OK, this is probably my longest article ever, but one I’ve been trying to get ‘on paper’ for quite a while.
In my previous post I referred to the fact I’ve spent the last decade, since I started my (digital) photography journey, figuring out how to transform the images I captured on my camera into something more similar as the ones we’re used to seeing in magazines and on the web.
Initially, I thought the ‘problem’ was with my camera (the Nikon D300S – my first DSLR); then I thought it was with my lenses, then I thought it was simply my lack of photography skills and experience, and then I figured it was probably a combination of all…
I tried to work on all these ‘improvement areas’ separately: first I switched from APS-C (‘DX’) to full frame (’35mm’) DSLR (the Nikon D3S) and from a 70-300mm slow zoom lens to a fast 70-200mm f/2.8. I also discovered the amazing quality of the 300 & 400mm f/2.8 (super) telephoto prime lenses and I learned these can really increase your chances of capturing the beauty of nature.
These helped solve the first two challenges, but not my lack of photography skills and experience. That challenge could (& still can) only be mitigated in one way: spend time. So as time went by, I think I did pick up a few more tricks along the way: I started to understand how to fine tune aperture, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity. It’s the combination of these three that can really make or break an image, which is also the main reason why I’m now only shooting in full manual mode (with auto ISO – except for landscapes off course).
It doesn’t matter how well you master your camera, your lenses, your camera settings, or even your composition techniques, if you are unable to use software to help you transform the raw data from your camera into those images you expect to actually come out of your camera. In the era of film cameras, a photographer had to master… chemicals. In the digital era where we are in right now, a photographer has to master software.
You could argue that with today’s advanced technology, camera software should produce images as you would expect; i.e. as you have observed and experienced the photographic scene yourself. We may reach this state of ‘photography nirvana’ one day with super advanced AI, but for now we’re stuck with software that… does not. On a positive side, today’s advanced sensors do capture the (RAW) data necessary to transform this data into a visible image that comes close to what has been observed by the photographer. The bad news is that you need a whole ecosystem of software tools to actually create and then edit the image you expect to be produced by your camera in the first place. Well, you might argue, simply go out there on the web and get those tools and attend some online training on image editing, and you’re done! Perhaps, but that certainly and unfortunately hasn’t been my experience.
I took the early approach to reach out to around a handful of professional (nature) photographers and ask for advice on how all this works: how to edit images, in the right (efficient, correct) way. How do you get from A to B… and to ‘Z’. When I look back at the past 10 years or so, I do wonder if this topic is similar to magicians doing their best to hide the secrets behind their magic acts from the world outside, like a ‘professional secret’. Each photographer explained to me only a tiny piece of the puzzle and looking back, this tiny piece was sometimes useful and sometimes it really wasn’t. But no photographer actually explained to me ‘the bigger picture’: what are really the key steps and required disciplines to take an image from the camera and transform it into an attractive piece of art. What should you do and what should you not do?
Let’s say, you’ve just started looking at photography and you are using your camera provider’s (usually free) proprietary imaging software to look at what you shot during the day. If nobody ever explained to you about Photoshop (or for example Capture One; I’ll write an article on that soon), ‘RAW conversions’, ‘highlight and shadow recovery’, ‘saturation and desaturation’, ‘layers and masks’, ‘web sharpening’, and a few dozen other image editing techniques, you would be looking at something like the following image – and most likely leave you quite confused as you (think you) did everything right…
(unedited & small size, medium quality JPG extract from Nikon ViewNX-i)
In my view, the effort you spent to get to this stage, really only makes up around 20% of the required total:
- You would have planned a long time for the trip (in this case: Yellowstone) and
- Spent considerable amount of resources (money) to actually get here, and
- All this on top of all the camera gear you would have had to acquire in the first place.
Sure, the (in my case) Nikon out-of-the-box tools ViewNX-I (very basic image editing) and Capture NX-D (almost unusably slow on a Mac) do allow for some basic image adjustments. But here is my point: to get your images to a level we are now used to in terms of the Internet and magazines, you’ll need to spend at least an additional 80% effort if not more. I can take it one step further: the majority of images we see on the Internet and in magazines do not look as they do because of the skills of a photographer who took them, or the equipment used. These images look as they do, because of the image editing software that was used afterwards, and the significant amount of time invested and applied skills to master that image editing software.
Creating images of art has become a software (usage) skill.
I recall one photographer on my trip to Alaska, who told me he had hired an ‘editor’. It was the first time I had even heard of something like that, so I asked a bit further. He would take his wildlife shots and simply leave it at that. All his images (he probably did make some selection) would be passed on to his ‘editor’ who would spend the time to get them to a state where he would be pleased enough with the outcome. I was and still am kind of intrigued by the whole notion: is an image actually yours if you have only released the shutter on your camera? Perhaps, but if not, then clearly ‘photography’ has indeed become a software discipline, for the most part. And sure, you’ll find a ton of movies on YouTube explaining this and that feature in Photoshop, but I have yet to come across a single, useful source of information to help you actually get from A to B… and to ‘Z’. In my experience, I never got much further than somewhere in the middle and had to go out and find the other bits & pieces of the ‘how-to-edit-your-images alphabet’ myself.
Looking back, I know quite a few of the professional photographers I interacted with, actually knew/know about those bits & pieces, so I can only wonder as to why the secrets behind the magic acts were not shared. Perhaps I should ask the magicians, although I think the outcome will be the same (i.e. you’re welcome to spend your money but will not get an answer).
To get from the image above (no editing) to the one below took me about 10 years (that is: photography experience, not image editing time ;∼), attending a handful of interactions with professional photographers, browsing across the internet for clues on image editing, trying to master Photoshop which is a never-ending story, and spending well over 24 hours fine-tuning the image in Photoshop, trying to find the right balance in terms of colour, saturation, tone, contrast, and so on. And, I’m still not pleased, so I guess I am going to have to continue digging for at least another 10 years (knowing I’ll need another 10 after that ;∼)
(from Adobe Photoshop and various plugins, and after several weeks of editing…)
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/4, 1/400 s., ISO 4500, 0EV exp. comp., hand-held