While browsing photography forums, you’ll often encounter individuals identifying themselves as Photography Purists. They tend to claim things like: Manipulating photos is like cheating… I still shoot film because that’s real photography.. I try to have perfect photos straight out of the camera (SOOC), that’s real skill… I don’t like to alter reality…
Run away from these people.
Being a Purist in Photography is nonsense. It doesn’t mean anything. Those individuals are usually amateurs who refuse to have anything to do with any processing software (because they often don’t know how to use it) or older photographers who refuse to keep up with the times and brag about “how it was better in the old days”.
So why is it nonsense?
Nowadays the overwhelming majority of photographers use digital cameras, DSLRs, mirrorless, point-and-shoots or even smartphones. So obviously, they either produce jpeg or RAW images.
Jpeg shooters: To explain it simply, a jpeg is a compressed and finalized file the camera delivers after you click on the shutter. Before appearing on the preview screen, the camera has already processed the image by applying the settings you have dialed in and compressed it into a smaller file for your viewing (and posting on Facebook) pleasure.
You might not have used any external software to alter your photos personally, but your camera did it for you, by following the settings you have selected. This is already altering reality, the final image will inevitably be different from what the camera sees.
Here are a few examples:
– You see a beautiful landscape and put your camera on P mode (P for professional.. just kidding). You select a “cloudy” White Balance setting and change your Picture Style to “Landscape”, and you click. What you actually just did is ask your camera to saturate the greens and blues (landscape mode) and make the overall colors warmer in the final result.
– You want to take a beautiful portrait of a person. You dial to “portrait mode” and shoot. What you did is ask your camera to unsharpen the overall image to make the skin look softer and the skin colors look more natural.
In both cases, the camera did a lot of processing on your images, and you are the one who picked the settings. Isn’t that indirectly cheating?
RAW shooters: Unlike a jpeg, a RAW image is uncompressed and un-edited. Your camera captures the scene with all the different readings (White Balance, colors, etc..), dumps it into one big file with all the required raw information, untouched, and delivers it to you for your processing pleasure. Most professional photographers shoot in RAW.
So, in reality, a RAW image is an ugly image. The colors are bland, it lacks contrast and saturation and it’s not sharpened. All because no settings have been applied to it.
A RAW image is the equivalent of a negative. It NEEDS to be processed to make the final picture appear. The difference is that the darkroom has been replaced by a software on a computer. It takes less space and does the same thing, without the chemical fumes.
But I heard that developing in a Darkroom is NOT cheating!
You would be a fool to think that.
Did you know that many of the tools a photographer uses in Lightroom or Photoshop, like Burning,Dodging or cropping come from what film photographers did in the darkroom?
Ironically, I have seen many people mention Ansel Adams as a perfect landscape purist photographer. In reality, Ansel Adams was actually one of the biggest “cheaters” (as they would call it), spending hours and hours in the darkroom processing his photos using the burn/dodge technique. One of his famous quotes is: “The film is the score, but the print is the performance.”
Here’s an example of how film images were altered in the darkroom:
You can see a few more examples from different film photographers too.
Photoshop and Lightroom (and many other processing software) are similar to a darkroom. You take full control on how your images are going to look like.
Why the need to process photos?
Photography is not about playing with the settings on your camera, it’s not about copying the world.
Photography is about the vision of the person pressing the shutter, combined with his aesthetic sense. This results in a personalized interpretation of the scene. We, as photographers, have the power to create, to freeze time and deliver a message while excluding surrounding elements. By pointing the camera somewhere and cropping out the rest of the scene, you are already giving a subjective interpretation of what is happening, even as an “objective photojournalist” (which is only a mythical creature).
There is nothing wrong in processing images, or even “altering reality”. What the world wants to see (and buy) is your own vision. We don’t scold fictional writers for making up stuff in their books, or Picasso for creating humanoid distorted monsters on his canvas.
Yes, there is a (not so) fine line between post-processing and image manipulation. But adding or removing trash on the floor, erasing power lines or stray distracting elements is different from adding a fire-breathing dragon battling a Death Star over the New York skyline. There is also no right or wrong, as long as you are honest with your viewers (PS: yeah, adding a HUGE moon in a skyline and passing it for a real supermoon for example is quite lame. Just sayin’).
And here’s a very important truth: Nobody cares what settings have been used when they see a beautiful photo. Your clients want to see art; they don’t care about the camera or software. The only people who show interest are usually other photographers (and frankly, they shouldn’t be your target audience).
Just as a painter puts on canvas his own vision, a photographer paints with the light and uses his camera and style to create art.
So please.. Stop calling yourself a purist in Photography. The only real purist is the one who enjoys the scene without a camera on his face.