“Foothills Parkway Sunrise” by Robin Conover
Canon EOS 6D, 70-200 mm, 2.8 L-series lens,
Gitzo tripod, ISO 100, ƒ32 at 1/10 sec.
In my humble opinion Ansel Adams would have loved digital photography and Photoshop. As one of the most important American photographers, he always pushed his equipment, darkroom techniques and vision to the nth degree to produce his masterful prints.
He is famously quoted as describing his process by saying, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score and the print the performance.”
This concept is as true today as it was the day he said it — though the terminology may have changed a bit in our digital world. Ansel was talking about a multi-step process then just as we speak of workflow today.
His physical negative, most often glass, only came to life after it was painstakingly processed in a darkroom to reveal the latent image, which was then printed onto a piece of photographic paper via an enlarger. Each step bore his trademark specificity and love for the craft. He utilized every tool available to create masterworks with pure whites and blacks and every tone of his zone system in between.
Today we talk about capturing images as raw files, importing them into a digital photo-editing software and outputting the final files to a myriad of devices. Each step of this process requires a skillset that can be a lifelong learning curve.
On occasion, I overhear comments at a gallery or a show that go something like this: “That’s not real; it must be photoshopped.” So, in the commenter’s mind, this particular photograph is worthless because of the computer’s role.
After taking a deep breath, my slightly irritated answer follows something like, “Yes, it is real, and, yes, it is photoshopped.” Then I try to provide a little education by describing my technique:
I explain that to create successful photographs, it all begins with strong compositions and great light. Then the raw file is brought to life with minimal processing in Photoshop. The steps usually involve setting my black and white points for highlights and shadows, tweaking the color balance if needed, using a curve to set contrast and then sharpening the image. These steps reveal the subject’s details, tones and subtleties I saw with my eye when I photographed it.
Properly using the tools available to us today is both a blessing and a curse. I choose to use these tools to show the best example of what I actually saw. Some may take artistic license too far in this realm and rely on digital darkroom tools to attempt to make mediocre photos more successful.
There is no magic tool to fix bad compositions or uninteresting subjects. Interesting light and strong compositions will win out over poorly executed photos any day — no matter how much they are processed.
In the end, it’s really about the light and how you see the world.