Over- and under-Editing

How much is too much, and where is the line between photo and art?

The photo above is a fairly realistic portrayal of Mt. Rainier after sunset. The entire foreground is in shade; only the top third of the mountain is illuminated by the sun.

By realistic, I mean about what you would see by eye in terms of brightness and color balance. I have done no significant editing, other than to adjust the image to correct minor issues in the camera’s result. (For example, I tweaked white balance to show sunset coloration; the camera tried to give me daylight colors.)

But…what could we do to this image to make it look more dramatic? That is, how do we go from a straight camera shot to something that I’ll call ‘more emotionally loaded.’

There are two ways to go about this:

  • Go where your feelings take you

  • Use knowledge of light and color to either enhance or modify

Going where your feelings take you is what I could call art: changing the photograph so it feels right or better or interesting or whatever you like.

Using knowledge of light and color might include specific things like:

  • What do people expect at sunset in terms of lighting and color? Expectations are emotional, and can include exaggeration or understatement; changing the balance of light or color to unnatural levels to stimulate emotion (also referred to as lying or cheating, but is it?)

  • Drawing out details that are similar in the original, but the differences can be magnified by processing techniques.

  • Hiding things that don’t ‘fit’ your conception of the scene

  • Changing colors outright

  • Changing the contrast of select areas of the shot

  • Increasing the saturation of only some colors

The list goes on; the more you learn about image editing, the more tricks you can use when you want to.

The above image is a starting point; it is the simplest form of image: I have edited it only to correct for biases in the camera.

The photo above is from earlier in the sequence of images. The foreground was brighter; the shadow on Rainier is not visible. I have done the following to make this image a little stronger visually:

  • Increased the contrast. This darkened the foreground (and made it about as dark as it would be later on, when the sun had set further). It also brightened the sky and the Mt. Rainier.

  • Increased the saturation. This gives a slightly deeper blue in the sky.

  • Adjusted the white balance further than natural, to make the sky less of a daylight blue. This warms the sky, a color of sky we often associate with sunset. The height of the drone reduced this warming, so I added it into the photo to fit one’s expectations about the color ‘feel’ of a sunset sky.

  • Adjusted the saturation of reds and purples, which makes the exposed rock on the mountain show up more clearly against the snow patches.

All of the changes were kept subtle so that the photo still looks somewhat natural, while still adding some emotional impact.

What if we take these same changes, but increase the intensity? We get a very blue sky, a blue haze that looks a bit unnatural on the taller mountains, and a more intense focus on the mountain:

At this point, the photo has moved quite obviously from natural to unnatural. I try to avoid “obviously unnatural”, but for some viewers, it’s fine. A photo is, after all, modified by the camera and lens you take it with (to some degree; really high-end equipment is more capable of recording a natural scene without compromise).

When we used film, every emulsion (the stuff on the film that records the light) had it’s own unique characteristics for light and color--more or less contrast, color changes, grain, etc. Digital camera have their own biasses, at least at the low to moderate end. For example, my otherwise extremely accurate Sony A7r IV can’t handle bright skies well at all; it gives the blue a slightly unnatural tone that I have to clean up during editing.

My personal preference is to experiment to see what I can get that looks interesting. Occasionally I will go very far; mostly I look to give the eye something meaningful to look at. But that’s not to say I won’t go utterly nuts sometime and change the colors wildly. Art is in the artist’s eye, in my world. :)

A final example: this is my personal favorite of the images I worked on. It’s significantly warmer than the other shots; it is more tightly cropped, and the shadows have just started to creep up onto the flank of Rainier.

I haven’t mentioned the reason I took these photos: the multi-layered lenticular clouds. This crop shows the clouds more clearly; I like to think that the one on the left is some ancient sky-critter floating toward Rainier: maybe a sky shark? More than anything else, I enjoy photography because it stimulates my imagination.