The Art of Interpretation

INTRO

The process of pre-visualization pioneered by the late Ansel Adams is as powerful of a tool for photographers today, as it was during the majority of the 20th century. However, the process of projecting the finished image in your minds eye before you even push the shutter button can only get you so far. Sometimes technology fails us, and sometimes we fail technology, as in the case below. Read on for the full story!

Hvítserkur Arch, Vatnsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Hvítserkur Arch, Vatnsnes Peninsula, Iceland


TRANSLATION VS INTERPRETATION

Before we get to the story surrounding this image, I think it would be a good idea to talk about the idea of translating your world through the lens of the camera vs interpreting your world through the lens of the camera. There is a significance difference between the two, and photographers usually fall solidly on either side of this conversation. Many believe the camera should translate their world faithfully onto the page and should become a testament to the factual events recorded by the film (or digital sensor). Others intuitively know that the camera isn't able to record fact or objective information because removing context automatically creates bias and a subjectivity that is fundamental to the photographic medium. The structure of a photograph often represented by a rectangular box creates new relationships, and in many cases a distillation of the environment and events within the image. This reductive quality of the photograph is powerful and it is what makes photography so widely used as a carrier of visual information. When I realized this many years ago I took the next step and decided to embrace the tools at my disposal. I began to interpret the images captured by the camera and to embrace compositing, strong tonal manipulation, atmospheric modification, and even alteration of time of day. This decision to allow myself to dream about distilling the experiential qualities in my photographs opened new doors to me, and I've never looked back. Whether or not this type of manipulation is for you is fundamentally a personal decision, but every photographer should consider where the boundaries are in their photographic process. 


THE STORY AND PROCESS

Rain was beginning to steadily fall as Sharon and I walked along the black sand beach, trying to find a way to capture the essence of this magical formation. The treacherous cliff path back to our vehicle was getting increasingly more dangerous as the ground became slick with mud. This image is one of the final ones I shot during our 45 minutes of exploring this environment. Admittedly I was in a rush, and didn't calculate the exposure appropriately. With a 10 stop ND filter attached to my Canon 5DS I hurriedly set up the shot and captured 2 frames. Both were too dark, even with a 30 second exposure. In hindsight I really should have taken more time, and cropped the image vertically, but I didn't, so here we are. The image sat on my hard drive for more than a month, and one evening I sat down to see if I could resurrect visually what my mind had desired the image to be. 

After correcting for exposure, and cropping to a vertical format I began to have some hope for a good image. That is one advantage of shooting with a 50 MP DSLR...you do have the luxury of making a pretty severe crop and still being able to create a good size print from it. The sky was problematic in that the rain had obscured any appreciable detail in the cloud formations. The images below show the sky image from just a few minutes earlier which I composited into the target image, and a rough version that has been corrected globally for composition and overall exposure. 

Source sky image from a few minutes before our  selected image was taken

Source sky image from a few minutes before our  selected image was taken

Globally corrected image without new sky or foreground retouching

Globally corrected image without new sky or foreground retouching

Lightroom is a really powerful tool, which is obvious from the sample images above. However for compositing photographic elements together a photographer needs Photoshop. Photoshop excels at very granular edits, precision masks, targeted corrections, and high level retouching. Lightroom was made for workflow and broad management of your images. Normally I do the majority of my editing within Lightroom and use Photoshop to refine the image in very specific ways. What Lightroom cannot do is combine images using complex masks. Below is an image of my layer stack in Photoshop, showing the new sky layer with the Contrast Mask applied. The specifics of how to create a Contrast Mask will be covered in a later tutorial. 

Sky mask detail using Contrast Masking technique

Sky mask detail using Contrast Masking technique

Beyond putting in the sky this image needed some specific retouching to create visual harmony. Some photographers believe that what is captured on 'film' or on a chip sensor today is somehow sacred and immutable. I, for one, understand that the photograph has never been a truthful statement, and my work is intentionally an interpretation of the experiences I have and the things I see. Today we have tools of such power and sophistication that I feel more like an artist crafting what my minds eye sees and what my memory of the place makes me feel. Should it be any other way? Why not allow this personal interpretive step in the photographic process? My perspective is that there is no truth in photographic images, but there is power to share what you have experienced deeply and evocatively. For me its like poetry, but visual poetry where I can share my experience with others through this powerful medium. 

The images below show how 8 Curves adjustment layers with masks have been used to refine both the contrast and color of the image. 

Retouched version on left. Composited and refined version on right. 

Retouched version on left. Composited and refined version on right. 

To be honest, this image isn't quite done yet. I'll continue to refine color and detailed tonal qualities for the next few weeks. In your own work have you considered how you use the tools that are available to you? Are you interested in learning more about how you can use photography to interpret the things you see and experience during your travels? If so, then consider traveling with us to Iceland in 2016. In the meantime, if you have any questions feel free to drop me a line. I'd be happy to answer them.