We often hear this as a challenge or criticism. “You’re going too far” Meaning, back off. But as an artist, I don’t think I go far enough. I need to push myself to be always going too far. That is how we explore the limits
I have written about this before, but it is so important I think it deserves a refresh. In a previous article I encouraged us to go “far enough“. But I think now this is too timid an attitude. We should push “it”, whatever it is, too far.
I know I tend to have too much focus on the actual captured data of the file and what the scene really looked like. Time helps. I tend now to wait to process images until they have aged enough to let me distance myself from the experience of being there.
But still, I tend to hold back and stay too true to the original. I am learning to push beyond to create something else.
As a bonus, this short video by Matt Kloskowski might encourage you to think about editing in new ways. He does not talk much about going too far, but he shows an unconventional approach. The kind of thing I am talking about when I recommend pushing beyond the captured data.
I know I’ve said it before, but I find truth in something John Paul Caponigro said “You don’t know you’ve gone far enough until you’ve gone too far.”
This is something I need to take to heart. The engineer in me tends to make the image look like the literal, original scene. That ends up creating record shots. Sometimes all I need is a record shot, but that is rare. I have to push it more to make the image into art. Into something interesting that goes beyond the original.
For example, I live in Colorado. If I shoot a beautiful scene in the mountains, so what? Anyone could have stopped there that day and taken the same picture with their cell phone. What sets mine apart? It often will be something more than just the literal scene. It has to rely on my interpretation of what I saw.
Be decisively indecisive
So when I suggest going too far, I am not speaking about relationships or physical safety, but my interpretation of the image. I am discovering more and more with time that images can take a great deal of manipulation.
A raw file from a good camera contains a tremendous amount of data that can be exploited. Editing in Lightroom is completely non-destructive. We can re-edit at will with absolutely no loss. Likewise, although Photoshop is inherently destructive, there are processing techniques that can be used to manipulate images with no damage and with the ability to re-edit in the future. I strongly advise learning and adopting these techniques.
Yes, I know of good artists who can say they know exactly what they want to do with an image and it is OK to do destructive edits, because they will never change their mind in the future. That is not me. Every time I revisit an image I usually tweak it some. Sometimes a lot.
Does that mean I am indecisive? Perhaps. I wouldn’t argue the point. I look at it as an evolving artistic judgment. What I see and feel in an image can change over time. So I consciously decide to use techniques to give me the maximum flexibility to change my mind later. Decisively indecisive.
Don’t worry about breaking it
Let me use Lightroom (“Classic”, because I consider it the only real Lightroom) as an example. I said that all editing in Lightroom is non-destructive. Do you really understand that?
Lightroom uses a marvelous design that always preserves the original data unchanged and keeps all edits as a separate set of processing instructions. Don’t believe me? Here is a portion of actual data from the XMP sidecar file of an image I edited today:
If you are familiar with Lightroom, you should recognize these adjustments as the contents of the Basic adjustment panel. I’m not sure what the “2012” suffix means on them, but probably a process version. Anyway, this is literal data copied from the XMP file. It is an industry standard format called XML markup. It is just text. If I change a slider, the text value is changed. These text values are read and re-applied when I open the file in Lightroom. The original pixel data is never altered. You cannot destroy the image by editing it in Lightroom.
What are the limits?
There are limits, but not absolutes. If we boost the exposure too much, at some point we will introduce an unacceptable amount of noise. If we sharpen too much we will introduce artifacts around edges. We can make such a high contrast image that it cannot reproduce properly on screen or in print. We can increase saturation to the point that it is out of gamut for the screen or print.
Most of these are sort of a judgment call by the artist of what the acceptable limit is for the intended application.
But these are just physical limits of what we can do with the tools. The bigger problem, at least for me, is what am I willing to do?
It’s our mindset we need to break
I am the one who usually limits the extents of the changes I will make. I am still too much of a left-brained engineer who is constrained by my memory of what the scene actually looked like.
One way I can tell this is happening is that it is common for me to push an image further every time I revisit it. Upon seeing it again, I think,”that is nice, but I can go further”. And I do. Sometimes the image turns into something different from what I shot. I love it when that happens.
But it is a constant struggle to give myself permission to do it. I am afraid of going too far.
Knowing how the tools work and how to non-destructively edit, I should feel free to slam adjustments to the limits just to see what happens. Then back off to the “right” value for the image. I find that the “right” value tends to be higher if I have over-corrected than it is if I come up from the original. I think this is what Mr. Caponigro means when he says “You don’t know you’ve gone far enough until you’ve gone too far.”
Give yourself the freedom to go too far, than back off as necessary. I will try to do the same.
Not for everyone
I know this advice is not for everyone. I still see photographers who say they pride themselves in getting the image “right” in camera and doing minimal editing. That’s their style and their values, so good for them. But if “right” means the closest match possible to the real scene, that seems very limiting. I think we have progressed well beyond the stage of assuming that a photography must be a true representation of reality.
At least, that is my assumption. I operate from the point of view that I am as free to creatively imagine the contents of my frame as a painter is to create on a blank canvas. Even plein air painters take a lot of liberties with what they choose to include or exclude, what colors to use, etc. Some even use the plein air session as a sketch. Later in the studio they refine and complete it according to their interpretation.
That is basically what I do. Some images require more interpretation than others, and my tools allow more freedom for manipulation. One reason I think I could never paint is there is no “undo” with paint. 🙂
Go too far
So I am discovering that what works for me is to consciously push my adjustments beyond what I first think is right. Yes, it may create a bizarre effect and I have to back it off. But I often find that the new setting I back it off to is more extreme than I thought was correct originally. Seeing the extreme helped me understand a new way to view the image.
If you do it right, you can’t damage the image. Give yourself permission to experiment.
The image with this article is an example. This is the mountains and plains about 5 miles from my home. It seems like every time I go back to the image, I need to tweak it a little. And I always push it a little further. I do not back off of what I already did. I think I am nearly to “far enough”.