Photo of the Week – January 16, 2014

Here’s a photograph I took a couple years ago while hiking at Griffith Prairie – a site north of Aurora, Nebraska that’s owned and managed by the Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

Sunrise at Griffith Prairie - Hamilton County, Nebraska.

Setting sun at Griffith Prairie – Hamilton County, Nebraska.

I like the image, in part, because it shows what that evening looked and felt like as the sun dropped to the horizon.  What you see in the photograph is pretty much what my eyes saw.  However, it does NOT look like the image that came out of my camera.  I had to use image-processing software to alter the image so it looked like it did in real life.

In this image, I set the camera so that the grass would be correctly exposed, knowing that the sky would be overexposed (too bright).

For this image, I adjusted my camera’s settings so that the grass would be correctly exposed (not too bright or dark), knowing that the sky would be overexposed (too bright).

A camera’s sensor makes photographs by capturing reflected light from a scene.  However, a sensor is not able to record the same range of light (from bright to dark) as the human eye.  The same is true with film.  That means that in the above image, although my eye could see all the colors and details in both the sky and the ground, the camera was unable to capture both.  Either the sky was going to be bright and washed out or the ground was going to be way too dark.  Neither of those was an acceptable option to me.

In this photo, I set the camera to capture the sky as it looked, knowing that the ground was going to be very dark.

In this photo, I set the camera to capture the sky as it looked to my eye, knowing that the ground was going to be very dark.

I ended up shooting the scene a couple ways, figuring I’d try to fix it later.  I later used the second image (the one with the really dark ground) as a starting point and used Adobe Photoshop to lighten the ground and bring out the details and colors my eye saw but that the camera couldn’t capture.  There are two ways to look at this.  The first is that I used the tools at my disposal to make the image match what I saw in real life.  The other is that I essentially lied to you by altering the image that came out of the camera.

If you don’t like what I did and feel like I lied to you, consider this…  Nearly every photo you’ve seen in any printed form has been manipulated, regardless of the era it was printed in.  Old time black and white photographers spent hours adjusting the tone of various parts of their photos as they created prints.  When you take a roll of film or a batch of digital photos to get printed, the printing machine makes automatic adjustments to the images as it prints them – or the technician can override those with his/her own adjustments.  There is really no escaping the fact that photography is art, and that much of the artistic interpretation takes place after the photo is taken.

While photography is art, I’m a scientist trying to share my experiences in the natural world with others, so I feel an obligation to represent things accurately.  That puts me in an interesting position.  Do I avoid processing photos in order to show the viewer exactly what my camera captured – even if that image doesn’t accurately reflect the image I saw in real time?  Or do I manipulate the photo to make it look like it did in real life, even if that necessarily means I’m putting my own translation of reality into that image?

I’m not sure there’s a right answer, but I generally choose to process images and attempt to show you what I saw through my eyes.  I want you to see the same prairies I see in the hope that you will better understand and appreciate them.

Here’s the final version of the image one more time.  Do you like it more or less, knowing what went on behind the curtain?

The final version of the photograph one more time.

This is the same image of Griffith Prairie shown at the beginning of this post.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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23 Responses to Photo of the Week – January 16, 2014

  1. Kris says:

    I would rather you manipulate the photo to make it appear as close to what you were seeing as possible. Processing an image for that purpose doesn’t bother me at all! There are several times that a picture doesn’t capture the beauty of what the eye has seen and some slight processing is needed. I totally trust your “translation” and appreciate your works of art! Thank you :)

  2. Mike Suiter says:

    Looks great Chris! It’s amazing what today’s tools can do to bring out details in a photo with exposure challenges. I’m a long time Photoshop user (a lot for graphics) and I started using Lightroom a year ago and haven’t been in Photoshop since.

  3. Diana Rankin says:

    I definitely like it more. Our photo club in Mora, MN discusses this topic all the time and we generally come down on the side of manipulating the image so that it shows the viewer what you saw and highlights the artistic quality.

  4. Love the final image. I would much rather see what the photographer saw than what the camera plainly captured. Great post!

  5. ohsospoko says:

    Either way, you’re misrepresenting, right? (‘Lying’ is a bit strong, I think.) One way you’re misrepresenting what you saw, and the other way you’re misrepresenting what the camera captured. Since your whole point in getting out the camera in the first place was to try and capture what you saw, it makes sense to lean in that direction.

    I’m curious about some technical details, if you’ll indulge me. I know you shoot with a Nikon camera. Do you shoot in RAW mode, or JPG? If it happens to be RAW, do you do any processing in Nikon’s Capture NX software? I ask because I’ve found that approach really useful, especially when it comes to balancing light & color in the photograph. The Capture software allows you, in essence, to tweak some of the ‘camera’ settings after the fact. You can adjust the white balance, specifically, as well as tweaking a few others and doing some things to help reduce noise, distortion, etc. It’s pretty limited, but does allow access to those few Nikon-specific features, and they can be really useful.

    In any case, I love your photographs, and the blog as a whole. Always enjoy seeing your alerts pop up in my Inbox.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Yes, I shoot with a Nikon D300s and always shoot in RAW format. I don’t use Nikon’s software, but I do use the RAW editor in Photoshop, which I think is probably doing the same kinds of things – adjusting, balancing, sharpness, etc – as the Nikon software. I’m glad you enjoy the blog – thanks for the kind words.

    • James McGee says:

      The fact is … the mind does more processing than Chris would ever have time to do on a computer. Chris’ image may not reflect physical reality, but it most certainly could be capturing what his mind saw.

      James

  6. I like it more.
    A great adventure in technology and aesthetics.
    And for my money, there was no lying involved.
    The goal was to show the truth despite the limitations of the tech.
    Thanks, Chris.

  7. Wow a controversy in a science blog. The very fact you are using a medium of any sort to capture the image means you have departed from reality. Our eyes are each different, camera sensors as compared to film are different and then each camera companies sensors differ from each other some are warm in their capture some are cool just like the films varied by company, there is no such thing as accurate images from the camera.
    Always capture in raw so all the material is available without in camera adjustments. The computer has a much larger processing ability than a camera, I’m sure Chris does this.

  8. I think there is nothing wrong with manipulating a photo in the way that you did to bring out the details in the highlights and shadows provided that the image is true to life. I rarely alter any photos, but I do use filters (UV or polarizing) to reduce glare and bring out details. I hate seeing photos that look absolutely amazing and then finding out that everything had been “tweaked” on the computer to the point that it no longer represents reality.

  9. Diane says:

    I prefer the image as manipulated to capture your experience, allowing us to share it. I appreciate you addressing this side of photography in your blog. And I hope as I work my way through learning how to take pictures (and edit them) using my new camera, I can occasionally ask a question or two!

  10. Danelle Haake says:

    Thank you for sharing a bit of your process! I feel better knowing that, no, I probably don’t need to buy a more expensive camera/lens to get better quality photos. I just need to learn to use Photoshop or Lightroom to bring out what my eyes saw!

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Danelle, I agree with you about the camera, but a good lens does help. My advice is to buy a cheap camera and use the money you save to buy a good lens. Also, Photoshop and Lightroom can help, but you still have to identify and capture the light and composition so there’s something good to start from… Have fun!

  11. Ian Lunt says:

    Great question Chris. To me the bigger issue in ‘representation’ isn’t mis-representation because of photo manipulation but selective representation based on the photographers choice of what to take a photo of and what to ignore. Your best photos show very selective views (as does photography) in general so I don’t think you can get around the point that great photography is very selective. A better analogy might be to think about it in terms of ‘little white lies’ – all the not to picturesque things that weren’t shown. Unlike you I manipulate my photos lots (even though I’m a scientist) as I’m trying to show beauty more than naturalistic representation. Another reason is that I need to hide the fact that I’m a really bad photographer – unlike you – but can make a better image out of a poor starting point. Either way, keep up your great shots, they are beautiful. Ian

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Ian. I started writing about the selective views issue too, and decided it was a bigger issue than I wanted to deal with in my “photo of the week” post, so I’ll hold that for another time when I can give it a thorough exploration.

  12. Jean Lewis says:

    I’ve been a black and white photographer for many years. Manipulation is not new. Ansel Adams manipulated his photos aggressively. He taught his Zone System which included manipulating the exposure, the development of the film, the printing, and the final treatment of the print. What he achieved was a hugely enhanced photo, much more dramatic than the original scene. I have no problem using photo-enhancing software. I do not show a digital photo to anyone until I’ve edited it.

  13. Misi Ballard says:

    I love the image, regardless of how you manipulated it on the computer. And understand how the camera can change what you are experiencing. I also enjoy your e-messages tremendously and your love of the prairie. It is a very special habitat, one I enjoy mostly through my love of birding here on the Eastern Colorado Plains. (I live in the Denver area and have a tiny cabin in South Park, CO). Someday I am going to visit your prairie, and have actually started talking with friends about a road trip up there. What time frame would you suggest for Spring migration?
    Thank you for your writings, they are lovely and they do bring the prairie to life!

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Misi – the peak of sandhill crane migration is mid-March, but a few weeks either side of that is usually great birding. The earlier end will hit more geese and pintails, the latter will have lots of ducks, but in smaller groups. Unfortunately, the wildflowers are not that exciting in March… so you might consider TWO trips! One in the spring and then again in the summer…

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