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 4×5 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.

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.


Are You Going Too Far With Your Photos?
Take a look at these tips to see if you’re heading down the road to overdoing your colors. At some point, we all do it. A quick reality check can help you compose photos that represent what you saw instead of a candy-colored version of what you saw.1 Many sources agree that working with color over long periods of time can lead to perception problems. Some books suggest doing most of your work in the morning when you’re fresh and taking frequent breaks from working with colorful material.
2 Get a friend’s opinion. If your spouse or one of your friends passes by your computer screen and remarks that your colors are over the top, it’s a good idea to listen. In my case, I had the opposite, a friend who actually was facilitating my problem.
3 There’s a huge disconnect between what the public sees as normal color and what photographers want to see. Most of my gallery images have remained unchanged over the years and were unaffected by my meltdown, but we do offer saturated metal prints that are very popular.
4 Keep your eyes on the color histograms in postproduction. I paid no attention to the color histograms and instead read only the luminance. Watching the color histograms more can help you keep colors in line. Also, completely scan every corner of your image for certain secondary colors that are bellwethers to a problem. In some of my images, 95% of the colors may look right, but an iridescent green or a weird purple in the shadows is a giveaway to an oversaturation problem.
5 Beware of Facebook praise. As much as I appreciate them, Facebook “likers” will gush about almost anything no matter how over the top it may be. These photographs are likely to be your most “liked” work, but that doesn’t mean they’re your best work.
6 If you like oversaturated colors, it’s a free country. Frankly, some of my stock clients and a large portion of the general public like them. Other photographers who may criticize you are never going to pay your bills.
7 I would have saved myself a lot of grief if I had hit upon this realization sooner: Color is only one pictorial element. Making it preeminent leads viewers away from your other compositional elements and may mask the innate beauty of your often hard-won subjects themselves.