"You may not:
- spot-edit your entry, except to remove sensor dust or hot pixels.
- use any selection tool, including but not limited to the marquee, lasso, layer masks, quick masks, or any similar tool to select a portion of your image for any reason other than cropping or creating a border.
- use ANY editing tool to create new image area, objects or features (such as vignettes, lens flare or motion) that didn’t already exist in your original capture.
- distort or stretch your image in any way."
The above is an excerpt from the Basic Editing Challenge Rules* on the respectable DPChallenge web site. As it is, a digital photographer wishing to enter the contest while abiding the above loses 50% of the photo editing functionality of any software he might rightfully be using, be it Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, Gimp, Lightroom, Aperture, NiK or any othe. Why? Simple: Digital photography is a fast moving beast, a cheetah that has managed to outrun our wildest expectations and caught up with our most problematic social issue: tradition.
Let’s back up for a moment. Modern photography can be agreed to have begun sprouting at the end of the 19th century. Black and white was the name, reality was the game. Considered the most accurate rendition of reality ever achieved, it was automatically frowned upon by real artists like painters and sculptors who saw their To painters, photography was simply too easy; one merely had to point and shoot and they feared the long hours spent rendering subtle light and shadows on a canvas were suddenly made obsolete by a mutant with a need for speed and an appetite for gruesome realism.own vision and interpretation threatened. To them, photography was simply too easy; one merely had to point and shoot and they feared the long hours spent rendering subtle light and shadows on a canvas were suddenly made obsolete by a mutant with a need for speed and an appetite for gruesome realism.
The 35mm format emerged around 1925 and the first Single Lens Reflex soon thereafter. Then came colour photography for the masses, sometime during WW2, and the film medium was hailed once more as the most perfect rendition of reality ever conceived. For decades, nothing major changed in the way photographers approached their work. Ansel Adams’ early B&W zone system was laid as a cornerstone of the art and since it was a complicated explanation of very simple facts, it was given biblical status and we built upon it into the realm of modern imaging. At no time during the history of photography was the gap between beginners and professionals deeper and better fortified then during the film era. Because of their ability to use high-end products and to post-process black and white (and even colour to a lesser extent) the real hardcore guys were sitting up high on their pedestal, enjoying a monopoly on absolute visual truth.
In 1991, Kodak released the first digital camera. Lightning struck and thunder erupted. The thunder was the hysterical laughter of the pros. They ridiculed such a pitiful new medium, one that would never come close to matching the quality of their sacred film and that obviously lacked a good dose of ritualistic value. They would never be tempted, would never switch over. Period.
To its credit, the general public caught on to the digital era faster than the pros. One of the reasons was cost: prices were dropping fast and along with them, prejudice. Another was ease of use; pixels were incredibly user-friendly and they avoided one those time-consuming and patience-thinning trips to the lab. But digital cameras didn’t have it made from the start. They fought bitterly and it took almost 10 years for sensor size and image quality to approach film printing standards.
And still, the pros were laughing, although maybe nervously. But they were losing an edge on quality and, as digital cameras became better and sweeter, they had to retreat unto a safer, firmer ground – they invoked the ultimate, time-consecrated character of film photography: tradition. The way things used to be. The old art. For the first time, the best rendition of visual reality was no longer the prime objective of a pro photographer. Instead, what mattered was sticking to old-fashioned methods. To protect their art, old-timers came up with one of the most incredible and undeserved rulings of all: digital manipulation was a virus that spread from digital photography and as such, made the entire field unworthy. The only true representation of reality, they coined, was recorded on film, unaltered. Messing with pixels was messing with mother nature. It was not allowed.
Messing with pixels was messing with mother nature. It was not allowed.
Today, digital photography has overruled film as surely as DVD’s eradicated old vinyl records. Kodak announced this year it was discontinuing Kodachrome film. Most pros have switched over to digital, lured by incredible new features, affordable prices and a performance range that’s beginning to be truly extraordinary. And yet, quite a few of them seem unable to accept that with the emergence of digital photography, our entire photo paradigm has to shift, and that the old values no longer apply. They are effectively holding the entire field back, unable to embrace fast change and adapt their own creativity and vision to the new possibilities. Theirs is a set of rigid rules that won’t allow for the new flower to blossom.
But let’s have a closer look at this antiquated set of rules. What exactly is involved with
the officially sanctioned, vintage technique of film photography that is still applied in the
digital era? It seems many still believe that, traditionally,
photography hasn’t allowed for too much cheating and has remained an
"absolute" representation of visual reality as observed through the
viewfinder. I challenge that. Think of the following cheats that were
common practice for whoever used film:
First, never omit to mention your gear – the bigger the better – but always in parenthesis to preserve humble appearances: "This was shot with a
Titanium Yellow Limited Edition Ferrari SLR, mounted with a 1800-2600mm f1
USQSSCMZYCBO* Nikkorzeiss Lens (*Ultra Silent Quantum Stabilized Super Coated
Mega Zoom You Can’t Buy One)." More attention was already paid to the means than to the result. This hasn’t changed with the arrival of DSLR’s, quite the contrary.
Over and underexposure: Initially done in the dark room, it evolved to be in-camera, to the point that
all modern SLR’s had a separate feature for it. Today the digital RAW format
simply allows one to forget about exposure tweaking in the field and later adjust at processing time. So sweet.
Filters: Widely used since the beginning, they have allowed polarizing of
images, split neutral density effects for sunsets, and creative effects such as
starlights, color casts, fog, etc. All of the
above can and will be duplicated more efficiently on a computer and
with infinitely more control and finesse. I don’t see where a filter is better accepted mounted on a lens than applied to pixels.
Dodging and burning: Black and white photographers have been using that technique in the dark room since the dawn of time. Why couldn’t we use it in our modern dark room, the computer?
Cropping, rotating and resizing: While pretending to always attempt to "get it right in-camera", photographers have always cropped and enlarged. It used to be difficult and time-consuming. Now it’s incredibly easy.
Colour temperature: It would typically have been set by choosing
a specific kind of film, forcing one to shoot an entire roll in similar lighting conditions or to rewind the film partially and change it, an operation
that was, at best, tricky. Digital cameras allow for in-camera setting of the colour balance. Even better: at processing time, the RAW format’s balance can be adjusted with a simple slider.
Film speed: With film, the sensitivity was regularly "pushed"
in order to achieve various affects and control graininess. We haven’t
gotten out of that one yet – besides some level of digital grain, or
noise, still is considered by the pros to look more "real". Why? I
can’t say I have ever seen noise in nature while framing my shots. Have you?
Depth of field: My favourite. DOP control has always been credited to improve an image, the photographer playing with aperture, speed and focal length to obtain his result. If photography is supposed to be an accurate representation
of reality, why are we allowing this? I sure as hell guarantee that depth of field only exists in a camera’s world, not mine. I have perfect vision and when I look at a scene, I see clearly
and focused from the tip of my arm to infinity. Maybe others don’t, and
feel the need to reflect this in their images. Fine with me. I’ll even
do it myself because I like the effect. Just let me do it to my pixels if I couldn’t get my lens
Lighting: Studio photographers use multiple light sources,
reflectors and gadgets. Everyone else at least uses a flash. Yet none
of the subjects involved ever benefit from such advanced lighting on
their own, when left alone and in their natural state. We bring in our
vision and distort reality to suit our needs. Whether this is done
through a studio setup or a computer program should not matter. It is
artificial and subjective.
Photographers have essentially always warped 3D reality into a 2-dimensional version of itself, loosing some
information in the process and distorting most of what remained.
Let’s recap. From the few points above, one thing becomes clear: since the
early days of the art, photographers have been limited by the
constraints of their gear and the rigidity of the medium used, and they
have done everything in their power to work around those limitations,
allowing themselves a greater degree of freedom through the clever use
of field adjustments and tools. Photographers have essentially always
warped 3D reality into a 2-dimensional version of itself, loosing some
information in the process and distorting most of what remained.
Digital photography has now gained amazing potential
with the refinement of techniques such as layers, masks and curves,
direct-input processing software like Lightroom, and features such as
14 bits images. More is
brewing on the horizon. HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography should soon lose its shady,
mythical aspect and arise as a new step towards – subjective, mind you – visual accuracy.
So I would like this post to act as a wake-up call, or rather a call
for freedom. It is not aimed at the enthusiastic amateur, nor even is
it meant for very good photographers. I am speaking to the pillars of
the art, the dinosaurs, the very few and yet very strong minds that
still think that a pixel moved is a pixel stolen. Yes you! You should learn from experience. Dinosaurs, after all, didn’t make it past the last evolutionary bottleneck. Time to awaken. Reality is subjective! There are as many worlds as there are
photographers and each one of them is entitled to a personal vision.
With science evolving exponentially, with the arrival of quantum
computers and nano-technology, with Moore’s Law predicting that
technological progress will soon spin our heads off our shoulders, photography is
bound to go through extreme transformation. It is likely to leave the
physical plane of paper and LCD screens to eventually reside in space, as
photons and energy, holographic and 3-dimensional.
In the meantime, I would like to enjoy the fantastic possibilities
at hand. I would like to be able to enter a contest without having to
worry about the tools I’m using to process and edit my images. I would
like to achieve through digital post-processing a new level of reality, one that
more closely matches my inner vision. And I would hope
to do so with pride and dignity rather than shame or stealth.
Pixels are powerful allies. In them resides the infinite complexity of our universe, an immersive, all-around environment that is ever-changing and fluid as water. But for its beauty to truly come forth, I will indeed use layer masks and advanced sharpening. I’ll combine exposures to achieve higher dynamic range. I’ll clone undesired details out because they were irrelevant in the first place.
As every photographer before me, I would like you to see the world through my eyes. It’s just that nowadays, rather than handing you a good old negative, I’ll lend you my pixels. Is that so different?
* It should be noted that DPChallenge’s Basic Editing rule set is the most conservative one. It was quoted here for argument’s sake. There are other levels allowing for a more creative approach. A recent administrator announcement adds: "As many of you know, the rules often have trouble keeping up with the technology available to digital photographers. This is particularly true with the restrictions imposed on Basic Editing challenges."