New Thoughts on Old Photos

A couple days ago I was cleaning up my library of photos and came across a couple photos that I haven’t seen in a long time. For some reason I had originally rated them quite low and they were lost in the depths of my computer until I stumbled on them again today.

The first is from my Yellowstone trip of 2007. There seems to be some sort of interesting complimentary / reflective thing going on here. The yellow reeds are almost exactly mirroring the trees and mountain, and the water contrasts the sky – the tones are almost reversed while the colors are complimentary. Anyway, it caught my eye, and after staring at it for a while I do believe I like it.

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The second is just from last year in Jasper, but it got lost in the shuffle of more bold and colorful pictures (or maybe dark and brooding, I occasionally gravitate towards that). This one has a more quiet feel but still has a lot going on.

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Lying and Cheating

If you’re not editing your photos, you’re lazy or misguided. There – I said it.

I’m tired of people claiming “purity of image” or “truth” in an unedited photo. The moment you take a picture you are interpreting the scene – if you’re trying for truth, you’re a long way off. You choose the framing, you choose the lighting (yes even in natural light), you choose the angle, and you choose which pictures you show to people. If you’re a photographer, you are already interpreting – just possibly not enough to make any point.

If you don’t think you are interpreting a scene, I would like to hear from you. What are you doing? You are already limiting my view to a tiny window, and taking away all my other senses.

If you are trying to interpret a scene, why would you stop editing the moment it leaves your camera? You’re missing out on an opportunity to share your perspective. You could get rid of distracting elements that take away from your idea. You could add distracting elements if obfuscation is your goal. You think you made a perfect image that perfectly conveys your perspective? Possible, but chances are it could be clear, more compelling, and possibly more truthful – and you’re too lazy to do it. It is not cheating to use a different medium in a work of art.

Whether the point you are making is representing something truthful or not is a completely separate issue, and a hard one for many photographers. It depends a lot on the kind of photography you do. This has been a very hard question for me to answer in the past but its getting easier: I’m leaning more and more towards this not mattering. I am not seeking to represent truth. I’m seeking to represent beauty, loneliness, verdant life, desolation, quietness, grandeur – the list goes on and on. I’m not sure truth is something even to be considered in art photography. I’m more interested in the way the eye moves across a photo, the emotional responses it evokes, and the interplay of light and subject. I’m even occasionally interested in an analytical response.

If you dislike editing, fair enough. There are things you can do in the camera to create great photos, and many great photographers have done little post processing (although this is more rare than you might think). But to take an image that almost says something, and to not give it that final push is criminal. I’ve seen too many almost good photos in my life. Why would putting work into a piece of art be looked down upon? I can’t understand this.

So please edit your photos. I would like to see your perspective on life and truth. Some people will hate you for it, but I will be eternally grateful.

ps. For the record – I don’t do much editing on my photos, but I think I’m going to start to do more. I’m trying not to be so lazy myself.


For the past couple years I’ve been doing all my photography, web development, and everything else on a Macbook Pro. It’s a nice computer. Only occasionally locks up. Does everything pretty seamlessly, almost never gets in the way. There seems to be a lot less maintenance then when I had a windows computer. Overall, I enjoy it quite a bit, but…

Every once in a while I catch myself looking wistfully at shiny new motherboards, processors, graphics cards and cases. I remember assembling them all into a modular beauty. I can picture a black screen with a command prompt and a blinking cursor. Customizing a kernel module was a frustrating and wonderful thing at the same time. Sometimes I’m really tempted to go back to linux.

So it makes sense for a programmer to use linux, maybe even a web developer, but a professional photographer? Yeah, I dismissed it as ridiculous for a while. But one day I stumbled across Bibble. Hmmm, a raw developer that works on linux. Sure there’s always been dcraw, but for managing a catalog of thousands of raw files, that really is not going to work. But Bibble is interesting. I tried a preview of version 5 on my mac, and honestly I liked the results a bit better than out of Lightroom. But here’s the problem: version 4 doesn’t support my camera, and version 5 was supposed to be out about 2 years ago – and it’s still not done. That makes me wonder about future support.

So I’m still looking wistfully at those computer parts and dreaming of linux. Don’t ask me why – I’m not missing anything on my Mac. Maybe I’m a bit sentimental.

First in a Series of Self-Critiques

This post is the first in a series of photo critiques I plan on doing with my own pictures. My goals for this are to improve my photography by conscious analysis and to give other photographers ideas for creating better images. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot in my analysis, and I welcome any questions, comments, corrections or additions.

Here is a recent picture of a poplar forest after sunset at Chickakoo Lake. It was taken at a focal length of 300mm at f5.6. The shutter speed was only 1/80 of a second, so I used a tripod and mirror lockup to get a sharp picture. This is the original with only some white balance corrections applied to the raw file:

What works:
My aim is for the photo to be simple and striking, evoking a sense of quiet unknown. The main, almost only, element in the photo is the repeating tree trunks disappearing into the forest. The narrow field of view from the 300mm lens helps crop out distracting elements: the sky, the treetops, the underbrush.

I kept the leafy tree in the bottom left. It does break up the repeating tree trunks, but works to stop some of the strongest lines in the image from dropping off the bottom edge. Instead the viewer’s eye gets briefly trapped in the subtle detail of the leaves before being snapped back to the high contrast tree trunks.

1. Compression – I used a 300mm telephoto lens. One of the effects of a telephoto lens is to compress the foreground and background into a single plane. There is no vanishing point: parallel lines do not converge. This makes the picture look flat – things that are actually separated by a lot of space appear to be right next to each other.
2. Depth – The evening light highlights the first few trunks of the poplar trees. These are very high contrast and grab the eye quickly, even if you just glance at the photo. Deeper into the forest, the trunks are darker, but still visible. This adds a subtlety and depth that can draw the eye in and hold it longer. There’s a sense of mystery as the forest is only partially revealed.

I find it interesting to play with depth through color and contrast in an image which has very little depth from foreshortening. Extreme wide angle is very popular for landscape photographers these days, and it often works very well, but good landscape photos are also possible at telephoto focal lengths and are a little more unusual.

What doesn’t:
I don’t particularly like the original colors in this image. The soft yellows, greens, and pinks take away from the high contrast, mysterious effect. They could be useful for a different goal, but I really like the dark brooding forest of the edited version. So I played with the curves a little bit to add contrast and converted to black and white. I can’t quite decide if the contrast is too strong now. Are there too few details left in the background?

On the left edge of the image is a dimly lit tree trunk beside a large dark area. I find that tree distracting. I may crop out the tree to give the image a little more balance, but it’s too bad because I really like that large dark void.

Raw vs Jpeg

When I first got my digital SLR, I set it to take the highest quality JPEG photos. I had read a lot in the DP Review forums about raw and jpeg and, for my camera in particular, a lot of people said that the jpegs that came out of the camera were really good, and if you’re crazy and want a lot of extra work, you might be able to sqeeze a little more quality out of the raw format. It kind of made sense to use jpeg – with raw you have to process every single photo you want to print, post online, or do anything with. The other thing is that raw takes so much space on a memory card compared to jpeg.

So for a long time, I only shot with jpeg. I was very pleased with my photos, especially compared to my old point-and-shoot. I sometimes did adjustments to lighten or darken areas of my pictures, or add more saturation here or there. You can only do so much before you start to notice a lot more grain, or loss of detail. Some things you just can’t fix – like blown (completely white) skies.

I’m not sure what prompted me to finally try raw. Maybe I was just feeling adventurous that day. Anyway, I set my camera to raw, and of course it makes no real difference when shooting. When I got home, and transferred the images to my computer, it took a lot longer. When I took my first look at the pictures I was disappointed. They were okay, but not great – my foray into raw didn’t leave me impressed. They all seemed too dark, or too light, and all of them seemed pretty flat. The next morning I looked at the pictures again, and I thought I’d see what I could do with them in Photoshop (I didn’t really know about Adobe Camera Raw at that point). When they opened in ACR I tried fiddling with some of the settings. This is when a whole new world opened before me (okay that’s a little over-dramatic). The range of developing I could do without any loss in quality amazed me. I could get detail out of areas that looked black. I could get blues out of overexposed skies. Raw is no substitute for properly exposing photos of course, but when there is a large difference between the exposures for different parts of the image, raw can help immensely.

So I was impressed, but there’s still the problem of editing any photo you’re interested in in ACR or other software. However, now that I’m using Adobe Lightroom it is very easy. You can batch develop photos you import, and it’s very easy to switch between viewing all your pictures and making a few quick adjustments.

With the right software, raw is definitely the way to go. You get more dynamic range in your photos, and adjustments don’t cause any loss of image quality. Files are significantly larger than jpeg, so you do have to have larger memory cards and hard drives, but the difference in quality of the final image is easily worth any extra hassle.

What to do with all those photos.

I wanted to like Aperture. I really did. I was getting a laptop so I could take it with me on trips to download photos from my camera. I like apple’s products in general, and I was getting excited about Aperture, so I decided on a Macbook Pro. Apparently Aperture doesn’t run very well on plain old macbooks – the graphics card isn’t good enough. So I lay down the extra cash for the pro, take it home, and start setting everything up. I install the Aperture trial, and start importing my pictures … and continue importing my pictures … for hours … for a couple days. Eventually I switched to Lightroom and I got all set up in a day. Below is a bit of a review.

Lightroom seems to a little faster and simpler than Aperture, and still does almost (give me stacks!) everything that I would want. With Aperture I would often get the dreaded beachball cursor. Now this is a fast computer – a high-end Macbook Pro (2.33Ghz Core 2 Duo with 2GB ram). This should not happen. But with Lightroom, even browsing my whole collection is fairly speedy, and I rarely get the spinning cursor.

For image editing, Lightroom has very detailed non-destructive adjustments, just like Aperture, but it seems to me that images can be improved dramatically much quicker than aperture by just using the “Basic” controls on the right side. (vibrance is a beautiful control – I don’t think Aperture has an equivalent). I was never able to get results I was really happy with in aperture. In lightroom I can usually do all the color adjustment I want with the white balance controls, “Recovery”, “Fill LIght”, “Blacks” and “Vibrance”. Of course there are lots of more detailed controls for more fine-grained control which is occasionally needed. Cropping, straightening, spotting are all simple and intuitive in both programs.

The one thing I miss from Aperture is stacks, which groups a bunch of photos, and only shows the best one of a group. Similar results can be achieved with stars and flags in lightroom, but it’s not the same and it takes a bit more work.
Somehow I overlooked this in Lightroom. Both programs have stacks. You can either stack automatically by capture time or you can assign stacks manually.

Aperture is also better for dual monitors, with flexible display settings. Lightroom doesn’t work on dual monitors yet, but the fullscreen mode (press f) in Lightroom is really nice, with the pop-out panels.

Other than all this, the filtering (to see only the photos you are interested in) is very powerful in both programs. The terminology is different between the programs, but the abilities are very similar. I didn’t really like that everything had to be in projects in Aperture. And a project can’t hold more than 10,000 images, so I can’t fit all my photos into one project. Lightroom’s catalog holds all the photos, and then they are arranged and filtered within that. This hierarchical structure makes a little more sense to me. The Folders in Lightroom are just the folders on your harddrive, and if you rename them, you rename the folders. This seems much more intuitive than Aperture’s projects to me, and if I ever switch to another program, everything is still organized by folder the way I want it.

The catalog system in Lightroom seems to work fairly well. I’ve got everything on an external hard drive, some of my best in a catalog on my laptop hard drive, and I can merge the changes I make on my laptop catalog back to my external catalog pretty easily. Of course, you can ignore all this and only have one catalog – that’s by far the simplest. Changing the catalog you’re browsing requires a restart of Lightroom, which seems a little dumb to me, but I rarely change catalogs, so this doesn’t affect me too much.

Aperture has built-in backups with its vault system. Lightroom backs up its catalog every week too, but I don’t store any of my photos in the catalog (although you can) – just all the meta-data. I back up my whole filesystem rather than letting the program backup it’s own package of my images, and I’m much more comfortable with this. This seems to take a lot less disk space too.

In the end, if you have a Mac, you should try them both. Both have 30 day demos, which is great for evaluating. Both programs are around $300 CAD, but if you’re a student you should be able to get either one for just over $100. If you’re stuck on windows, Lightroom is your option, but you also have the free option of Picasa which is much simpler and less powerful, but still not too bad.

Taking or Making Photos

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about taking pictures as compared to making pictures. Now I take a lot of pictures – I enjoy taking pictures. In my design classes, there has been a fair amount of photography, and thinking of photography as both a technical process and an art. In design, generally, you are expected to make pictures: to arrange the world into a state that communicates an idea, and then capture that in a photo. Usually when I take photos for my own enjoyment I’m not making pictures, I’m taking them. For me this is a way of experiencing the world around me, not arranging it to my specifications. This is generally how I approach life in general, – I’m an experiencer, not an arranger. This has a significant effect on the images I produce. Sometimes I’m tempted to think that taking pictures is a lesser art form than making them. I’m not sure this is the case though. Either way you’re capturing a subjective view of the world around you, and all the same composition and color theory principles apply. Your pictures say a lot about your life, whether you experience or create, and either approach can communicate a variety of messages. I think that the result of taking pictures is often un-original, and I think that’s due to the fact that we all experience many of the same things, and in general, life can get boring. So maybe taking and making photos are the same, but what with taking photos, you’re manipulating your life rather than a composition of objects or people in front of your lens. So there’s the challenge – create an interesting life for yourself and you can *take* interesting photos.