Photographic dissonance

I follow blogs of several other camera-collecting photographers and I get the sense that they all process their photographs in Photoshop or some other image-editing software.

I feel like I run a little against that grain because I use such software sparingly. I’m not opposed to processing; I can see how it is a tool for achieving an artistic vision.

But I shoot my old film cameras mostly for the experience of it. I just want to see what turns out, how the camera responds to the light and my composition. I realize that film, processing, and scanning play a large role in that, so last year I began trying to be consistent with these things. I stick to the same films, the same processing, and the same scanning so that the camera and lens are the variables. (Unfortunately, I have to choose a new processor as the one I was using got out of the business.) When I do use software to manipulate images from my film cameras, it’s mostly to crop or straighten them.

I’m more likely to manipulate the images that come from my digital cameras, adjusting color, brightness, contrast, and sharpness. I tweak subtly, enhancing it to match what I saw that made me want to shoot the scene. I barely know what I’m doing with these tools, not because I find software hard to use, but because I have much to learn about photography as art. Still, I recognize which tweaks please me and which don’t. I save the former and pitch the latter.

This is one of my favorite road-trip photos. Believe it or not, this is the original alignment of US 36 in Parke County, Indiana. When the US highway system was founded in 1927 it was largely routed along existing roads, paved or not. When the state got around to paving US 36, it straightened and moved the highway in this area, leaving this original alignment behind. I visited this spot in 2007 and shot this photo. This is exactly how it came out of my Kodak EasyShare Z730. (Click here to see it larger.)

Old US 36

I love this photograph. Some of my feelings for it come from the memory of that trip and my excitement over this discovery. But I also love this photo because the road, the light spot where the trees part, and the Bridge Out sign all guide the eye to the center of the image. And I can’t get over how deeply, vividly green the scene is, with that shock of tan dirt road, the battered red Stop sign, and the lurking red house. I love this photograph so much that I printed and framed it. It hangs prominently in my home.

The other day a copy of Photoshop Elements found its way into my hands, and I spent some time trying its tools on various photos. I had this photo open when I tried the Auto Smart Fix tool. I was astonished by how it affected the image. (Click here to see it larger. You can compare the two photos better at larger sizes.)

Old US 36

The processed photo immediately seemed more realistic to me than the original. The vivid but monolithic green gave way to varied shades, which created greater texture in the image and, I realized, reflects nature’s actual variety of color. I doubted the original photo’s accuracy. But then I wondered if I can even judge realism in this image. It’s been five years since that road trip. My memory of the scene’s actual color and texture at that moment would have faded anyway – but the original photograph had actually become my memory. (I distinctly remember nearly backing my car into the ditch as I turned it around on this narrow road, however.) I reeled in these realizations.

I had always thought that a photograph was a record, a factual statement. But no; a photograph is just a perspective. And clearly a photograph’s perspective can become my reality.


18 responses to “Photographic dissonance”

  1. Scott Palmer Avatar

    (( a photograph’s perspective can become my reality ))

    This isn’t an original idea with me, but the difference between perspective and reality is not as clear as we often think it is.

    For example, you took that photograph at X:XX PM on , , at a position of Y longitude and X latitude. If you had done A differently, the result would have been C instead of B. None of those things exist “in the world:” they are all creations of our minds. Most of all, the beauty of the scene and the joy of the events were never in that place: they were in you. You brought them to that place and experienced them through it.

    That’s why photography remains an art. It has its technical aspects, just like painting or musical composition, but those are just means to an end. The end is the joy and beauty of the experience.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Scott, you’re right in line with where I was going with this post.

  2. Michael Avatar

    Comparing the two, I’d say the original is more realistic, so there! :) The processed one is flatter and duller to me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?

    1. Jim Avatar

      I find the original more beautiful, too, but I also find it unlikely that every leaf on the scene was actually the same shade of green, like in the photo.

    2. ryoko861 Avatar

      I’m with you, Michael, I was going to say the first one is much sharper, not as “washed out” as the second.

      1. Jim Avatar

        Certainly. But this post isn’t about which is the better photo — it’s about interpretations of reality.

  3. Mike Avatar

    It is something of a shock to visit a friend and see one’s pictures displayed on a computer screen which show little resemblance to the original intent because the screen contrast and brightness are cranked to the maximum. It is tempting to think that the problem might be avoided by making only paper prints, but I have seen classic prints displayed in galleries in ways that I am sure would have horrified the artists. I think you just have to accept the fact that photos take on a life of their own when you release them into the wild.

    I often try out the effects of using the auto-contrast and color adjustment features in photoshop to get an idea of an image’s potential. However, I seldom accept the automatically generated results. The images generated from my digital camera seem to undergo little change when I invoke photoshop automatic contrast and color controls, but film has so many more variables that applying the same adjustments creates dramatic, often unsettling, changes.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I can see that a lot of variables can affect how a photo appears when viewed. These two photos appear more different on my monitor at home, in my office there, than they do on my monitor at work. It’s not just the monitors that differ; the lighting in my office at work is much, much different than in my office at home.

      My print of this photo differs from the on-screen image too, and not just because I had to crop it to 8×10.

  4. Ted Kappes Avatar

    I do know that at one time that I thought it might be possible to show some kinda of objective reality in a photograph. However I have come realize that like you and some of the others have said that a photograph being a creation of my mind exists mostly as a personal interpretation of what I see. It doesn’t happen with every photo that I make, however when I get to a place where I feel that an image has expressed my intentions it can be very satisfying. And it is a process that is intensely personal.

    In your second photo it looks like photoshop has removed what it considers to be a greenish color cast and increased the contrast. Both actions tend to make the colors appear more muted than they might have been actually or maybe in your minds eye. I don’t know if Photoshop Elements has the vibrancy control yet, however if it does that can sometimes bring the colors back up to a more pleasing level without over-saturating already saturated colors.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Ted, thank you for chiming in. I’ll look for a vibrancy control in Elements.

      I’ve always resisted heavy tweaking of my photos in software because I worried it took the image away from “reality.” But now I can see that a photograph is just a perspective, and that any result I get in Elements is just as valid as what came out of the camera.

  5. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    Yay! A new ‘Shopper is born. :)

    I’ve been working with Photoshop since 1996.There’s that scene in Titanic where one of the crewmen running the little robot says “give me my hands, man” to to be given the controls to run the manipulator arms… I always feel like that when I fire up PS.

    There are a lot of things you can do with Photoshop, but as you’ve just pointed out, some of the greatest of them are the most subtle. Anybody can take an image and crank everything to 11 and make something outlandish and garish. But it takes more skill to take a reasonably good image and improve it… make it something people will stop and look at for a little longer than they otherwise would have. Sometimes it’s just about adjusting colour. Sometimes it’s about adjusting reality… taking out extraneous elements. I’m of two minds about that… on the one hand, the shot is what it is, and you don’t want to misrepresent reality. But on the other hand, if you put yourself in the frame of mind that you’re not presenting what actually was, but idealizing a moment, you can permit yourself some latitude… take out distracting telephone poles, brush out parked cars, spruce up old houses a bit… things like that. So long as you’re honest about it, and you’re working on a copy (NEVER perform any operation on your originals!), you’ll find the freedom to really explore and innovate and sometimes even surprise yourself.

    Take any picture, ANY picture, and tell yourself “it needs to be about 20% cooler”… then be more awesome. :)

    1. Jim Avatar

      Wellllll, it’s just Photoshop Elements, so there are limits. But so far I like some of its features over my old favorite, Paint Shop Pro. I’m coming to see with my recent experience that a photo is just a perspective, and is itself not the reality you were standing in when you shot it. This has given me a feeling of freedom. I still want the photo to reasonably represent my perspective when I’m done, though.

      1. Lone Primate Avatar
        Lone Primate

        I see what you mean. The aspect of photography I’ve always found most frustrating it how a camera doesn’t seem to capture what the eye does… shade and sky at the same time, say. Now, that, might just be a illusion… maybe your eye really only does see only the detail in shadow OR the otherwise blown-out highlights, and your brain just stitches them together into what you experience… but it’s what you experience! And when you look at the shot and it’s usually pretty much either/or, you start wonder about things like that. How much of it is real, and how much of it is just your expectations and how your mind put things together? So, as long as you’re not out to actually trick anyone, I saw go for it. Make it what you want it to be. :)

  6. zorgor Avatar

    This is very thought provoking about photographs and memory… Neither is perfect it seems… Yes, memories of photos can replace the original memories… no conclusions here, just a lot of swirling thoughts. :)

    1. Jim Avatar

      Memory, I find, is unreliable because it’s pliable.

      1. zorgor Avatar

        Sure, and so are photos as you’ve discovered… Not as much, but still they change. I think the point of what I’m thinking here is that no perfect record of anything exists. Certainly not our memories, and even the things we think we’ve frozen outside our memories, really aren’t completely… Eh, maybe I’m splitting philosophical hairs, but all this just points out to me that everything only exists in the present moment… The past is gone, in a way it’s no longer real, and all we can do is re-collect and re-member it in the now. Taking fragments and reassembling a facsimile… Kinda profound the way these things really are…

        1. Jim Avatar

          I love time-travel fiction, but I no longer dream of time travel because I agree, now is all that exists. Now is all that has ever existed! We may have images and sounds from the past, but even those captured moments exist only when played/heard in the present moment.

        2. zorgor Avatar

          Yes exactly! So which photo is better? The original or the auto-smart-fixed? I guess it’s really just whichever you like more. And there’s no reason you can’t have both…

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