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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Digital Pitfalls: A Cautionary Tale


Tom Till recently had an epiphany about how much enhancement is too much. It’s easy to become enamored of the power of digital to make colors pop, but it’s also easy to become addicted to the point where you need more and more.

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Rock forms of Monument Basin, Canyonlands National Park, Utah. This is a popular image in Tom Till's gallery. With renewed perspective, Till describes this version of the photo this way, "This is HDR gone too far with admittedly Spielbergian clouds and very saturated colors."

The email was unlike any I had ever received. My photographer friend laid it out bluntly: "I want to begin by telling you that some of what you're about to read will sound harsh." It was. My friend, who greatly respected my long career in film, thought I had made a very ungraceful entry into the digital world. He had loads of criticism and lots of examples to back it up. I was shocked. As I read on, I almost wanted to weep. I had received very little in the way of criticism during my 35 years as a professional landscape and nature photographer. I have a huge body of work and a gigantic publication record. My images provided a wonderful living for me and my family. How could I have gone so badly off the tracks? Sure, a few people criticized my work, but mostly I felt my imagery was accepted by the public, and I had plenty of proof that editors worldwide liked it. The most grief I had ever taken in my career was over an HDR article I wrote for OP last year, and my friend brought the harsh reaction of some readers to that article to my attention. Landscape and nature photographers are, by nature, I think, a conservative breed, and I had shown them a brave new world they didn't like.

When digital came along, I embraced it. Many photographers in my age group simply gave up. The recession, the cost of digitizing their files, the prospect of learning a whole new way to shoot and a lot of new ins and outs and whys and wherefores were just too daunting for many. Asking a photographer to become proficient on the 4x5 camera, as many of us were, and then asking us to learn to shoot with computers masquerading as cameras was just too much in one lifetime for many.

I considered my friend's comments seriously. Where had I gone wrong? I had never created composites or used layers (except the kind HDR programs make automatically). At no time did I consider adding a better sky to an image or tried the kinds of changes in content that some wildlife photographers had taken flak for. I never touched the contrast controls in Lightroom or tried to create colors with white balance. My greatest use of Photoshop was removing a few people in the distance in a shot of the Taj Mahal. Although my friend pointed out several issues he had with my digital work (both from scans and from digital camera files), it mostly boiled down to color.

My friend pointed out that he and several photographers he knew thought I had really oversaturated many of my images and were dismissing all of my work because of it. Now I know some photographers claim never to use any Photoshop or Lightroom adjustments to their images, and I believe them, but most photographers probably could be accused of overcooking a few of their images at some point along the line. I was being accused of a more pervasive and insidious manipulation of my images that made many of them look unreal.

The Totem Pole at sunset, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Navajo Reservation, Utah. These two images show how Till's use of HDR and saturation have changed recently. The technology is so accessible and the look can be seductive, but it's easy to go too far. Today, Till says he drops the color saturation down 10 to 30 points with any HDR image.

At first, my reaction was predictable: Denial. I could make my images look any way I wanted, couldn't I? If I wanted a more painterly look, whose business is that but mine? I love color and love colorful subjects, and I work toward showing them off. I'm not a journalist; there aren't any rules I have to follow. There's nothing wrong with HDR. The most popular travel photography website in the world is all HDR. My images have looked the same way for 30 years; why can't they look different now? People on Facebook love these images, and so do my gallery patrons. I was one of the first persons to use Fujichrome Velvia and then everybody jumped on that bandwagon. These are the kinds of things I was telling myself (and still have to resist) as I tinkered with my images over a two-year period and got heavily into HDR.

In the months that followed the email, I thought long and hard about what I was doing. I heard through the grapevine that some photographers thought I had a mental condition. Not good. A friend of mine mentioned a syndrome familiar to painters where, after years of looking at colors, an artist can become desensitized to them. I've been looking at color imagery almost every day of my life for all or part of five decades. Could I be a candidate for this? I thought about the colors I love on my HD LED TV and each new computer that seems to have more eye-popping chromatics than the last. Mostly, though, I started to really look clearly at what I was doing.

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