Purist photography

Simon St. Laurent has a new essay online about digital photography compared to film photography, and the discipline to not use Photoshop to enhance our photos. He wrote this in response to Tim Bray’s Photointegrity essay.

Tim writes about the cult of photographic puritanism and minimalism, and taking the …bits the camera gives you and push ’em out on the Web, even though the end result could be less work published online:

If I took that vow there’d be a lot fewer pictures here, but each would, I think, somehow mean more, because you’d know that nobody, however well-intentioned, had pissed in the pipeline from the camera to your screen.

Or is such an ethic inherently foolish given the vast amount of software that runs in the camera when you push the little silver button? Probably; so what I’m going to do is strive to balance Truth and Beauty.

Simon talks about his new digital camera’s effects on his own photographic discipline:

The pictures I’m taking now, even when I’m shooting similar subjects in similar conditions, just aren’t as good. I can feel ten years’ worth of rust that needs removal, but I also feel myself resisting the kind of discipline I used to have. When I can go from original to good enough with a few minutes in Photoshop, it’s tough to convince myself to put in the extra effort when I’m taking the shots.

He also makes the point, though, that professional photographers have rarely been purists, most making use of darkroom tools to enhance their work. Cropping, dodging, and burning have always been key tools on the path from film to print, Simon writes.

I have no hesitation about using Photoshop to ensure that my photos are the best they can be before I publish them online. This is true regardless of whether I take film or digital photos, though my film shots usually require less effort. That’s primarily due to the higher resolution and color saturation I can achieve with my film camera, as compared to my non-SLR digital camera.

To me, creating a photo doesn’t end when I release the shutter; the process continues until the photo is published. This included darkroom techniques, and even the use of photo retouching before digital enhancement; it continues now with tools like Photoshop.

However, you have to have relatively good material to start. For instance. my orchid photos were almost directly published from camera to web, with some minor cropping or sharpening, and some enhanced contrast (my digital camera tends to wash out colors much more than my film). In the case of my window shots posted recently, there’s little I can do with Photoshop to remove the window glare – a polarizing filter attached to the camera would have eliminated this effect, but I didn’t have it with me the day the photos were taken.

And many of my photos are taken to form a story rather than to be accepted as is for themselves. In these cases, I rarely touch the photos, and I don’t expect them to be appreciated separate from the story they’re published in.

In fact, the process to create a photo can occur before the shutter is released. When I’m interested in specific images, I’ll plan a photo or series of photos out long before I grab my camera; sometimes months ahead of time, as with photos I’ll be taking this next week of dogwood trees in bloom along a trail I hiked almost a year ago.

Regardless of camera or medium used, or purpose for photo, until it is published, the act of creating the photo continues: fueled by need and inspiration, with camera in hand, and in front of my computer.

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