Tag Archives: photo

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

A Selfie

A Selfie
A group of tourists captures a selfie on the run

A Selfie. New York City. December 26, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A group of tourists captures a selfie on the run

A free hour or a bit more, so we took a quick walk out on the Brooklyn Bridge on a cold and windy day that was trying to rain — to join the surprising number of other people with just the same illogical idea. This bridge is a great place from which to watch many things: boats on the east river, the buildings of Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn waterfront, the bridge itself and, of course, the people walking past by the hundreds or thousands.

The people provide a lot of photographic possibilities, but those possibilities come and go quickly. Our of an amorphous crowd so thick that I can’t see ten feet ahead of me, an interesting subject might suddenly appear. Of someone might do something surprising and interesting, but only for a brief moment. And then there are the selfies… It is no news that they have become a “thing.” The camera/phone is held at a high angle pointing down, and the subjects’ faces are almost invariably tilted up. Participants in the ritual usually lean their heads together and tilt them to one side. And then there is that smile — I wonder sometimes what it is supposed to be: a bit edgy/wry and highly posed. A moment before this group was simply walking towards me like all the other groups, but suddenly a phone came out, the arm went up, the heads turned, and there it was.


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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All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Merced River, Branches, El Capitan

Merced River Reflections
Merced River Reflections

Merced River Reflections. Yosemite Valley, California. November 30, 2005. © Copyright 2005 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Branches in the still water of the Merced River with floating autumn leaves and the reflection of El Capitan, Yosemite Valley.

This photograph is almost a bit of an optical trick. I’ll let you look for a second and figure it out…

… Does it make sense now? The foreground is composed of some intertwining dead branches just above the surface of a very still section of the quiet, late autumn Merced River in Yosemite Valley. The leaves floating on and just beneath the surface of the water give it away. Because there are so many branches, their dark reflections seem, to me at least, to almost merge with the shapes of the actual branches, creating a complex pattern. And, reflected in the surface of the water and appearing as a backdrop to these elements, is the sunlit face of El Capitan.

I would love to tell a great story about making this photograph… but I don’t remember making it! I discovered it only recently while reviewing all of my old raw files, and all I can say for sure is that I made it on one of my annual late October trips to The Valley to photograph the fall colors. For those who follow the technical stuff, I made this photograph with some pretty low-level gear back at a time when I was experimenting with my first DSLR. The camera was the very humble (but better than some think, at least for this sort of thing!) Canon Digital Rebel XT, an early 8 MP body. Even more humble was the lens, the not so swell EFS 17-85mm Canon lens.

(Note: This was originally posted on September 21, 2011. I’m moving this photograph back up on the home page today as this is a new revision of the original photograph — the date of the revision is December 26, 2014)


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Online Gallery Update

My web presence has long included this blog and a separate online gallery housing a large archive of photographs — perhaps about 3000 of them at last count. Earlier this week the gallery had a technical issue that snowballed and eventually took that gallery completely offline.

During the past few days I have spent way to many hours trying to get the gallery working again, and I have (mostly) succeeded at this point. A new version of the gallery now holds essentially all of the photographs that were at the old gallery. The format is a bit different, though the underlying organization of the images is similar. At this point, the titles of photographs do not display correctly, and you’ll see file names where there used to be titles. This is fixable, but not right away.

If you tried to find the old gallery and couldn’t, thanks for your patience. If you haven’t seen the gallery, feel free to wander over there and take look!


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Photo Rumors — A Cautionary Tale (Morning Musings 102/14)

Rumors are so much fun! Whether you are interested in cars, computer, smartphones, movies, books, or photography gear, there is a good chance that certain hints and rumors may grab your attention and perhaps get you thinking about “what if.” However — and this shouldn’t be news to anyone! — rumors are not news, at least not in most cases, a fact that can get lost as they get picked up, repeated, commented upon, and so forth until they acquire a veneer of believability that may be inappropriate.

If you are interested in the fascinating sub-species of photography equipment rumors, you might enjoy a recent article (“News! 46MP Megapixel Canon 1DsX DSLR About to Be Announced!!! Or the Anatomy of a Rumor”) that unravels the process by which a very (very!) dubious “report” got amplified and repeated until it was regarded as a likely fact.

(For those who don’t follow links, a short version of the conclusion: The “rumor” appears to have been entirely in the mind of one “imaginative” person until it was spread by people who perhaps should have known better.)

Morning Musings are somewhat irregular posts in which I write about whatever is on my mind at the moment — connections to photography may be tenuous at times!


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

What’s With the Daily Photographs? (Morning Musings 9/28/14)

Mo's Cloud
Mo’s Cloud. Sierra wave cloud over the Long Valley California. May 28, 2005. © 2008 Copyright G Dan Mitchell — all rights reserved. (posted on my blog in July 2005)

Owens Valley near Mammoth, California. May 28, 2005. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved..

It occurs to me that many people are probably aware that I post a new photograph every day — but that few know how long I’ve been doing this nor my reasons for this seemingly obsessive task. Today I’m sharing a bit of the back story.

I’ve been building and operating websites since about 1995.  I’ll skip over a bunch of other interesting (to me) steps in the previous millennium and my first adventures with weblogs (now known as “blogs”) in the 1990s — though this could be a story for another day. Early on I created a blog about backpacking and other outdoor subjects called “Dan’s Outside,” and it gradually came to hold more and more photographs. At some point — likely around the time I acquired my first DSLR in the early 2000s — the photographs began to be the primary focus, and in 2005 I created a photography blog. The photograph at the top of this post was one of the earliest I shared, back in July of 2005.

Although I have not kept careful records, it looks like the daily photograph posts probably began to appear about a month later in August 2005, and they have continued mostly without a break since that time. That’s a lot of photographs! I haven’t actually counted, but it must be getting close to 3000 or more.

It would be reasonable to ask why I have done this. Continue reading What’s With the Daily Photographs? (Morning Musings 9/28/14)

Print Review (Morning Musings for 8/19/14)

We are very fortunate to be part of a small group of photographers and friends who gather every six weeks or so in one of our homes for an informal print review. Each of the photographers is talented and expressive, and while our stylistic and subject preferences overlap, each has a unique style and photographic “voice.”

Print reviews, especially when the participants comprise a group of very talented and perceptive photographers who are also friends, are very, very useful. They tend to force me to switch out of the regular ongoing “flow” of making a lot of photographs, and towards a more directed task of choosing work worthy of showing and then making decent prints of the work. This switch is another element of the “discipline” component of photography. Even more important, I hear diverse responses to the work, which range from the purely emotional (very important) to technical observations (also important).

It is interesting to see the range of responses — sometimes they are pretty much what I expected based on my own relationship to the images, but at other times I’m surprised. I had two of those surprises last night, and each of them came in the case of sets of related prints that I shared. One was a small group of three street photographs from my recent visit to New York City, photographs of dense and busy spaces that feature intense and wild color palettes. I had originally preferred one of the images to the others, but was beginning to gravitate to a second one in the set that included many more people. To my surprise, the group responded most strongly to the third, and their reactions to it made me reconsider my own feelings about the images in several ways.

The second group of photographs included five high-key black and white photographs, all of which belong to minimalist thread in my work that is about luminous atmosphere, usually from fog, that is so brightly lit by sun that it almost hurts to look into the scene. In order to get prints to somehow suggest that quality, I push the luminosity levels up about as far as possible, and the resulting images are somewhat minimal and often contain large areas of gentle tonal gradation. Among the five I shared were four that I made in California’s Central Valley. One of these is truly minimal, with a nearly invisible and diffuse horizon dividing an extremely luminous foggy sky from its reflection in still water below, and the only clear details are a few scattered birds in the water. I had almost chosen to not include this print, thinking that it might just be too minimal for other viewers. Much to my surprise, and without any prodding from me, the group preferred this image over the others. Live and learn!

Finally, it is a wonderful and useful discipline to hear my work critiqued and mostly adopt a learner’s attitude about what I hear. It is in my nature to try to persuade others of my point of view, but that is usually (but not quite always) the least useful way to deal with critique. The best and most useful thing is to hear and understand what others are seeing in the work, and to a consider it even if it doesn’t mesh with my own perspective. In the end, I can choose to accept or not what I hear, but hearing it is incredibly useful and important.

If you are fortunate enough to have perceptive, knowledgable, sympathetic photographer friends, I urge you to try to get together and try this, and to stick with it long enough to allow the process and the relationships to grow. (And thanks to any of you in the group who are reading this!)

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.