, good luck. You probably will not be able to apply HDR because there is not enough correlation between the different exposures.

Today’s image

This is an HDR image. Trying to create an image with the direct sun in it and at the same time preserve the deep shadows in the mountains wasn’t going to work in one exposure. The HDR software was able to pull it all together.

I don’t think this looks like the bad old “HDR look”. What do you think?

No Camera

Abandoned house on Colorado eastern plains. Probably abandoned during the Dust Bowl.

I often write about carrying a camera all the time and even using it as a tool to get into a flow state for photography. I just did the opposite. I went off on a 3 day trip with no camera. Well, my phone, but I didn’t use it.

Why take a camera

I have said that having a camera with me gives me license to think photographically. It is true. This technique often helps be get off dead center and get moving.

Most of the time, the feel of a familiar camera in my hand and the click of the shutter propels me into a creative zone. I start seeing possibilities I was overlooking before. After the first frame or 2 things start to flow.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about side trips and excursions. One example I used was taking my wife to the airport then wandering in the eastern Colorado plains. What i didn’t say was that I drove for a couple of hours without “seeing” anything to shoot. Finally I basically forced myself to get out the camera and shoot a couple of frames. After that I “found” over 300 images by the time I got back that evening. About 1 per mile that I drove. Some were quite good. Many more are ones I’m glad I shot, just for the experimental value if nothing else.

Jerry Uselmann said “The camera is a license to explore.”. I find it to be true for me. Besides, as the great Jay Maisel said “It’s a lot easier to take pictures if you always have the camera with you.

Why not take a camera

On the other hand, I sometimes, but rarely, deliberately leave the camera at home. I mentioned the trip I took last week where I did not take the camera.

There seemed to be a need to back off some. This is unusual for me, but I sometimes get so far behind in my processing that I feel like I am just shooting blindly and loosing touch with my work. And getting un-creative and un-inspired. So I decided to slow down producing images and work more on assimilating what I have already done.

I have slowed down shooting for a couple of weeks, but I haven’t completely stopped. Given that, though, when this short trip came up, I reluctantly talked myself into altogether abstaining by not even taking my camera. It is the first time I have done that for a long time.

OK, it was frustrating at times, but not as bad as I thought it would be. Granted, this was a fast family trip and I knew the weather would be bad. Those things helped. But before it would not have dissuaded me.

In a strange sense, it was kind of liberating to not feel any pressure to take pictures. It did not stop me from practicing composing images in my mind. But since it was impossible to shoot them, it as all just a fun creative exercise.


I’m pretty good about having accurate intuition about what I need to do for my physical and mental health. I think I realized I was getting a little burnt out and needed to back off some. This exercising of depriving myself of the opportunity to shoot was actually kind of refreshing.. It was a recharge.

Just the 3 day event was healthy and useful but not enough. I plan to stay slowed down for a few more weeks. It will let me decompress and get back in touch with my current work and what directions I am going. Some of the time can be used to re-evaluate and do some soul searching. And to catch up with culling and filing and processing.

If you are doing intense physical training it is critical to plan in rest days. Otherwise your body breaks down and you do more harm than good. Likewise if you are doing intense mental activities like studying for finals, you have to take breaks to let your brain catch up and process information.

I think it is the same thing with art. We love doing our art. We want to do it. But we need to realize our body and mind need to rest sometimes.

Go off and do something unrelated. Take walks without a camera. Read a book. Write letters – remember paper and pens? Start a journal. These are good for your mind and your creativity. It recharges us and prepares us for the next intense push.

I consider my experiment of leaving my camera at home on that last trip to be a success. Sometimes it is more productive to not do anything.

The image

The image today is one of the ones I shot on that day I described when I took the excursion in eastern Colorado. I like doing portraits of weathered old houses like this. It was probably abandoned during the Dust Bowl days. Nothing but clouds to the horizon.

I didn’t show any pictures from the trip where I didn’t take a camera, because, well, I didn’t take any. πŸ™‚