The formative years of my life were spent along Maine’s scenic coastline, just outside the state’s biggest city of Portland. Unlike most of the kids I knew, I didn’t watch TV. My days were spent outside. The greatness of summer wasn’t measured by how many times you visited the amusement park, but by how many hours outdoors you were able to cram into each day. By the time I reached second grade I was an aspiring naturalist. In the third grade my parents elected to begin educating me with a curriculum at home. This change allowed me to embrace my love of nature at a young age without the criticism I might have otherwise experienced from my peers. Such treatment could easily dissuaded me from my new found love. My parents decision was perhaps one of the greatest contributing factors influencing my young life, and helped form the person I am today. As a result of this change I had a lot more free time in my schedule. I capitalized on it by satiating my curiosity of the natural world. Some of my happiest memories involve the endless hours spent outside exploring during those years. I was keenly attuned to the native habitat and wildlife that made their home around me. I knew the identifiers that marked when the seasons would change and welcomed them with joy. This kind of knowledge is priceless. It cannot be read from a book or purchased, but must be acquired out of love for a particular region or subject. It’s the reward for a personal investment of time. I like to call this artistic intimacy.
Though my love of photography developed in high school while still living in the state, I was truly a novice and just learning the craft. The few images I have from my youth are contained in a small box of slides and a few dozen images scanned from 3.5 x 5 inch prints. For some time I’d been hoping to make a trip back to scout for a Maine photography workshop. Earlier this year I decided it was time to create the itinerary. As Fall approached I waited for the best Autumn colors to develop and soon was back in my beautiful home state of Maine.
The next seven days I was in absolute bliss. Fueled by a strong dose of adrenalin, I was on the road before sunrise until long after sunset each day. All my childhood memories of the area came flooding back. In an instant I remembered the secrets that were held in the forests and meadows here and eagerly rushed to create images of those locations. Knowing where the best light could be found and what weather systems would create beautiful atmospheric conditions was key in helping me create powerful images.
The ocean called to me too. More than any other place I find solace by the seaside. The sounds of the surf crashing on the rocks, rich aroma of tidal pools and the taste of salt on the breeze is unforgettable. During my trip I photographed the coastline at all times of day and in various types of weather. Some of my favorite shots of the coast came after sunset. On those nights I would stay long after dark and enjoy the sounds of the Maine coastline alone, lost in my thoughts. Those are moments I will cherish forever.
I was filled with inspiration every moment of my stay in Maine. At the conclusion of my scouting I announced my 2019 Maine workshop, within twenty four hours it was nearly sold out. As a professional who makes a living teaching nature photography, the time I spend out shooting for myself is actually quite limited. This trip however was the exception. Everywhere I went I photographed exactly what I wanted. I spent as much or as little time with each subject as I desired. My vast knowledge of the region paid huge dividends for me during this process. Over the course of that week I created a Maine portfolio I was delighted with. An intimate knowledge of your subject matter keeps the creative juices flowing and is obvious to others in your photographic work. We all have a distinct advantage when it comes to photographing the places we know and love, so go out and capitalize on that. Your back yard is only as boring as you allow it to be.
No doubt most of you have heard it before and in all likelihood will hear it again, “Yeah, that’s a great shot, but you ‘Photoshopped’ the image to make it look like that”. In most cases, when ‘Photoshopped’ is used as a verb, the implicit accusation is that something unfair, devious or amiss is at play. These unsolicited accusations from the uninformed observer create a delicate situation. Acknowledging that you used image processing software in their mind only confirms their erroneous perception, but to deny the use of it is rarely accurate either. What they fail to understand is the difference between the JPEG files that their Point & Shoot camera records, and the RAW files captured by the vast majority of professional photographers today.
I’ve had multiple people accuse me of ‘Photoshopping’ the Blue/Green color into the wings of this Magpie. Under most light Magpies appear Black & White in color, however when lighting conditions are just right these iridescent feathers become washed with color. The wing colors you see represented in this JPEG file are just as vibrant in the RAW file from when I captured this image.
JPEG files were named after the committee that created them in the mid 1980’s, known as the ‘Joint Photographic Experts Group’ (JPEG). This group was given the task of creating standardized image coding that would allow photo quality graphics to be displayed on computer text terminals. When an image is captured in a JPEG file format the settings selected by the user on the camera (and/or those that the camera has selected in one of the ‘auto modes’) are in a sense processed and rendered, but defined by the restricted number of colors of an RGB color space. This color space is greatly limited when compared to the full spectrum of colors seen by the naked eye. With a RAW file there is minimal processing in camera. The camera simply stores the data allowing the photographer to process the image at a later time. This allows the photographers of today the same ability to develop their digital files as was possible when working with film negatives, but with even greater and more dynamic control as RAW is in a digital format. One could in essence think of RAW as the digital negative and JEPG’s as the print or ‘finished product’. The only way to process the information captured when shooting images in RAW is to use image processing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Just because a photographer’s work stands out as spectacular certainly doesn’t mean that there is trickery being employed or that images are being altered with software. In understanding digital photography, one realizes that there is no camera or equipment that is capable of duplicating the myriad of colors, tones, hues and detail that the human eye can see. A photographer goes through all the post process work to bring out in their digital image files the elements that they saw when they clicked the shutter, elements that the camera cannot record. Granted, some photographers go way overboard in their post processing work, overusing color saturation and creating an image that does not accurately reflect the original scene. Sometimes this may be done as an artistic rendering of a shot they captured, however I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen an image before and thought to ourselves that the color intensity looked as though a bag of skittles and a box of popsicles had a baby! As a photographer I view it as my personal responsibility to process my RAW files as close as I can to represent what the scene looked like at the time I captured the image. Often the most beautiful spectrum of colors is able to be seen during the ‘The Golden Hour’. Sometimes when we see images with spectacular soft light and colors this was achieved by capturing the image in the proper lighting conditions. At the end of the day the decision is quite simple really, do you want a machine (the camera) responsible for rendering the scene as it was, or the photographer who was there and captured the image? This is typically (but not always) achieved by the photographer getting to their location before the sun comes up (or sets) or even sleeping at the shooting location the night before, both of which require a lot of work and planning. The next time someone criticizes your hard earned image by telling you it was faked with processing software, smile and remind yourself that unfortunately they’ve probably never been awake to witness that kind of light before.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.
– Nathaniel Smalley
One of my images that I am repeatedly told “must have been Photoshopped”. I took this sunset image in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. This image accurately reflects the colors I witnessed that evening and captured in my RAW file.