FAQ: "Is This Photoshopped?"

June 24, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

One of the questions that just about any photographer hears while exhibiting at an art festival is something to the effect of: "Is this Photoshopped?" It's an understandable question in today's digital age, but for me it's not actually an easy question to answer succinctly. Simply saying "No" isn't accurate, because I do digitally edit my photos (technically I use Lightroom for this, but I assume the viewer is using "Photoshop" to mean any kind of digital editing).  But saying "Yes" leaves the impression that the "wow" factor of my images is just created on the computer; that couldn't be further from the truth.  

In most cases I think (or at least I hope!) what the patron is really asking is how I achieved that "wow" factor - the vivid color and rich dimensionality that is typical of my work.  The shortest accurate answer I can give is that it's a combination of factors. In order of importance they are:

  1. Seeking/scoping/waiting for the right lighting and weather conditions to add drama or emotion to the scene.
  2. Utilizing filters in the field to enhance color and balance otherwise difficult exposures.
  3. Choosing the right settings in the field to emphasize the most important part of the scene.
  4. Digital editing to balance light/color/contrast.
  5. Choice of print substrate to best present the work.

I'll go into each of these in a bit more detail below.  Note that this information is specific to my particular work; other photographers will use different recipes and it's all perfectly valid - that's how we all get our unique styles!

1.  Lighting & Weather

LIGHT IS EVERYTHING in photography.  If photography were cooking, light would be the main ingredient - and you can't whip up a five-star dish with shoddy ingredients.  "Good" lighting - a pleasing tone, temperature, and intensity of light striking the scene at the right angle - enhances both color and shadow definition that helps the viewer perceive depth within the scene.  For example, although the cloudy sky is interesting, observe the dark, somewhat flattish look/feel of the Tetons captured in midday light on first photo below. Now compare that to the look of warm early morning light in the second photo. Notice how areas of light and shadow define the rugged relief of the peaks, and the warmer tone of light brightens the grass and foliage. (Note that this isn't the best example, but since I don't usually click the shutter when the light is poor, it was the best I could find right now!)

Tetons and TreesTetons and Trees    Autumn GrazingAutumn Grazing

The angle and quality of natural sunlight is affected by time of day and by season; I generally do a significant amount of research and scouting for any given location to determine the right time of day and time of year to shoot there. That much I can control but from there, it's a waiting game.  Rarely I might get lucky on a first visit, but more often I may spend days or even weeks waiting for the right weather conditions to match my vision. Flat gray skies produce equally flat scenes. Textured clouds can add interest to daytime shots and are the foundation of a good sunrise/sunset scene, but would hinder night sky or aurora photography.  Stormy skies may obscure a scene but often provide drama that transforms it.  Sometimes - often, even - the conditions don't line up the way I want them to, and I go home empty-handed <cough>aurora</cough> and have to try again in a future trip. It is however that very unpredictability that makes it such an addictive rush when things work out to get the shot!

2.  Filters

PolarizerPolarizerA Circular Polarizing Filter in action. Notice how the filter cuts glare from the foliage and appears to intensify the colors of leaves and sky.

I borrow filtering techniques commonly used in film photography to improve the quality of the image I'm capturing in the field, so that I don't have much work later on the computer. First and foremost, I use a Circular Polarizing (CPL) filter on most daytime shots. CPLs cut glare, which can drastically deepen colors and improve contrast. You can see this effect for yourself by wearing a pair of polarizing sunglasses outside. Tilt your head from side to side and pay attention to how  changing the angle of the lenses alters what you're seeing. The polarizer effect would be difficult if not impossible to adequately simulate in post processing.

GND FilterGND FilterA Graduated Neutral Density Filter. See how the glass is dark on top, fading to clear at the bottom. This allows me to darken the sky relative to the foreground. The other category of filter that I use extensively is called a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter. This is a piece of glass that is dark on top fading to clear on the bottom. I use these filters to compensate for the fact that typically the sky is brighter than the foreground, especially around sunrise/sunset or when shooting reflections in water. By lining up the darker top of the filter over the sky with the clear bottom of the filter over the foreground, I darken only the sky, which perceptually intensifies its color without affecting the foreground.

I often stack multiple GND filters to increase the effect. In this way I can capture the scene in a single exposure rather than having to blend multiple shots on the computer.  It's not perfect - for example in my popular Teton Sunrise shot below, I had to stack two filters because the sky was so bright.  One of these was a "hard" filter - where the dark to light transition is abrupt, and because of that you can actually see the darker line on the Tetons between the sunlit peaks and the cloud where the dark part of the filter lies.  But, I still prefer using filters in the field (however imperfect) over digital blending.  

Use of multiple GND filters darkens the shadowed top of the peaks, but allows the sunlit tops and sky to pop without washing out in a single exposure.

While the word "neutral" implies that these graduated neutral density filters don't affect color, I find that in reality some cheaper brands seem to only filter that part of the spectrum visible to the human eye, while allowing more infrared or ultraviolet light through. Our eyes don't see those frequencies, but the camera sensor can (there's an internal filter over the sensor to diminish this effect but it still allows a little bit of IR/UV through). Over a long exposure, this can mean the part of the image darkened by the filter can also see a more reddish/purplish color shift compared to the rest of the image. While this effect is normally undesirable, I'll use it to my advantage during a sunrise or sunset shot to accentuate the color already there, as in the Teton Sunrise shot above.  I'll use a more expensive and truly neutral filter at other times of day to avoid color shift.

3.  Camera Settings

In a landscape session, I never shoot in Automatic mode; I don't want the camera choosing my settings for me. I shoot in Manual mode so that I can precisely control exposure, and I expose for the most important part of the scene. For example, in one of my most dramatic images Cuernos Del Paine Sunrise, the most important part of the scene is the dramatic sky and sunrise light hitting the peaks. I therefore chose to purposefully underexpose (compared to what the camera would have chosen), knowing that while I'd lose all detail in the non-snowy, unlit bottom of the mountains (which I didn't care about), underexposing would intensify the colors in the sky and the water (which I cared about immensely).  Here of course the neutral density filters are also in play - I almost always use them for sunrise/sunset shoots.

Cuernos Del Paine SunriseCuernos Del Paine Sunrise

4. Digital Editing

By now hopefully you're seeing the trend that I vastly prefer spending time in the field over time on the computer. If I do all that work to "get it right" in the field, why must I still do digital editing? Well, it's because digital images are nothing more than a set of 1's or 0's captured by the camera sensor, and those values have to be altered/translated somehow into a format that we can view on a computer or print into physical form.  Essentially this means that ALL digital photos are edited. That's right, ALL of them. If someone shows you a picture they say is "unedited - straight out of the camera", what that actually means is that the camera provided the translation instructions rather than the photographer. This is how you get the preview image that you see on your camera's screen (or on your cell phone) - the camera/phone translates color and contrast information using a set of standard algorithms.  This is often a good starting point, and I begin my process by having Lightroom apply an algorithm that approximates my in-camera translation for landscape photos. From there I will fine-tune the results..

In reality, even film photography relies on a type of translation from camera to viewer; but in film the parameters of that translation are determined by the type of film you use.  One of my photograper/adventurer inspirations, the late Galen Rowell, favored Fuji Velvia film which is known for rich saturated color and high contrast - perfect for landscape work.  While editing I therefore adjust white balance, color balance, saturation and contrast to approximate the look of a photo shot with Velvia film. Selectively adjusting contrast in the midtones and shadows also further improves those visual depth cues that we get from good light, bringing more dimensionality to the scene.  Here are a few examples that show the before/after side by side:

Additionally I may crop an image, or I may stitch several side-by-side pictures into a panorama for larger print resolution.  If there is a dust spot, stray twig, etc. in the frame I will use the spot removal tool to clone it out.  I don't composite images or do anything that requires layers. I used to use Photoshop for panoramic stitches, but now that functionality has been added to Lightroom and that's pretty much all I use. 

Finally, screens also handle color differently than any given printer, so yet another software-assisted translation must be applied to ensure that print results will be consistent.  This process is called "soft proofing" and involves balancing the color on a calibrated monitor to ensure that the entire color range will print correctly.

Though this may all sound complex, if I've done my job in the field it takes very minimal time.  I typically spend less than 10 minutes editing any given photo to prepare it for print.

5.  Print Substrate

Finally, having done all that work to create a great photograph, I want to show it off in its best possible presentation. Because my work showcases light and the landscape scenes contain so much detail, I currently favor metal prints with a high-gloss finish.  The texture of canvas and many fine art papers has a tendency to eat ambient light and also competes with the visible detail in the print, whereas the smooth surface of metal leaves reflects light beautifully - almost as though the light is coming from within the picture itself - and leaves all that detail intact.  For a more traditional paper print, I use a smooth metallic paper. While it is not quite as vivid as a metal print, the metallic paper does provide better luminescence than traditional pebbled or rag papers.  These are the types of prints you'll see in my booth, but I do offer different finishes as well as canvas or acrylic prints to suit any tastes or décor.

So, there you have it - the long-winded but more accurate explanation of how I put the "wow" into my photos.  If you have any questions let me know in the comments!


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In this blog I'll be sharing my photography-related thoughts & recommendations, stories behind new work, and answers to some of the FAQ's I hear at my exhibits.  If there's any particular topic you'd like to see me address, please feel free to contact me!  
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