The box of believability.

Image processing: there’s a thin line between aspiration and desperation. The former sees a photographer pushing the boundaries of technology to expand, or improve, his/her style and the latter sees the same photographer crossing that boundary and free falling into a pit of ridicule.

I’m in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand I feel that the incredible versatility of Adobe Lightroom (other software packages are available) is equipping those who are able or inclined to use it fully, to pass me by when it comes to image processing. On the other, I see so many examples of over-processed images that whilst seemingly popular, are so far removed from reality, that I’m tempted to stick with my tried and trusted (and quick) processing methodology.

It’s still true to say that you can’t make a silk purse from a sows ear but it’s also true that processing software can radically change that same sows ear. I’ve wrestled long and hard with how much processing is enough and if truth be told, I’m still not sure. I’ve watched video tutorials and read endless magazine features and it seems to me that desperation, rather than aspiration, is slowly winning the war. Photography – landscape photography in particular – is starting to represent the natural world in the same misleading way that fashion photography represents its models; they just don’t look like that in real life.

An American colleague recently introduced me to The Box of Believability. Yes it smacks of Stateside jargon but the idea is that your final image, however you choose to process it, should remain within the Box; it should be Believable.

I shot this image recently up in Assynt for The Big Picture and although I’ve displayed the original – flat and lifeless that it is – the finished image is far closer to how I perceived the scene at the time. So have I deviated too far from ‘reality’; have I crossed the boundary into desperation, or have I simply used technology to overcome the limitations of camera capture? And the bottom line is does the final image work?

Extremes in image processing – working outside the Box of Believability – is just one element in what seems to be a growing desperation amongst contemporary nature photographers. There are some very distasteful tales travelling the grapevine just now about photographers’ attempts to stay ‘ahead of the game’. I very much applaud aspiration but desperation isn’t pretty.

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16 Comments

  • Ed Marshall says:

    Hi Pete, I find myself wondering the same. It wasn’t too long ago that I watched a post-processing tutorial from a well respected landscape photographer, and found them piling step upon step on the work flow. The video itself was about 5 minutes long and was emblazened with the intriguing title along the lines of “A quick way to liven up your landscapes” or something to that effect… He spoke so damn fast I could barely understand what was being done, and instead had to settle for watching windows and icons flash around the screen as he made each adjustment.

    Personally, the most editing I will carry out is with landscapes, and only then if I’m producing something like a panorama or HDR. Keeping it close the real scene is important, especially if you want to be taken seriously as someone who tells the story about the natural world like yourself and a number of others. When I see a blatently over-processed landscape image, I instantly lose interest. I think they are much more at home in a place where the most constructive feedback you’ll get is “great shot”, not a place where a serious issue is trying to be communicated. But that’s just me. I look forward to seeing more of your work. All the best, Ed

    • Peter Cairns says:

      Thanks Ed.

      Don’t forget there’s good business in making things more complicated than they need to be!!

  • Kin Corning says:

    Hi Pete,

    At the risk of repeating comments I made on a similar post of yours a couple years ago, I reconciled this question in my own mind a long time ago by settling on “acceptable” being what I think is in good taste and, in the context of “straight” photography, accurate to the feeling/impression/pick your word, of the original scene, which I guess is your Box of Believability.

    One point that is frequently missed in this discussion is the fact that EVERY digital image you see is “processed”. The digital raw file is just numbers. To convert it to a visible image, some software somewhere applies color curves, an interpretation of white balance within that color palette, color saturation, brightness and contrast curves, etc. etc. With an in-camera JPG, that software is the preset one has selected in the camera, but it is still the little computer within the camera doing some interpretation.

    This point, and the silliness of saying “I only use in-camera JPG’s” or “I don’t process my images”, is illustrated by the vast difference in appearance an image may have using different presets. Take an arbitrary image in Lightroom and before you’ve applied any other change, just toggle through the different color calibration presets (“Adobe standard”, “camera standard”, “landscape”, etc. or whatever they are called with one’s particular brand of camera) and the often-vast differences will illustrate how much interpretation of the raw numbers is taking place in a notionally “unedited” image. And, while the white balance meters in modern cameras have become better and better, they may still not be perfect, your image being a case in point: It looks a little cool to me in your “unedited” version which still, to the point I just made”, has in fact been baseline-edited according to some preset. When I travelled with you to the Lofoten Islands in 2013, I recall us comparing how different the in-camera interpretation of white balance looked on your Canon vs. my Nikon (the Canon being cooler, the Nikon warmer). Which one is “right”?

    For an image of moderate dynamic range as in your example, the raw file is usually going to look flat until you adjust the levels to something more appropriate to the scene, given the way camera and software manufacturers have historically made their “standard” presets.

    Fact is, all this was true in the analog era as well. Each film had color characteristic curves, some greater or lesser degree of color saturation, an inherent contrast range, etc. etc. We just didn’t agonise over it because the only way we could change things was by changing film stock, or in a more limited way by using filters. Fuji Velvia, which was a standard of most nature photographers in the pre-digital era, had a color palette and contrast/saturation characteristics which were pleasing to many people’s taste but certainly afield from “natural”. (As an aside, I think much of the over-processed look we saw in many mid-2000’s digital images came from photographers trying to imitate Velvia, and personally I think I’m seeing much less of that in recent years, at least from good photographers, as people become more comfortable and skilled with the processing tools.)

    The fact that we can do the modern equivalent of picking a custom film stock matched to a particular image simply puts the burden of taste into the hands of the photographer. Some people will do a clean and elegant job of image processing, and some will do a poor job, and the interpretation of which is which will be in the hands of the viewer. Certainly there is a lot of (to my taste) garish over-saturated over-processed landscape imagery around, much of it from my homeland of the USA where there seems to be a taste for super-vibrant images, less so here in Europe where the taste has been for more natural looking images.

    I think the average viewer is better than some may think at making this interpretation. My wife knows nothing of the techniques of photography, but she will often look at an image in a magazine and comment that it looks over-cranked or unnatural.

    So back to your image. It looks fine and within the bounds of reality to me. If you gave the raw file to someone else who was tasteful and skilled in post-processing, it undoubtedly would have been interpreted a bit differently, but still probably would be “fine” (though your interpretation should be more true to the feeling of the original scene since you were there and the 3rd party editor was not). A “straight” photograph is not reality. It is an impression of a scene through the eyes of the photographer, including the position he/she placed the camera, the lens perspective chosen, what is included and excluded from the frame, and yes, the image post-processing.

    While I’m writing a tome on this topic, I’d add the only “rule” I apply to “straight” nature photography is that it be honest. By that I mean the image should not pretend to be something it is not, and context matters. Many of us make in-camera blurs, dragging the shutter and moving the camera. They are even more an “impression” than a straight image – you would never see such a scene in nature. But I don’t think they need any caption explanation because it is obvious to the viewer what the image is and is not. I also don’t think every photograph of a captive animal needs to be labelled as such. When, for example, I see a photograph of a chimpanzee in a travel article in an airline magazine, I have no expectation that it was necessarily taken in the wild and I don’t care if it is labelled “captive” even if that was the case. But an image of a captive animal in the midst of wild images in a photo essay in say National Geographic is a different matter – that needs to be labelled. Outright lying, as with the disqualified WPY winner of a few years back, is obviously wrong. But context matters too. If the context that an image is presented implies it is a wild animal and it is not, then that needs to be made clear in the caption. This same concept applies to removal of significant elements from an image and countless other examples.

    (Sorry for the length of the comment.)

    • Peter Cairns says:

      Thanks Kin.

      This trend does seem to be more prominent in the States. All of this does of course depend on what it is you’re trying to achieve but unlike the characteristics of film, which allowed a narrow spectrum of options, almost anything is now possible. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing but equally, I’m not sure it does us any favours in the eyes of the general audience.

  • Colin Leslie says:

    I think ultimately it’s up to the photographer to judge how much processing should be done in order to evoke the mood or emotion they are trying to represent.

    What I find really interesting though, is the public’s perspective of a “real” photograph. I sometimes post images to the facebook group, Scotland from the Roadside. Now I’m no Peter Cairns but every now and then I stumble across what I think is an okay image, I upload it excitedly waiting for the digital hugs (likes) to come flooding in only to be put back in my box by a paltry handful. I then compound the misery by looking through the latest collection of outlandish images on the site, often horrendously over-saturated, noisy, wonky horizons, out of focus but wait…whats this…300 likes!!!

    From now on I shall process all my images using the maximum colour saturation, I will also photoshop a dog into each pic…world domination awaits…mwah,ha,ha…..

    • Peter Cairns says:

      Digital hugs – I like that!!

      This is kind of my point – if you want to be ‘popular’ (however that might be defined), you seem to be disadvantaged by sticking to ‘reality’. When the publishing industry follows the trends being set on social media – as it inevitably will – it won’t be digital hugs that photographers are deprived of but the ability to pay the mortgage. As the boat sinks, we’ll all be cranking up the saturation throttle to book a place in the lifeboat!

      Anyway, you seem to be having far too much fun of late – it’s those public sector holiday quotas!

      • Colin Leslie says:

        What do you mean holidays, I’m hard at work!!

        I do think there’s a difference between sticking to reality and popularity though. I love Alister Benn’s images even though they have had an unashamedly significant amount of post processing. The images just evoke emotions (as do many of yours). Some of the images on facebook, however, are simply bad, yet they are popular (though not in a money making way I’m sure). If the human brain is designed to positively react to certain rules of composition and colour I have no idea how some of these images can provoke a positive reaction in anyone let alone a large number of people.

        I asked my daughter about it (she’s not a photographer) and she told me I was over analysing, essentially it appears people just like bright shiny things.

  • Colin Leslie says:

    Prescient post given Digital SLR’s Flickr pick of the day –
    DigitalSL Photo

  • Lorna Hayton says:

    I try really hard to make my landscapes look the way I saw them when i pressed the shutter . However I’ve noticed a fashion for “velvia on acid” saturation at the moment and I think it looks terrible yet other people go mad for it on flikr…..
    What worries me is that people now assume that images have been manipulated . I was in Japan last month and photographed the snow monkeys . I was so proud of the image I got of one shaking its wet head coming out of the pool with all the water droplets . I sat back and expected praise and was astonished at the number of people who congratulated me on my patience in photoshopping all the droplets in !!!!

  • Ted Froam says:

    Interesting read.
    Before I read the article, I looked at the two images and have to admit I found myself preferring the so called ‘flag and lifeless’ one, basically because of the white balance and natural colours.

    “Flat” is an often over used term without thinking about it’s meaning in photography, just like “wrapping light” by flash/strobe users, light doesn’t bend/wrap!

  • Peter Cairns says:

    Thanks Ted – all very valid comments.

  • Paul Chilton says:

    I subscribe to the Box of Believability with my image processing and I get the impression that everyone else who has posted does so too. It’s how we like our photography. Real.

    It usually takes me between thirty and sixty seconds processing to get the image to look right to my eyes. If it needs longer then I probably didn’t get it right in the camera to start with. I don’t use any set processing formulas as I enjoy “crafting” my images individually. I don’t spend time creating digital art. It isn’t for me. Just for the record I spend far more time cloning dust than I ever do crafting the image, but that’s another story!

    I think we needn’t worry about the “Velvia on Acid” images because they are generally easy to spot and may well be just a fashion. I believe this is much more worrying: Over the past years I’ve been inundated with emails from a range of companies offering to sell me software that will: Create lens flare, shallow depth of field and custom bokehs, completely replace skies, give humans flawless skin, replicate any studio lighting effect etc., etc., etc.

    I’ve met a lot of photographers on my travels recently and I find it quite disappointing that many of them are using such software and are not that interested in getting the most out of their cameras. Furthermore, some of them are really good at it and the finished products can be very good indeed, they look real, very real, but they’re not.

    So why are we photographers, who only use a computer to “develop” our images, fretting about some over zealous saturation and sharpening, when it’s highly likely we’ll soon be coming up against “real” photographs that have had very little to do with a camera at all?

  • Duncan Armour says:

    A long time since you posted this blog but I can’t help mentioning this article with more than a little bit of sadness at what is considered acceptable by many these days in landscape photography:

    https://iso.500px.com/the-very-old-debate-of-image-manipulation/

    I had been suckered into liking some of the photographer’s images – now I just feel disappointed. At least he explains what he does but definitely not somewhere I want to go.

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