#460. We take photographs, but we make art

By Paul Perton | Opinion

Feb 29

On occasion, I’ve been known to resemble Google’s StreetView avatar. Not for my girth – that’s something else entirely – but rather my regular and entirely circular changes of opinion pointing to post processing.


Casually viewing the pages of Flickr, 500px et al will set the tone; photographs of just about everything, everywhere. Some are great, some good, many barely mediocre. What often separates one from the other, in page view terms at least, is the spectacular colour on offer.


HDR aside, was the sunset sky really that red or orange? Were the shadows so blue, so vibrant? Is it necessary to make everything look like it is being submitted in a competition to select this year’s Xmas sweetie box covers? It’s so prevalent, that in many respects, this highly colourful post processing treatment has come to define an entire strata of photographers and their work.


A step back; at entry level, the would-be photographer battles with everything. Understanding why at first the camera is best set on full auto, cropping in the viewfinder, avoiding camera shake, selecting an appropriate image size, JPG or RAW and just about everything else that the camera’s team of on-board elves doesn’t automate.


Predictably, the results are familiar; most of us have been there too.


But we persevere, begin to understand aperture and shutter priority, auto ISO, dynamic range, we start to eschew HDR and begin to identify the critical benefits which shape our need to shoot in RAW.


The photographs that result plot the arc of our learning, ability and colour saturation in lockstep. And thus, the picture postcard era dawns. Pictures posted to Flickr, Facebook and elsewhere draw rave reviews, liberally smallpox-ed with words like “fabulous”, “awesome” and “stunning”. When English was being beaten into me at school, I was taught that fabulous was the stuff of fables. Definitely not in this case.


And, we move on.


If you read magazines like OnLandscape, or browse the Web sites of landscape photography’s mavens, you know what comes next. We move from the sweeping majesty (and over saturated colour) of hills, vales, sandstone cliffs, misty landscapes with patches of sunlight dappling the delicate, perfectly exposed and colour rendered scene, to something more muted, more serene, less colourful.


Bliss. We’ve made it; true, in focus views, perfectly exposed, delicate tones lovingly perfected.


Just hold that thought a while.


It’s hard to imagine that whatever camera you used to use, that today your interest hasn’t been piqued by new technology, mirrorless cameras, adaptors and re-purposing manual focus lenses.


My colleagues here at DearSusan have fallen prey. Pascal still mourns the sale of his Mamiya and I’m sure Philippe still has the occasional hankering for one of those old, heavy and entirely predictable (D)SLRs. I do – but more about that shortly.


Both Pascal and Philippe bought Sony’s Cool-Aid. The output of their second generation A7s and manual focus Zeiss glassware paving the pages of this blog for the last many months. For myself, I opted for a different path, also tried a Sony mirrorless, but eventually became disenchanted with the pathetically low keeper rate my manual Leica and Zeiss lenses delivered. My fault, but nonetheless, I looked elsewhere.


To compile InSight: Tokyo, I took the plunge and bought a Fuji X100T. A year later, my continuing inability to wrestle more great images from my NEX and it’s manual lenses, meant buying an X-Pro1 and a 35mm f1.4. Then a 90mm f2 and finally, a 16mm f1.4.


I’m still getting used to them, but things are looking up.


Now, lets go back and collect the idea we parked earlier, merge it with what I am beginning to see from my Fujis and make some sense of all this.


Despite it being high summer here, I’ve not had much chance to be out shooting. Over Christmas, the places I wanted to go were heaving with tourists and since most of them left in mid-January, the wind has been hammering without a break. I definitely don’t recommend beach photography in a 70km/h sand scouring wind. So it’s taken another month or so for me to find some still mornings without a constant line of tourists trudging through my pictures. Finally, it’s time to give the Fujis some exercise…


Long story short; I’m really impressed. The 90mm f2 is majestically sharp, as is the 35mm f1.4. I like to shoot them wide open when I can – especially in those precious few minutes before the sun launches itself above the horizon. In many places, I’ve shot wide open, got the shot I wanted and then re-shot the same scene at f5.6 to compare the results on screen later.


And what results they’ve been. After Tokyo, the X100T did sterling duty in India, providing me with a street camera that was everything I’d hoped and expected. I started to experiment with it’s exquisite colour rendition and VSCOs film emulation plugins, especially the Velvia 50. With a single click these made my photographs come alive, as though they’d been hit with a heart resuscitator. Post production in Lightroom finally became fun; select image. Clear! Click Velvia 50 and I had another masterpiece.


Well, not quite, but you get the idea.


Street photography in India is really ideal for that cinema-like rendition and it was only a short step to see how Velvia might render a landscape, or sunrise.


Hmmm. Not so good. With one heart-paddle-like click I’d joined the chocolate box brigade. So, I left my desk and made coffee while I pondered. Back at my desk, I tried de-saturating a bit. But, as the luminous colour gently faded, my soul slipped too.


In addition to the VSCO plug ins, I had also bought Thomas Linashke’s Fuji emulation plug ins. They have a slightly less aggressive Velvia option, which I’ve also been using for a while, but even they pushed the saturation slider way too far.


Tinker, tinker, tinker. I tried different emulations; Ektachrome, Provia and others. I tried my own renditions and curiously, kept ending up right back at VSCO’s Velvia 50; deep luminous blues, purple, subtle orange, strong reds. I can slider one up, or another down, but I just keep coming back to where I started and wonder where this leads.


A camera’s sensor records what it sees. Our eyes do likewise and we know that our optic nerves and brain do a huge amount of behind the scenes optimisation, detail rendering and colour manipulation before we get to actually see what it is that we are really looking at.


So, is our colour perception self-muted? Is what we see at sunrise, sunset and/or twilight dulled or over enhanced in our transition from predominately black and white night vision to daylight’s full colour? Am I saying that super sensory saturation is actually real? Are we taking photographs, or making art?


You decide.


The promised reward for reading this far – a Fuji photograph. This was the first image I shot that morning – the scene was so perfect that I probably rushed a bit, not wanting to miss this extraordinary combination of light and tranquility – or the birds roosting at the water’s edge.


OOC RAW - Kleinmond lagoon, birds roosting. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f2

OOC RAW – Kleinmond lagoon, birds roosting. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f2


Now, with the Velvia 50 heart starter. With added blacks to generate the deep shadow I wanted and a touch of vignette. I know it’s only February, but this might turn out to be my pic of the year.

Kleinmond lagoon, birds roosting. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f2

Kleinmond lagoon, birds roosting. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f2


A landscape next. I drive past here several times a week and have rarely seen a scene like this before.


The picture that started it all; the Southern end of the Kogelberg. OOC RAW from Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6

The picture that started it all; the Southern end of the Kogelberg. OOC RAW from Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6


Now an early edit with a crop – oh man, this is powerful medicine.


Cropped and slightly desaturated - Southern end of the Kogelberg. Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6, edited with VSCOs Velvia 50 plug in

Cropped and slightly desaturated – Southern end of the Kogelberg. Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6, edited with VSCOs Velvia 50 plug in


Now, the finished job; toned down highlights, a touch of red/orange/yellow…


Final edit - Southern end of the Kogelberg. Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6, edited with VSCOs Velvia 50 plug in

Final edit – Southern end of the Kogelberg. Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6, edited with VSCOs Velvia 50 plug in


Here’s another OOC shot from the D800.


VSCO's Velvia 50 works with Nikon files too - OOC RAW - Kleinmond lagoon. Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6

VSCO’s Velvia 50 works with Nikon files too – OOC RAW – Kleinmond lagoon. Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6


VSCO's Velvia 50 works with Nikon files too - Kleinmond lagoon. Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6

VSCO’s Velvia 50 works with Nikon files too – Kleinmond lagoon. Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6


Some other examples shot in the last couple of days – see notes in the captions:


Rooi Els River valley. Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6, processed using VSCO's Velvia 50

Rooi Els River valley. Nikon D800, 50mm f1.4 pre-AI Nikkor @ f5.6, processed using VSCO’s Velvia 50


Lifeguard station. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f2

Lifeguard station. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f2


The sun appears. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f5.6

The sun appears. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f5.6


Footbridge across the lagoon. Looks like HDR, but is really impacted by the micro contrast of the Clarity slider. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f5.6

Footbridge across the lagoon. Looks like HDR, but is really impacted by the micro contrast of the Clarity slider. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f5.6


Lifeguard station. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f5.6

Lifeguard station. Fuji X-Pro1, 90mm f2 @ f5.6


  • pascaljappy says:

    Wow, Paul !

    Not sure what I like more. The superb photographs or the thought process that led you to your personal workflow. As you mention, photo-sharing sites are full of look alike shots that often mimic a same recipe for colourful success. Nothing really wrong with that, and some of those images are really technically exceptionnal. But they often lack stickiness and their impact washes away quite rapidly.

    It’s interesting to replicate a look, much like painters learn to paint like famous masters of the past. But, at some point, it becomes far more important to turn your thinking inwards and search for what works *for you*. This earns you no Likes or Shares but so many more personal photographs of lasting value. I think your article does a great job of describing that shift. Thanks.

  • Luca says:

    Ok, a few things in no particular order:

    – first and foremost: I love the image you shot this morning on the lake! And the cropper version of the Southern end of the Kogelberg as well. (well, actually I’m going back and forth between the cropped and the non-cropped version…they are both great)

    – you live in a wonderful place, and you made me just put South Africa on my wish list. Generally I see a reverse correlation: the more amazing the place, the more boring the pictures. Definitely not in your case! You certainly know how to capture such beauty, kudos

    – I’m a Sony shooter (the original A7r), but recently searching for something less clunky I ended up with a Fuji X-T10 and I’m loving it. This morning after receiving a couple adapters to put my Contax Zeiss glass on the Fuji I tested a few lenses against the cheap 16-50 kit zoom and (using Zeiss glass on both, the 60 Makro Planar on the Fuji and the 28-85 Vario Sonnar on the Sony) just for fun I pitted as well the Fuji vs the Sony.

    I’m absolutely impressed. I fully expected for the 16-50 to be blown away against the Contax lenses, and the same for the X-T10 against the A7r. Long story short, not only the zoom performed more or less at the same level (sometimes slightly better, sometimes slightly worse) than most of the Zeiss primes, but even more surprising once resized for a print 1m wide (I printed crops, obviously not the entire image…) the resulting files from the A7r and the X-T10 were nigh indistinguishable. So now I’m afraid I’m getting a bad case of Fuji fanboy fever 🙂

    – this will be controversial, but my suspicion/opinion is that the current passion for oversaturated colors, other than being a passing fad, has quite a bit to do with the limited ability of today’s digital sensors of giving us a pleasing highlight roll-off (like film did, to be clear). This happens even with wide dynamic range sensors like the one in the A7r. And pushing over the top the saturation is often a mean to mask this “harshness” (for lack of a better term) more than a conscious stylistic choice. Given current tech limitations, it’s not that strange than 80% of the time I spend on an image in LR or PS is used to make sure that the highlights are nice and natural, and not cut off suddenly.

    That said, as for strong contrast instead I’m guilty as charged! Especially because I love crushed blacks and chiaroscuro kind of lighting.

    • paulperton says:

      Thanks Luca. Not only do we have incredible views and landscapes, the exchange rate is so positive for anyone travelling here especially with US$, pounds, euros.

  • David A. Mack says:

    Thank you for your comments about the rapidly changing field of image capture by the entire field of folks using every conceivable device ever created!! I don’t know whats going on in the rest of the world in primary secondary education, but art is definitely not being taught in most American schools due to budget cuts, evidence of general benefits to the contrary. Professional photographers can’t hardly give a wedding away because everyone with an advanced camera is now a “professional” and does their friends wedding for free or a token $500. The public just doesn’t care that poses are awful, compositions terrible and color balance, “what is that?” So thank God, Pros now teach people like me! As I have progressed in my skills, I too have struggled with the tech side, gradually putting aside the one camera fits all to the idea each camera is like a tool, use the right one for the job. My D4s is not suited for street work. That’s my Fuji XT1 with the Fuji lenses that I think work just fine. Now the 100 to 400mm may even replace my Nikon 600mm prime!! My D800 works great for that iconic landscape, done, but maybe not fun anymore. Maybe we need to concentrate on more on ART abstracts found on the back streets of our cities as well as its peoples. Fuji’s Velvia or Black and White are just dandy. There is no question that vivid complimentary colors captured on an old sign poster are as artistic as some of our celebrated painter’s work. The principles of art compositions work because our brains like them preferencially over the junk we see so commonly. Our new advanced cameras are becoming yesterdays dark room requiring less and less post processing, Yea!

  • philberphoto says:

    Paul, this is a very interesting subject, and your post does it justice! That said, there is one sub-topic you touch on, which is in my view of consequence. Who is our audience? Whom do we do this for? Is it just for ourselves? Is it to get kudos online, and from whom? Is it to print? It is to be sold?
    The present trend of oversaturated colours seesm to be what gets attention online, whether it is Flick’r, or 500Px. Both Pascal and I participate in a gentle monthly competition on a upper-end online forum, and the winner almost always is a spectacular landscape, often oversaturated. And both Pascal and I decline to participate in this “game” of “which shot is going to get me the most votes?”, and, instead, post whatever catches our fancy. Pascal almost vengefully posts lots of B&W, even though he knows there is no way he can win that way.
    This may well have to do with the woefully short attention span each of us has, and the humongous amount of “data” (I don’t grace it with the name “information”) thrown at us all day long.
    It takes time to explore, discover and savour. Be it a good wine or a good picture. Too often an over-impressive first sip is followed by nothing of interest, leaving one wanting, with a mild feeling of disappointment.
    And, of course, the speed with which we take pictures, as opposed to the “slow photography” of yore, has something to do with this whole “fast-pics” culture.
    But, as they, whatever floats your boat…

    • paulperton says:

      Only you Philippe could have responded with a question.

      Audience? Despite our prodigious skills, none of us at DS seem to be selling images faster than we can take them and the inevitable conclusion has to be that we’re doing all this for ourselves.

      No problem there. It’s good to see that some of the images I post here, on Flickr and 500px do garner some additional attention, despite them being in the main, far out of the Chocolate box oeuvre.

      And sales? I jest.

      • pascaljappy says:

        Don’t over-generalize, Paul. I sold over 40 quid on picfair last year 😀 😀 😀

        More interestingly, I’ve been hired by an architect to photograph his buildings for his new website but, as you say, 99% of the time, we’re doing this for ourselves.

        Which is how it should be. Pro photographers are one thing: small businesses with – hopefully – a good understanding of potential client requirements. Artists are another, which I aften admire and never can explain. But for us common-garden togs, photography has to be an opportunity for personal growth and that can’t happen with our attentions permanently riveted to the social-rule of the month and the cramped photo-contest ecosystem.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    The one I like best, Paul, is the one you’re lining up for “photograph of the year”.

    At an earlier stage (age? – LOL), I used to avoid Kodacolor slide film because it produced what I felt were garish colours.

    As a reaction, I developed a preference for something vaguely like black & white shots, with just a few colours to lift them up a bit – the emphasis was on light & shade, on shapes, on composition, etc and just a touch of colour. Kind of like a small taste of condiments on the food, instead of half a litre of tomato ketchup à l’américaine. Understated, rather than “in your face”. “Less is more”.

    Your first shot pushes all the buttons, for me.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Colours, aah.
    Not only are we we experiencing them subjectively.
    Our perception can change rather suddenly, at least mine can.

    Many years ago I began to notice, that if I relaxed in a certain way, let’s say a bit meditatively (but not meditating), then pretty suddenly all colours around me intensified and became more saturated. Shaking the relaxation off the colours returned to “normal”. And this experience was always repeatable.
    Mentioning this just in case it has anything to do with your colour adjustments.

    ( Quite apart from the fact you mention of sensors’ inability to “see” like humans. And that it takes time to learn to see colours as they “are” instead of as we expect them to be – and experiment with which we want to show, or slightly exaggerate, in a photograph.)

    [ Just found this site, will certainly come back.]

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