Posted by: kerryl29 | July 29, 2013

A Matter of Intent: Form Follows Function

As some of you know, I’ve had a twice-monthly guest blogging gig on 1001 Scribbles for the last 19-odd months.  In a recent entry there concerning post-processing software, photographer David Heilman posted a comment that started the gears in my head turning and inspired this post. My thanks to David for that and (not incidentally) I highly, highly encourage you to visit his blog and view his impressive, eclectic array of outdoor images.

In his comment, David talked about how his background shooting Kodachrome 64–a notoriously unforgiving transparency film–had trained (my word, not his :)) him to “get it right in the camera,” and this tendency had carried forward to his current shooting with a digital camera.  This process had, among other reasons, tended to make him relatively non-dependent on doing heavy lifting with postprocessing software in the digital darkroom.

I understand what he’s saying.  I spent many years shooting Fujichrome Velvia 50 (a.k.a. Velvia Classic), a film with precious little exposure latitude.  If you didn’t nail the exposure with Velvia, you were up the proverbial Sh*ts Creek…without the proverbial paddle.  Miscalculate an exposure by even one-half stop with Velvia and you almost certainly had a specimen for the round file.  You can imagine what fun it was to shoot high contrast landscape scenes with that emulsion.  You had to be precise.  I learned how to spot meter complexly lit scenes when I was shooting film and I carried that method over to the digital world when I began shooting with a DSLR 10 years go.  I still spot meter and manually establish exposure with every scene I shoot today.

Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

But the point I want to address is one that David wasn’t making (so put away the pitchforks and torches :)); his comment simply reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to address on this blog for some time.  So what I’m not doing below is using David as a foil, because he’s not making the arguments that I’m going to rebut.  Certain people (who shall go unnamed :)) are making these arguments and they are the ones I’m addressing, not David.

The Point

There’s a longstanding belief–I think it has waned a bit in recent years, but it’s still fairly prevalent–that the advent of digital cameras has made for a tendency for sloppy technical photography.  There’s a belief among some photographers–stay with me here–that many present day photographers think that “you can always fix it in Photoshop.”

Otter Lake Dawn, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Otter Lake Dawn, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Let’s be frank; there’s substantially greater margin for error shooting with a digital camera than with film, in part because digital cameras generally provide more dynamic range than most films provided exposure latitude and in part because of the immediate feedback that the photographer receives with a digital camera.  If you screw up the exposure with digital, you can make yourself aware of that fact almost instantaneously, make an adjustment, and try again.  As long as the subject matter isn’t of a one-and-done nature, you can rinse and repeat to your heart’s content.  You’ll get it right eventually.

Obviously this is an incentive to be a bit more careless.  But this is hardly the same thing as being able to “always fix it in Photoshop.”  As a general matter, if you screw up the exposure and don’t re-shoot the scene, you can’t “fix it in Photoshop.”  Yes, if you shoot in RAW mode you can adjust the exposure by up to two stops in RAW conversion, but if you blow the highlights, all the exposure adjustment in the world can’t fix that.  And if you badly underexpose the shot, you potentially have significant noise issues to deal with and, in a worst case scenario, no detail in the shadows to recover.  What’s more, if you screw up in other technical terms–botching focus, for instance, or miscalculating depth of field–you can’t “fix it in Photoshop” either.

Lower Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Lower Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

The “fixing” that you can do in Photoshop is the same kind of thing that you could repair with film–sometimes in the wet darkroom, but definitely by scanning the transparency or negative and working with it in the digital darkroom–in the form of cloning or healing.  But even that is limited to relatively minor retouching, unless you’re extremely skilled with image editing software and have a lot of time on your hands.  (Believe me, I know; I’ve been working extensively with various versions of Photoshop for more than a dozen years.)

And, here’s the dirty little secret:  the vast, vast majority of photographers out there understand everything I’ve laid out above.  Very, very few photographers believe that they can “always fix it with Photoshop.”

No, what postprocessing software is primarily good for is enhancing imagery in a manner consistent with personal vision and overcoming in-field problems that you can’t get right in the camera, at least not without great difficulty; expensive, cumbersome equipment; or, in some cases, no matter what you do.

Bandon Beach at Sunset, Oregon

Bandon Beach at Sunset, Oregon

The Other Point

There’s one more point I want to address, and that’s the notion that “so many people overuse” Photoshop or HDR techniques or…fill in your digital darkroom bogeyman here.  Images are “too fake looking” or “oversaturated” or “ham-fisted.”  I actually don’t hear quite as much of this sort of thing as I did five or more years ago, but it still rears its head plenty often, thank you very much.

Here’s my philosophy; if non-documentary photography is art–and it is supposed to be art, isn’t it?–I think we have to separate our opinions (i.e. our likes and dislikes) from what is acceptable.

I go for a “realistic” look (for lack of a better term) with my photography.  Much of my use of post-processing work is to overcome the camera’s inability to easily record what my eye sees.  So the kind of “grunge” look of very heavily tonemapped HDR imagery, for instance, or highly saturated work, isn’t my cup of tea.  But that’s my opinion.  I don’t care for it.  But if that’s the look the artist likes–if that’s the look the artist is deliberately trying to effect–then it’s a success, as I see it.  In other words, just because I don’t care for it, doesn’t somehow make it objectively “bad” or invalid.


I was at a John Shaw seminar 11 years ago, and the phrase he repeatedly used, in preface to explaining “the right way to do something” was “whaddaya wanna do?”  In other words, the “right technique” depended on the intent of the artist.  It remains a lesson well-learned.

The Light, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon National Park - North Rim, Arizona

The Light, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim, Arizona



  1. Beautiful images!

    • Thanks very much!

  2. Beautiful shots and great commentary! My graphic designer/photographer -Photoshop-guru son would agree with you on everything, but my digital- photography-is-not-real-photography hubby would not… there is so much emotion involved with this artistry! I am not a photographer but since I want to illustrate what I write I’ve had my trial and error acquaintanceship with the Elements and I know for sure that unfortunately you can’t fix everything. Thanks for a great post!

    • Thank you.

      Ugh…digital-photography-is-not-real-photography? Where do I start? 🙂

      Many years ago, I belonged to a camera club. About 12 years ago, I was finagled into taking on the job of editing the club newsletter. Shortly after assuming the helm, I started writing a column detailing my (then brand new) foray into shooting with a DSLR. The only reason I started the column was because there was a dearth of material being submitted to me for publication, so I needed to fill space. Well, some–by no means all–of the same people who pushed so hard for me to take on the totally thankless role of newsletter editor began complaining about the column, because–you guessed it–“that’s not real photography and this isn’t a digital club.” Luckily, the club president realized what I had already concluded: that digital capture was going to outpace film, and sooner rather than later, and the club better accept that fact or plan its own demise. I left that club within a couple of years, but a friend of mine who remained a member later told me that within three years of the aforementioned incident, all the members were shooting a digital camera, including those who had spent all that time complaining about the digital column just a few years earlier.

  3. Kerry, I couldn’t agree more and couldn’t have said it any better!

  4. Awesome images!

    I used to use Kodachrome 25 for landscape photography, I know exactly what your point is. I have that discussion with many photographers who have only used digital equipment and are somewhat lax in getting the shot right in the camera. They may not say that you can fix everything in Photoshop, but they do say that every digital photograph does need at least some post processing.

    After I bought my new camera this spring, I found myself trying to match the results that I used to get with Kodachrome, I think much of this entire discussion is what you started with and are used to.

    • Thanks!

      Re “every digital photograph does need at least some post processing.” That’s certainly true if you’re shooting RAW. Even by merely converting the files you’re doing post-processing…that’s true if all you do is accept the default converter settings.

      In fact, even if you’re shooting JPEGs you’re effectively doing post-processing (or the camera is, in any event, by applying a series of image-related settings).

  5. This is a great article! I agree with you on many points about “fixing it in PS” you can’t always do that but sometimes we do give it a go. The goal – in my opinion – is to get it right or as right as possible in camera and then do the post editing to either get it right or to have at it with ones own interpretation. In photography as in life – sometimes a good thing can be over done. Beauty IS in the eye of the beholder…and all that.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t disagree with anything you wrote here, I just want to point out that sometimes it’s not functionally possible to “get it right in the camera.” It depends on what you’re trying to do, of course, but many post-processing applications have been spawned due to a desire to overcome some of the limitations of a single photographic frame.

  6. Great post Kerry- you´ve definately hit the nail on the head here- nice to read a sensible and rational discussion about photography for a change, rather than uninformed drivel that you get so much of in the photographic forums keep it up 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Adrian.

  7. That final photo is beyond the beyond! Really beautiful capture. Agree with you whole-heartedly on the article.

  8. Beautiful images and beautiful read! I agree wholeheartedly. If it’s not pitched as documentary, the artist can do whatever he or she wants! I tend to mostly stick toward the “realism” end of the spectrum, too, but every now and then I intentionally overcook some photos… Because hey, it’s fun to experiment!

    • Hi, Matt. Thanks for taking the time to weigh in.

  9. I was schooled in the darkroom and with a fully manual camera. Getting it right was a learned chore. Today I love to step into both worlds… a so called more natural look and the played with comp. I still like a pic for what it does for me, maniped or not. Oh… major props to your last pic… what a beautiful take on a much shot subject.

    • Thanks very much, Mike. Always good to hear your thoughts.

  10. Gee Kerry, where do I begin…I’m glad I inspired you to write such an eloquent piece…and for sticking up for me. I also liked your word choice “trained” describing my past using Kodachrome 64. I suppose coming from the “old school” does have some merit. This post is heading to my “save for posterity folder”!

    • Wow, thanks very much David!

  11. your shot of lower brandiwine is excellent, I can almost feel fall in the air after looking at it.

  12. I agree, it’s so much better (and easier, for that matter) to try and get the photo right in the camera than in postprocessing! Great post and photos 🙂

  13. […] posted an entry on my own blog about five weeks ago that lays out my philosophy about post-processing pretty thoroughly, and if […]

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