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Photoshop & Seagulls

“WHAT!!! You can’t do that!”

“Sure I can. It’s my photo.”

“But you can’t just make stuff up.”

I had just confessed to Denny that a recent photo I'd posted had undergone a tad more work in Photoshop than most of my images do. Although the conversation had a jocular air to it, there was clearly disappointment in his tone.

The image in question had received a lot of attention on social media. On the St Andrews tourism page the photo had over a thousand ‘likes’ over a hundred ‘shares’ and over fifty glowing comments. It remains one of the most popular images they’ve ever posted.

And it was a fake…

Well, sort of.

Today I thought it might be interesting to write a little about the ethics of digital manipulation. Not just post processing and changing highlights, shadows, exposure, and white balance, but actually moving pixels from one photo to another.

But let’s start with the photo in question and the story behind it.

It was a beautiful clear and surprisingly warm day in late last November. I’d been working on a section of my thesis and felt like no matter how hard I pushed at it it just wouldn’t take shape. I was frustrated and needed a break.

With the clear sky beckoning and my thesis not cooperating I grabbed my camera (which I try to always have with me. I’ll post on the importance of this sometime soon) and headed for my favourite and most frequented haunt, St Andrews Pier.

The sound of the waves, the smell of the sea, and the view of the town are always deeply refreshing to me. I think I have more pictures from this location than any other, and I rarely get tired of taking new ones.

As I walked out the along the old stones carried down from the ruined cathedral behind me I let my mind settle. The light was warm and clear. The ocean was like an old glass window just ever so slightly blurring the reflection of the sky. No wind, no waves, no ripples, just still quiet golden light reaching over the buildings in the east and gently bathing the pier in golden light.

I walked to the end and decided to fire off a few photos to stitch together into a panorama when I got home. I love the clarity and resolution a well compiled panorama can provide. The files sizes can be huge (sometimes nearly a gigabyte depending on how many photos you’re working with), but the detail is remarkable.

Panorama stitched in Photoshop and processed in Lightroom

I set the camera to a fairly high aperture (f11) and a sufficiently fast shutter (1/250th of a second) and pivoted left to right snapping off frames with about %40 overlap from one image to the next. Later, when I’m editing them I let Photoshop take care of merging the files using its excellent automated panorama setting. Then I clean up any distortions or imperfect merges and send it off to Lightroom for some final touches.

Standing on top of the pier I noticed several fishing boats out pulling in their traps. I have some photos of the fishing boats coming into the harbor but am always happy for more. They provide a great point of interest in an otherwise fairly standard scene. I had in mind this shot here from the year before that had potential but just didn’t quite feel right.

This was taken with my previous camera, the fantastic little Fuji X100s. February 6, 2015 (f4, 1/125th, ISO400)

One of the smaller boats was heading back towards the harbor so I climbed down the ladder and then down the steps at the end of the pier thinking I’d try for a slightly different angle on the shot than I’d taken before.

(Leica M-P, 35mm Summicron ASPH, f11, 1/250th, ISO640)

Checking the image I saw potential, but again, it just wasn’t quite right. I was too low and too far away. The wall of the pier didn’t add anything to the image and the town felt too distant. But there was potential.

Looking back out to sea I saw another larger fishing boat still pulling up traps. I figured I’d have a few minutes before it started making its way back to the harbour, and decided to scout out the shot I wanted. I marched back along the pier taking test shots until I found what I was looking for. I had good lines from the pier, good distance from the town, and great reflections in the water, now all I needed to do was wait.

15 minutes passed and I waited. As the boat turned to make its approach to the harbour I noted a throng of seagulls circling around it hoping for a morsel dredged up from the bottom. I knew I wanted those seagulls frozen in the frame. 1/250th wouldn’t be fast enough, 1/500th just might do it. I also didn’t want to bump my ISO any higher than 640 so I stopped down my aperture to f9.5 and zoned focused from 2.5 meters to infinity.

One of the lovely things about shooting with a Leica lens is being able to zone focus based on your aperture settings. Essential, instead of focusing on your subject, you focus on a certain zone or range of focus. Everything within that zone will be in focus. It’s a very fast way to shoot when your aperture is high enough. You just set your focus, compose your frame, and fire away.

As the boat and its cohort of crying gulls entered the frame I started shooting.

11 shots and 6 seconds later I had what I wanted.

Surely one of them would be the decisive shot that captured the moment I’d been waiting for. I started for home stopping by the cathedral for a quick, cliché, reflection shot.

(Leica M-P, 35mm Summicron ASPH, f6.5, 1/180th, ISO640)

Once home with the files loaded into Lightroom I was disappointed to find that not one of the 11 shots of the boat and gulls felt quite right. I played with them a bit, correcting highlights and straightening out their horizon line, but I just wasn’t that excited about them. The moment had felt so much more striking; the gulls had felt closer, wheeling overhead, their hungry whining cries ringing out over the quiet water. The smell of the diesel engine lingering in the still air had seemed so tangible. The images felt a bit lifeless by comparison.

A couple years ago I had a similar type of image of seagulls and a fishing boat taken over in Pittenweem. The image was probably fine on its own but just for fun I added some seagulls to it from a second similar image I’d taken.

This was taken with the Fuji X100s (f7.1, 1/1000th, ISO200) and (over)processed in Photoshop and lightroom.

Wondering what would happen if I did something similar here I popped a couple of the photos into Photoshop and hastily cut out some of the gulls and placed them into the frame with what I felt was the strongest natural composition. Suddenly the image started to come alive. I copied and pasted gulls from more of the other frames and carefully aligned them in their original locations, cleaning up any incongruities along their edges.

9 seagulls later I felt like I had my shot. "This," I said to myself, "is what it felt like to be standing there!"

For comparison here is the original (unprocessed RAW file of the base image I used, along side the final frame, with corrections and additional seagulls)

Before and after.

So this is where Denny comes back into the equation.

“What!!! You can’t do that!”

The image had been posted to Facebook and Instagram and I’d not made any mention in either case that 9 of the 14 seagulls were post-processing additions.

I’d also not mentioned that I’d cropped and straightened the image, or upped the Contrast by 50, pulled my Highlights down by 100, bumped my Shadows by 94, drawn my Blacks down to -43, pushed my Clarity up by 11, or Sharpened by 25. But then none of those involved moving pixels. They’d changed the values of pixels present, but not moved the pixels themselves.

At some point I’ll write a post about the differences and similarities between working in a darkroom with film and working in Lightroom with digital images, but for now I’ll just suggest that they function in essentially the same way. Lightroom certainly affords greater flexibility for playing with an image than the darkroom does, but basically they both allow for similar types of image post processing.

Photoshop is different, and adding elements to a photo that were not in the original certainly raises a different set of questions. There have been a host of recent controversies in the photography community about Photoshopped images, particularly in the field of journalism. Recently the discussion has even progressed to include simple post processing.

A great example of this is the Paul Hansen’s winning World Press Photo from 2012. It’s a viscerally striking and assaulting image of Palestinian mourners carrying a deceased boy through a crowded street. As pressure has mounted in the past few years, several news agencies have released stringent guidelines stating that images submitted to them must have been taken as JPEG’s (images processed in camera) and submitted without alteration.

Here's an interesting article by Allen Murabayashi on PetaPixel about the image and the debate around it.

I’m actually fine with that. Fine with clear and strict guidelines for journalists and their photographers. But I don’t see myself as one of them. I’m not a journalist. I take photos that I like and I make images that capture the sense of a moment more than the reality of the moment itself. I’m less interested in showing you what I actually literally saw than I am in conveying to you with my photo a sense of what it felt like to see what I actually literally saw.

With the present image under consideration, each of those frames is the moment as the camera saw it. My image, the one made in Photoshop, never happened. Yes those seagulls were all in the places they’re depicted, but not at the same time. And yet when I look at the processed, composite image, it reminds me of the moment and feels ‘truer’ than the unprocessed un-composited RAW file. Is it possible to have a visual lie and an emotional truth at the same time?

I think yes. And I would classify painting in this category. Interestingly (I’ll have to do another post on this some time), I tend to think of my photography more in terms of painting than journalism. Again, with my photography I’m generally less interested in showing you what something looked like than in showing you what it felt like. Is there dishonesty in that? Well, I think that depends on what expectations you bring to photography.

Should I have been clear in my original post with seagulls that the image was a composite? Do you enjoy the image less knowing that it has had elements added to it? What sort of expectations do you bring to a photograph? Are you looking for visual or experiential reality? Is there a difference? I’m not sure. I genuinely don’t know the answer to a lot of these questions and would be very happy for your feedback and thoughts.

From the Love St Andrews facebook page.

Finally, I should add that 99% of my images are not photoshopped, simply Lightroomed. While I process all of my images in Lightroom to clean them up and correct them, I very rarely move pixels in an image. So what do you think? Do I have a responsibility to the people who see my images to tell them what I’ve changed, what I’ve added, or what I’ve altered?

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