Seven Sisters in the mist: A photographer’s dilemma

What should a photographer aim to convey? Should he be as ‘true to life’ as possible, should he manipulate the picture? If so, by how much? What is acceptable and where are the boundaries? These are some of the questions we debated with Joe Cornish on our photography course last weekend on the south coast.

As an example, take the picture below. I’ve done very little to this picture, simply lightened the white in the foam of the sea to draw the eye. Apart from that, nothing. it’s a ‘straight’ picture. (If you want to see a larger version of it just double click on the image.) When you’ve had a look scroll down and see the image after it’s been worked a bit. Which one do you prefer?

Misty Sisters

The image like this is quite ‘representative’. It was dusk, the light was fading and it was a bit gloomy, almost misty. A lot of blue in the picture, even the whites of the cliffs have a little blue in them – reflecting the sea perhaps. The picture is soft (Joe – no sharpening!) Does this image convey that misty, glooming mood? If so, is this ‘correct’?

Below is the image after some (pretty basic) photoshop work. Tweaking the levels, lightening the cliffs, adding a bit of contrast into the sea, and sharpening the whole image. Joe might argue too much sharpening at this point… Do the cliffs look more dramatic, the sea a bit more invigorating? The far distance seems more 3D, the picture isn’t so flat. Is that fair? The image has not been heavily re-worked, simply the constituent elements have been accentuated. But does it have ‘mood’? feeling?

Sisters reworked

Frankly, I’m not sure, but then again photographers are notoriously bad judges of their own pictures.

When colour becomes too much of a distraction photographers often fall back on black and white. So here’s a 3rd interpretation. See what you think. This one is rooted in photography’s earliest heritage, before the existence of digital cameras or colour film. But, weirdly, I would say this has undergone the most ‘manipulation’… Desaturated the colour, filtered as if the film had been underexposed by 2 stops, slightly lightening of the cliff and the wave, plus some light shading at the edges to hold the eye in the centre of the picture. Added a filter to suggest film grain (HP5 to be precise). All pretty standard darkroom technique, but done on a computer instead.

Sisters in Black and White

So, which one do you like the most? Which one has more feeling, mood? What should the photographer do, just see/record, interpret, manipulate? I’d love to know what you think. Click on the feedback button at the bottom of the page and let me know….

5 responses to “Seven Sisters in the mist: A photographer’s dilemma

  • David Murray

    That’s a tough one Tom. If I’m honest it would never be one of my fave shots (and I like plenty of yours). I’d have to go with the 2nd version….just too flat without the manipulation.

    I do like the way you lightened the foam…did you consider doing anything similar with the group of buildings and lighthouse. My eye tends to be drawn towards them. Maybe the cliff could have been left softer and those areas enhanced instead? But then again what do I know…I try hard with photos, but have to take hundreds to get a few good ones 🙂

  • kevin

    I personally prefer ‘sisters reworked’, as having more interest and depth to it. Re. the debate about what is ‘natural’ and ‘correct’ etc, I heard someone say once (I think our friend Toby!) that effects which replicate what can be done and has always been done in the darkroom is OK (ie a bit of adding contrast and highlighting, sharpening etc) whereas other or more ‘digital’ effects, Photoshopping etc is not OK. I have some sympathy with this. I personally hate HDR and all that. But to me the totally purist approach is a bit much, because a photo (any photo) is NOT simly reality, recorded. It is reality, selected and presented. Some adjustments which make the reality more presentable, a better record of what the photographer saw, is fine in my book. It’s a slippery slope, I know. But I’d rather the drama of the slippery slope than a dull misty scene 😉

  • dannykino

    A tough dilemma, I like the brighter more contrast one, but I’m a digital fan and do too much retouching sometimes. Landscapes are not my speciality, but exposure is personal taste, use some grads and increase teh exposure, and suddenly youve got an entirely different mood. I think its personal taste and the photographers vision that is important, not necesarily what someone more experienced thinks (although its good to take their advice on board). I think comporomise, keep the exposure on the left cliff and brighten the distant cliff.

    • thomas peck

      Hi Danny, I think you’re in the majority liking the more contrasty one. And, like you, I spend a lot of time on photoshop deliberately making my pics more contrasty and punchy in their colours. Having said that, I’m not sure this is always the best thing to do, especially if you want to create ‘atmosphere’. Getting up early enough to take some photos in the more monochrome mist would help with that, but I’m lazy…
      I like your model pictures. You have a good eye. I haven’t really taken many model portraits – lack of access to models would be the main reason for that. Are you member of a club? photography group? I’m curious. Keep up the good work! Tom

  • Chris

    Hey Tom

    I prefer the second more contrasty photo myself. But in actual fact I don’t think that there is much between the the three photos. The mood (for me) doesn’t come from the colour or mistiness, but really from the composition. The photo works because the left is dominated by the huge foreground cliff which really hammers home the scale of the cliffs to lighthouse further away.

    With regards to the post production debate I think you’re up against a philosophical brick wall there: What is the correct aesthetic? Its one of those questions that make me quake in fear and want to run and hide. But, I think that photographers would be unique in the art world if they didn’t use technological developments at their disposal and photoshop is one of them. Mind you, I probably defend excessive photoshopping because I’m still at that level where I’m so excited that there is colour that I pump the saturation to a thousand.



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