In Defense of Post Processing

A recent photo I posted of this butte in southern Utah generated a small amount of controversy because of my use of perspective correction. I wanted to write this post to defend our rights as creative artists, because I see this type of negative attitude towards anyone who manipulates a photo in any way that strays out of the 'accepted' processing methods.

What is perspective correction you may be asking? First you must understand the physics of lenses and how they distort the scene. When you use an ultra wide angle lens like I did on this photograph (15mm FF equivalent), objects close to the lens are enhanced to look larger, and objects farther from the lens are diminished greatly. Also, anything placed near the edge of the frame gets stretched out from the distortion. The idea of perspective correction is to blend in another image with the diminished object stretched out to bring it back closer to what it looks like in reality, not what the wide angle produces. This can be achieved by warping the object in Photoshop, or by taking a second exposure in the field, with the object positioned on the edge of the wide angle's frame to stretch it out, which is what I did with this image.

The whole point of this process is to bring the image to a point closer to what I experienced as a human being, this is massively different from what a lifeless black box with glass can ever capture. We experience life through an incredibly complex system, it is not just our eyes that see, it must be processed by our brain which interprets what we see. It puts focused attention on certain objects that may be important to us, and ignores others. It patches together information that may not even be there. For a fascinating in-depth look into this, read Vision and Art, The Biology of Seeing.

Getting back to my image, the argument against it was I stretched the butte out to unrealistic proportions. Keep in mind this is coming from a photographer who had photographed at this location before, I make this distinction because photographers see the world differently than the average person. Most photographers believe the dogma that what comes out of the camera is the only 'reality', and that any modifications made to what the camera produces gives photographers a bad name.

Let's break this image down to it's 'pure' elements. First up is the raw file taken with the ultra wide angle, notice how small the butte is? You may think this is closer to reality, but only in the context of what an ultra wide angle lens sees. The difference is, I was there and experienced this in person, and let me tell you that this butte is very large! When I look at this photo it does not accurately represent what I saw that day, plain and simple!

It is a widely held conclusion that the human eye sees at a focal length near 50mm, but if you have ever looked through or taken a photo with a 50mm, you will know that the lens is very normal, it does not change your perspective via distortion like a wide angle does, or magnify your view like a telephoto, but you will also notice that it is nothing like the human experience. This is because our eyes are constantly moving around, evaluating the scene around us and constantly stitching that information together to produce our view of the world. We can look at the ground in front of us and see it in that 50mm view, look up towards the butte and instantly change our focus and perception to see the butte in that same view, but all stitched together as one seamless blend.

To prove the butte is not overly stretched, below is a photo taken with my iPhone, which has a lens equivalent to 41.5mm. This is close to what the eye sees, but still a little wide, therefore diminishing the butte. You can see I stretched the butte slightly more than what is seen here, I think this is accurate to what I saw, maybe a touch over done, but only a slight amount. In no way do I think this is a gross misrepresentation of what I experienced.

I feel like the least realistic part of this image (in the purist's eyes) is the sky, which likely would never be questioned because it was achieved 'in camera' by using a 10 stop filter to blur the clouds, how is this considered okay, and correcting the butte to make it look more realistic is not? That is delusional! Of course I am not saying that it is not okay to use a filter for this, I just wanted to point out the hypocrisy. I intentionally blurred the clouds because this gave a better interpretation of what I saw/felt experiencing this in person. The clouds were moving quickly across the sky, something you would never know seeing a photo taken at a normal shutter speed which froze the clouds in time.

This modification of 'camera reality' happens all the time in photography. If you have used a slower shutter speed to blur water, or used a really fast shutter to freeze water you are guilty of modifying this reality. Yet it is accepted because you can do it in camera, the stretched out butte in the photo below was done in camera just by placing it on the edge of the frame, if I posted this photo by itself rather than blended into another, is it suddenly acceptable?

I also changed the mood of this photo through the use of color toning and burning/dodging to convey what I felt standing there. It felt dark and foreboding as storms were moving in and out of the area, and I wanted the photo to convey this feeling.

The vast majority of us are not photojournalists, we are artists. As artists we should not be held by the same code of conduct that a photojournalist is held to. This is an important distinction that needs to go mainstream, everyone should know the difference between a photojournalist that is documenting vs. an artistic photographer that is conveying their vision of the world onto a two dimensional medium.

This leads to a discussion of whether we should disclose what we have done to an image in post processing. I believe that it is not necessary unless the modifications were so dramatic that the scene could never be experienced in reality, like putting in a moon when you are clearly facing North. This leads to false expectations of reality and therefore should be disclosed. I do not feel that we need to disclose if we exposure blended, burn/dodged, perspective corrected, etc. I feel this diminishes our legitimacy as an art form, would you expect a painter to reveal the specific paints, brushes, or techniques they used to achieve a painting? I do feel it is valuable to share this information for the benefit of new photographers, it can be frustrating seeing photographs that you are unable to produce because you either do not know how to achieve it, or you feel uncomfortable doing it because the purists will call you out, and try to belittle your work. The general public does not need to know how an image has been modified in the realms of artistic photography, they only need to know that it is art, and the artists interpretation of what they saw, not what the camera saw.

If we limit our vision to the real world, we will forever be fighting on the minus side of things, working only to make our photographs equal to what we see out there, but no better.
— Galen Rowell

This beautiful quote from Galen sums up what I am trying to convey. Galen also stated "I am intent on preserving the integrity of still photography." These two quotes may seem to contradict each other on the surface, but I feel it is where they meet, we find creative fine art nature photography. Images should not be so overly processed that they do not resemble what you could experience in reality, thus I try to keep my processing within the bounds of what can be perceived as reality, and still convey what I felt and experienced being there as a human, not as a black box.