Crafting an Image: The Tao of Photo Editing (Part 4 of 16)

Previous Post Crafting an Image: Shooting the First Sunrise of the New Year (Part 3 of 16) The Tao of Photo Editing Before I get into...

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Crafting an Image: Shooting the First Sunrise of the New Year (Part 3 of 16)

The Tao of Photo Editing

Before I get into the meat of editing my sunrise shot of Delicate Arch, I thought it expedient I share a bit of my philosophy in regards to photo editing landscape photography.

Bring back the feeling of being there

The camera is a filter. Let me repeat that - the camera IS a filter! Think about it — have you ever shot or seen a snapshot with any camera ever and then thought the image produced was an actual replica of what your eye saw of the same scene? Of course, you haven't — and it's not even close! Your mind might tell you that there is a similarity to the actual scene, but the actual experience is drastically different. Here are just a few things that are bound to be different in a photograph from reality:

  • A photograph has no real depth, but only clues of depth. Very often a scene that seemed very 3d will lose depth completely in print. Depth can only be brought back with compositional care.
  • The sky and/or shadows will have little to no detail compared to what your eye can resolve.
  • The colors in a raw photograph will bear little resemblance to how you experienced the color in real life.
  • The photograph crops all surrounding details not included in a composition. These deleted details strongly and unconsciously change the way everything you see in a photograph is perceived.
  • Even the mood you had while surrounded by beautiful scenery alters the way you perceive everything. A viewer's mood who later views your photograph is unlikely to be the same — thus altering their perception drastically!

Consider a couple images to illustrate the point.

Which man is largest in the above illustration? Most people will perceive the man that is furthest as being the largest. Interestingly, most photographers and graphic artists (as shown by experiment) can quickly perceive that they are all the same size - I'd guess this is because they are practiced at "seeing" 3d scenes as 2d in their minds. To create distance in a photograph requires perspective and lines - exactly as in this illustration.

Image embedded from

A single image can go from uplifting to scary with a simple crop. It's crazy how cropping can change the way you perceive an image — the image above is obviously a drastic example, but the point stands.

A similarly drastic change can be had by choosing to include or exclude the ground in an image. Without the ground, a photograph can feel abstract and dynamic. Including the ground can make it feel stable and inviting by giving the viewer a place to "stand." Notice the difference between a photograph and real life in this case — the ground is always perceived to be there in real life no matter where you look. Similar decisions about many landscape elements such as the sky, trees, foliage and on and on can change the way a person perceives an image despite the fact that the way a scene is perceived is roughly the same for everyone that visits in real life.

Now back to my original point — THE CAMERA IS A FILTER! Very often people have this unfounded belief that what the camera records is somehow faithful to reality - IT IS NOT! And because people believe the camera captures reality, these same people think there is something inherently wrong with altering what came out of the camera — THERE IS NOT! The truth is that what we perceive in nature is profoundly altered by a dizzying array of complex interactions between our eyes, mind, and physics. Did you know that a full 1/3 of our brain is dedicated to processing visual stimulus? Let that sink in — our minds that can do many marvelous and complex things has 1/3 of its processing power dedicated to visual stimulus. The amount of unconscious visual processing of what we see is so astounding to the point that we have to wonder how much of what our eyes see (nevermind when through a camera) is even close to reality at all.

Producing an image through a camera cuts out so much of the visual processing our minds do so as to fundamentally change what is perceived. In fact, if you think of it another way, what is perceived by our minds is more akin to feelings, which are produced by our unconscious minds. Feelings are not based on logic — and can be manipulated and changed easily. The same can be said of how our minds perceive photography.

Having said all of the above, consider some points about how I think we ought to be approaching photo editing.

  • In editing a landscape photograph, one should not only try to reproduce what it was like to be there but what it FELT like to be there (my perception).
  • When choosing which elements of a scene to include/exclude or emphasize/de-emphasize, you need to be very deliberate. Even subtle differences can drastically change the way a final print is perceived - for better or worse.
  • Capturing a composition on film or with a digital camera is more about recording the information than trying to produce a finished product from the get go. Give yourself creative leeway in the digital darkroom.

Ansel Adams is one of my personal heroes, and this is one of my favorite quotes by him — "You don't take a photograph, you make it."I believe he understood these concepts very well, and in fact, many of these concepts are the basis for his "Zone System." Ansel understood that you must be able to visualize the final print when you are viewing the un-photographed scene to have any chance of creating powerful and moving imagery. Without this technical and "minds eye vision" you are powerless to fulfill your artistic vision.

Go Beyond the Scene: Don't be Afraid to Have an Artistic Vision.

I took the above image all the way back in 2005 as a very amateur photographer with a 4-megapixel point and shoot digital camera. All photographers eventually learn that the best camera is the one you have with you! The camera was tilted at a 45 degree angle to align the clouds shapes with the shape of the tree.

The effect of an image is and should be based on a lot more than just the elements of a scene — the above image, for example, relies much more on tonal values and shapes than the actual elements of the scene. A particular composition can be about many things that have nothing to do with the particular place you were in — here are some more examples:

  • Color — sometimes a composition is about color and color only - a scene in front of you sometimes only exists to provide a color palette to work with. The below image is really just an interplay between green/yellow/black/red/orange with some recognizable elements to give some structure.
  • Eye Lines — sometimes elements of a scene are best used to lead the eye around as the water in the image below does
  • Provide Contrast — sometimes the elements of a scene serve only to provide contrast to other more important elements - as the sky does for the tree in the image below.
The point I'm trying to make is that as a photographer you shouldn't be afraid to be an artist! Often photography is held to a double standard. For some reason people seem to think since all people have taken pictures that no photography can be art. Photographers are held to a different standard compared to all other artists. My advice? Ignore anyone who thinks they can define whether or not what you've done is art! And when you find a creative idea or vision don't be afraid to enhance and further that idea in post processing — or stated another way, let your vision flow all the way from conception in your mind to a finished print — you know, like all other artists do.

Don't Discount What People Like: Aesthetics are Important

Remember what I said before about how 1/3 of the brain is used for visual processing? One consequence of that is that all humans have shared basic machinery that tells them if they like a composition or not. Art as a medium of communication between human beings would break down entirely without this common visual processing. Aesthetics are literally the mind's language for sharing art.

I'm not going to dive deep into what constitutes good aesthetics as it would require its own blog post, if not its own book.

Having said that, consider the following quote by the musical genius Mozart,

"The passions, whether violent or not, should never be so expressed as to reach the point of causing disgust; and music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear, but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music."

Thinking of photography and not music, I think the point holds true. Even if the what you are trying to convey is disgust or uncertainty or anything else — basic aesthetics still matter.

Most rules of aesthetics are really based on different types of contrast. As I said before — I can't go into detail, but consider a few basic rules of aesthetics as they relate to compositions and how they can be enhanced with photo editing:

  • Color Contrast — Magenta/Green, Orange/Blue, Violet/Yellow, Red/Green/Blue. If you don't understand color contrast you'll have a hard time producing images with real impact.
  • Balance - sky/land, left/right, rule of thirds etc.
  • Separation - every important element needs separation (contrast) with all other elements. Usually this means separating them physically, with luminosity, color or any number of other methods.

Aesthetics are important and in photo editing don't be afraid to fulfill your aesthetic vision.

Up Next

Crafting an Image: Editing for Perfect Color (5 of 16) (coming soon)

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