Ansel Adams is often quoted as comparing the photographic negative to a musical score, and a print to the performance of that score. In the introduction to his book, The Negative, he describes the importance of visualization at image capture, and then goes into his well-known music metaphor, "The key to the satisfactory application of visualization lies in getting the appropriate information on the negative. This can be compared to the writing of a musical score, or the preparation of architectural designs and plans for a structure. We know that musicianship is not merely rendering the notes accurately, but performing them with the appropriate sensitivity and imaginative communication. The performance of a piece of music, like the printing of a negative, may be of great variety and yet retain the essential concepts."
Adams' quote is highly relevant in today's world of digital photography. For decades, outdoor photographers especially (including myself) were enamored with slide films like Kodachrome and Fuji Velvia, and we often considered our slides both the score and the performance. We shot it and we were done. It was what it was, as we rarely spent the time and money to make prints of our images in large numbers. The advent of digital photography and the RAW file has dramatically altered the way we work with our images. It is now cheap and relatively easy to work on the "performance" of large numbers of our images, whether we actually print them or not. I think it's great that many, many photographers are using digital photography to actually "develop" their images in ways closer to how it was done 50 to 100 years ago, albeit with completely different tools.
Of course the new digital tools do encourage some fantastical interpretations of the natural world, and I often read posts on some forums that lament the fact that it's hard to trust any digital photo as a true interpretation of the world. I don't feel this way at all. Photography is and has always been a subjective art form, that only depicts the reality that the photographer wants you to see. Here's another quote from Adams in The Negative, "It is important to realize that the expressive photograph (the "creative" photograph) or the informational photograph does not have directly proportional relationship to what we call reality. We do not perceive certain values in the subject and try to duplicate them in the print. We may simulate them, if we wish to, in terms of reflection density values, or we may render them in related values of emotional effect. Many consider my photographs to be in the "realistic" category. Actually, what reality they have is in their optical-image accuracy; their values are definitely "departures from reality." The viewer may accept them as realistic because the visual effect may be plausible, but if it were possible to make direct visual comparison with the subjects, the differences would be startling."
So when a viewer says, "I don't believe this photo matches reality," he or she is probably right. That's why photography is an art form, and why the creative vision of the photographer is more important than their technical understanding of the craft.
When most photographers first starting shooting in RAW format, they find the original captures rarely match their vision of the scene. Frustration sets in until they begin to learn the power of using RAW processors like Adobe Camera Raw, Aperture, or Lightroom. With experience, we start to see a scene for its potential beyond the RAW file, knowing that the straight capture won't match our final vision of the image, but planning the image capture to maximize our post-processing efforts. The above image is the RAW capture of the B & W image at the start of my post. It's o.k., but lacks saturation and doesn't perfectly highlight the parts of the scene I found important.
For this color version of my rock climbing image, I processed the RAW file in Lightroom to better match the color slide film (Fuji Provia) that I would have used when shooting in my film days. I warmed up the white balance and added some vibrance. I also added light to the midtones using the fill light slider. This added a little noise to the forest in the background, but not to the climber because I added some fill flash at capture, as Adams said "getting the appropriate information on the negative." Post-processing tools are great, but it is still necessary to visualize your final image at capture and take the steps needed to get the best image information possible. I like this color image, but I like the black and white version better. I used Lightroom's Black and White sliders to bring up the green in the climber's shirt and darken the warm tones in the rock. I also used the adjustment brush to brighten the climber so that he better competed with the highlights around the sun. Adding some post-crop vignetting also helped to highlight my main subject. Finally, I added some grain to the image using Lightroom 3's new grain feature to give the shot that timeless look of Tri-X black and white negative film. The result is a performance that is much different than my original RAW capture, but much closer to my vision of the moment.