The Digital Dark Room

I have previously resisted editing photos, feeling like it’s cheating somehow.  However, when one of my photography mentors explained to me that “editing” RAW format pictures is like developing negatives in a  dark room, I started thinking about it differently.

Unfortunately, I find that processing photos is not a task I really enjoy.  For one, I spend the vast majority of my waking hours at a computer for work, having personal time end up on a computer as well is a little depressing.  Second, when I’m on the computer, I’m not out shooting.  But, the thing that I am beginning to realize is that part of what changes a photo from a form of documentation to a work of art is what the photographer does with it after the shot is taken.

It’s possible that I may need to bite the bullet and take a class in Photoshop at some point, but for now, I am content to play with Aperture and see if I can do what I need to do with it.  So far, the one thing I know enough to miss is how to layer together two shots into one.  I suspect Aperture doesn’t do that, but it’s possible I just haven’t found it yet.  That would be handy–outdoor shooting often leads to having to choose between an over-exposed sky or an under-exposed subject.  Being able to combine two shots would solve this problem.

For today, I decide to play with a shot from our recent trip to the Smokies.  This was taken from a “knob” where there was an endless panoramic view of the smokies surrounding us.  While there is something about the shot that appeals to me, it completely fails to look like what I want to convey.  I’m not sure how to explain it, but the gap between what I see in my mind and what I see in the photo is large.  Normally, I would just trash this photo and call it done.  But, because there is that little something there that I like, I decide this is a good candidate to start experimenting with.

As I stare at this photo and start making adjustments, I think about something my brother once said to me.  I showed him a photo I was processing  with and without a certain adjustment and asked him which he liked better.  He said (roughly), “Which one is more like what it actually looked like?  That’s the one that’s better.”  I suppose on the surface this seems like a logical way to look at it, but his statement has haunted me ever since.

First, what does something look like?  Is that an absolute that can be monitored and measured and set objectively in stone?  Second, is capturing what something looks like the real goal of photography?  As I ponder this, I realize that it’s not about “what it looks like;” it’s about what I saw.  What I saw is probably a massive brain computation starting with light reflected into my eyes but then processed in the context of my personal experiences, interests, filters, and openness.

What I want to show is a new way to see the same thing.  When photography moves into the realm of creativity, you stretch your mind so you don’t ignore the shimmering light off one small leaf, miss the shadow of a soaring hawk that suddenly appears in your frame, fail to see the contrasting shadows under each blade of grass.  It’s not about “what it looks like”; it’s about learning how to see in new ways.

Having that realization, I find myself wanting to push myself out of documenting mode and into creative mode.  And I’ve realized that by concentrating solely on my shooting skills (which still have a long way to go), I’m completely missing out on half the formula.  So, today, I turn to my computer and play with what I can do in the digital dark room.


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