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Mending My Sloppy Digital Ways

By Charlotte Lowrie

I can't count the number of times that there has been something slightly wrong with a scene or subject that I'm about to or just photographed, and, without hesitation, I think, "I'll fix it in Photoshop."

But after years of shooting, I'm rethinking the I-can-fix-it approach. Sure, I can fix it, but the compelling question is, do I want to ?Do I want to spend my time glued to a computer monitor and tethered to a mouse or stylus?

I have fixed a lot of imperfections in thousands of pictures. For posterity, let me recount the flaws I've fixed in countless pictures.

  • Spots from dusty sensors in a numerical range that is beyond my mere human comprehension. (I'm convinced that digital imaging sensors are pre-magnetized so that when the lens comes off, dust particles hanging around in nearby air space are alerted so they can descend on the sensor at a moment's notice. And I haven't overlooked the possibility of a conspiracy theory. Who's to say that dust particles don't have an agreement: The largest and most oddly shaped dust clod falls somewhere close to the center of the sensor while the smaller particles gang up in each of the four corners.
  • Small, medium, and large scene distractions. I've obliterated everything from double and triple chins and crow's feet to old-growth trees and city skylines.
  • My own stupid mistakes. These mistakes include, but are not limited to, periodically forgetting to switch aperture to blur the background and vice versa (though the reverse is just about impossible to fix).
  • Specular highlight blowouts to numerous to recall.
  • Entire city blocks worth of buildings leaning precariously in on themselves forecasting an impending implosion.
  • Rotten apples in a barrel, insect-gnawed flower petals, moirĂ© on fabrics, wrinkles in dresses, and the list goes on longer than there are hours in a day to fix them.

Frontier Outlaws   Thinking about the hours of digital editing that I've done makes me question the digital proceZygo cactus flowerss in general. I thought back to those endearingly grainy pictures of frontier outlaws, of my great-grandparents, parents, and even snapshots of me and my siblings as a children.

In that world, all manner of wrinkles -- in faces and clothes -- were okay.  And in those days, the camera documented reality, and people gladly accepted unvarnished reality for what it was.

Ah, but there is another and very important difference. In those days, people and photographers went to great lengths to ensure that everyone wore their best Sunday-best clothes and had their hair carefully slicked back, pinned up, or curled. And, I suspect, that photographers ensured that the "sets" were immaculate, or at least acceptable. There was the sense (again, my conjecture) that the picture couldn't be done over--neither retaken, nor reworked to perfection in the darkroom.

I've considered that approach carefully lately. It made me ask myself if digital had become an excuse for sloppy preparation, and ultimately, for sloppy shooting. In a good many cases, my answer was yes. The power of digital capture and of digital processing can be, in this regard, a double-edged sword.

Sure, it's great that we can tweak color and not have to live with the color a one-hour lab machine or underpaid and perhaps under trained lab tech gives us. And, I'm well aware that until digital cameras are perfected, we'll have to fix some inherent capture flaws. And given the nature of lenses, I can live with fixing leaning buildings too, particularly when I consciously chose to shoot at a close-in and upward angle. 

On a Mission    But I, for one, am on a mission to fix what can be fixed on the set or on location, with the ultimate goal of reducing the number of hours I spend looking at a computer monitor. In short, I'm mending my sloppy ways.

Now, when I'm setting up for a portrait session, I will roll off fresh white seamless paper, or I'll steam the muslin.  Sure I can fix the previous person's footprints on the seamless paper in Photoshop, but I don't want to. And when I'm outdoors, I will look for a better plant or flower--one that I don't have to reconstruct after insect snacking or resurrect from heat exhaustion in Photoshop. I will look for unblemised flowers like the Zygo Cactus flower shown here.

While I love shooting RAW format images, I'm acutely aware that RAW adds a step to the workflow. Until recently, I felt compelled to work the picture in the RAW conversion program, and then to rework the picture in Photoshop to get to absolutely neutral color. Finally, I asked myself why I was doing the work twice. If the color that I got in the RAW conversion program looked good and printed good, then why change it in Photoshop? So now, I don't work pictures twice.

For the time I've devoted to getting it right in the camera, I've reclaimed precious hours for shooting. After all, I'd much rather be shooting than fixing on the computer what I should have fixed on the scene.


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About the author: Charlotte Lowrie is an award-winning freelance journalist and photographer based in Seattle. She is the author of 17 photography books, numerous magazine articles, and she teaches photography classes at BetterPhoto.com.

All images and articles are copyrighted by Words and Photos and may not be reprinted without permission.
Contact: charlotte@wordsandphotos.org