Editing Images – Aesthetics

Steamer approaching Pooley Bridge Pier, Ullswater, February 2023

Above is a standard digital photo taken with a modern mirrorless digital camera using a 24-70mm lens. It has had some minor editing in Lightroom including some cropping to change aspect ratio, and to balance the exposure of the sky and foreground.

Aesthetics in art is obviously a complex subject. It is compounded by being highly subjective. Whilst there are aesthetic styles, ultimately what we like is a personal decision. 

Photography can be an art form and there are aesthetic considerations with images, just as there are with paintings or architecture. 

In the past, discussion tended to be limited to subjects such as genre, composition, and lighting. Serious exponents of the art have always spent time in the darkroom editing their prints. The great landscape photographer Ansel Adams spent a great deal of effort on perfecting his images in the darkroom and literally wrote books about it. 

Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite, Ansell Adams, 1960

Classic Ansel Adams image taken with a view camera, i.e. using sheet film. Print is hand made in the dark room.

Digital imaging is no different. People complain about it not being ‘real’ photography if you have to spend time editing images on the computer. Such comments are born from ignorance of how fine art photography works. 

However, there are problems with image processing and anyone who follows any photography groups at all online will be aware of them. 

I follow a number of groups and over the last day or two I have seen images posted which I have had to restrain myself from criticising. Why – what’s wrong with them?

The issues mostly fall into two broad categories: a lack of technical understanding of photography, and over-processing. 

Before anyone criticises me by saying: “…but you’ve spent three years on a photography degree…” let me point out that I learnt all my technical understanding of photography back in the 1970s as a teenager. I understood issues such as aperture, focal rations, depth of field, ISO (known as ASA then), focal length, etc. back then.

If you want to get vaguely usable results with film photography, you had to have some level of technical understanding of what you are doing. It was only later on that electronics came into film cameras to help to automate processes. TTL metering was in the mid-70s, autofocus first appeared around 1980. The 90s saw the arrival of ‘programmed’ exposure modes where the camera would self-select setting to use when taking an image. 

Most people using an SLR film camera would have been aware of film speed, focal ratios, shutter speed, and depth of field. 

Most modern photographers have little awareness of these things. They rely on the automation in their phone or camera to do all of that. Sophisticated algorithms means that cameras in auto or program mode can provide good results, but they’re not infallible. If you want the best results, then you need to control the whole creative process yourself. 

It’s when you move to editing that the problems really pile up. Editing software such as those by Adobe and Affinity are very sophisticated and powerful tools. The issues we have here are due to a lack of understanding of what is happening in editing and a tendency to push things too far and to over process images. 

What do I mean?

Let’s take ‘sharpening’ as an example. Sharpening is a very useful tool for helping to bring out more detail. It works by enhancing edge boundaries. It can achieve spectacular results. However, it has limitations, and it can introduce artefacts into the image. If you push sharpening too far, it creates digital artefacts in the image, i.e. ‘detail’ that is not actually present in the image but has been created by the sharpening process. Sharpening also adds noise and the sharpening process can then try to sharpen the noise if pushed too far. 

The other day, someone posted an image of the crescent Moon. There were multiple issues with it. Fundamentally there was not enough data. The Moon is quite small and needs a lot of focal length to create a decent sized image. To fill a 35mm full-frame requires a focal length of around 2,000mm. For APS-C sensors, you need around 1,200mm. Anything below 600mm 35mm FF equivalent is too small. 

The image was on an APS-C camera with a 300mm lens so 450mm 35mm FF equivalent. To get a decent sized image means cropping in heavily. 

It was obvious the sharpening had been cranked right up. There were lots of ‘worms’ in the image – a typical sharpening artefact with images of the Moon. The Moon also had a ‘cheese rind’ around the edge, another common issue with photographing the Moon and planets. 

Worse, the unlit part of the crescent Moon seemed to be filled with stars, which is impossible. There were so many of them that I assumed this was one of those annoying composite images. No – it was in fact noise arising from the over-cranked sharpening. It was only when commented on that the poster realised that the ‘stars’ were noise. 

Some people commented on the ‘stars’ where it should have been dark, and he did fix that by re-posting an image with noise reduction applied. It was still over-sharpened. Trouble is, this gets positive comments from people who do not realise that the ‘detail’ they are seeing is manufactured – an artefact of the sharpening process. 

Most images are less susceptible to this issue, or it’s less obvious: it’s a big problem with lunar images though. More commonly what we see with say landscape images is either issues with exposure or colour. 

West Kirby Marine Lake, November 2022

Image taken late in the afternoon with very low sun. Note how the figures are just silhouettes. Editing has adjusted the aspect ratio and balanced the exposure so that the detail in the clouds is not lost.

An Image I saw the other day was a classic: shooting into a low sun with some large standing stones in the foreground. It was over processed. The standing stones should have been silhouetted against the sun. The back of them in deep shadow. The ‘shadows’ adjustment in Lightroom had obviously been pushed right over so that you could clearly see the back of the stones as if more-or-less fully lit. The shadows of the stones on the ground were barely present. 

This is a lack of critical analysis. Sure, boost the shadows a little, but doing it so that it looks like the object is lit all round is just daft. Again, we had an issue with uncritical viewers not realising how false the image was. 

You can do a lot with colour with editing software. You can adjust colour balance, colour toning, even shift the colours. All perfectly valid. Problems arise when people just crank up the saturation creating extreme over saturated primary colours such as Prussian blue skies and emerald green grass.

A lot depends on what you’re trying to do. Are you trying to say, “this is what it looked like”, i.e. documentary photography, or are you saying, “this is my interpretation of the scene”, i.e. an artist’s view? If you are processing the images as an artist, then you are free to interpret the image in line with your artistic aesthetic. If you are saying that this is a documentary record of the scene, then the level and nature of any post-processing has to reflect that.

The issues arise when people freely edit images but then claim it’s a record of the scene. I’m probably more critical than many people, partly because I’ve done a lot of hill walking and I’ve been in the mountains, and I know what the scenery should look like. I’m aware that post-processing can introduce artefacts and create ‘detail’ that isn’t there. To that I can now add three years’ work on a photography degree. 

It’s for these reasons that I’m not a big fan of HDR photographs (high dynamic range). Sometimes HDR images work well, but there was a fashion a few years ago for ‘HDR everything’ which was just extreme and very unnatural.

What am I saying? There is nothing wrong with editing photographs. Photographers have been editing their images since the very beginning of photography in the C19th. Editing no longer requires black arts in the darkroom, dodging and burning images, or adding the right chemicals into the developer, fixer, or wash. Now you adjust sliders in a software package. 

Yes, editing has become much easier. Doing editing well is still as difficult as it ever was, and arguably still a black art. 

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