Those of you who follow this blog and/or have traveled with me on a photo tour here in Costa Rica know that I strive to capture the best RAW file possible and that I consider only a perfect (or near perfect!) RAW file to be a full success in my own photography. I don’t pretend that every photographer should adopt this standard in his or her own work; photographers have different goals and purposes for their images. And I don't pretend to follow this standard all of the time in my own work. When a landscape can only be exposed properly by blending multiple images in the computer, I will do so. Or when a bit of cloning will really help an image, I'll grab the clone tool.
I believe that we have come to a point in nature photography where disclosure of how a photo was processed is a necessity to ensure public trust in nature photography and to establish a baseline for viewers evaluating the merit of nature photographs taken by professionals and amateurs alike.
I also think that striving for RAW perfection will generate personal rewards in terms of self-satisfaction and photographic growth for the nature photographer in his or her own photography. Considering what I'm trying not too pretentiously to call "RAW Perfection" can lead any photographer to a richer experience in the field by sharpening your focus on photographic technique and awareness of the subject. You can really get into the "zone", and that's a great feeling in any endeavor.
As a nature photographer, I am interested in expressing my vision through my skill as a photographer, employing all of the tools that are available to me, in the field. When I view the work of other photographers, I have the same interest. The photographers that I most admire are able to use their photographic equipment, patience, knowledge, and creativity in the field to give us fascinating and unusual glimpses into the natural world, warts and all. In this article, I explain the criteria that make up the RAW Perfection approach, and I discuss the benefits to be reaped from following this approach.
I have started to write this article in my head, on paper, and on the computer a number of times but then worried about it being a bit too polemical and also about making myself look like a puritan or a saint. Believe me, I'm neither! We as photographers often have strong feelings about how to approach the imagemaking process, and that’s understandable but it’s important to respect other positions as well. So, please understand that this article’s intent is to express my thoughts on the subject and to stimulate some healthy discussion but is not in any way meant to condemn particular nature photographers or particular approaches to nature photography, neither in the field nor in the digital darkroom. Many will disagree with the ideas presented here, and many will find loopholes in the logic. I respect your right to disagree, and I recognize that there are loopholes in the logic. But please read this with an open mind and in the spirit in which it was written – to make us think, to improve our own nature photography, to maintain a positive public perception of nature photography as a field, and to allow us to recognize the true masterpieces of nature photography as they are captured.
I think that many people today, myself included, are skeptical of nature photographs. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and admit that I’ve come to the point where I assume any image has been altered substantially from the RAW file unless the photographer demonstrates otherwise. This is unfortunate but understandable. I'll share a little anecdote. My coffee table book on the wonders of Costa Rica's protected area system uses one of my favorite recent photos as the cover. But it almost didn't come to be.
Why? The US publisher of the book (Cornell University Press) assumed it was a composite image. It's not, and I worked really hard to pull this off in one shot. The Costa Rica book publisher (Zona Tropical Press), who originally envisioned the project, assured them it was a single shot (Zona Tropical has the RAW file after all!), and it was then a green light. We all agree that it's a great cover. It's an iconic frog but photographed in an eye-catching and original way. Might some people in the general public, upon seeing the book on the shelves, assumes it's Photoshopped? Quite possibly, and that's a shame, but again, it's understandable in a way that the general public has come to be skeptical about nature photographs (or digital photography in general).
I think that striving for perfection in RAW files will be of benefit to the photographer in his or her own photography and will encourage creativity in the field, leading to more truly exceptional images. I also believe that disclosure of post-processing techniques, especially on photography forums, will level the playing field for professionals and lead to realistic expectations for amateur photographers and will also help us to treasure the truly exceptional images captured by pros and amateurs alike. Finally, I think that striving for RAW perfection and disclosure of post-processing techniques will help to restore the public’s apparently eroding trust in nature photography. In the article below I draw on conversations with a number of well-known professional photographers with whom I lead tours here in Costa Rica and also conversations with many tour participants to outline some of the issues, pro and con, related to my approach to striving for RAW perfection.
SO, WHAT IS RAW PERFECTION?
I’ll start with a definition of what I consider a successful nature photograph in terms of in-camera capture and post-processing. To me, a fully successful nature image is one that requires no cropping whatsoever (that is, it was captured full-frame in-camera), does not have any cloning applied (either taking things away or especially adding things, including added canvas), and has only a minimum of post-processing adjustments applied (I consider this to mean normal adjustments in saturation, tones, exposure, recovery, noise reduction and of course sharpening). This doesn’t mean that I don’t do go beyond these criteria in my own photography (I do on occasion) but I make it a point to rely on these only as a last resort, after exhausting all possibilities to work with a single, clean capture in the field. OK, I can already hear the objections out in the ether, so let’s consider these criteria separately before moving on to the rest of the article :-)
There are a number of threads out on the nature photo forums discussing this (e.g. how much do you crop?, how much should you crop?, what is an acceptable crop?) and to my mind the thrust of the discussions always becomes sidetracked by the issue of how many pixels we need to make a certain size print. Indeed, you might be thinking right now that someone with a 22 MP camera and a full-frame sensor, which has higher quality/larger pixels (say a Canon 5DIII) could crop quite a bit and still produce an image of equal or higher quality (especially at higher ISO values) than someone with a Canon 7DII, which has 20 megapixels and also uses a smaller sensor with smaller/lower quality (e.g., less light gathered per pixel) pixels. Or someone might be thinking that they are only making small prints or posting to a website or web forum so they don’t need that many pixels and can actually crop quite significantly. Even some of the big contests will accept moderately cropped files. So, these files must be good enough to make big prints. Indeed, I have no quarrel with the logic behind this. Modern cameras are plenty good enough to make big prints, and upsizing software such as Photoshop or Perfect Resize makes enlarging painless. I have made 24×36 prints from Canon 20D images, and they looked great. And I just recently bought the Canon 5Ds, a full-frame 50 MP sensor camera, which would allow me to crop to high heaven. Nevertheless, I'll keep trying to frame things in-camera because I consider compositional forethought to be an important part of the art of photography.
Alternatively, there are issues in the field that might make cropping attractive or necessary. For instance, some subjects are simply harder to compose in-camera than others. Is it fair to apply the same no cropping standard to a bird in flight photographer as to a landscape photographer? Probably not but my issue with this line of thinking is that making cropping a matter of course and not openly disclosing it can lead to two unfavorable outcomes. First, I see with many photo tour clients a tendency to rely on cropping as an excuse for lack of attention to detail and craft in the field. Rather than trying to approach a bit closer, putting on a teleconverter, choosing a different camera body, or paying close attention to composition, people may be more apt to resort to cropping in the computer. I realize that one can’t always afford the luxury of trying to get exactly what they want in-camera (particularly when traveling in a group and coming across an animal that may give the visiting photographer only one brief chance at a photo) but falling into the trap of relying on post-processing to do things that could have been taken care of in the field is a bad habit. (Check out the online photo forum posts and you are sure to read “cropped for composition” or “cropped to vertical from horizontal” along with the tech specs of many images posted there.) I assure you that you will be more proud of yourself for getting what you want in the field than doing so in post-processing. Second, even though it can be difficult to compose in the field, if we as viewers are bombarded with perfectly composed photos, perfection becomes mundane. It’s likely that only a very few of these great photos out there were actually composed in-camera. As in making a good choice for purchasing a car or a camera or organic vegetables, we need information to evaluate nature photographs. If we don’t know which photographs have been cropped, how are we to recognize and appreciate those instances where skill, patience, and luck combined for a photographer to produce those truly special images?
Another argument relates to different sensor sizes. What if I am out with a full-frame camera (say a Canon 5DIII) and a 500 mm lens and next to me is a photographer with the same lens but a smaller sensor/crop factor camera (say a Canon 7DII)? I have a better camera (in terms of straight image quality) so why would I be penalized for cropping if I get the same quality as the 7DII shooter next to me who is filling the frame with the bird? Does the photographer next to me have more skill because he or she composed in-camera with a 7DII while I shot the exact same image with my 5DIII but had to crop in post-processing to produce the same composition? This is a tough one but I would say yes. The photographer with the 7DII chose the right tool for the job and had the added task of composing precisely in-camera. In this case, I would have enjoyed the luxury of composing in post-processing through the use of the crop tool.
Another issue has to do with getting too close to wildlife and the potential to adversely affect our subjects. What if my no cropping standard tempts me to disturb wildlife unduly in order to produce a full-frame image? Would I not be better off staying back and cropping the image later? This is an issue where responsible nature photography is the answer to the question. No matter how obsessed we are with getting an image, we need to respect our subjects. If composing in-camera will cause harm to the subject, the image simply is not meant to be or, alternatively, you shoot as best you can, crop in post-processing, and disclose the cropping later when presenting the image online or in print.
There is also an important last point to be made with regard to trying to compose in-camera. There are some situations where we absolutely can not get close enough (no matter what camera and lens combination we have available) to fill the frame with a subject. Is this a problem? On the contrary, it’s a fantastic opportunity to be creative and look for more interesting compositions in-camera. Step back, include some environment with strong leading lines, and your images will be much more dynamic and have more impact than any standard frame-filling stock shot would be. Capturing images of this sort is actually more difficult but the rewards can be great.
This one should provoke little argument. It’s a standard rule in photo contests and seems quite logical in applying criteria for a successful nature photograph. I would argue that putting something in (e.g., cloning in a wingtip, adding canvas, changing a background by major blurring or even replacing a background or adding a flower to a picture) is more egregious than removing something (e.g., cloning out a few bits of floating detritus from water, cloning a distracting branch from the background, removing an electric wire from a landscape). But in the end, I think most would agree we should strive to position ourselves in such a way, choose lenses, apertures, and lighting in such a way, and compose in such a way that cloning is not necessary to improve things. Note that I take this position not from a reality standpoint (I make in-camera choices all the time that distort reality from what what our eyes see) but because I again am interested in those special images where the conditions all come together favorably.
That said, sometimes it's impossible to get the clean shot. What to do? Easy peasy. Clone or heal or use content-aware until your heart's content, and then simply mention that fact when posting the image online!
NO MAJOR POST-PROCESSING
This is probably the hardest criterion to define due to the simple fact that it’s tough, if not impossible, to say how much is too much. And there’s also a slippery-slope element to this issue; once we do one post-processing task, why not do another, and another? Many nature photographers will limit post-processing work to the things done in the traditional darkroom by film photographers. And while that’s a pretty good rule, many photographers (e.g., Ansel Adams) did quite a lot of post-processing, reportedly even cloning things out by masking. My take on this is that, for a successful nature image, the viewer should look at our final image as presented and then be able to see the RAW image without being surprised at the difference. That is, the viewer shouldn’t perceive that we have majorly manipulated an image – subjective and messy I know, but it seems to me to be a good common sense litmus test.
In my own photography, I try to adhere whenever possible to the general digital processing guidelines stated by the rules of the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice photo competitions. This is not because I'm always thinking about those contests or because I think every one of my images is a potential contest winner but simply because I find the processing rules of those contests to fit with my shooting style and approaches in the field and at the computer.
WHY THE INSISTENCE ON RAW PERFECTION
As mentioned in the previous section, there are a number of arguments in favor of relaxing or ignoring one or all of the three criteria above. All of these arguments have merit but none of them, singly or together, sways me from my insistence on striving for a “perfect” RAW file. Why? The main reason is that I simply am not satisfied with my own effort unless I get as close to exactly what I want in-camera. And I think the viewer of my images will appreciate the dedication to photography out in the field and will place more merit on an image that closely resembles what came out of my camera than they would on an image that has been cropped, cloned, and otherwise heavily manipulated in post-processing. I believe that this evaluation stands whether the viewer is a casual fan of nature, a potential print buyer, a potential Costa Rica photo tour client, a contest judge, or a magazine editor or other potential stock photo buyer (though in the world of advertising this is probably unrealistic; in fact, the opposite may be true!).
I apply the same mindset when I view other photographers’ work. When I see an image that meets the above three criteria I am impressed by the skill of the photographer. Don’t get me wrong; there is a lot of skill that goes into good post-processing, and people who are really into Photoshop have a lot of talent and ability. When enjoying nature photography, I’m simply more impressed by a good photographer than I am a good digital photo processor :-)
A CALL FOR DISCLOSURE
Given the above discussion, you may have guessed that I want to know what has been done to any photo I view. And I am all about sharing what I have done to my photos. But why? I explained above that the main reason I strive to get the RAW file I want is for reasons of personal satisfaction and pride in my work. Nonetheless, I think knowing what has been done to a photo has some very important ramifications for both professional and amateur photographers alike.
First, professional photographers are competing for attention, whether simply for prestige/reputation or for stock sales, print sales, and photo tour and workshop clients. In fact, these four areas are nearly inextricably intertwined for today’s professional nature photographer. More prestige or better reputation can lead to more stock sales, more print sales, and more tour and workshop clients. And then more sales in terms of prints, stock, and tours leads to more prestige. Photography is a competitive business, and I believe the playing field is not level if one photographer is presenting images that closely adhere to the RAW file while another is presenting images that have been substantially digitally manipulated or enhanced without disclosing that fact or while even intentionally obscuring that fact.
Most of the major photography forums have stated guidelines to disclose post-processing and technical specs when posting images for critique. Nevertheless, it seems that full disclosure is rarely offered. People post images both to receive feedback and to gain recognition for their work on these forums. I think it only fair that the viewers know what they are looking at.
By a similar token, when choosing a photographic tour or workshop, I believe that potential clients want to know what they are seeing when they view a leader’s photography. In addition, I think it is important for images from a certain part of the world to accurately reflect what kinds of photographs are possible in order to avoid unrealistic expectations on the part of the participants. If presented images are wildly different from the RAW files actually captured in the field, problems could arise for the trip leader as they have essentially advertised their product in a false manner.
And finally, I think the general public, the consumers of nature photography, would benefit from knowing what has been done to an image so that they can feel confident that what they see is what they get.
For all of these reasons, I propose that nature photographers try to disclose as fully as possible what post-processing has been done whenever an image is presented on the web. This may be more difficult to do on personal portfolio/showcase websites where style and layout considerations are very important but on photographers’ blogs it is quite easy to point out what post-processing has been done. And on the photo forums, I think it would make sense to have a rule to post a jpeg straight from the RAW file along with the presented image in critique forums. This way viewers will have the information at hand to judge the photo according to their own standards. Viewers will feel differently, of course, about what level of post-processing to abide, and that’s fine. But at least they will have the information necessary to make an informed judgement according to their own personal taste.
As I stated at the outset of this article, I don’t pretend to have all of the answers or that my approach is the only or correct approach. Nevertheless, I do feel that striving for perfection in RAW files and disclosing post-processing techniques will bring multiple benefits to the individual nature photographer, the business of nature photography, and the larger nature photographer community. I have read numerous times on the web that digital manipulation is OK; those images that are heavily manipulated simply become fine art images, as if for some reason only nature photographs that depart from a literal representation of a subject constitute art or that non-literal interpretations can only be produced in the computer. I could not disagree more strongly with this point of view.
I try to produce fine art nature photography, which means photography that intends to fulfill or express the creative vision of the photographer. To me, as a photographer, that vision is expressed most strongly through the tools I have available to me in the field. So, I make use of different lenses, different apertures, unusual perspectives, flashes, limited dynamic range, and chiaroscuro principles to try to make images that are different from what our eyes see but hint at the essence of my rainforest and cloud forest subjects. To my way of thinking, the photographer is both artist and craftperson, and I most admire those who can use their tools to create fine art in the field. And when a good photographer is able to put everything together — their skill, their technical knowledge, their patience, their creativity, and a bit of good luck — we can celebrate those truly incredible and special images of the natural world.
I’m interested to read what you think. Please feel free to share this article and to leave comments!
By the way, the images presented along with this article fully fit the three criteria elaborated here; I consider them to be among my successful nature images!
Finally, you might be asking yourself, well, what about captive animals, live baiting, and setups? That's the subject for an upcoming article :-)