the photoshooter's journey from taking to making



OF ALL MY REGRETS AS TO WHY AN OLD PHOTOGRAPH CAME OUT WRONG, my usual default is the wish that I’d done a whole lot….less. In most cases in which a picture doesn’t age well with me, I don’t feel like I neglected to add just one more thing. Instead, I typically wish I’d left out five. 

Over a lifetime as an illustrator, I should already know how easy it is to “overdraw”, to so exhaustively festoon a sketch with  much detail and surplus “stuff” that it becomes claustrophobic. I had to learn that, of all my original pencil lines for a piece, only about a fifth of them should be inked permanently into the final rendering. So too with photographs. That’s why I almost always have to lock post-processing hardware out of my own reach, lest I gorge myself on it like a kid breaking into a candy store. 

See-Through HDR

Picktown Bridge EF

These two images show better than I can explain why I have to dose very sparingly on tweaking apps, at least if I want to streamline the effect of my pictures. In both frames seen here, I have tinkered after the snap, applying High Dynamic Range software in the first and Exposure Fusion in the second. The mission of the picture is ridiculously simple: to memorialize a charming old covered bridge and the surrounding scenery. That’s it. But a funny thing happened on the way to making that very basic picture. 

HDR, developed to help compensate for the poor dynamic range of early digital cameras, was designed to rescue detail in the dark passages and dial back blowout in the lighter parts, typically by blending a series of bracketed exposures into a balanced composite. But it also could over-emphasize details, making the grit grittier and the wood grain woodgrainier, all with the unwanted result of upstaging the central impact of the picture. Moreover, it tended to amp up color saturation, which delivered a surreal, lit-from-behind quality. Hence, all but the most restrained users of HDR found it far too easy to keep even simple compositions from morphing into some kinda gooey ’60’s drug poster, and I was, predictably, far from restrained in its use. Ick.

Exposure Fusion, by contrast, doesn’t overly accentuate detail, doesn’t produce day-glo colors, and produces a more natural look overall. It does what HDR does in fewer steps and produces a far less hyperbolic result. Note: this is not an article advocating either type of processing, although there are excellent online articles comparing them, such as this one from the editors of Photofocus. Still, since I have created both okay and tres-awful shots with both tools, this demo shows what can happen when you overthink, over-process, or otherwise glop up a picture. Find what’s essential in your narrative and deliver just that, then pull up your wheels before you crash in a sea of your own artiness. We all know what “overdoing it” means. Over time as photographers, we need to learn how good underdoing can feel as well. 


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