Two Roads, Two Art Forms…?

Artists' Palette, Death Valley National Park - Plus 40 Saturation

A few years ago, while thumbing through a major calendar, I saw a remarkable photo taken at Artists’ Palette in Death Valley.  I was astonished by the vividness of colors, an intensity that did not match my memory of the place.  I was so curious, in fact, that the next time I was in the valley, I tried to reproduce the picture myself, if only to understand how it was done.  I went at sunset, used a polarizer to cut reflected light and bracketed widely to get just the right exposure. In other words, I did everything I could within the conventional arsenal to capture the colors in that picture. Nothing worked : my colors were hopelessly drab by comparison. Later, however, I simply opened the best image in Photoshop – and cranked up the saturation about 40 points.  Bingo.  The result precisely matched the shot I had seen in the calendar.

My question is this: is this still photography? I think we can all agree that digital technology, and our increasing skill level with programs like Photoshop, has changed both how we see, and how we create images. When I was just getting started, some thirty-five years ago, the goal was to get the greatest possible image embedded in the film, so that a slide presented to a publisher would be the most beautifully composed, and perfectly exposed, image that it could be. That meant that nearly all of the work - exposure, focus, composition - took place before the shutter was released. Today, that has largely changed, and as anyone who has spent long hours in front of the computer can testify, much of the work that goes into a final image takes place after the picture has been recorded.

I worked for several years for Galen Rowell in the early 1980’s, and still believe that his contribution to modern landscape photography was immeasurable. He saw, and waited for, moments of perfect light, and his images carried the power they did precisely because we believed that they accurately captured the incandescent moments he witnessed.

I wonder, therefore, what Galen would have said about the digital exaggeration that is increasingly commonplace today. My Artists’ Palette illustration is only a modest example of what I now see nearly everywhere – the use of digital tools to make images more colorful or dramatic than the scene they originally captured.

More and more, I am seeing images published that have wildly exaggerated color saturation, extreme contrast, and extensive use of dodging and burning to create images with undeniable, but deeply enhanced, visual power.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not here to condemn the creative skills of photo-artists. As most practitioners of these digital effects are quick to point out, the practice has an unassailable pedigree: after all, they protest, Ansel Adams did it!   Yes, Adams used his mastery in the darkroom to create some of his most memorable images. But because this kind of post-production work was beyond the reach of color photographers, this did not become a widespread practice in that realm until the advent of digital.

The giants of color landscape photography – Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, Galen Rowell – did not have these tools at their disposal, and therefore had to rely on the limits imposed by camera, lens and filters.  We are now largely free of those constraints, and this begs the question: where are our new limits?  Is there any difference between “capturing” nature and “improving” nature? Should digitally enhanced (I hesitate to use the loaded phrase “manipulated”) images be measured against pictures that are meant to be accurate representations? Do they belong side by side in calendars, magazines, exhibits?

Do enhanced pictures raise the bar impossibly, requiring all photographers to use the same techniques if only to compete in competitions, or in the publishing marketplace?   And finally, do they cheapen nature – suggesting that a more-or-less accurate rendition of the natural world is somehow lacking in beauty or inherent drama?   (To avoid angry rebuttals I must stipulate that yes, real accuracy is largely impossible in any photographic image)

I will not answer these questions here, but invite your comments: it seems like a conversation well worth having. In the end, art should have no limits, but I wonder if we are, in fact, talking about two quite different art forms.


    Digital photography is essentially a new medium, and with any new medium it takes a while figure out what you can do with it, and it takes even longer to work out how much if what you can do is really useful. I remember seeing some early examples of digital photographs that demonstrated how easy it was to take an element out of one photo and put it in another; they were some of the lamest, most obviously faked images I’ve ever seen. I feel the same way about a lot of this kind of HDR/oversaturated color work, but I’ve also seen some that works (for me, anyway). I don’t think it requires everybody to play the game, though. It may be the current thing because it looks new and different, but eventually it will be just another technique that you can use, or not.

    Hi Rob,
    I completely agree that this is very much an art form in flux, and how it evolves in the years ahead will be fascinating to watch. The reason for my introducing the discussion was simply to get people to consider what the limits of manipulation are or should be. Is it really: anything goes? And can any two people agree on what is acceptable, and what is grossly over-the-top? The thing that troubles me is that landscape photography evolved as a celebration of the endless creativity of nature in which the role of the photographer was to reveal elegant glimpses of that creativity. For me, it is a brave new world when we abandon the idea of reflecting nature, and decide we can improve upon it!
    I look forward to hearing other perspectives on this issue. Thanks for commenting.

    I do not consider an image automatically to be a photograph. I have two criteria for concluding whether what is being viewed is a photograph.

    1. Does the image look like a photograph to the uninitiated eye? If you have to be told an image is a photograph in order to recognize it as a photograph, them the image is no longer a photograph. Ansel Adams’ images are recognizable as photographs without being advised that they are.

    2. Does it scream that its been photoshopped? If it screams Photoshop, then the image is not a photograph.

    I would call your enhanced imaged a photograph: (a) it is easily recognizable as a photograph and (b) it does not scream that its been photoshopped. As you indicate in your article, you originally thought the image — which you saw and later decided to replicate — to be the result of essentially straight-out-of-camera photography. The same thing can be said about your enhanced image. I repeat: your enhanced image is a photograph.


    Thanks for your comments. I find your criteria interesting, and may be a step closer to the kind of universal criteria I feel we need. I guess part of the problem lies with definitions. Having been to the Death Valley site, I now consider the enhanced version to “scream photoshop.” But that is a very subjective assessment – e.g. unless you’ve been there, you might not know it wasn’t those colors. And what “screams” to you or me – especially of a location or scene we are familiar with – may not elicit the same reaction in someone else.

    In summary, I agree with you that my enhanced shot is a photograph – I just don’t feel it’s a very honest one.


    You ask were are our new limits? I don’t think there are any, and I don’t believe there should be. Every creative industry will always be pusing the limits. We constantly crave for new things, especially the people that pay our bills. The market place will always win out in the end. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part this is photography 2.0. And I don’t think people really care either how something was made, as long as the end result is good. It’s only “us” creative folks that have been doing something one way for a long time that are really bothered. Can you compete in this marketplace by doing things the old way? Sure, but i think it only gets harder and harder. Explaining to someone hiring you that you do things the “real way” will not get you the gig, only the end results will.

    I appreciated your comments, although I am not entirely convinced. As I said at the end of my post, I agree that “art should have no limits.” But the point of my “Two Roads” title was that I really think we are really talking about two distinct art forms : one that is essentially creative in which the original image may only be the starting point, and the other whose goal is to try and show the inherent beauty, and boundless creativity of nature itself. Those are two quite distinct goals. The dichotomy, I think, reflects the unique nature of photography. Unlike other art forms in which the medium is a vehicle for the artist’s imagination, nature photography has always been rooted in, well…nature. If photographers want to exhibit their creativity, why even use nature as a starting point?

    Thanks for being part of the conversation…

    Hey Kevin, I see where you are coming from regarding maybe there being two different roads. And I can totally respect if you don’t feel comfortable manipulating your images. I guess everyone will have there own personal limits. I do feel that nature can use some help sometimes though, like that picture you posted above. And there are times when an unaltered image will look beautiful as is. I’ve seen some beaufitul HDR images of nature themselves, and I personally don’t believe we should not be able to use nature as a starting point either. Oh, and I’ve also seen some terrible HDR images of nature too – lol. In the end I think there will be room for both. Good topic by the way.

    Agree…I also think there will be room for both, the same way there is room for women models wearing lots of makeup and also for women wearing no makeup at all. For the first ones, their beauty have been enhanced by artificial makeup; while for the ones wearing no makeup its greatness reside in their feelings and the intensity of the look in their eyes. As an artist you say different things with each one of these examples. Art is “beneath” the technicality of digital details and if you can transmit a feeling by adding saturation… great. You can also express a mood or feeling by deducting saturation and I wonder how Kevin will feel about this. Can we add a new aspect to this issue of nature photography by bringing into consideration “nature abstracts”? Thanks for permitting my participation…. and sorry, English is not my first language. Haydee

    Haydee –

    Thanks for your comments. I understand your analogy. Maybe not surprisingly, I’ve always preferred “natural” women to a lot of make-up…! And for the same reason, I prefer nature photography to be realistic, not exaggerated. There is plenty of beauty and light and design in the natural world – the urge to “enhance” it seems superfluous, and a bit dishonest. And isn’t the real magic of photography its ability to capture a single, real moment — of light, of motion, of beauty — without enhancement? Otherwise, it ceases to be true photography and becomes something else, a distinct art form that uses photographic technology but is no longer tied to reality.
    For the record, I have no problem with “nature abstracts:” some of my favorite pictures are unexpected and surprising abstractions. But again, I would argue that their power is that the photographer saw and captured that image – not created it on the computer. That’s a quite different skill.


    I wonder if the same sort of questions didn’t come up when color became readily available. And look how that has turned out: even though there is no longer any justification for monochrome other than esthetic, people are still producing black and white images.

    Exceptional images can be produced with any technique. And garbage, as well. 🙂


    Yes, I realize that my comments run the risk of seeming mired in the past – like it’s so YESTERDAY to worry about accuracy. I am old enough to remember when Fuji Velvia first came on the market: at first, people thought it garish and unnatural compared to Kodachrome (which it was) but very quickly it became the new color standard. But any analogy between that paradigm shift and this one is limited: in those days the argument was still about accuracy. Now we seem to be on the brink of rejecting accuracy as passe and moving photography into a completely subjective art form. That’s a huge leap, in my view, and should make us all think about what the goal of nature photography should be: opening a window onto the natural world, or just using it as an arbitrary starting point for creativity.

    Anyhow, I could go on and on…and often do. Thanks for your comments, Rob.

    Meant to add: “And can any two people agree on what is acceptable, and what is grossly over-the-top?” Two people, maybe. Twenty people? Not likely. Two hundred? No way.

    Kevin, I love to go out there and shoot nature details, which when taken out of the scenic perspective, they become nature abstracts, many times macro. As i feel, abstracts are not supposed to be representational, but being nature abstracts, I believe they should be representational. Would you feel the same with enhancing saturation or contrast to nature abstracts, which would represent only details of nature…. is there more space for creativity with nature abstracts or would it still be “a bit dishonet” for you… There is sooo much art in nature details and I, willingly, let myself be surprised with them!

    For the record… I do nature abstract work and do not use photoshop (because I don’t know how to photoshop, but am trying to decide whether to stay with my basic editing or jump into photoshop…)

    Gracias, your opinions help!!



    There should be no limits to creativity. The fact is, your comments show how difficult it is to draw any kind of distinct ethical line on this subject. For example, I find that almost every digital image requires adjustments of saturation and contrast, so using a program like Photoshop is essential to get the pictures to look the way they should. Of course, the temptation is always to add more color, more contrast, more drama. Is there an acceptable limit? Should there be?

    As for macro abstracts, some of the best do not show clearly what they are or how big, but leave the viewer guessing. There is certainly nothing wrong with using those images as a starting point for a purely creative abstraction in which you alter color, saturation, or anything else you want. My idea is not to squash creativity, but to suggest that at some point, the result ceases to be a photograph, but becomes a photocreation, a quite different thing that should not be judged by the same criteria. For now, sea creativo.

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