Stop calling yourself a Purist in Photography


 

Stop calling yourself a purist in photography

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:
processing during film era
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.


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Glenn C. Riffey
Guest
For the most part I am a purist, but only in the sense of having the finished photo looking like what I saw when I took the photo in the first place; and that means working on it in my digital darkroom. I’ve never been able to have come out of the camera a scene exactly as I saw it. It always needs some kind of work even if it is to adjust the colors and/or contrast to achieve that. So, if being a purist is one who never touches the file, once removed from the camera, then I’m not… Read more »
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Christy @ Technosyncratic
Guest
I am so brand new to photography that I don’t even feel that qualified to chime in… but I will anyway. :P I’ve been reading a lot of photography forums/blogs lately and whenever I come across someone claiming they’re a purist it usually sounds a bit…. self-congratulatory. Condescending, even, to those who are supposedly not. I think the issue is sometimes less about how one chooses to process their photos and more about feeling superior. Meh. Every individual has their own creative style and method of capturing a moment on film…. and digital adjustments are, I think, an integral part… Read more »
Claire
Guest
I agree with your comments here. I really like what you said about the darkroom – I remember growing up and developing photos in the darkroom – it was great! And in those days, if you developed your own photos, you were seen as a purist. Now it’s the opposite way around. I agree with processing a photo to making it look its best, and trying to keep a good representation of what you captured. I do like natural photos. But occasionally I’ve played around a little bit more and don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just starting… Read more »
Magda @DestinationWorld
Guest

I’m with you! Post processing is integral part of photography. Those who say using PS is cheating are naive or maybe they just act in hope to be branded as ‘true photographers’. PS is modern day darkroom. Yes, it can be overused and this is what I believe advertising industry does), but if used in a smart way it can only add to the photo.

Trudy
Guest
For lack of a more eloquent way to put this, WHOOMP THERE IT IS! This line was amazingly powerful: “Photography is not about playing with the settings on your camera, it’s not about copying the world.” Many people think sheer memorization = intelligence, versus applying knowledge. I bet the same folks believe playing with the image without finishing the process of photography, the darkroom, means that they are more creative. A mess. THANK YOU for this post. Hopefully it will put the darn nonsense to rest. Excellent writing, explanation and comparisons. Thank you for mentioning the truth about Ansel. He… Read more »
Brendan van Son
Guest

Great Post Daniel,

I find myself getting into this argument all the time. We are not “lying” about our photos through editing, we are creating an image that we want to present. Photography is not only about developing a scene seen through the human eye, but one shot seen through the eye of human creativity.

Dmitriy Dzema
Guest

Being purist is just cool. There will always be people who want to be cool. They use film cameras, they don’t process digital photos, they use old compact point-and shoot cameras because they produce shifted colors. I think soon there will be people who will love the noise of old DSL cameras.

If they want to be cool you can not do anything to it. If they want to take good photos they will understand what they should process photos somehow. So I think it’s just a matter of time to convert them :)

Akila
Guest

Brilliant post. I am a PROUD user of Lightroom and Photoshop. Why am I proud? Because I feel like a complete idiot for only discovering their value two years after I started photography. I always wonder why people claim that Photoshopping is cheating but then don’t feel the same way about HDR photography. Both are creative processes, intended to make the visual medium as good as it can be.

bethany
Guest
Thank you! I’ve been chiming in with my bits here and there on this subject because i see it popping up more and more. There is no PURE photography. That’s what I keep saying. Even if you shoot film and develop it yourself you are altering the film. Shake your developing canister a little too hard or a little too long – well you’ve changed the negative now. And yes, dodging and burning – so much easier w/ digital. Holy crap, I used to stand in the darkroom for HOURS on end with a little piece of nylon stretched over… Read more »
Kyle
Guest

For me, I look at any post processing like I look at make-up. If you look at someone and think “Wow! Look at all that make-up!”, they probably overdid it a bit. If you look at someone with make-up and think “that person is really pretty”, then they’ve done a good job of it.

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[…] on photography are very much related to his views about other people.  He would do well to read this gem of an article on photo processing that Joy passed along to me a few nights […]

hardlightimages
Guest

I absolutely agree. I’m not interested in simply being a recorder of reality…I want to make the best most striking image possible that stimulates the senses and reaches the viewer – more than what one can “see” but what one can “feel”…ignoring any tool that’s available to do so (such as post-processing) is just utter nonsense. I like Kyle’s makeup analogy too…I want my pictures to be “pretty” ;-)

bill
Guest
I like the straight out of the camera image better than the manipulated one, at the top of the article. An example of how almost always the strength of a photo gets weakened by cheap easy and accessible computer manipulations, It doesn’t take any effort or real artistic merit to manipulate images digitally. Thats why everyone and anyone does it, my mum, brother, girlfriend etc etc. sometimes I think we should let our cameras have more say, but instead we bring the image back into the computer and starting thinking….. oh a pink sky might look good, and maybe shit… Read more »
Stancia
Guest

Photoshop is an amazing tool for altering reality, but it’s only really great when you’re aware of its effects. There are several tools existing to help people detect Photoshopped images. Of them site Photoshopped Image Killer offers the best result. Unlike other forensic analysis tool, pskiller.com analyzes image integrity in the content level, which is more accurate and reliable.

Kyle
Guest

Absolutely agree with this. Why would you want an SOOC photo when it’s usually not what our eyes actually see. I use post processing to make the image closer to what the scene actually looked like in real life.

Tim Ramos
Guest
I agree with the sentiment that self-proclaimed purists are condescending. I recently got into a heated discussion online with some purists, to whom I asked the question of whether their kind of photography was discriminatory on the basis of financial standing. Because, I asked, what would be the essential difference of two photographs of exactly the same subject, specifically one with shallow focus – one image achieved through an expensive lens with a wide open aperture, and another achieved through Photoshop? I’m sorry for the late comment, I just recently discovered this site. Hope you don’t mind if I share… Read more »
Bob Drouin
Guest
Why is an image shot in RAW ugly? If the idea of this art form is to produce images that capture an artist’s intent, and one comes out of the camera in RAW just right, why is it seriously ugly? An image is either successful or not, and its creator is the only one who knows for sure. Other opinions, particularly those based on the merits of the methodology reveal a sad lack of understanding of the purpose of the visual arts as a form of expression. When an image is right it’s right regardless of how it came into… Read more »
Rose
Guest
I think the meaning of a “purist photographer” has kind of become disconnected with it’s original meaning. Ansel Adams was a purist photographer, in that he was not a pictorialist photographer. A pictorialist like O.G. Rejlander on up to Henrich Kuhn took photographs and highly manipulated the appearance of them by using soft focus lenses or smear petroleum jelly on their lenses, scratching their prints, cutting and pasting negatives and prints, and of course burning and dodging, in order to make their photographs look more like paintings. In the late 19th century, people didn’t accept photography as an artform, and… Read more »
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[…] post-processing is absolutely necessary to bring out the best in a photo (read my article about why I don’t believe in ‘Photo Purists’).So, after a long day of shooting, I go back home, upload my photos, import them in LR, go through […]

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[…] shots. Fine with me!It’s just worth reminding that there’s no such thing as “being a purist“. Posted on Monday, February 20th, 2012 at 23:18. Filed under: Blog, Photography, Thailand […]

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[…] near Amsterdam in 2009. Most of you already know I am a firm believer in editing your photos (no purist nonsense for me) but there are times when the mood captured in the shot looks just right and needs […]

Sílvia
Guest
I know I am kind of ‘late’ to comment, but I just came across your page and I want to say that I totally agree with you. Yesterday I’ve posted something about my short experience as a teacher in this photography school who delievers 3-month courses of basic photography. I have bacherlor’s degree on Fine Arts so my aesthetic vision is kind of different from the ‘purists’ photographers. Having a bachelor’s degree isn’t something big, neither makes me cleaver or better than the others but it did help me developing my point of view about art in general. I started… Read more »
Chris Tan
Guest

Truth be told, the camera NEVER captures the scenes we see to perfection anyway, so being a purist often means settling for something which isn’t like what the photographer saw in the first place.  Try any scene shoot where there is a wide dynamic range and you will instantly see how much even a good SLR is losing sans post-processing software.
Go ahead and take snapshots without post-processing, but Lightroom is seriously needed for great photos.

goatstaog
Guest
Purist to the limits of the tools used. This is why the custom lenses of years past were so important to the scene a photographer would take. A custom lens hand selected by the photographer to serve his purpose. Now it’s chinese ground glass conforming to ISO standard which produces the sameness in billions of computer assited focus color corrected digital images. they are not photographs. A computer will destroy the light in the background (flaring, over contrast) to push / pull the light in the foreground out of wack and ruin the balance in a picture. You leave alot… Read more »
Ted Luna
Guest

Fear, is the only shackle that binds us to tradition and keeps us from free experimentation and unrestrained creative expression!

Henry Muller
Guest
Just stumbled upon this forum. Everyone who’s after a quality shot needs to do darkroom work, traditional or digital. And even a proud purist has the right to produce a quality shot. Plan, set up and take your shot, then do your darkroom work to make it look natural and you can still call yourself a purist. But don’t call yourself a purist if you alter your shots beyond recognition by overdoing, retouching, adding or removing stuff. Let’s give the purist some room and some credit. And dear purist, don’t call non-purists ‘cheaters’. – This is written by a bloke… Read more »
Harley Roxanne
Guest

When you wrote, “Photography is about the vision of the person behind the viewfinder, combined with his aesthetic sense.”

I ABSOLUTELY agree. I was actually having a discussion about this topic recently. The point was discussed that editing photos is like editing a piece of writing. You create something and then edit it to make it better based on your vision and aesthetic sense.

Thru the eyes of Ausar
Guest
Thru the eyes of Ausar

Bla, bla,bla like art it does not matter. Digital film, hell pinhole, take the photogragh and let the world appreciate your vision.

Thru the eyes of Ausar
Guest
Thru the eyes of Ausar

my vision is your vision

boofunking
Guest

Sorry I have to disagree, no matter how far someone processes a photo it is still photography. We may not like the outcome but it is still photography. There are plenty of examples of multiple exposure or combining images even in film photography. Just my two cents.

boofunking
Guest

RAW files are ugly because a raw file is un-viewable. When you view a RAW file you are looking at the RAW data manipulated by the photo software. LR uses profiles and the RAW file will look differently depending on which profile you use. This is true of all RAW viewing software, there is no such thing as a RAW picture without processing the raw data.

noods
Guest

Depends on the definition of purist….Mine is one who tries to capture the scene as his eye sees it…and uses all the possible tools of the trade..pre and post processing…to insure that the picture remains as as true and as pure as the picture in the photographers mind….

Ctinas
Guest

This is my exact thoughts.

Damoon
Guest
A very interesting read. Whilst I am just a dude with a camera, not a pro like you, it kinda reminded me of the music recording arguments that have been going on for years (an area I am a pro in haha). Digital is cheating, effects are cheating, VST’s are cheating and so on. I think the purist is just slow to change and unable/unwilling to learn how to use new and often better tools. The biggest advantage the digital darkroom and the digital recording world have over the old techniques is, everything can be undone. In a darkroom, once… Read more »
Daniel Nahabedian
Guest

Thanks for your input :) It’s a nice comparison and so true.
Art is subjective. What’s the point of creating art if it’s to emulate the exact same thing scene/sound?

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[…] Since my Lightroom tutorial is one of the most popular posts on my website, I’ve decided to continue and offer some free  ”behind the scene glimpse” of my editing process by creating a new section called “How I Edited It”. Hope it will be useful in understanding how you can improve your shots and that there’s nothing bad in post-processing your images since the creative process does not end when the shutter is pressed on your camera (you know what I feel about Purists). […]

JP
Guest
If purism in photography isn’t adequately defined, I would suggest it refers to the rejection of the intentional manipulation of an image after the shot is taken regardless of pre-shot adjustment. I just want to clarify there is nothing wrong with following this definition of “purist” and I think this is what most self-professed purists actually mean by purism. It’s obvious that there is no such thing as purism in photography at all, as it wouldn’t be photography if it’s truly pure – it would just be, as some may have mentioned, looking at the scene. Regardless whether or not… Read more »
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[…] Since my Lightroom tutorial is one of the most popular posts on my website, I’ve decided to continue and offer some free  ”behind the scene glimpse” of my editing process by creating a new section called “How I Edited It”. Hope it will be useful in understanding how you can improve your shots and that there’s nothing bad in post-processing your images since the creative process does not end when the shutter is pressed on your camera (you know what I feel about Purists). […]

AZ ATV photographer
Guest

To demean the “other” type (whichever that is) is elitist and shows an incalculable intolerance for the preferences of other photographers. Why can’t we just enjoy the best of all types of photographs.

BlackflyCanada
Guest
Hey, I see this discussion is a bit old, but after reading your blog I think I need to comment, as I wouldn’t say I look down on photo editing, but I don’t think photo editing and photography are the same thing. Editing and manipulating in my honest opinion is less photography and more graphical art lets say. Photography is an art, and graphical design is also an art. Art is subjective, but to say hey, I’m a photographer, and I took this wonderful image is kinda a lie if you went into photoshop and blended three or four images… Read more »
Daniel Nahabedian
Guest
Hey, Thanks for your input and no offense taken :) I definitely understand your point but don’t really agree that editing is less photography and more graphic art. It depends on the editing of course. I barely “manipulate” my images (as in add or remove objects), except small things like spots, wires, plastic bags/cans. Most of the edits are done just to improve colors, contrast, remove color casts, etc.. This is due to the limitations of our cameras. They can’t see what our eyes see. But again, photography is art, and everyone’s free to do whatever they feel like doing,… Read more »
Hockeyogre
Guest
I agree with the essay above. I run into this all the time. The comments about the in-camera processing are spot on, particularly jpeg. Most people fail to understand that the overwhelming majority of pictures they see have been edited. Great that you mentioned Ansel Adams. All film photographers had their set ways, and tricks for producing prints from negatives. Most digital processing is just a copy of darkroom procedures. In the end the vision of the photographer has to prevail. If someone is happy with what comes out of the camera, thats fine for them. I have shown people… Read more »
goatstaog
Guest

The majority of photos most people observe in the past 10 years have been edited for the purpose of hyping a product and seen on a computer screen. That’s different than photos hanging in a gallery on display from real film on real paper which this article ignores. It panders to iphone photo snappers.

Andrew Harvard
Guest

I agree. LP+PS until you break it :) :)

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[…] or portrait), or other settings you are actually manipulating more than your may have else wise.  This article titled “Why being a purist in Photography is just nonsense” hits the nail on the […]

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[…] Stop calling yourself a Purist in Photography by Daniel Nahebedian […]

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[…] this related post about post-processing over at Digital Photography School & this one about Why Being a Purist in Photography is Nonsense by Canvas of Light […]

goatstaog
Guest
Sounds like this photographer who wrote this uses photoshop liberally. So now throw out all useful technical and practical information about lenes, film speeds, shutter speeds, f stops and say ‘it’s my vision’. Now it’s the vision manipulated by a computer program to fit a surrealistic fantasy. I use manual mode much of my time taking pictures with modern digital slr cameras. That’s really as far as I go in letting the technology do it for me. The rest is as already mentioned about composition , asthetics that are contained IN the scene, not added as an effect later in… Read more »
Stu T.R.
Guest
I’ve used a darkroom so I’ll chime in. I feel like you may be swayed by the romanticism. I’m personally concerned with the results. To me, photography isn’t a game of balancing a spoon on my nose. If technology like autofocus, optical image stabilization, and liveview can provide me greater oppurtunity to capture my desired photo, then I’m happy to have these features. If you want to make photography difficult for yourself, feel free to limit your equipment to Civil War supplies and go wild. I don’t like to arbitrarily confine myself though. The whole film vs digital thing is… Read more »
goatstaog
Guest
Good words Bill I share your sentiment. I ask people what settings they use on their expensive cameras they tote around and they look at me with confusion or ignore me. They use automatic modes. I have to teach them how depth of field affects their particular lens. That’s really a shame. I too am into the idea of getting the scene effects as raw as I can with the most basic settings on a camera. LIke many I transitioned from Film ( canon A1) to a Sony SLR and I have never touched anything but manual mode on the… Read more »
goatstaog
Guest

The person who wrote this article is dismissive to the real stars of photography to make the armchair photographers comfy in their ignorance.

goatstaog
Guest

Digital approximations of a scene are not photographs. Photograph is a chemical process on film which is then transferred to other medium. Lots wrong with this article and faulty logic/rhetoric.

Marlonius
Guest

Late comment…
Your definition of purist is different than mine. I agree 100% with you though, it’s well put.
Few years down the line, after this article was written, and 500px is now a prime example of this very hogwash.

Glad to see you’re still around! Keep it up

Kijof
Guest

Still a great article after 6 years. What matters is what you see and what you want the people to see too.