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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.

This Article Features Photo Zoom
My conclusion, a few months later, is that I had wandered down a dangerous path. My innocent desires to imitate the colors of Velvia, to make a lifeless RAW file more interesting and to fix contrast problems with HDR were clearly failures, and I began to look at what I had done in a new light. As I viewed some images, I often said to myself, "What was I thinking?" I began to compare myself to an addict who had become enthralled with digital color and couldn't be satisfied until I had sometimes grossly overdone things. Just realizing this and seeing the beautiful subtle colors I had buried was enough to help me come to terms with my problem.

I began to formulate a plan of action to fix what I had done and to try to keep it from happening again. Fortunately, Lightroom has allowed me to easily remove saturation from images with too much color. Eschewing HDR, I began instead, wherever possible, processing a RAW image with the new powerful dynamic range tools in Lightroom. I use just a little saturation now and then back it off even more for good measure. For HDR-processed images in my files, it's not uncommon for me to desaturate the image 10 to 30 points. I've grown to like images without strong color. I'm looking at some strategies suggested by friends that involve Canon's Digital Photo Professional processing to get more color when I shoot and not add it later. Now, I'm often apt to say to my assistant, "Don't send that out; it's too saturated."

Fortunately, I've always had my compositions, which were never affected by any of this, and my subject matter, which is often unique. People who criticized my color issues haven't given me enough credit for those important facets of my work. I risked my life to obtain unique nature and landscape imagery—heck, I visited Libya and Colombia last year alone. A month ago, I fell doing a rappel and luckily survived relatively intact. After all that, letting color overshadow this unique material was just a shame.

If I'm alone in having this problem, I would be surprised. I've seen a lot of really saturated imagery lately by lots of photographers. I think everyone makes mistakes in artistic endeavors, and I readily admit I made a big one. Hopefully, this article will be a wakeup call for others dealing with the same problem. I take comfort in the fact that I didn't hurt anyone but myself, and I think everyone is owed at least one mulligan in a long career. The worst part is that when I capture legitimately saturated color now, I have a hard time convincing viewers that it's real. I think this is the biggest danger of all. I've always been committed to learning and trying to do a better job; hopefully, I'll succeed. By straying from reality, I was doing a disservice to the subjects I love and love to photograph.

I think photographers are, by nature, an insecure group. I wonder sometimes if I wasn't using color to "improve" images I thought didn't make the grade on their own. Even after all the praise I received and the thousands of images I sold, I wasn't convinced at times that my work was good enough. Maybe a 12-step program for photographers would be a good idea.

We're told that moderation in all things is the best way to live, although William Blake's proclamation that "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" has been somewhat of a calling card for my generation. Ultimately, this is a philosophical problem. I live my life in a moderate way—there's no reason why I shouldn't pursue photography in the same way.

Tom Till's new book Photographing The World is due out this fall. You can see more of his toned-down landscapes on his website at www.tomtill.com.

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