Where have you gone, Ansel Adams?

(With apologies to Paul Simon who pointed out to Dick Cavett that the number of beats in the line required “Joe Dimaggio” rather than “Mickey Mantle” or, in this case, “Ansel Adams.”)

My first encounter with Photoshop was an early 90’s thing during a Mac workshop at Tulane, and it was insufficient to sway my choice of platforms. I had taken up with Corel Draw in its version 1.0 in 1989; as I recall it was the only program that actually took advantage of the Windows graphical interface in a native way. Corel added PhotoPaint to the suite and that took care of my bitmap manipulation through the 90’s. Somewhere around Version 5.0 of Photoshop I began using the Windows version of the program and kept upgrading even though my usage required an increasingly small subset of its features.

So by now we’ve all been through the era of “enhanced” images, removal or insertion of parts of images through manipulation that have led, among other things, to the firing of journalists. It’s useful to remember that what Photoshop brought to the light table was the quality and sophistication of manipulation that it made possible with digital images, results that could not be obtained with analog images.

But what I hadn’t realized until quite recently was the subtlety with which an image’s entire visual appeal could be changed using Photoshop. Having gone back and re-processed a number of my images with relatively simple techniques, I am stunned by the possibilities. If the goal of photography is to produce “yummy” looking images, then what comes out of the camera is definitely just the starting point.

My previous digital cameras produced JPEG images and never suggested to me that they would provide the original sensor data. Processing that data was hidden from me. Now, however, my camera is willing to turn the image over to me in its original state, or camera raw. It will also provide me with JPEGs, but I have begun to suspect that just as mischief could be accomplished in the analog darkroom, processing the original data was something I should participate in if only to keep a supervisory eye on theĀ proceedings.

Ice house, processed with DxO for optical correction only

The image above of the Coggeshall Farm ice house was processed from camera raw (NEF, in this case) by DxO’s Optics Pro software with correction of the optical distortions “only.” Which is to say that I accepted the DxO defaults for white balance, DxO lighting, and so forth. Of course, something has been done to the original image data to produce the white balance depicted in the JPEG above; DxO provides the algorithms that make corrections for known color distortions in the camera bodies we use.

Processed with DxO with manual changes to settings

This image of the ice house came out of DxO Optics Pro with some manual fine-tuning of my own. The intent was to produce a JPEG image that was “honest” in its depiction of the scene as I saw it this morning. Other than the exaggerated pinkish band above the tree line on the other side of the Mill Gut, the colors are unexciting but, I think, pretty accurate.

Having putzed around with Photoshop over the past few days in conjunction with a course from Lynda.com, I opened the image in Photoshop, applied a couple of adjustments, and ended up with the image below.

Ice house after Photoshop adjustments

I don’t think the color in this image is “correct,” according to my eye and memory. But it sure is “yummy.” The Queen Anne’s lace pops more, the purple clover stands out a bit, there’s a warmth to the scene that the accurate rendition lacks. It is that idealized scene that we all wish it was.

Adams showed us how to see the range of tonalities that existed all around us. He worked with the properties of light, film and photographic paper and by knowing them produced images that were both accurate and breathtaking. I have this feeling that the “accurate” part is gone with digital photography; the 1’s and 0’s of our raw images can’t be equated to the silver halide-turned-to-metallic-silver of our negatives. Breathtaking we can do. Accurate? Meh.

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