Category Archives: Ideas

Art, Photography, and “Manipulation”

Creosote Bush, Dunes, Morning
A creosote bush among sand dunes, morning

Imagining that a photograph that is “straight out of camera” is better than one that has been “manipulated” in post is equivalent to imagining that the words coming straight out of one’s mouth are better than those resulting from careful and thoughtful editing.

While there is an art to extemporaneous expression, there is at least as much art in carefully crafted work. Continuing to refine and perfect the content and its expression is not remotely unethical. The objective is to produce a pure, clear, concise, more powerful and direct expression of the artist’s truth.

This is true of essentially every mode of human expression: painting, sculpture, movie-making, writing, music, and on and on. Even the seemingly extemporaneous expressions (jazz, etc) are the result of long preparation and practice and planning and are ultimately not simply things that happen in the moment.

It is nonsensical to imagine that photography should be the one art that eschews careful refinement and thought and the distillation and perfection of expression that can make it truer and more powerful.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Photographs and Reality: A Complicated Relationship

Over the past few weeks the arguments about “photoshopping” and “manipulation” have again come to the fore, this time as the result of the so-called “scandal” around alterations to some photographs by Steve McCurry. The discussions have evolved in all sorts of ways — as they typically do — some of which I regard as unfortunate: pronouncements about which techniques are “ethical” or “unethical,” declarations that photographs must be “true,” the usual stuff about “getting it right in the camera,” and more. In my view, much of this is naive and unrealistic.

Sierra Nevada Trees And Granite
Sierra Nevada Trees And Granite

At the heart of the issue are some problematic notions, including the following.

  • The camera sees accurately, and any modification of what comes out of the camera subverts the camera’s truth. Some assume that the way the machine “sees” is more accurate than the way our eyes and brains see, and that it is the preferred mode of seeing. There are huge problems with this assumption, beginning with the fact that people and cameras see in very different ways. (I’m more interested in how people see.) The eyes scan a scene, adapting to localized elements of the subject, and the full image never exists aside from a kind of mental abstraction of it. The camera non-selectively records light levels from the entire scene at one instant, all with the same “settings.” There’s much more to this, and the subject is far too big to fully deal with here. Suffice it to say that your eyes/brain are not a camera, and this makes a very big difference.
  • Modifying photographs in post-production (or  “post”) makes them less honest and accurate. Some think that modifying what comes from the camera is dishonest. In fact, if the way that humans see is our model for accurate seeing, as I believe it should be, the way the camera sees is often quite inaccurate. (Who sees in black and white or telephoto or with tilt/shift adjustments or with colored filters or constrained to rectangles?) In order to render an image that is more faithful to the way humans see, it is often necessary to massage the image that comes from the camera.
  • The use of techniques for “manipulating” or “photoshopping” photographs is unethical. Some take the position that “manipulating” images is wrong, but it seems absurd to make such a blanket statement. If your photograph was slightly underexposed, how is it unethical to increase the brightness in post so that it looks exactly as it would have looked with a slightly longer exposure? How can it be OK to use a telephoto lens but not OK to crop in post? Why would it be OK to use a tilt/shift lens but not to adjust perspective lines in post? Are the “rules” the same for photojournalism and for photographic abstractions?

People often want to see this set of issues as a binary, where things are either right or wrong, but it is nothing like that at all.

Before I offer an example, I would like you to try an exercise — and doing it and considering the results is very important for understanding what follows. Go look at some subject in the bright sun that includes some shadows. As you do, look at the brightest areas in the scene, and consider whether you can see any details, however faint, in those brightest areas. You should be able to. Now shift your gaze to a shaded area. You should be able to see some detail there, too. (Your pupils likely closed down a bit when you looked at the bright area — in photographic terms, you used a smaller aperture — and they likely opened up a bit when you looked at the shadow area.)

This presents a classic photographic problem. Virtually no digital camera and no film can handle the widest dynamic ranges of common scenes that we photograph. Producing a realistic photograph of such scenes requires “manipulation,” and without it the scene will not correspond at all to what we see.  Continue reading Photographs and Reality: A Complicated Relationship

Morning Musings: Canon and Mirrorless Cameras

(It has been a while since I’ve written a “morning musings” post, but since I’ve been “musing” about Canon and mirrorless cameras over the past few days and learning a few things about the subject, it seems like time for another such post.)

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past few years you are aware of the introduction of so-called mirrorless cameras by several manufacturers and of the increasing sophistication of these cameras. Their features typically include:

  • smaller and lighter bodies that may be reminiscent of older rangefinder film cameras.
  • the ability to allow use of smaller lens designs, due to the shorter distance between the lens mount and the sensor.
  • electronic viewfinders (EVFs) that can incorporate additional useful tools and information into the viewfinder display and which have advantages in low light.
  • designs and features that increasingly appeal to serious photographers.

There are still issues with these cameras, and while much progress has been made and will continue, they still lag behind DSLRs is some areas:

  • battery consumption rates tend to be quite high by comparison to DSLRs.
  • AF performance is uneven and in some cases quite slow.
  • EVFs have latency issues.
  • Not everyone is fond of looking at an EVF monitor instead of the “real” image on focusing screen.
  • With some systems (notably Sony) using a wide range of lenses will likely require the use of third-party adapters.

I’ve been using a Fujifilm X-trans mirrorless system for my travel and street photography for nearly three years. (Mine is a discontinued model, but if I were buying today I would get the Fujifilm XT1 or perhaps the Fujifilm XT10.) Virtually all of my street/travel photographs of the past two years were made with my Fujifilm camera and lenses.  For this photography, the small size and excellent quality of the system compensates for the slower AF speeds and the battery consumption issues.

More recently the Sony A7r and A7rII cameras have gotten a lot of attention. When first introduced, the A7r came with the highest MP full frame sensor then available. The cameras can use (with varying degrees of compatibility and functionality) a wide range of non-Sony lenses, and they have a number of the other pluses associated with mirrorless designs. Several landscape photographer friends use the A7r and A7rII bodies for their tripod-based, manual focus photography, and I know several street/travel photographers who like the system a lot.

Sony and Fujifilm are not the only companies moving in this direction. For example, Olympus and others produce some very fine small mirrorless cameras.

All of which leads to the question: “Where is Canon’s mirrorless offering?” (Or, “Is the EOS-M the best Canon can do?”) Continue reading Morning Musings: Canon and Mirrorless Cameras

About That Free Use Thing…

Anyone doing work in a creative medium has had a conversation like one that someone I know just told me about. A person, perhaps a friend or acquaintance or possibly someone with a “cause” that is interesting and worthy, asks to use a photograph for free “just for my own personal use, and maybe to share with a few friends. I’d like to print up some cards and use it on my website. Just send me a high res file…”


This is one of the toughest requests to deal with, especially when it comes from a friend or valued acquaintance. The request seems so innocent, especially when it comes from people we know and especially when they are generally well-meaning. In fact,  they often regard their interest in our work as a compliment. And it is a compliment on some level, and artists do appreciate it when others are moved by their work and are willing to say so.

(In truth, there are occasions when it is appropriate to ask, and there are some when which it is appropriate for us to say “yes.”)

From the perspective of the person making the request, it probably feels something like this:

I love your beautiful work! It moves me and I would like to share it! It is so beautiful that I would like to use it for my [insert proposed use here]. I want others to see your work. Can you send me a copy of the image that I can use? A high resolution file would be great! It will just be for “personal use” (broadly defined… ;-), so can I use it for free?

Here is what the artist hears:

I love your work! It moves me and means the world to me! It is wonderful and powerful and beautiful! But it isn’t worth anything and I think you should give it to me for free! And because I know you, I think you’ll feel obligated. Continue reading About That Free Use Thing…

Gray Areas

This post derives from something I wrote elsewhere in a discussion about a photograph that included something that wasn’t originally in the scene, a discussion that became rather polarized. 

“Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.” 
― Ansel Adams

Imaginary Landscape - Death Valley
An imaginary landscape derived from subjects photographed in Death Valley National Park.

All photographs lie. But all photographs carry a burden of reality.

Except for photographers who overtly and obviously manipulate reality in major ways as a central concept of their work — see Jerry Uelsmann, for example, or some work by John Paul Caponigro, among others — viewers come to photographs believing that the images had their genesis in the real. Photographers can respond to this basic presumption in photography in a number of ways, and perhaps in landscape photography the response has even more implications.

Let’s say you are Caponigro or Uelsmann and a major point of your photography is to produce visual art that derives from and references the landscape but then combines it with non-landscape elements or takes those elements and fundamentally rearranges them so that they intentionally no longer can be taken to represent the real landscape. These photographers openly embrace and build their work on creating imaginary fantastical worlds out of materials derived from the real landscape, creating what I refer to as “imaginary landscapes.” The photographer and the viewer are on exactly the same page here – both accept and embrace the fantasy and the sometimes more ambiguous line between the real and the imagined. This work seems completely honest and genuine.

On the other hand, let’s say you are a photographer who builds and bases a reputation not on the creation of visual fantasies — things we all know are not and cannot be real — but instead on going to great lengths to travel to “special places,” often telling stories of finding special places and special conditions that less focused and dedicated photographers do not find. Continue reading Gray Areas

DSLR & Mirrorless: Flexibility and Adaptability

(Note: This is one of those occasional posts adapted from something I originally wrote elsewhere. This one came from an online discussion of the relative merits of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras and their abilities to work with various lenses and photographic subjects. I have edited the original slightly for its re-use here.)

With all of the recent (justifiable!) interest in new mirrorless camera developments from Sony, there are factors that may persuade some photographers to go slow on giving up DSLRs for mirrorless. (It may also convince them to do what I did — I augmented my DSLR system with a second mirrorless system.) As good as mirrorless cameras are becoming, in particular the full frame Sony A7r and newer A7rII, they have their pluses and minuses when it comes to real-world photography. They can do some things quite well – there are advantages in some cases to the electronic viewfinders, Sony sensors provide state-of-the-art dynamic range, the bodies are compact, and more. They do some things less well — native lenses are few, other lenses require adapters, the autofocus systems are slower than DSLRs, there are still latency issues with the viewfinders, and so on.)

In this context, I recently realized that one of the nice things about the new Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II Lens and the newer Canon bodies (like my 5Ds R, which is very similar to the 5Ds)  is that they now autofocus (AF) quite well at f/8. The 100-400 len’s maximum f/5.6 aperture at the long end is no longer a barrier to getting 560mm out of the lens by adding the TC.

I’ve only tried the combination on one occasion so far, when the opportunity to photograph wildlife came up on a recent photography venture along the California coast. I put the 100-400 version II and the Canon 1.4x TC on my 5DsR and photographed two wildlife subjects, elephant seals lounging on a beach and pelicans doing everything from flying past to landing to sitting still. (For those who want more information than I can provide here, I wrote about the initial results in a another article.)

While I do not recommend that people whose primary photographic focus is birds in flight rush out and get a 5Ds or 5Ds R, a 100-400 v2, and a 1.4x TC as their primary setup, it does work decently and in some cases extremely well.  Most importantly, it means that my primary landscape photography setup and can also work very effectively with non-landscape subjects, including wildlife — a task that will severely challenge the best current mirrorless options.

The Landing
A brown pelican joins the flock on a rock along the Pacific coast of California

The combination focuses well and provides good resolution, even with moving subjects — though, obviously, not as well as using something like a 1Dx with a 300mm f/2.8 prime. It is good enough that I can track birds in flight and catch sharp photographs of them in motion. Continue reading DSLR & Mirrorless: Flexibility and Adaptability

Landscape Not-Photography

It is no secret that I’m pretty serious about my landscape photography. I spend a lot of time going to interesting places, searching out subjects, and making photographs. In fact, this activity is undoubtedly the single biggest influence on the nature of my outdoor experiences.

Subalpine Meadow, Summer
Midday summer sky reflected in a subalpine tarn, Yosemite National Park

I embrace this effect and regard it as highly positive. I’m convinced that photography deepens my appreciation and understanding of these places and subjects. Like every photographer I know who shares my passion for these subjects, entering the natural world to make photographs focuses my perceptions in powerful ways. I slow down. I stop. I look. I ponder. I wonder. I indulge my curiosity and I see things that I would otherwise miss. I’m intensely aware of light, color, atmosphere, form, and subject.

But sometimes the photography gets in the way… Continue reading Landscape Not-Photography