HDR, Filters, Saturation…Is It Really Photography?

Photo by Christopher Robinson

Some photos that we spotlighted from the early days of our American Landscape contest sparked a lively and, at times, a fierce discussion about "real" photography. It's a big topic and one that I want to come back to in this blog post.

Modern photographers have some incredibly powerful digital tools at their disposal. Photoshop, HDR software, effects plug-ins have all changed the way we can work an image in the digital darkroom and today's DSLRs continue to push the ISO envelope making it possible to shoot scenes that would have been impossible in the past. Some photographers suggest that using these tools is cheating. That the photographs that are the product of such technology aren't real.

When I think of the greatest landscape photography, names like Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Galen Rowell and David Muench come to mind. Each of these artists of photography has used the tools at their disposal to achieve their own interpretation of the landscape. Their individual styles vary wildly from each other, yet none is more valid than another.

As cameras, software and printers improve and evolve, photographers are able to create photographs that connect viewers to the landscape with fewer and fewer limitations. Just as the word processor doesn’t make every writer into Hemmingway, powerful digital cameras and software are tools, and in the hands of an artist these tools can create magnificent and evocative images. Does using the tools at hand whether it’s a filter, software or the choice of a wide-angle versus a telephoto lens render a photograph less meaningful?

What do you think? Send your comments and let me know your opinion.


    The abundance of gaudy & garish images created using HDR and other processes is proof that the tool alone doesn’t make the image, or the artist.

    The fundamentals of good photography – Subject, lighting, composition – must still be in

    place, otherwise you are just puting lipstick on a pig.

    That said, in the hands of a skilled user, these new tools greatly expand the ability to

    deliver an image in a way that brings out the artists vision.

    I think Ansel Adams would have embraced the digital world. Regardless of whether your darkroom has a clock & thermometer or a mouse & monitor, the images ultimately speak for themselves…

    disappointing…it’s an old story..is it really still an issue in photography?filters?it has been an impt tool of every landscape photog for decades..Softwares?cmon it’s 2012 already. move on. do welcome the digital era as Charles Darwin has said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” but if it’s really your thing then go ahead shoot in film/jpeg just don’t call our photographs unreal or less meaningful because we develop pixels..

    Hey Chris,

    Go ahead and open the flood gates to Pandora why don’t you. It’s kind of funny that this post has come to the surface at this moment in time. My opinion has recently changed on this discussion due to a whole slew of new clients. And here is my thinking and the thinking of many of the editors I work with.

    If it is created in camera and the history to that single capture can be traced, the sky is the limit to how you obtained that RAW file. Filters, flash, lenses of choice whatever you deemed you needed at that moment in time is okay. The initial image should make its statement from the beginning. No crops outside of the camera. Then from a processing perspective, adjustments are allowed to make your image presentable from your view point, but nothing should be added or taken away from that original composition with the exception of dust.

    Some editors are even making it that you cannot use Photoshop to make adjustments only Lightroom/Camera Raw. I think that this might be a little extreme, but maybe they have personally been burned too many times and they have decided that drawing the line in the sand weeds out those who try to cover their tracks.

    Digital cameras are designed to produce exposure and rendering in the middle of the field to all parties. This is definitely a design decision by the manufacturers and a realistic approach to the photographic element. Not everyone wants to shoot Velvia, nor does everyone want to shoot Portra. So if someone says that they don’t process their image they obviously don’t know what they are doing or are flat out lying.

    In this discussion though, the word manipulation is going to come up. And I am finding this word miss used in the photography industry as well. Manipulation symbolizes a change in that original capture, and not one of minor adjustment. Manipulation is when the HDRs, the merges, and adds and subtractions occur to an image. This symbolizes the “untruth” in photography to me. It is a very bad swear word and the beginners need to add it or subtract it from their vocabulary accordingly.

    Now I know that there are many that would argue HDR is not manipulation. I know this because that used to be my fight. My change is simple, companies like National Geographic, Powder Magazine, Bike Magazine, Sierra Club, and Audubon, Etc., do not accept this work. Thus, in an effort to never send something that deviates from my clients’ requests, I have decided to work wholeheartedly for the in-camera response. And I have to tell you that it has made me a much better photographer because of it.

    Photography is a hard medium and artistic expression to really define. It captures reality to some extent, but it truly doesn’t go to the point of painting nor to the point of what we witness through our own eyes with everyday life. It is a sort of skewed reality. We adjust what our viewer sees from the point at which we pick a lens that is not 50mm. And even then, we can change our view point from there on what we decide highlight in our composition. This whole discussion is an argument of grey areas, of reactionary dualities and ironies. And in as much an artistic personal expression as the medium itself. Though, I do find that standing behind the justification that it is art and I can do what ever I want, not quite as valid now.

    Don’t get me wrong either. I still think HDR is cool. Merging exposures is a great way to solve light issues that were never solvable before and to those using them more power to you. I have decided to let go of it and purely create with my black box to what is standing before me in any given situation. Partially, because of my client base requests and partly because my life in the office has become simpler because of it.

    Yes, I do process my images. I add contrast, color changes, saturation adjustments, curves, levels, dodges and burns, vignettes, highlight adjustments, shadow adjustments, global and selective tweaks. My RAW does show exactly what I was thinking, just on a much more muted palette and that is okay. It is not missing the star trails, or the tree in the corner that I just left in because I was too lazy to move the camera figuring I could crop it out later. Do I have those HDRs, merges, and content aware moves? Yes I do. And this is my final point, I tell those interested in using them that the image was worked that way. If they decide to use it at that point, THEY MADE THAT DECISION, not me.

    Have a great weekend.


    Jay G.

    I’m with Jay on this, Chris…get ready for the flash flood 🙂 Personally I try not to get too wrapped up in rules and choose instead to focus on my intentions and the ability to communicate what’s in my head. For me the artistic impact of an image is what I’m interested in. In general, any techniques used to make successful, high quality, artistic imagery, whether in camera, in the darkroom or in the computer, are the result of practice, skill, vision, talent and innovation. Techniques and technology don’t make good images…artists do. There are many paths to good art. In my own teaching and writing I have abandoned use of the word “processing”. Processing is what happens to fast food. Instead I advocate using the word “developing”. Developing images has been a core foundation of artistic expression in photography since the beginning. I like to think I’m continuing in this tradition using the tools available.

    The arguement will never stop between “all natural” vs the use “post processing” tools. Look at the discussion and strong positions around HDR processing.

    With my work, I try to get everything right at the time of the shot, whether it is macro floral, street photography, or landscape. The less I have to use post processing tools the better. However, I love working with Nik Software plugins, especially Color Efex Pro 4 and Viveza 2.

    There is a wide range of what people like and want to see.

    The act of framing a scene, excluding one element while emphasizing another, is a manipulation.

    Choosing Velvia for an otherwise “straight” photograph is manipulation.

    Burning a daytime sky to an almost midnight black is a manipulation.

    Ansel thought a bit of artistic interpretation was okay. Who am I to argue?

    If we’re talking about art instead of journalism, there are no rules.

    Personal preference is one thing; belittling someone else’s photograph because it doesn’t adhere to one’s own idea of what a photograph should be? That’s a greater offense, in my opinion.

    I actually have a little blurb about this on my zenfolio site…

    In a day and age when digital manipulation of photos is rampant, I believe it?۪s important to clearly state one’s personal ethos regarding this matter. My images are captured using the RAW file format. Unlike images captured as JPEGs, RAW image files require ???developing.?۝ Film photographers used darkroom methods such as burning and dodging to create prints that accurately represented their creative vision. I use Adobe Lightroom, and occasionally Photoshop to perform this task, making adjustments to exposure, contrast and saturation. I also use these programs to crop, create black & white conversions, and to remove digital noise and sensor dust spots.

    However, I do not digitally add, nor remove objects from any of my images. I do not digitally alter colors in a way that causes them to appear substantially different than they appeared in real life. I cannot say that I edit my photos so that they represent reality, because I do not believe it?۪s possible to capture three-dimensional reality with a two-dimensional medium. All images are the photographer?۪s interpretation of reality, and mine are no different. However, if one of my images contains a yellow flower, you can rest assured that the flower I photographed was yellow, and not a red flower converted to yellow in an image editing program. If there are clouds in the sky of that photo, they were there when I pressed the shutter.

    It should be noted that photo manipulation did not begin in the digital age, but in fact has a long and sometimes controversial history, going back well over a hundred years. I have no problem with photo manipulation per se – digital or otherwise – as long as such images are clearly labeled. Nonetheless, the art of capturing with a camera unique moments in time takes skill, vision, and most of all, patience. It?۪s a great challenge, and in my opinion, far more rewarding than manufacturing images in a computer. To me, this challenge is the very essence of photography.


    I think that digital manipulation has enhanced most outdoor photography, particularly with landscapes. Obviously, some go to extremes which can degrade an otherwise good image. Some photographs are best left unaltered such as those that are recording news events. I have no problem with editing out distractions in landscapes (trash, contrails etc.) or adding an occasional object to the image (as long as the photographer admits it in a description of the picture). Like Paul above I also have some thoughts about this on my Zenfolio website.

    This arguement, for now, is not going away.

    I enjoy shooting images for HDR and the post processing. However, I add very little of the HDR effect. Personally, I don’t carry for the “pop art” look.

    A camera will never capture the visual and emotional experience I have encountered in the natural world. I will not be bound in creative expression. Imaginative and emotional perception united with photographic documentation and experiences, only to be pigeonholed by the constraints of others yields what ?????

    Tie one hand behind my back, hop on one leg, poke me in the eye, and jump through each critics circus hoop, because that’s where originality, creativity, and transcending photographic art always has and always will originate from.

    I have an issue with extreme HDR when people use it to pull more detail than our eyes would ever be able to see under normal circumstances – giving an image an unreal look to it. This usually happens in sunrise and sunset shots when the camera is pointed directly into the light source…maybe my vision isn’t normal, but i, for one, cannot see the details of a rock or a tree when I am looking into a sunset. It is as if the more extreme we can get with our images, the better…sometimes a dose of reality is okay too.

    I think the problem with people accepting manipulation of photography is that for so long most photographers couldn’t and didn’t do any manipulation. A photograph would record something, and that was the end of the process. But as the industry progressed, photographers could start to manipulate images with home or commercial labs.

    Today, every photographer has access to software that allows them to manipulation an image in any way they want. The medium has changed and grown, much like painting now has the option of digital painting with the use of software.

    The flood of poorly manipulated images isn’t that much different from when page layout software was introduced, and suddenly everyone though they were a graphic designer. There were a few years of horrible looking ads before businesses realized that professional designers did a much better job than Bob in the next cubical.

    Photographers today are testing the software, and their own creativity. In time, those with skill and training will rise to the top, and consumers will be able to see the difference between the professional and amateur. Unfortunately, today we are dealing with businesses like CNN who give people images that are “good enough” by using iReporters. In the end, their attempts to save a buck will only hurt them. I haven’t watched CNN since they fired their photographers.

    Art, in any medium, is an expression of the artist, and now photographers can express themselves more than ever. But being an artists requires skill, training and dedication. Owning a camera and software makes you no more an artist than having a paper and pencil makes you a writer.

    Have Fun,


    I agree with Sean Bagshaw when he suggests not getting too wrapped up in rules. Those who are so anal they have to make rules are building fences around photographers and restraining creativity — their own as well as everyone else’s. Sean says he wants to communicate what?۪s in his head. And that’s the whole point. When I view a beautiful scene I yearn to share it with others. I press the shutter and take the camera home to upload my photo and judge whether I captured the scene faithfully. Very often, I’m disappointed, because what I got was not what I saw. Not exactly. Thank goodness for the techniques and technology that allows me to make adjustments and develop the image more true to reality. I’m aware that what a camera produces isn’t real — it’s a two-dimensional image, a substitute for the real thing. Making adjustments to the image doesn’t change that fact, but it might make a superior substitute.

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