Saturday, January 5, 2013

To Photoshop, or not to Photoshop

A lot of people ask me if I use Photoshop on my images, “Did you Photoshop that sky?” or, “Are those colors Photoshopped?” and my answer is always the same, “Yes – of course I use Photoshop.” And every time I answer that question I have this unfounded twinge of guilt that runs up my spine, like I was admitting to a hair transplant, or colored contact lenses, or that I don’t own a gun (Idahoans are typically armed to the teeth). It still seems that for portraits and landscape work, Photoshop remains a dirty word, a sneaky dark secret that should be left under the house in a shallow grave near where the main water line is. It’s crazy.

In the 1930’s, Ansel Adams stood for hours in his darkroom with his prints – burning down highlights, dodging shadows, lengthening exposures here and there, bathing the paper in selenium toner to deepen the blacks, and then plunging them into potassium ferrocyanide to brighten the whites. He used red glass filters on his camera lens to darken the blues of sky and water, used different types of paper for different images, touched up tiny specks of white with a #000 brush and photo ink, and exposed and developed film in such a way that it allowed him to expand the normal range of exposure latitude, far more than was thought possible at the time. Other daredevil photographers were making multiple exposures, sandwiching negatives, using long exposures to create ghosts, and actually painting hints of color onto the printed photographs themselves. Would they have used Photoshop – I say hell yes!

Photoshop is the darkroom. Every image I process travels through the Photoshop darkroom. My camera is set to just capture the “raw” image; no color correction, no sharpening, the color gamut and dynamic range are unprintable, and the data hasn’t even been assigned a format yet; it’s just the raw information from the sensor - a digital negative if you will. From there it is transferred from my camera to the computer and ‘processed’ (through a series of complex algorithms and calculations in a Raw converter software program) and then placed into Photoshop for refinement. Up to this point, I am simply ‘developing the film’.

Once inside Photoshop, yes – you can do anything to an image. You could end up with an abstract neon interpretation of your cat draped over the back of the sofa, or a stunning life-like landscape image of the Virgin River in Zion National Park. This is where Ansel would have plopped himself down in a mission chair and sipped his coffee; creating Photoshop layers for contrast and exposure, locating neutral gray and balancing the color, dodging and burning, bringing up the reds and reducing the blues in the shadows, spot healing tiny imperfections in a sky - all the while daydreaming of Georgia O’Keeffe naked. This process is the modern process.

I have a good example: I was hiking the Narrows of the Virgin River Canyon in Zion this summer. At a bend in the river the soaring canyon walls curved away, catching reflected light from a late afternoon sun and glowing orange. The river in the foreground was a stunning blue-green and clear – something you will not find here in the spring when it is opaque and brown. I set up my tripod, framed the image – and waited. I waited for the other hikers in the canyon to get out of my picture. It was like they didn’t even care; sauntering across the water-washed boulders in bikini tops and board shorts, taking their own pictures with iPhones, or splashing through the river in Frankenstein-like water boots. But, I am patient. I knew the risk involved in entering a canyon that is so famous for its ease of access, stunning beauty, and fleet of propane-powered tour buses that dump their loads at 15-minute intervals.

Suddenly I had the river bend and canyon all to myself and began clicking - changing exposures a little, checking focus, adding and subtracting a polarizer – until I noticed a guy with a blue jacket far in the background, kneeling and taking his own tripod mounted photos. Damn. But just as quickly as the curse word escaped my chapped lips, I uttered the four words familiar to so many photographers now, “I can Photoshop that.” It was that simple. I got the best shot I could, knowing that in the post-processing realm - the ‘darkroom’ - that I could very carefully remove or camouflage that small blue square in the background.  The image was one of my favorites of the year.

However, film photography is not dead yet. There are two factions of photographers – digital and traditional - and I would venture to guess that nearly all of the digital photographers that are even semi-professional use Photoshop to produce their images and prints. The dwindling band of traditional photographers (those who still use film and wet chemicals in a darkroom) are not only a hardy breed, but are the bad-asses of the photo world. Hauling a bulky view camera, changing bag, sheet film, tripods, etc. into the wilds is crazy enough, but then to print poster-sized images in a darkroom– that’s an incredible amount of money, time, and skill - a lost skill. If you would like to see what is still possible with old world skills, just visit Michael Fatali’s website – it will blow your mind and bring tears to your eyes.

As technology advances, so too will the way we produce photographic images. That is the way it has always been. If you think that Photoshop is a dirty word, an admittance to some degrading act or covert misinterpretation, then you should still be watching that black and white ‘tube’ television, untangling the curly cord to your Bakelite phone, replacing your Gore-Tex with oiled canvas, waiting at the mailbox for your mail, and making your Redenbacher popcorn in a pot on the stove.

So I guess that’s it. My name is Rob Hart, and I use Photoshop.

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