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 4x5 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.

 

40 Comments

    Kudos to you for having the courage to write this article, Tom. I struggle with the same issue constantly at my own little “serious amateur” level. I can only imagine the consequences and implications for someone like yourself.

    Art is obviously subjective, but when your work no longer represents what you believe it does — or worse, what you claim it does — then a little soul searching and course correction certainly have value. The right course is the one that keeps your vision and execution consistent.

    Thank you, I too appreciate your very frank article.

    As a landscape and nature photographer I work hard to develop my digital images to represent the scene as it appeared when I shot it…to capture the essence of the moment NOT create it later in developing the shot. I am constantly asking my artist husband to check my color to see if I’ve over processed my photographs. Color is so subjective what looks over saturated to me does not to him. We can only strive to be true to ourselves in our body of work.

    Thank you for sharing your experience!!!!
    I am just breaking into the professional world of nature and landscape photography, and sometimes feel I am not doing it ‘right’ as a lot of photographers seem to be heavily saturating their work, and making big $$$ doing so…. I have a little fun now and then with colors but am trying to keep to the true image of what I saw when I made the photo.

    I don’t see the problem. I suppose it depends on why you take photos. I use my camera in much same way in in which I use my brushes and canvas. I am not a photojournalist nor a do I take documentaries , or photos for historically accurate archives. My camera is simply one of the many tools which I use to create art. And perhaps therein lies the problem. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

    Respectfully

    I’ve been a fan for decades, and I have to admit I’ve been kind of horrified by some of your HDR, but I fully supported your right to have fun doing it however you wanted to! I loved your talk about it at the Moab Photo Symposium, and this article also. Thanks for being so honest about your photographic adventures and trials, and sharing with those of us who have looked up to you for years. Your humor and honesty are a delight! Keep on having fun!

    I go to Prescott, AZ a lot and there are a number of galleries there along historic “Whiskey Row”. One photographer is very prominent in one of the galleries with prints on canvass and he drives us to distraction with his oversaturation. He also charges big prices, but I’m not sure he sells anything. Hopefully he will read this article and mend his ways. His pictures are pretty good, he just ruins them with Photoshop.

    This article is very well written. It must have taken a lot of courage to write this, and also to accept and apply all of the criticisms that people lavished upon you. I think every digital photographer could benefit from reading this article.

    Thanks, A lot of the photos I see seem to be overly processed, most often over saturated, I was starting to wonder if it was me and not the photos. I see a place for over-the-top but it seems like the general public has come to expect to be hit over the head to the point where realistic is not exciting enough to get their attention. Like in music what is most popular is not always the best or the finest.

    Everyone has a option on photoshopping. None, some or whatever it takes. Instead of learning to take a good shot some are learning to fix it later or the newer HDR programs.Use your camera as a tool, but learn how and what the camera can do, it will save you time later on and may surprise yourself.
    Many Pro photographers are having to keep up with new programs
    just to sell a picture. That doesn’t make them better, just sellable.

    Excellent article Tom. As many have said, I am for realism in my nature shots and struggle with the desire to make the print “look better” but to retain what I saw at the time. Some of my earlier work from where I met you on a Moab Paper/OP rafting trip is now embarrassing to me.

    I can think of one very prominent photographer (PL) who’s work I find beautifully composed but bordering on hideous as far as saturation. Several other photographers in Springdale, UT also come to mind.

    Good stuff to think about. Thanks for the article and reality check Tom.

    The development of cataracts can lead to over-sharpening and over-saturation. Ask anyone who has had the operation and they will tell you how much more vivid colors now are. Just a natural part of ageing but something to keep in mind. One member of our camera club really needs to have the operation but won’t. Unfortunately, we can pick out his nature work immediately due to the over-sharpening and over-saturation.

    hello, my name is John and I am a saturated color addict…

    well, recovering addict actually. thank you for bringing this issue to the light of day. I have many photographer friends who LOVE highly saturated and strong HDR images. I often fall victim to oversaturaion in my own work. I try to keep my images looking realistic but get slowly sucked in to the strong contrast and saturation cycle.

    I have visited your gallery many times and admire your work. While the look of any photographer’s work is strictly personal, I see a trend emerging and I don’t care too much for it.

    I am making a personal effort to watch my processing. Thanks for the reassurance.

    I would not beat yourself up too much Tom. As an amateur photographer who does a lot of landscapes I have watched with horror at the gooing and gushing that goes on in flickr over heavily over saturated images. They make me shudder. There is a place for deep bright colours and when you see it you know it is right.
    Maybe this is the start of a trend away from garish overdone photo’s but somehow I doubt it.

    Tom, you absolutely hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “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 landscape photographers are in danger of shooting themselves in the foot when they hype the color or otherwise manipulate the image so extravagantly that the image no longer looks real. I’ll bet everyone will agree that the presence of the moon in Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise Over Hernandez” makes it a better photo than it would be without the moon. Many photographers today seem to be making the mistake of thinking, “gee, if one moon is good, two moons must be better.” In the film era, I think most people looked at a good landscape image and thought, “What a beautiful world we live in!” Now I think many people look at a good landscape image and think, “Wow, that guy really knows Photoshop!” Is this change in public perception one reason why print sales are down for virtually every landscape photographer I know?

    Hi Tom. Hi think I was with your “friend” when we recently visited your gallery in Moab (if he is from Texas). Having been a great fan of your photos over the years, I too was horrified by the HDRs, especially the images on metal! I applaud and admire you for baring your soul in the recent OP article. What I always tell my workshop participants is, “if you can tell it’s an HDR, you’ve gone too far”.

    I think it took a certain amount of courage to write this article.
    Most photographers who were inspired by Till’s past work (myself included) took note of this practice some time ago and were quite saddened, while his social media sycophants (‘friends’) fawned and raved over his every image, which distorted his perspective. I remember mentioning the over the top renditions to him on Facebook and was completely shut down by his audience. So thank you for writing this study on self awareness, Tom.

    Ditto Glenn’s comments, which extend your own. Personally, the only issue I have with excessive color manipulation is that it creates an alternative “Pixar” reality, and deprives us of the appreciation and awe derived from seeing a truly exceptional moment in nature. Elevating everything to the level of spectacle has the effect of creating a world without spectacle.

    It will be interesting to look back a year from now and see if a more restrained approach has any impact – positive or negative – on public acceptance and sales.

    “Is this change in public perception one reason why print sales are down for virtually every landscape photographer I know?”
    _____________________________________________________

    No, I think that is beacuse discretionary spending is at an all time low during this recession and the increasing number of talented landscape photographers has virtually exploded in the last five years.

    I think has become a much worse problem for me personally since Lightroom 4. Since RAW files are so ‘stretchy’ these days it’s quite easy towards the end of a long editing session to overdo things. I need to let pictures ‘sit’ longer and only consider them done after a thorough review.

    Tom, excellent article! Three questions come to mind:
    (1) Do you enjoy what you are doing?
    (2) Is your work well received by your intended market?
    (3) If you answered “Yes” to the above, where’s
    the problem?
    Progress in any field comes from throwing out the rule book, learning what you can from your critics, and ignoring the rest.

    Well Tom you sadden me with an article like this, you have just described the ultimate trap that photographers fall into. The trap of pleasing others or doing what you “think” others want you to do. I know you surely don’t believe in such things and maybe this is just an article to see what reactions it will bring from other photographers. Well I for one think the whole premise of listening to others when it comes to creating ones art only proves they are not truly artists to begin with.

    A keeper this article is worth the price of a years subscrition. I will buy the book, ASAP. I wish he did not give up on HDR I use Photomatix and can accomplish in minutes what it would take hours in Lightroom 4 to do. I have reread the section on Saturation and I am now trying out on a few Landscapes Thanks Tom . Al Reiner

    Dear Tom, the concept of reality is a foolish one. Photography is the expression of one’s vision, no more no less. “Over-saturation” then becomes an oxymoron; saturation is a simple scale with its roots in pure black and white, a highly regarded photographic style that sure isn’t “real”. Was Ansel Adams a cheater? Or was he a visionary? Are graduated neutral density and polarizing filetsr real? Ido not understand “legitimately saturated color”. A color is a color, atoms and waves. Only viewing conditions create saturation, and just as different people have different color perception, they will interpret saturation differently. Saturation is subjective. And finally, the concepts of reality, de-saturation *and* HDR clash in the same article. HDR is supernatrual in its approach. So why throttle back on saturation? Do you remove the vodka from your martini after pouring it? Respectfully, Vince.

    While it seems inevitable that there will be many to criticize Mr. Till for his views, one hopes that those same critics will come to understand that a careful reading of his article does not express contempt either for hyper-realistic renditions of photographs nor those who produce them, but rather is an attempt to remind us all to use discretion and moderation in the wielding of the seductively powerful tools at the photographer?۪s command.

    I don?۪t believe that Mr. Till was trying to convey that hyper-realistic, super-color-saturated images are wrong ??? but that his own artistic vision is not well served by such techniques, and he invites the rest of us to carefully examine our own bodies of work to determine if we are truly comfortable with the images that represent us.

    Thank you for this great article. I have also worked for a long time with taming HDR techniques to make sure the realism stays and only the dynamic range increases, to increase realism in the perception of the scene. I fully support your view, which does not prohibit me from occasional use of the full artistic non-realism in HDR techniques when felt for. However for most work I only use it in a tamed way for dynamic range extension. Example http://jeppssonphotography.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Gorgious/G0000DkjyuVaXTRg/I0000k1Y7oHFbcuA

    The problem is more about visually appealing to the web. We can’t see the color on the monitor like we see it on the wall. The web does not do photography justice one bit.

    I read your article and realized you are suffering from PhotoShop-itus, the opportunity to use software (any brand) to correct what the camera did not capture. It happened in the film era as well when nearly every photo in OP was shot on Velvia because the colors “popped,” the subject “popped,” the texture “popped.” Velvia was the Jiffy-Pop of film. Now software takes it place.

    What I’ve started to do is shoot in black & white. I have noticed I see shapes and textures that get lost in color. My Nikon D5100 even has a color-picker effect so I can just have it record that color, such as the yellow in Autumn Aspens, and render the rest of the photo as monochrome.

    Tomorrow morning I am going to do just that. Wish me luck.

    I agree with the entire article. The thing is though, for me the irritating part of over-saturation has nothing to do with disturbing the natural look of the image. Photography by definition isn’t natural, sensors don’t “see” the world the way our eye does. What bothers me about over-saturated images is the fact that it often times takes the stage, leaving composition and technique neglected by both the artist and the viewer.

    I have been serious about photography for about a year now, and I have noticed that in every magazine and photo website, the colors are always extremely saturated. As someone learning photography, I have been wondering if this was misleading, or if this was the way photography is supposed to be now. Thanks for your thoughts!

    I don’t actually see the problem if the goal of your photography is to be viewed as art, and the color and shape is the point…as long as it is the intended point. I agree this should be judicious as not all subjects look better in HDR or overly saturated, but I’m also not dogmatic about photo realism either.

    I guess that’s the thing to reflect on. If you find yourself punching up every photo as a normal part of your workflow, take a step back. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it has to serve a purpose.

    The author still sounds a bit like he’s defending himself, but it’s a very good point. I’m sick of overcooked images. They are everywhere. “Professional” websites & publications encourage — nay, require! — it in order to even look at your work anymore. I still shoot (and love) film.

    “Facebook users love thse images”… yes, and facebook users love telling the world what they ate for lunch, what’s on tv now, how they bought a new pair of socks, or that their cat just threw up. If facebook is the standard of quality, our society is in trouble. “Painterly” images have their place, but as the author says, let’s have some moderation. Just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

    Nice work Tom. That vibrance and saturation slider can be a crack pipe, especially when you feel like you are trying to compensate for lighting issues. I’ve been sliding them to the extremes for years, and never with complete satisfaction. The natural image I saw with my own eyes always seems to need a little help and a positive push. Years later, I have finally learned to tone it down, along with recognizing colors that are not found in nature. Of course, the little things are always there to thwart us as well, like the fact that no monitor is ever calibrated the same, no printing device is going to interpret an image with any consistent reliability, and finally, and most importantly, no other human eye is going to see the exact same beauty as you or I. Thanks for this. It needed to be written. Now we can all leave out of Gamut color back with Disco, where it belongs.

    I couldn’t agree more with you Tom. Regardless of HDR or not it seems that abuse of colour saturation is rife. I was guilty of it myself.

    Nowadays I don’t use any colour saturation on the entire image. I try to keep the colours as true to real life as possible and I find that contrast adjustment boosts the saturation sufficiently anyway.

    Typically I might boost saturation only in a selected part of the image, for example a tree that is partially shadowed will loose much of it’s green colour and become more of a grey tone so I might boost that specific area but never the entire image.

    Here is an example of one image I processed recently that features no saturation boost http://500px.com/photo/22284581

    Thank you for this article! As a relative newbie to photography as a profession, I find it frustrating and confusing to find the balance between post-processing enhancements vs “artistic” adjustments. It’s disheartening to try to be true to the craft and represent what I actually saw when it seems everyone else is putting out these eye-popping unrealistic scenes. It’s even more frustrating when the over-the-top photos get such overwhelming praise from the public, and even from photography “experts”! Thanks for the fresh, brave perspective.

    I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of falling in love with the new toy, whether it’s a new lens or photomatix. I’ve been guilty of it as well. One trick I use occasionally, and probably should use more, is to convert the file in lightroom to B&W temporarily. If it still holds up as a good composition, then I keep working. If not, then no amount of color manipulation is going to make the image look anything more than colorful.

    I don’t see why people are so anti-hdr. The public usually LOVES it and I’m convinced it IS the future. Personally I’ve never cared for reality – to me that is for snapshots. Back when I was using film I used either B&W or Velvia neither of which are really natural. Lately almost all my shots are HDR or infrared. I bet these people who are anti-hdr would look down upon someone who didn’t like black and white. Conservative really is the right word – it’s about not liking change but, in 50 years I bet almost every published image will be hdr – I image cameras with multiple sensors/shutter that take multiple exposures at the same time aren’t too far around the corner.

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