the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “post-editing



“PHOTOGRAPHERS, ESPECIALLY AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHERS, WILL TELL YOU that the camera cannot lie” wrote a columnist for Lincoln, Nebraska’s Evening News in 1895. “This only proves that photographers, especially amateur photographers, can…for the dry plate can fib as badly as the canvas, on occasion.” All of which is to restate the obvious, that the manipulation of images is as old as images themselves, and that, even when a picture does actually tell the truth, the healthy skepticism persists that tomfoolery, if not actually perpetrated in this particular case, lurks ever nearby.

Faked photos emerged in the nineteenth century as soon as photography itself was out of the cradle, and by the time the world was rounding the corner into the 1900’s, successful hoaxes were perpetrated along two main tracks: profit and propaganda. The very fact that people regarded the camera as an objective machine with no particular axe to grind, a mere recording instrument, if you like, gave credence to outright lies created with a growing variety of tweaking techniques. Propaganda proved an obvious growth medium, as governments attempted to massage the historical record to win hearts and minds, a practice brought to the level of art by both Hitler and Madison Avenue in the century that followed. Likewise, profit loomed large, as companies marketed images that the public wished were real, blurring the line between dreams and documents in the service of sentiment or fantasy.


Both the motive to influence and the desire to cash in converge in this image, one of the best-selling photos of the late 1800’s, which purports to show General U.S. Grant heroically astride his horse surveying a roundup of Confederate prisoners at City Point near Richmond in 1864. Following the death of the pioneering Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, his nephew L.C. Handy came into possession of most of his uncle’s negative masters, and began reproducing them to the custom order of many who had, just a short time before, served in the conflict. The picture is striking, mythic, and an unmitigated fake. In fact, it is not a single picture at all, but a composite that combines Grant’s head (from an original Brady portrait), the body of Major General Alexander McCook, and a third image of the prisoners, who were actually photographed at a separate battle that took place hundreds of miles away from City Point. Handy copyrighted the composite and made a small fortune marketing it.

It took decades for the fraud to be detected, after sleuths discerned that, among other inconsistencies, the officer’s body is that of a one-star general (Grant was a three-star by that time) and that the body markings on his horse do not match those of Cincinnati, Grant’s favored mount in 1864. The point is that today’s photographers certainly have no fewer scruples than did the old masters when it comes to fakery, and that, at least today, we are aware of the tools that can be employed to stretch or scar the truth, and accept photography as an interpretative art, for good or ill, rather than merely a means of documenting events. Caveat emptor.




Desert still-life, take one. High contrast, simple color scheme.


IF YOU WANT TO GET ALL MYSTICAL AND OOKY-SPOOKY ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY, you can almost talk yourself into the idea that  pictures kind of force their way past you on the way to their eventual best form. And, yes, I can hear your eyes rolling back in your head at the notion that an image is somehow destined to be created, that it emerges from your process almost despite you, like a rock that is pushed up through the earth by shifting tectonic plates. However, I have taken a handful of such pictures over a lifetime, as, no doubt, have you yourself, pictures that seemed to keep coming forth even beyond your first false steps until they reached their fullest expression.

Gee, is that incense I smell? Ommmmmm….

What I’m fumbling for here is a shared experience, and I do think that every photographer has had a semi-magical instance in which a photo almost taunts you to figure out how to make it work. Even in the best shots, there are moments of aching regret, maybe years down the path, that, had one or more things gone differently in the picture, it might have been eloquent or consequential. I truly believe that this very “so near, yet so far” quality is what keeps us in the hunt. After all, for the hunter, it’s the tiger he hasn’t been able to bag that calls louder than the ones already mounted over the mantel. So with photos. We are always singing the blues about the one that got away.

A monochrome re-mix from months after the original was snapped.

A monochrome re-mix from months after the original was snapped.

That’s why I’m a big believer in thinking of images as never really finished. They are, at best, preliminary studies for something else, picture that we still need to grow in order to complete. We lay them down, dissect them, re-shoot, re-imagine, and re-edit them. If you bend your thinking around, you can become comfortable with the fact that everything is a dress rehearsal for something that hasn’t arrived yet.

One of the starkest demonstrations of this fact is shots that were originally conceived as color images but which were later re-thought in monochrome. Nothing accentuates or streamlines your choices like shaving your tonal palette to the bare minimum. And, in the same vein, nothing makes you surer (or more unsure) about an image than reducing it to its simplest terms.

I think that, even as we are constantly expanding our arsenal of visual techniques, seeing them as growing, living things, so too we must think of our images as points on an evolutionary line, rather than final product.


For the amount of repair it took to straighten and resharpen this shot, I could have made ten pictures that were done correctly in the camera.

With the amount of repair time it took to straighten and resharpen this shot, I could have made ten pictures that were done correctly in-camera. 


IT’S NOW QUITE EASY TO HAVE YOUR CAMERA OR EDITING SOFTWARE correct for things you should have done before the image was made. Most of the times, these fixes cure more than curse, some of them genuinely helping a shooter extend his skills or fine-tune his control. However, in the case of one of the most common post-pic fixes, the “straighten” slider, you’re potentially messing with picture quality, to fix a problem that, quite honestly, shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

Consult every, and I mean every basic camera tutorial going back a hundred years or more. Many timely tips in such books have vanished or evolved over time, but the simple admonition to keep your shot level has remained unchanged since the dawn of photo time. So why do cameras and software even offer straightening as an option?

If you take the cynical view, the existence of this fix suggests that camera manufacturers assume that enough people will routinely take crooked pictures that, of course, they need something to tilt their images back to normal. Because, if that’s not true, then why does the fix even exist?

Here’s the critical point about straightening: it does not maintain sharpness like simply cropping a photo to a smaller size does. To restore your image to a rectangular shape after you’ve rotated it left or right to level it, your camera (or software; both do it the same way) must trim part of the picture and resize it, producing a lower total number of pixels in the “corrected” photo but within the same space as the original one. And there’s just no way to do that without degrading the sharpness.

Some straightenings, if conservative, may not fuzz up your photo as much as some more extreme adjustments. The above image was shot literally on the run during a tour, but it needed just slight adjustment, and so retained most of its sharpness after I ran it though a second editing program. However, you really have to love a shot to go to those extremes to save it.

Thing is, you can bypass this entire problem simply by shooting a level picture. Now, I won’t bore you with a list of just how many really easy ways there are to ensure this. But since sharpness makes at least the top five list of things that most people want from a picture, why not take a pass on all the post-mortem fixes by doing one of the simplest possible things in photography more often?