Ansel Adams would Have Loved Digital Photography

There is an endless debate among photographers about the use of digital tools, such as Photoshop, in photography: how much manipulation of the image is acceptable, and when have you gone too far? The argument may be one of semantics, but let’s assume there’s more to it. Some say anything goes when making a picture come out the way you want, and others, who call themselves purists, or “old-school,” say digital manipulation is cheating, misrepresenting what was actually there. Should we stop at what the camera records, or is it okay to change a dull sky to a cloud-filled sunset?

My answer is “anything goes.” But if anything goes, the picture must be presented as digitally enhanced. If the sky was changed from the original scene to include a sky from a different picture, then the picture is not just a photograph, but a digital creation. In essence, don’t say a picture is as-shot, if that is not true. But if you like the picture better with a different sky, go ahead and change it. (Just do it right).

To say that using digital tools is cheating is misunderstanding photography itself, and the history of photography. There is no such thing as making a picture exactly represent a scene. Interpretation is always involved, from trying to get light to hit a piece of film (digital sensor)  in just the right way, for just the right amount of time, to determining how long to process the film and in what chemicals (process the digital file). Any of the results is an interpretation; it is not a re-creation of reality.

With digital photography, the camera does a lot interpretation to record the image. On the high end, digital files the camera creates must be converted to something that can be used online or for printing. Photoshop is one tool for making that conversion, and it also provides many choices for clarity, color, lightness, darkness, contrast and much more. When converting a “raw” camera file into a file we can edit, choices must be made. We can choose to convert the image as-is, the way the camera recorded it, or we can make adjustments. But even if we leave the conversion to the camera default, we are still making a choice leading to an interpretation of a scene either made by the camera only, or also including some choices of the photographer. We let the camera interpret the scene or we make adjustments to suit our needs.

Many may be surprised to learn that this newer digital process for making pictures is very much the same basic process that has been used since the beginning of photography. The famous landscape photographer Ansel Adams is usually held up as the example of a photographer who produced “pure” photography. His photographs were made before digital tools existed. But if his photographs are considered pure, the same should hold true for digital photographs that were altered using Photoshop. Here’s why: Ansel Adams was a master of photo manipulation. He did not just “take” his pictures; he created them through a very refined and precise process he developed over many years.

For everything Ansel Adams did, there is a digital analog. (how’s that for a fun term?)

  1. He recorded the scene on film very carefully after much analysis and calculation.
  2. He processed the film using exacting standards of time and temperature.
  3. He made prints from the film using various colored filters to yield different results for black and white prints, and he also exposed the prints to light through the film using different amounts of time on different parts of the prints (burning and dodging).

Now, it is more common to record with a digital camera. But good photographers still make careful choices of how the exposures will happen using the same variables of exposure time (speed) and light opening (f stop). Instead of processing the film in chemicals, we process the raw digital files using software, with the ability to make refined choices before making the initial, usable digital image. And beyond that, we can use various other tools within the software to adjust exposure and other elements of the picture down to single pixels if needed. The basic process has not changed.

I am quite confident that if Ansel Adams were still alive, he would wholeheartedly embrace the tools of Photoshop. And if this is true, would the purists say he is cheating?

Author: Steve Patchin

Steve Patchin is an Emmy winning professional photographer and artist living and working is Las Vegas, Nevada. He specializes in photo paintings and photo composites. Steve also owns and operates Patchin Pictures, a video and photography company he started in 1997. He opened his newest venture, Art Bus Coffee, in 2017 to take his art to the public in a new way that bypasses the traditional gallery structure. Steve believes people should buy art because they like it and because they feel some connection to it. It doesn’t matter what you think it may be worth in 15 years or whether an art critic told you why you should like it. What matters is what art means to you.

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