I ADMIT IT: I am a perfectionist, and it is not unknown for me to miss an important deadline because I think one or more of an article’s accompanying photographs could be improved with an appropriate crop – especially when I am informed that space is scarce. I have little trust in many photographic editors to crop or modify my work, and I would certainly never hand-over my DNG files to anyone else for post processing; so I was particularly interested to find this article in the BJP’s online magazine about some photojournalists whom do just that.
Now, it must be difficult for a digital lab; because they have to take a view of the client’s image and decide if the underexposure (exhibited in the examples provided) was intentional or not. Should they attempt to recover the detail? Or should they use their experience to interpret the mood and improve upon it if possible?
There are those whom believe the photojournalist’s image should never be modified in any way; because it would be interfering with the ‘truth;’ so, given that I have strong objections to that particular point of view, I thought it might be interesting to republish those example befores and afters to illustrate how I would have processed them to enhance the truth that they contain.
Here is the first image from the BJP article. At the top is the photographer’s unprocessed RAW image; below it is the result of the digital lab’s processing; and my own interpretation is at the bottom of the sequence.
There is no dodging or burning in my version; I have just rebalanced the tonal range to extract more shadow detail and have the face of the hooded figure made clearer, along with rendering the colours more accurately given the bright cross light source.
There is actually little difference between my version and the photographer’s original shot; but it could be argued by the purists that the lab processed version was ‘untrue’ because the burning-in of the smoke suggests an oil fire – and there is no confirmation of that in the original image.
In this sequence I have gone much further than the lab to recover the image’s details; but, once again, there is no dodging or burning – just a rebalancing of its tonal range.
The bloody wounds are much more evident in my version – and I am sure that is what the original photographer was focussing on.
Were it my image, I would probably burn-in the sky and vignette the corners to emphasise the subject. (There is nothing in those areas that the purists could point to as being changed).
Incidentally, none of my modifications to these images took longer than a second or two in Photoshop (I just used the colour pickers in the software’s Levels module to set an appropriate black, white, and mid-tone grey when appropriate).
Here is the third sequence.
I actually like the photo lab’s version here; but it is not a truthful representation of the facts.
In the lab version, it appears that light is emanating from directly above, suggesting that the roof has caved in; but it is obviously intact in the original shot, with the only light coming from the open doorway and the windows above it.
The lab’s lightening has also obscured the numerous bullet holes in the wall (top right) – and the eye is led to the central figure and not the observers in the doorway (which, in my view, makes a better statement).
Emotionally, it should be a dark image – not a light one.
This image is all about colour balance. The lab’s version, I believe, undermines the integrity of the subjects’ emotions.
They are obviously expressing victory, despite the blind man’s suffering; but their complexions are like those of a corpse.
My version makes the forehead prayers more legible, and bringing back the underexposed red in the original image helps to suggest the blood shed in achieving their objective.
I did not adjust the colour balance by the way. As with all the images here, I only used those colour pickers to rebalance the black and white tones to give the image some snap.
It is surprising what colours suddenly come to life when you get the tonal balance right.
Here is the last sequence.
The lab’s version makes the image appear posed – with the viewer questioning just what the fighter can see in such an overcast sky. (And the figures in the middle ground appear to be out for a stroll).
My version suggests that the fighter has just seen a threat that his comrades have not; but, of course, either could be the truth.
Incidentally, in my experience, desert sand looks much like that in my version, or the original. I have yet to see it with lush dark green foliage and a purple cast.
I am not trying to undermine the lab’s work on these images. In every case, theirs is better than the RAW file they were given; but my point is that every photograph is interpreted by different people in different ways.
Personally, I believe that the only person able to interpret a photograph accurately is its original photographer and, in these days of digital, when it is so easy to calibrate one’s camera to one’s RAW file settings to ensure that every other image is perfect like the first, I find it hard to believe that anyone would give their DNGs to someone else for processing (no matter how badly they had been exposed)…