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.


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?

Eliminate Scale

Pseudo-aerial image. It seams to be an angry sea breaking on the shore.

Photography makes it easy to visualize the world differently. By using various lenses and changing our position we can get closer to or further from the subject and we can change the composition dramatically. A technique I like to use sometimes is to eliminate scale to give a fresh view of a subject.

Not intimate landscapes

Intimate landscapes are popular and common. This is simply getting in close to a section of a landscape. It allows us to call attention to shapes and colors and relationships that would be lost in the immensity of a wide landscape scene. It is a classic technique and I use it a lot. I love it.

But this is not what i am talking about today. Most often in an intimate landscape, it is clear that the scene is a segment of a landscape or nature view. We get in closer to isolate the part we want to call attention to, but we keep the context of the overall landscape. If I make a close view of a rapidly flowing stream, it is clear that the context is a cascade in the mountains.

Aerial Photography

It is popular to make abstract aerial landscape shots. They can be beautiful and compelling. The shapes are organic and pleasing yet the scene is somewhat abstract because we can’t place what it is. Some well known photographers like Peter Eastway and Tony Hewitt are known for this technique.

Drone photography is also increasingly popular and available to more photographers because it is a lot cheaper. Drone photography is typically done at a few hundred feet elevation, as opposed to conventional aerial photography that is typically up to a few thousand feet.

The common characteristic of these is that the views are looking down, usually straight down, to a relatively flat plane. Scale references are usually missing, so the viewer is left to imagine the size of what is being seen. That is part of the fun of viewing them.


Jumping much further down the scale, another technique to eliminate scale is macro photography. This usually refers to images that are life size or closer. A life size shot is termed 1to1. This signifies that the image is the same size on the sensor as it was in real life. For a full frame sensor that means shooting a scene that is 24mmx36mm. That is getting close. Macro photographers routinely get much closer than this.

This type of shooting tends to get very technology-heavy. There are special optical techniques with extension tubes and bellows and reversing lenses to give the required magnification. Special tripod fittings are used for focusing, because the whole camera system has to be moved to focus. No auto focus here.

Lighting is another consideration that gets difficult. Macro photographers use multiple flash setups with bounces or ring lights or even light tubes to direct the lighting to the very small area being shot and eliminate glare.

On top of that, macro shots have extremely small depth of field. It is more and more common to use focus stacking techniques to record many, sometimes hundreds, of “slices” at different focal points. Special softwar combines it all to produce a final result. I have a friend who designed and built a robot system to automate macro and micro photography with steps of microns.

I am not saying these things as a negative against macro photography, I am just trying to place it in context of what I am discussing. Macro images are often great and intriguing because they show a realm we do not see with our eye. But I don’t have the patience to do it seriously. I prefer a more spontaneous style.


The particular kind of scale elimination I am talking about today I call pseudo-aerial. I haven’t seen the term anywhere. As far as I know, I coined it.

I do not lay out the big bucks to book a plane or a helicopter for a shoot. And I have not gotten a drone yet. I already said I don’t have the patience to do serious macro work. So I figured out a way to do my own brand of simulated scale-less images that mimic aerial photography.

I find small scenes with interesting shape or texture or color and with few if any clues for size and typically shoot straight down from a standing position, basically about 2-3 ft above the scene. The results are my own brand of abstract aerial photography that I call pseudo-aerial. It is sort of the macro version of aerial photography.

One advantage over true aerial photography is that subjects I shoot are often static. I can spend more time composing and moving freely, compared to being in an airplane. And I can spend longer on a scene, maybe waiting for the light to become “right”. Of course, the subject does not actually have to be horizontal, as long as I can get perpendicular to it.


There are some challenges, but they are pretty minor. Making sure my feet or the tripod feet are not in the frame is something to always check for. Likewise, being careful not to let my shadow intrude in the scene.

I often shoot these without a tripod. Without a tripod there is the balancing act of leaning out far enough to be perpendicular to the plane of the image and get my feet out of the frame and not fall over while making sure the shutter speed is fast enough to stop and motion. Yes, I have been off balance. Embarrassing but not yet damaging.

A bigger challenge is to visualize a small scene as if it were an aerial shot. Making sure there are no clues of scale, like grass or twigs or leaves to de-mystify it. Imagining the final image printed to check the impact and interest. Dare I say “pre-visualizing” it?


I will make it concrete with an example. The image presented today is one of these pseudo-aerials. It reminds me of an angry sea breaking on the beach, changing color over the sand and diminishing the violence.

In “reality”I shot it at my local car wash. The camera is upside down on the center console of my car, pointed up through the sunroof. In that position I had to use the camera’s app on my phone to view and control it and take pictures. Very little was done to the actual image data except to color it to match the effect as I visualize it.

A lot of experimenting (and luck) was needed to get the timing of the water and soap and brush movement to get an effect I liked. Plan to throw a lot away. But when it works, it can create a unique and interesting scene.

After describing my pseudo-aerials as shots looking down at a small static scene, I turned it upside down to show an example shooting up at my sunroof at a dynamic scene. I wanted to emphasize that the original orientation and details don’t matter. What matters is if the final result will be accepted as an abstract aerial shot. To me this does.

I like pushing the boundaries of the medium. This technique to eliminate scale seems to me to be a rich area for exploration. I intend to pursue it a lot more.

What do you think?

Directing the Eye

A lovely cascade in the mountains. But with a hidden figure.

Directing the eye is a hot topic with photographers and workshop leaders. Even some psychology researchers. It involves understanding the psychology of how viewers look at an image and techniques to encourage them to look at it the way we want.


There are certain principles of perception that seem to have a lot of agreement. By understanding the principles, we can use them as tools to increase the probability that people will spend the time to look at our images.

Understand that these are characteristics common to a lot of people, not hard and fast rules. 2 + 2 = 4 is a rule. Not every individual in every situation follows a principle like “the eye is drawn to the brightest region”. Usually, but not always. So while learning and applying these understandings we increase the chance of people relating to our work, we can’t guarantee it.

Brightness and contrast

We are drawn to bright areas and we are drawn to areas of high contrast. Use this to draw people to the area of your image you are particularly interested in them seeing.

Since we tend to look more at light areas and less at dark ones, that is why vignetting is commonly used to “push” the eye away from the edges of an image and into the interior.

The lighting wasn’t right to give the effect you wanted at capture time? So what? That is what post-processing is for. Don’t be afraid to change the lighting and contrasts for the effect you want. If you do it skillfully, no one will know. If you don’t… well, it’s a learning experience.

Color and saturation

Color also effects how we look at an image. Highly saturated colors attract us. Even normally saturated colors are seen differently. Warm tones seem to advance. Cool tones seem to recede. Placing warm tones next to cool tones gives a subtle 3D effect. This is why at concerts or plays you often see warm light on one side of a performer and cool light on the other. It gives them more shape.

Spots of color attract the eye, too. If a scene has fairly even pastel or monochrome tones with a few small areas of a brighter color, we are drawn to those colorful areas.


Our eye is a marvelous pattern matching engine. We try to make connections whenever we can. Check out Gestalt Psychology for much more information. So lines, especially diagonal ones, tend to lead the eye to find something interesting the line is leading to. We are actually disappointed when we are fooled and the line didn’t mean anything.

Wide angle lenses are sometimes used to accentuate this effect by exaggerating diagonal lines and bending them. It is difficult to shoot some scenes wide without introducing diagonals. Make sure to not disappoint the viewer. Provide a target to reward them for following the diagonal.

Faces and words

Human figures, especially faces have a high visual weight. We are designed to recognize faces and we have a high interest in them. If there is a face, or part of a face, or even an eye in an image that will be one of the first things a viewer is drawn to. A face trumps most other elements of a picture.

Likewise with words. We recognize words as information. We’re conditioned to read them. I think it is fascinating that we are drawn to them even if we do not understand the language. Besides, by it’s nature, characters making up words are fairly sharp edged and high contrast. We have already seen that viewers are drawn to high contrast areas.

Since faces and words are so powerful, we have to be careful with them. Having a person walking through the background or a sign off to the side can destroy your composition intent. Or they can make it if you use them well. The point is, you have to be very aware of them and what they will do to your image.

Depth of Field

A simple attention focusing technique is to use a shallow depth of field ( a small aperture number such as f/2.8). We are drawn to sharp areas and tend to ignore blurry ones. A shallow depth of field tells the viewer to pay attention to the slice of the image that is sharp.

This is a excellent trick to eliminate the complexity of busy scenes.


These eye catching techniques are means we can use to help make the viewer look at our image the way we want. Many photographers seem to obsess about eye paths through an image.

Eye tracking studies have been done, where subjects are instrumented with devices that can determine what their eyes are looking at at any moment. These studies produce maps, sometimes called “heat maps’, of the viewing patterns.

This used to be done a lot for web sites. After all, companies spend a lot of money producing their sites and they want to know if customers are seeing what they want them to see. Eye tracking has also been used to instrument image viewing. Researchers are interested in the order in which viewers see things, what they spend the most time on, and what path they use to scan over the image. Much of the information I presented above comes from studies like these.

This says that techniques can be used to direct viewers to parts of the image we want them to see. Maybe we can even encourage them to scan the image in a certain order.

Why direct the eye?

We’ve looked at some of the principles and techniques that can be used to direct viewer’s eyes. But why are some of us keen to do this? There must be a reason.

A photograph captures everything in the field of view of the camera when the frame was exposed. This can lead to a complex, even chaotic image. There can be many things competing for the viewer’s attention.

Sometimes the photographer feels the need to help out by saying “here is what I want you to pay the most attention to.” Eye directing techniques are good for this. This is a good use of the techniques.

Something else I see, though, I feel is unfortunate. We live in a short attention span world and we tend to accept that as a universal truth. It is said that people only glance at an image for less than a second online, unless it really grabs them. So photographers think they better use all the tricks they can to let their potential viewers grasp the image in 1 second.

Therefore there is a belief by many that we must make our images absolutely clear and unambiguous and immediately graspable. After all, if we only have 1 second, we better package the information clearly. Maybe that is the case if your world revolves around the ephemeral whims of social media.

I fear this makes images shallow and boring and is a self fulfilling prophecy. Images have less depth so viewers dismiss them more quickly.

Introducing mystery

I follow a different path. Most of my work is intended to be viewed as prints. The relationship between prints and the viewer is a little different. If someone is walking through a gallery viewing prints, they are likely to spend a little more time contemplating each one.

While I occasionally do work that is very clear and unambiguous, even minimalist, I often do the opposite. Sometimes I enjoy presenting images that are rich in content, that I want viewers to spend time looking at and discovering new things.

I occasionally even misdirect attention from a subtle interest I hope the viewer discovers. Not to be mean or devious, but to reward viewers, to give them a joy of discovery for exploring more carefully.

The image with this post is an extreme example. The eye is immediately drawn to the lower left side. That is where the brightest area is and the presence of the high contrast branch silhouette insures it. There is interest there and I hope people like it. But after you’ve explored that and you follow the cascade up to the top right corner you might discover there is a plaintive, maybe melancholy figure under the water. It is not a face, but you see it as a face. There is a moment of recognition that reignites interest and it raises questions, I hope.

What do you think?