The advent of the ubiquitous DSLR has meant that more and more people assume that they can become better photographers by buying better equipment. Recently I got to hear the following gem, ‘Obviously your photos are better than my hubby’s because you’ve got a professional camera, while he just has a cheap DSLR!”. This great piece of deduction was matched with another one, this one coming from the equally knowledgeable hubby himself, ‘Oh, but your pictures are photoshopped.’ No shit, Sherlock!
In the age of instant gratification and 10 second attention spans, the old adages, unfortunately, still hold true. Said Euclid to Ptolemy, ‘There is no royal road to geometry’, nor I’m afraid to any other kind of knowledge. You cannot Google search yourself into being a good photographer.
Let me first address the equipment fallacy. While it is true that a person off the street in a Ford Ka would not be able to beat a Sebastian Vettel in his ~$8 million 2017 spec F1 car, the thing is that this person off the street wouldn’t be able to beat Vettel even if they WERE given an F1 car. More importantly, they wouldn’t be able to beat Vettel if both were driving the crappy little Ford either. That is because Vettel is knowledgeable about what he is doing (he may actually also be more talented, but that is by and by.) When they both get into a corner and the Ford understeers, Vettel will know how to limit the understeer and use it to his advantage, the non-professional won’t even know that the Ford is understeering or what understeer means. It’s the same with photography. When Mr. Hubby, potentially great photographer, posted a photo of an overexposed scene from a lovely European city, he didn’t know that in a digital camera overexposure is the worst thing you can do because no amount of post-processing can recover that detail. With digital you almost always underexpose.
The other thing that gets my goat every time is when people with little or no knowledge of photography start a conversation with, ‘do you use photoshop?’ or the even better, ‘Oh, but these are photoshopped’. This tells me several things about the person, most of them unprintable, but prime amongst them again, is that they have little or no knowledge.
No knowledge of how photos are made, no knowledge of the history of photography and no knowledge of what post-processing can and cannot achieve.
Post-processing is as old as photography itself. A nearly iconic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, from 1860, is a composite of Lincoln’s head and the Southern politician John Calhoun’s body. The greatest landscape photographer of all time, Ansel Adams, was a master manipulator in the dark room. The point being, as long as a photographer doesn’t claim that a picture is untouched, there is nothing wrong with image-manipulation. The photographer is an artist with a vision and uses all the tools available to them to realize that vision. Most photographers shoot Raw and try to keep the in-camera settings as neutral as possible. The job of the camera is to gather the maximum amount of detail from a scene and the photographer can then decide which part of that light needs to be emphasized to what degree to achieve their vision. What is imperative to understand is that no amount of post-processing work can make a great photo out of a bad one.
Those over blown highlights, Mr. Hubby, are lost forever, I’m afraid.