Upping colour or contrast has a long and honourable history. Everyone who shot Fuji Velvia was taking advantage of the film’s tendency to push colour to unreal levels. Agfa film was known for its warm tones, others did nice things to skin, and even Kodachrome wasn’t real, just nice, and long lasting.
With digital editing, it’s simply a slider away to take the colour and push it up till it pops, and many do so, with nearly all of their images. Heck, cameras even have a setting for it. A quick visit to popular photo sites will reveal colours that never saw the light of day, so to speak.
You might pick up a somewhat negative tone from my missive – that pushing colour is somehow a bad thing, but how does that square with my own usual editing techniques that involve many hours and hundreds of adjustments? And in particular; what I have done with the image for this article, which quite clearly has had the colour pushed way beyond real.
It seems to me that there are degrees of colour correction.
Level One – Correcting colour deficiencies of your camera/sensor or even film to produce a real result. Some photographers will use colour checker cards to get accurate colour – especially important when photographing commercially – you show the customer that salmon shirt as violet and you’re unemployed. Some landscape photographers believe that one should never go further than here, but then others won’t move a pop can from a scene to ‘fix’ it – we each make our choices.
Level Two – Adjusting colour so that it matches the photographers perception/experience of the scene. Here we’re compensating for the huge dynamic range the eye can see compared to the best digital camera, and starting to interpret the scene rather than simply copying it, and yet were one able to stand at the scene, on the day, with print in hand, it would be immediately seen as ‘real’, possibly even more so than an image that received level one correction. Most of my imagery sits here.
Level Three – Colour is taken beyond real and reflects not so much the physical experience of being there but the feelings that the scene created in the photographer. The print isn’t real, isn’t meant to be, and shouldn’t be criticized for being so.
What happens in the real world though is that prints don’t come labelled as level one, two or three, and it is not unreasonable for the viewer to wonder, or even ask – is that colour real? In images like the above, it should be pretty clear to most that the colour was taken well beyond real, but why?
When I first edited this image, it was my intention to increase the contrast rather than the colour – the river ice was lit by sun shining through cloud so very diffuse or flat. There was little separation in brightness in the various parts of the ice and water, and the ice crystals nearby weren’t impressive. When one increases contrast in editing software, a normal consequence of the process is an increase in colour saturation (ie. intensity of the colour) at the same time as increasing contrast (ie. moving lighter and darker further apart in brightness.
In Photoshop it is possible to set the layer blending mode to something other than normal and specifically to luminosity – and when this is done to a layer that increases contrast, it does not increase colour saturation. As I edited this image, I had to do this several times and even further, add a desaturation layer to reduce colour intensity (saturation) even further – but not back to normal.
I like the painterly effect I achieved (without any trickery or painting plugins) and have no problem with the colours not being real. One could easily make the argument that if I wanted to do this, I should have learned to paint – and I can’t argue with that – other than to point out that people have been manipulating photographs since photography was invented – by serious photographic artists. Photography is what we make it – and this just happens to be what I made it, on that occasion. Have fun with your images – and if they sometimes don’t look real, be proud, take it far enough that it isn’t mistaken for a poor attempt at real, and see if you like the result.