What Filter? Aaargh!

I assume it is an everyday occurrence these days for anyone who has taken a nice photograph to proudly show it to some friends and their response is “hmm that’s nice what filter did you use?” Sometimes you may get a slightly kinder “have you enhanced it?”. Such responses never make you feel good. They instantly imply you’re a sort of fraud taking advantage of some algorithm or someone else’s work to make yourself appear more skilful than you are.

“Nice sketch. Did you chop the wood, build your own charcoal clamp and monitor it, maintaining the correct temperature to ensure pyrolysis?”

No I didn’t use a filter.

It is important to remember that photography is a multi-skilled hobby. It’s more than pointing & clicking. Whilst it is certainly possible to spontaneously take great photographs that are perfectly exposed & beautifully framed I doubt even the best professional photographers in the world manage it every time.

Modern digital cameras are exceptionally good at taking care of the technical aspects of getting the exposure right, but if it was that easy they wouldn’t have so many different automatic settings. My Canon EOS 70D has 8 automatic modes & two manual (Manual & Bulb). That’s because shooting a landscape, a portrait, something fast or something brightly lit from behind all require a different balance of shutter speed, ISO and aperture.

You never hear someone say “Did you take it on automatic mode?”. No one piles on the shame for relying on the in-built light meter, or using aperture priority or even full auto. So what’s the obsession with whether you processed a digital image?

I learnt photography before digital cameras existed. You had to predict what film speed you might want for the next 24 or 36 exposures. My camera (a Praktica) had no automatic modes or in-built light meter & you wouldn’t know the results of the settings you chose until you could afford to have the film developed. This is what unprocessed images looked like back then.

Negative of dramtic kite surfer image
(simulated) Colour negative of kite surfer picture

With film you would now have to send the roll of film which contained this image off to a film processing company where they would develop the film, producing negatives like this. Which would then have to be processed on an enlarger – where many editorial decisions can be made & artistic processes applied if you were doing it yourself. Cropping. masking, sharpening, desaturation, exposure compensation, and on & on.

In digital photography there are no negatives just unprocessed data. You can see in the image on the right the sensor pattern before the computer in the camera applies an algorithm to extrapolate a colour image from this data. Basically from this moment on your camera manufacturer applies a subset of multiple algorithms – based upon your camera settings. In order to produce the image it displays on screen &* that you download.

Green highly patterened close up of surfer
Extreme crop of RAW digital image showing sensor pattern

Essentially the 3rd party film processing company we used to send our films off to is now the computer in your camera. Whilst you can then process that jpeg image in photo editing software if you do so you are working on a thin slice of the data available in the camera.

IMG_5272 that I’ve used on this page is impossible to expose for correctly in the standard way (HDR techniques rely on combining multiple bracketed exposures). Luckily although my compositional skills are somewhat lacking to be honest, I’m pretty good at the technical aspects of using the camera. Taking shots like this requires constant adjustment of the exposure because the lighting aspect is completely different when pointing the camera just a few degrees to the left or the right as you can see from the other shots taken in the same short session.

So in order to get something balanced I need to expose for a happy medium, I don’t want a silhouette. I know I can compensate in the ‘dark room’ to a degree. Having spent time in tiny little cramped school chemistry lab back rooms hastily converted in to a dark room for camera club. Playing with bits of cut out card taped to coat hangers I’m very very grateful that these days our computers are capable of the same artistic techniques used throughout the history of photography.

Now in the end I wasn’t 100% happy with my manual exposure choice chosen in that tiny moment in time but thanks to home developing I was able to produce something beautiful. Which image do you prefer?

Unedited. Flat tone curve.
Exposure corrected backlit surfer in the sky
Manually exposure corrected , cropped + vignette & noise reduction applied.

All images copyright © J.Sears 2020. All rights reserved.