Cutting its diagonal descent below the cliffs to join Burbage Brook at the valley floor, a moorland clough picked up speed as peat beds gifting its water a beery tan gave way abruptly to twisting drops; miniature ravines of quartz-glinting millstone grit. Here it cascaded, smashed to icy smithereens that arced across the sunlit chill: diamonds scattered then frozen, at shutter speeds of 1/1000 second and higher, before being claimed once more by gravity and darkly waiting pools.
To my friend’s implicit question – isn’t it cheating to use post-exposure editing tools? – there’s a surface and a deep answer. In this post I’ll address only the first. The current state of the art in digital sensors takes in a narrower tonal range, from pure black to pure white, than the human eye. For this reason alone – and there are others – serious photographers seldom release an unedited image. (By ‘serious’ I mean no disrespect to the happy snapper. Not everyone wants to devote the time and energy I’m speaking of here. I’m addressing those who do, or at least those who are curious.) For the best approximation to what s/he saw while making the exposure, a realist or naturalist photographer has more work to do later. At this stage I won’t problematise the terms seeing, realism or naturalism. I’m simply speaking of images in which the depiction of cats, pretty sunsets or Madonna can be taken as reliable indicators that these elements were present at time of exposure, as opposed to images where we really shouldn’t assume that.
Some tonal tweaking is always called for. In easy situations this is global; an adjustment or two to the entire image, the work of a second or less. In trickier situations there are not only more variables to adjust but the tweaking is selective and localised, different elements within the image needing to be isolated for separate treatment. One of the best known examples is where a foregrounded element, whose details matter as much as its overall shape, is backlit by a sky whose vivid beauty is also part of the story we want to tell. Metering and exposing for the dark foreground will wash out the sky; metering for the sky will silhouette the foreground. That one’s fairly simple – if not always easy – but the challenges facing me when I got home from Burbage were not. My landscapes to the south west called for their constituent elements – sky, heather, rock and greenery – being differentially sharpened, adjusted for contrast and saturation. Not to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes by overstating the beauty of the day, or my shutter skills, but to reduce the gap between what I saw and what my unadjusted images had captured – a gap imposed by constraints arising from the technology available.