Is it me or the software?

Is it me or the software?

I love taking photos, and I love processing them too.  I use software on every image, and so does everyone else.  It’s part of the digital age, and it’s awesome.

Recently, I saw an interesting thread online wherein someone was showing how software allowed them to fully express their vision for a particular shot.  It was right on the money, in terms of discussing how they use software to enhance their photography.  The “straight out of camera” version was fine, but after some digital processing it was much better.  That’s what we do.  Every one of us.  That’s a lot of what makes digital photography so great.

But there was a nasty comment left by someone, which said something along the lines of “any monkey can press a button and take a photo - and as long as you can just use software to make it pretty there’s no skill in it”, or something to that effect.

I completely disagree.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it”.  -  Ansel Adams

This is not monkey work.  There is a TON of skill in it, both with your gear and the software.  You have to be engaged before, during, and after you press the shutter. You have to know how to work with both hardware and software to create beautiful photographs.  It’s not just point, shoot, and move sliders.

In other words, you can’t take a crap photo and make it awesome with software.

Garbage in, garbage out.

A crap photo is a crap photo, now matter how much processing you give it in the old digital darkroom.  Believe me, I know - I have plenty of crap photos.  Sure, I can make them more colorful or different thanks to software but guess what?  It’s still a crap photo.

To be clear, I am unashamed in my use of software to enhance my photos, and I love to do it.  Sliders are some of my best friends.  There are unlimited options in self-expression thanks to digital photography, and that’s one of the things I love about it.  Everyone could have a different take on the same shot.  Heck, sometimes I go back and re-process something I already posted, just to see how I might process it today vs. yesterday.  It’s always different.

Photographer or software user?

Anyways, all of that got me thinking about the bigger picture (no pun intended) as it relates to my work:  Am I actually a photographer (which I what I consider myself), or just a guy who can use photo software to make things look pretty?  Do I just push a button out there in the field, and then when I get home just move some sliders around in software, and “VOILA!” there’s a pretty picture at the end of that process?  Does my camera do the work?  Does my software do the work?  Do I do the work?  Do I do anything besides push buttons and slide sliders??

In other words: am I a photographic artist expressing a creative vision for a particular scene, or a just a guy monkeying around with some software?  Well, let’s talk about that...

Every serious photographer uses software

I shoot RAW, as does most everyone else that is serious about their photography.  RAW files contain more data, and data is good.  But, RAW files don’t come out of the camera looking like the scene you just shot, or what your eyes just saw.  They need work.  You have to have software to do that work.  No one that’s serious about their photography, save for maybe a photojournalist, publishes a photo that is “straight out of the camera”.  They are always adjusted in some form or fashion.  All the great landscape photos are adjusted.  Every one of them.  Even Ansel Adams adjusted his photos, albeit in the physical darkroom, not the digital one.  

For example, I recently read a profile in a UK photo magazine of an incredible landscape photographer and he says in the interview that yep, he absolutely processes all his photos.  He wasn’t shy or deceptive about it.  He admitted it straight up, and I respect that.

So first things first - let’s talk about the photographic process, because I think that is where this all begins.

The Photographic Process

We all have our own process and rituals we go through, and although they are as unique as we are, they all probably fall into the same general categories.

To simplify (greatly), I could define the photographic process in 3 steps:

  1. Plan the photo
  2. Take the photo
  3. Process the photo

Let’s dive into these steps a little bit, shall we?

1.) Plan the photo

Planning a photo can sometimes take a LOT of work, and at times I admit it can happen almost spontaneously.  A lot of it depends on what sort of photos you like to take.  Since I consider most of my work HDR travel photography, I will look at it from that point of view.  I want to shoot things and places primarily, not weddings or portraits or even street photography.  So for purposes of planning shots on an upcoming trip, I do several things:

  • I do a Google image search of the area to see what looks interesting
  • I use the Stuck on Earth iPad app to research great photo spots
  • I may search the area on Flickr too
  • I look at Google Maps to determine photo locations, and try to get familiar with the area, as I am normally walking
  • I create a note on my iPhone listing these spots so I can keep track of it all
  • I try and (loosely) plan out a route, depending on how many photo outings I will have on the trip
  • I check weather reports to see what I may be getting in the sky
  • I check sunrise/sunset times so as to plan my shooting around the best available light
  • I try and figure out where sunrise/sunset will be in case I can find an excellent vantage point for shooting either of them

To me, that’s a lot of work, and I am not even to the scene I am shooting yet.  To some, it may not be much work.  But bottom line - I spend a decent amount of time doing research and planning ahead, because we all know there is never enough time to get it all done.  Plan your work, and work your plan.

2.) Take the photo (this is the “pressing the button” part of the process)

Ok, here’s a little secret.  You never just “take a photo” once you become serious about photography.  When you have arrived at one of your spots and are getting ready to shoot, here are just a few of the things that you begin to do (and not necessarily in this order, this is a list off the top of my head):

  • Choose the location and angle from which you want to shoot whatever it is you are shooting - this involves a lot of walking around and looking at your subject thru the lens - and you may fire some test shots while you’re at it
  • Choose your composition, which involves setting the camera up on the tripod, quite a bit of stepping up/stepping back, moving left/right, perhaps adjusting the height of the tripod, etc
  • Choose your Aperture (I shoot all my HDRs - and almost everything else - in Aperture mode)
  • Choose your ISO (I am normally at 200 on the tripod)
  • Zoom in/zoom out until you feel like you have framed it the way you want it framed
  • Focus the shot manually
  • Set up your brackets (again, I am coming at this from an HDR point of view)
  • Set the delay timer
  • Fire your brackets
  • Check your shots and probably do another one since you missed something :)
  • Zoom in or zoom out and do it all again
  • Shuffle a few feet left or right and do it all again
  • Shuffle a few feet forward or backward and do it all again
  • Decide you want to try the zoom lens instead of the wide angle...and do it all again
  • Keep the security guard talking so you can get in one more set of brackets, because he said you can’t use a tripod here :)

Keep in mind that although this may sound like a lot, after a while you get into a rhythm and this goes by in a few seconds.  You are like a well-trained athlete, firing like crazy while making minor adjustments and then firing again.  It’s fun - really.  Well, it’s fun for me at least.  Probably is for you, too.

But the bottom line here is that “taking a photo” is much more than just pushing a button on a camera and having it do all the work. You make decisions about all sorts of things before you actually press the shutter button.

3.) Process the photo

And finally step 3.  This can go all sorts of ways, depending on what it is you are shooting, what your idea is as far as the look you are trying to achieve, and really lots of other factors.  But again I am coming at this from an HDR point of view, since that is most of my work.  Here’s my general workflow (assuming I already created a folder in Aperture, and imported the photos, etc):

  • Grab the 7 frames and export as a TIFF
  • Drag them into Photomatix
  • Spend 5-15 minutes messing around with various permutations here to see what looks best (maybe more, it all depends on the shot and what I am seeing)
  • Save to desktop then re-import to Aperture
  • Apply any straightening needed, dust spot removal, possibly a crop (but not often) 
  • Export to Color Efex Pro and let the fun begin!
  • Here I run through various filters, making all sorts of minor adjustments until I like what I see - primarily I use Detail Extractor, Pro Contrast, Brilliance/Warmth and Glamour Glow - usually in that order, but every photo is different
  • Once I move the sliders around in Color Efex Pro and have achieved what I think I want, I go back into each filter that is in use and click them on/off to compare how that one filter impacted the final product - this often results in me changing what I have previously done to the photo in each of the filters, slightly
  • Finally arrive at my vision, so it’s now time to save it, and it drops back into Aperture
  • Here I do final touch-up, which includes any more dust spot removal as well as things like using Skin Smoothing for any skies/water as well as further straightening and/or cropping if needed, selective sharpening/definition enhancement, etc
  • Export as a JPG and offer up to the internet gods (ok, actually I leave it on my desktop until I am ready to post/share the photo)
  • The processing time for a normal photo can range from 15 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on what is required to achieve the look I want.  Sometimes, I stop processing because I feel stuck, and come back to it later.

Does that sound like monkey work?

In looking back at all the steps I took to get to a finished product (and I suspect I have forgotten some, since I am sitting here typing and not actually working on photos), there are quite a few.  It’s a fairly involved process, actually.  This is not monkey work.  It’s art, and while I assume a monkey could actually push the buttons on a camera, it’s pretty doubtful the end result would be worth looking at.  

Composition matters!

In all seriousness, there’s a lot involved in “taking a picture”, and especially if that picture happens to be an HDR.  And by the way, I made quick work here of the whole idea of composition.  Yes, anyone can take a photo and software can make it look different - but that does not always mean it looks better.  

There are lots of great ideas around how to compose a photo (Rule of Thirds, for example) and sometimes breaking the rules works great too.  This is art, after all, and therefore it’s a subjective thing.  But a good composition is a good composition, and your human brain and internal artistic eye will know one when you see one.

So, what’s the answer then?

Getting back to the title question of this article: is it me or the software?  

Honestly it’s both - though it’s mostly the photographer.  It’s me doing the planning and having the forethought, it’s my vision too - but it’s also the software (although the software is controlled by me).  You have to have some skill with your gear, you have to understand how to compose a shot and of course you have to plan some things in advance in order to get the best view and the best light.  

But of course, you also have to be able to use the software which is what makes it come to life.  You can’t push sliders aimlessly - you need a vision for your photo and what you are wanting to express with it.

This all takes skill, continual practice, and an eye for beauty.  It’s not just pushing a button, and it’s not just moving some sliders.  It’s both, and it’s a whole lot more than both.  It’s an integrated process where decisions made in the field affect the final outcome, and yet you can never go back and change them (which means you need to understand your gear, as well as have a vision for what you are trying to communicate with the photo).  

Likewise, decisions made in the digital darkroom affect the final outcome, but you can always change those and process the photo differently.  Ten different photographers would have ten different versions of the same scene - of that I am certain.  Every picture is different, and every photographer is unique.  It’s art, and therefore it takes effort and time.

So if someone tells you anybody can do this, they are right.  Any body can do this, but no monkey could ever come close.  And if someone tries to tell you that all you are doing is pressing a button and moving some sliders to make it pretty, go ahead and read them the riot act!