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I am often asked whether I digitally enhance my images, be it in Photoshop or other digital manipulation program, and I always answer absolutel. I’ve often been told by other photographers “you must be a Photoshop expert”, or some similar comment to that effect. I don’t resent such comments and assumptions, because I’ve worked extremely hard at the art, skill, and craft of landscape photography. I’ve also spent countless hours trying to master the tools available that allow me to create images that express what I felt when I made the photo. I am going to examine each of these two areas in more depth so that others may have a better understanding of how I create my images and what the process entails, without getting to deeply into the technical aspects. I’ll save that for another post…

I – Inspiration

My approach to landscape photography is rather simple. I look for scenes that move and inspire me visually and emotionally, and then I attempt to make a photograph that captures some of that emotion and excitement. In my mind, I see the finished print in a way that I hope will not only retain my initial response to the scene, but perhaps create a similar response from others. Sometimes a viewers reaction will be different, as is often the case, but a response nonetheless lets me know that I’ve created an image worth showing.This process is extremely difficult at its best, and downright frustrating and demoralizing most of the time. Timing, persistence, awareness, perseverance, and a little luck, which in my experience is 90% hard work, all play an important role. Many think that an image of an incredible event is just a matter of “being in the right place at the right time”, and that anyone with a camera could have easily made the same photograph. However, what most people don’t realize is that this luck is earned, and many of my images are the result of many failed attempts of the same subject or scene.

Storm King Clouds
Storm King Clouds – March 2007Canon 5D 24-105mm lens“

Storm King Clouds is but one example of an image that I had in mind for quite some time, but had to wait for the right conditions. Yes, I was lucky in the sense that the conditions were perfect, but I knew where, when, and how to make the photograph based on foresight and preparation.Other images are the result of exploring a particular subject or location over time so that it becomes more familiar. This helps me to go beyond the obvious and familiar choices for a photograph, and hopefully find a unique perspective that is my own.

I recently traveled to Acadia National Park on two different occasions within a month, and I found this to be especially true. While I was able take some great shots on the first trip, they were mostly of common and often photographed parts of the park. Many classic and popular locations, which were recommended by a photo guide book, were all too familiar to me even before I had arrived. However, on my second visit, I felt I captured images that had more depth and interest, perhaps because I had a better feel for the area and its geography. I share all of this to illustrate the time and effort that I put into making an image before I even sit down in my studio to work on the final print. Unless I feel the image has captured what I envisioned in my mind, I won’t bother spending much time on it. I’d rather go out and work on getting a better photograph. My wife accuses me of being too hard on myself, but if an image doesn’t feel right to me, it gets rejected.

Table Rocks Trail, Mohonk Preserve
Table Rocks Trail, MohonkCanon 5D 24-105mm lensII –

II- Interpretation

Once I decide to work on an image, it becomes a matter of interpreting it in a way that best conveys how I see it in my mind. This always includes my feelings and emotions about the subject or scene. The problem lies in the fact that a camera almost never creates a photograph that looks the way I saw the scene originally.The best digital cameras can detect only about half the range of lights and shadows that the human eye is capable of. During a sunrise or sunset, while my eyes can see not only the glowing sun, but areas that are in shadow, my camera will render those shadows almost completely black. If I adjust my camera and capture the shadow areas, the sky and sun will burn out and appear almost white with little or no detail. This is but one simple example of many instances where the camera just doesn’t seethe way I see, and especially the way I feel.It is not my goal when manipulating an image to add or remove elements that were not there to begin with, but rather to refine and enhance the original inspiration. This is nothing new in photography, and certainly not exclusive to digital technology. Film photographers have been manipulating their negatives in the darkroom with similar goals and results since the beginning. As Ted Orland states in The View from the Studio Door, even the great Ansel Adams manipulated the print in the darkroom to convert the optical reality captured by the camera into a deeper aesthetic reality that had moved him to make the image in the first place. Granted, the digital tools available today make it trivial to create fraudulent images. But for any true artist, myself included, credibility, reputation, and truthfulness are essential and imperative if the work is to be meaningful. The veracity of my images is based upon my ethics, and is important to me if others are to experience, enjoy, and purchase my photography and my vision.

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. You’ve covered a lot of great ground here, Robert, and I wish to “second the motion.”

    When people ask me if I use digital I say yes, all digital from capture to printing. I’m careful to let them know that I use Photoshop only as a “digital darkroom” in landscape work. I use it to emulate all the techniques from the wet darkroom. The great advantage of the digital darkroom is the tremendous precision, control, and speed it provides over the wet darkroom. Where I might have made one mask in the old days, I now might make three or four progressively refined ones to achieve the same goal with far better results. But I would never, say, copy-and-paste a great sky or tree from one image into another.

    However when it comes to the larger world of Art in general, we must realize that some amazing things are possible in the wet darkroom. For example, Jerry Uelsmann is a renowned fine art photographer who’s work is carried in the finest galleries. He started creating surreal composited images long before digital imaging (early 60’s I think). I learned a great deal from studying his work.

    Best regards,
    Thomas Robert Frederick
    Floral Photo Art with Hand-Painted Light

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