Tag Archives: post

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

Bargains of Chinatown

Bargains of Chinatown
Night photograph of a closed Chinatown shop, San Francisco

Bargains of Chinatown. San Francisco, California. September 5, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Night photograph of a closed Chinatown shop, San Francisco

In early September I again joined a group of folks who like to photograph San Francisco urban and street subjects after dark. Most of the group met before sunset, did a bit of street photography, joined for dinner at a place along the edge of Chinatown, and then headed out for a couple of hours of photographing in the urban nightscape. Once again we passed through Chinatown — hard to resist when we were already there! — and on down into areas closer to Market Street.

Late in the evening it was time for me to head back to my car, so I said good-bye to the rest of the group and headed back the way I had come, walking alone this time. It was now much later, and this area pretty much shuts down — surprisingly so for a Saturday night in The City. But this meant that the earlier crowds were gone and the scene was a lot quieter and slower. When I passed this corner earlier the shop was open and there were quite a few people around, but now the shutters were closed and the green light washed over the urban landscape of sidewalks and steps leading up toward a dark alley. After years of doing night photography the “old way” — tripod and long exposures — I’m still amazed that I can wander out and shoot stuff like this using a small handheld camera these days.


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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Controlling Highlights (A Napkin Drawing)

Earlier this month some friends and I got together in San Francisco, as we do every month, to share prints and talk photography. One friend shared prints of some beautiful night photographs he had made of a San Francisco subject. As we looked for little things that could make excellent prints even better we got to talking about highlights and how to control them. There are quite a few ways to do this, and I drew a little picture on a napkin to illustrate one technique I sometimes use to get a bit more detail out of areas that appear to be nearly pure white. The drawing looked a lot like the following.

Drawing on a napkin

It doesn’t look like much here, but trust me when I say that it made sense at the time. My friend picked up the napkin and took it with him as a reminder… and then a few days later contacted me to say he had lost the “napkin notes” from our conversation. He asked if I would mind describing the technique again. I said I’d do it — and three weeks later I finally got around to writing it up in this article!

Photographers using digital cameras have to watch out for over-exposing highlights. While we can recover a lot of detail from dark shadows, especially with current digital cameras, there is much less headroom at the bright end of the spectrum. When the exposure is too bright it is easy to end up with lost details in high luminosity areas. Go a little too far and you end up with that bane of digital photography, blown highlights, where the bright areas are simply pure white, leaving little or no hope of recovering the lost details. Continue reading Controlling Highlights (A Napkin Drawing)

Sharpening Basics: A Primer

Sharpening is a very important step for optimizing digital photograph files. If you let your camera save images in the common .jpg format (a compressed image format that is often used on the web) the camera is applying sharpening to the image produced by the camera sensor. If you use the raw format (a high quality format that retains the original sensor data of the exposure) you will find that the photograph looks soft until you apply sharpening during the post production phase.

Sharpening optimizes the visibility of details that are already in your photograph. It is a matter of more clearly revealing what is in the photograph than  a matter of creating detail where there was none. Most sharpening works by increasing the contrast between light and dark areas in the image — that’s right, what we call sharpening (which makes sense subjectively) as actually more about adjusting the brightness of portions of the photograph.

Typical sharpening

The image above is an example of a small section of a photograph.[1] It is a “100% magnification crop” of a tiny area from a much larger photograph made with a high megapixel DSLR camera. A “100% magnification crop” is an image displayed so that each pixel — or individual picture element — of the original photograph is displayed using a single pixel on the screen. (Things are a bit more complicated than that when using modern high-resolution monitors, though I’ll let that description stand for now.) 100% magnification crops let us look very closely at what is going on in photographas “at the pixel level.” In this case, the original full image from which these examples were taken would be equivalent to prints at a width of roughly 10-12 feet.

The right side of the example shows this tiny section of the photograph before sharpening. The left side shows the results of fairly typical sharpening. Continue reading Sharpening Basics: A Primer

A Photograph Exposed: Technique and Interpretation in Post

(“A Photograph Exposed”  is a series exploring some of my photographs in greater detail.)

Island and Trees, Tuolumne River
Trees grow on a small, rocky island in the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park

If you follow this website you may have seen this photograph before — it is one of two that were the subjects of an earlier article (“A Photograph Exposed: One Subject, Two Compositions“) focusing on compositional decisions I made when I photographed this Sierra Nevada subject. In this companion article I want to look at the next step — going from that original exposure to the final (at least for now!) interpretation of the subject that you see above, and the how and why of post-processing the image.

For me, post-processing is as much a part of the creative process of photography as is composing and making the exposure. In fact, many of the decisions that I make at the time of exposure anticipate what I may do during the post-processing stage. These decisions recognize that the camera does not “see” the same way that we do, and that simply trying to produce an exposure that looks the exactly like the actual scene is often both hopeless and counterproductive. Continue reading A Photograph Exposed: Technique and Interpretation in Post

Post and Grant, Night

san francisco, california, usa, urban, street, photography, night, post, grant, streets, corner, intersection, black and white, monochrome, people, sidewalk
Friday night at the corner of Post and Grant, San Francisco

Post and Grant, Night. San Francisco, California. July 25, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Friday night at the corner of Post and Grant, San Francisco

This is (yet another) photograph from my fruitful nighttime wanderings in an area of urban San Francisco in late July, when I joined a small group of fellow photographers to do some night street photography. They started with dinner, but I arrived a bit late and finally met up with them between my starting point (near Union Square) and their location in North Beach. We first photographed in the less-touristy areas of Chinatown, then wandered into tourist central, the well-known Grant Avenue area, where we knew we would find people and interesting lighting.

Eventually we wandered on down beyond Chinatown and ended up in the Union Square vicinity, where the group began to split up — it was getting late, some had been photographing for many hours, and their cars were a distance away. I continued on down Grant a bit further, where I made this photograph at the intersection with Post Street. You might detect one or two odd compositional choices in this photograph — why is that car poking into the right side of the frame?


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.

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)