Approach & Technique

Teton Wildflowers

One of the aspects I love most about photography is the fact that it is so accessible to everyone.  In this day and age, everyone is a photographer.  There are now camera phones with more megapixels than my Nikon D800 and apps to help turn a mediocre photograph into a beautiful work of art.


But more megapixels don’t necessarily make a better image, and neither do those Instagram or Camera+ filters.  As I attempt to describe how I approach the art of photography, let me remind readers that art is very subjective, and that what follows is simply a description of my own approach to my craft.  There isn’t a right or wrong method to photography; each artist must seek to develop their own unique style.


The Art of Photography


In my opinion, there is no substitute to visualization, which acclaimed photographer Ansel Adams described as “the single most important factor in photography.”


Visualization (or pre-visualization) is the process of evaluating a particular scene, considering the options and limitations that are present, thinking about how you want to represent the scene in your own creative way, then making the image accordingly.  To me, that is the true art of photography.


Is it Photoshopped?

As the popularity of digital photography has grown, so has the variety of photographic styles, and the creative liberties taken when processing images.  A common question I hear when sharing my art is: “Is it photoshopped?”  It’s often asked in a dismissive manner, as if it isn’t genuine art if so.  Unfortunately, that’s kind of a loaded question, and I feel like there is a lack of understanding around what is required to produce a final output from a digital photograph (or even film for that matter) in the first place.  So please pardon the following technical explanation as I try and break down and address this question.


Nature is a subject I am very passionate about, and primarily what I choose to photograph.  Therefore, I feel it is somewhat important to try and stay “true” to my subject by not embellishing the scene and altering the colors beyond our perceived reality – nonfiction photography.  Partly that’s because I want to showcase the natural beauty of our environment, the way we as humans see it.  Note the nuanced wording about our perception of a scene and what staying true to that really means – that topic could take up an entire post, but I’ll save that for another time.


Of course, a camera lens is quite different than the human eye.  A camera can only capture a fraction of the dynamic range, or luminance range, that our eyes can, and our eyes are constantly making adjustments to create the full scene our brain interprets.  Therefore, a photograph will always be a very subjective approximation of a real scene.


I try to work within the boundaries of those technical limitations, and I mostly employ in-camera techniques with available lighting to create my images rather than relying on post processing and software effects.  I’ve studied photographic principles, and have worked to become intimately familiar with my tools and available camera settings and constraints.  The goal is to be prepared so that when a creative idea strikes, I’m able to execute on it and get the results I’m expecting when I press the shutter.


That isn’t to say my images aren’t processed or touched in any way.  I will utilize subtle dodging and burning techniques in software when appropriate, for example, to extract detail from a high contract scene (Ansel Adams did this in the dark room).  However, I don’t seek to exaggerate contrast for artistic purposes, as is common in High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography.


It’s worth noting that every digital image is a result of complex software processing that is usually done within the camera.  The JPG file that is the most common output of digital cameras is a compressed file that has been tone-adjusted, sharpened, color-corrected, etc. using complex algorithms that the camera manufacturer has developed to convert the raw data captured by the sensor into an optimized (and more manageable) file.  Many current camera models allow for those Raw files to be saved so that they can be manually processed with software later (even then, however, the “digital negative” is not truly a raw product in the same sense as film in traditional cameras).


While I often shoot using the RAW+JPEG setting (capturing both the Raw file and a JPG simultaneously), I use the JPG most often for final output because I find that typically the camera manufacturer is able to adjust the image in-camera better than I can manually using Adobe Camera Raw.  But I do enjoy having the RAW file available in the case that I need to make a targeted adjustment, or produce a very large print.


Once I have a working image file, the file still must be altered and formatted for the ultimate display medium chosen for the final output.  There are numerous factors involved, including the type of paper or material chosen for a print, the type of printer used, whether the image will be behind glass, the type of glass used, etc.


For example, suppose I want to produce a print at a size of 24in x 36in on UltraSmooth Fine Art Archival Photo paper, mounted and laminated, and I’m printing at 300ppi.  I’ll first open the file in Photoshop to resample up and crop accordingly (the default image from my D800 at 300ppi is roughly 16x24in).  I’ll then convert the image to use the color profile for the printer and make any necessary adjustments to the colors.  I usually rely on my own experience with a particular print shop to get the colors as accurate as possible.  Furthermore, depending on the thickness of the laminate chosen, I’ll probably need to increase the saturation before printing because the laminate has the effect of slightly desaturating the colors.  Finally, I’ll need to apply an appropriate level of sharpening before printing to create contrast between the colors and because the upsizing softens the image.


Preparing an image for my website requires a whole different set of steps within Photoshop to create a sharp image at a much smaller dimension using a different color space, apply a watermark, and optimize the file size for the web.


So has the image been Photoshopped?  Most likely, yes.  But hopefully this has given a little more insight into how I employ Photoshop, and to what extent the image is altered to achieve a desired artist effect.  The hope is that the final result effectively conveys the scene I visualized when I took the shot, and that it provokes thought and emotion within the viewer.

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