The following is not aimed at any work specifically. I will say things that apply to every photographer that reads it. Though I make some declarative statements, as per usual, there is no judgement here. This is about what I’m passionate about when it comes to photography and doesn’t preclude me appreciating a thing. In fact my panorama stitching flies in the face of this and that’s something I wrestle with whenever I do it. My current explanation is, while I use photographs to make them, they’re more about anamorphic concepts than about photography. That said:

“Photoshop is to photography what taxidermy is to veterinary medicine.” ~ Me, sometime in the last couple years.

I passionately believe in the power of straight, documentary photography. Whether it’s 35mm tri-x, 4×5 chromes, 8×10 palladium prints, or wait for it. . . digital.

Of course in the last 20+ years the “trustworthiness ” of our media has been called into question. First with still images being “photoshopped” and now it’s possible to completely manufacture very real looking video. Creating something photographically believable out of nothing is within the average creative’s grasp. As a photographer I’m not concerned with issues of journalistic truth vs propaganda. I’m concerned about that as a father. But that’s another topic.

As a photographer I’m drawn almost entirely to the magic that happens when light passes through a nodal point and is cast on something. Digital sensors that generate RAW files are my favorite something anymore because finally I can reproduce on a flat surface things as I see them. The history of photography from a technical perspective is a history of pushing against limited dynamic range and exposure latitude of the captured image. With maybe the exception of Daguerreotypes, with tonal range years ahead of other techniques but too many hurdles to being practical and enduring.

The overall trajectory of increasing tonal range has been a very shallow one until the last 10 years when it went almost vertical. From Niepce and Fox Talbot to C41, Kodachrome, or even pre RAW digital, is a laughably small advancement compared to the expanded latitude Camera RAW and contemporary sensors now gives us. 15 or so years ago HDR was developed (pun intended). It involved stacking a wide range of exposures into one image and using software to meld the tones. Unfortunately that technique has been severely abused and the overly tonemapped image is an instant turn off for most people with taste. The last 5 or so years have seen camera sensors with high dynamic range, high ISOs, and mind blowing latitude out of the box. Highlight and Shadow detail is abundant in the most contrasty scenes with modern cameras.

Ansel Adams said “The negative is the score and the print the performance.” I think a fair comparison in the digital world is the RAW file is the score and the TIFF the performance as any modern color correct workflow should accurately reproduce that TIFF on paper within reason.

Where does photoshop/raster editing fit in the digital photography workflow? As far as I’m concerned, nowhere. If we accept the TIFF as the performance of the RAW file what happens after that? A photoshop document, tiff, or jpeg are raster files. That is, the color of each pixel has been defined and written. It’s photographic journey is over much like an analog image realized on paper.

Photoshop had an analog equivalent but no one “retouching” photographs in the analog paradigm had any illusions that they were doing photography. They had an airbrush in their hands. Retouching isn’t about light, apertures and the substrates they’re captured on, the tools of photography . It’s about using other methods to change what photography did. Now for some bizarre reason, my assertion that there’s nothing inherently photographic about photoshop is taken as a grave insult in photography circles.

20 years ago Photoshop was the only show in town for handling photographs. Now, by definition not subjective opinion, photoshop is known in the photographers workflow as “destructive”. That is if your image is too yellow and you need to make it more blue you can’t manufacture the blue. You can only remove the yellow. The histogram in photoshop shows a series of spikes after color correction, rather than a nice smooth curve, representing the discarded data. Of course you can use adjustment layers et al to maintain the integrity of your image but why? Modern RAW processors, like Capture One have controls as powerful as photoshop but in the non-destructive RAW environment.

A RAW file is purely a record of the camera sensor’s electronic reaction to light. There is nothing visual about a RAW file. (Actually, there’s nothing visual about anything that goes on on a computer but that’s a philosophical argument) Like undeveloped film the RAW file is a latent image. But unlike film, you can’t change and make permanent the image lurking within. When you edit a RAW file you are creating a text document that tells the software how you want it to process the image. When you’re editing you’re seeing a jpg preview of what the software is set to create. You can’t alter the “pixels” of a RAW file.

The byproducts of this are huge:

– You have FAR more latitude with a RAW file than with a raster image. ie: What any given color can be is much broader than any given color that’s already been defined in a raster image.
-Your workflow is far less bloated without huge layered raster images filling up your hard drives.
-Color correction etc can be applied to as many images as you like with one click.
-Custom digital developers™ can be created, saved, and applied to your images on import. Or at any time, to as many images as you like, with a single click.

Everything about the RAW workflow is better; Non-destructive, crazy powerful, resource lean, and fast. That said, I have no problem with work created using photoshop.  I’m only emphatic about this because few people seem interested in the distinction. Yet this is where the break from straight, documentary photography happens. As far as I’m concerned, what happens after that image is written has precisely nothing to do with photography.

I feel this concept of RAW processing vs raster editing is the single most misunderstood aspect of digital photography. Also naturally at the heart of where the magic lies and the medium is distrusted. What does this mean for the photographer? I think a lot of photographers take their eye off the ball because they know that have so much power at their disposal after the fact. Rather than focusing (pun intended) on making meaningful images I see a mindset of look-what-this-photoshop-plugin-can-do or I’ll-fix-it-in-photoshop-later that’s insidious. It’s power is seductive and luring photographers away from the real magic of photography. Like Bill Jay said, “Photoshop makes it easier to do all the things you didn’t need to do before Photoshop.”

I know Photoshop really well. Have been using it for 20 years. It’s a super cool thing but it should be called “rastershop”.

So go ahead and blow me away with it, just don’t stuff the dog and try to tell me you’ve fixed what ails him.

as seen by . . .


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