Category Archives Guest Blogger

What Is Photographic Reality?


I’ve just returned from an expedition to Antarctica where the landscapes and wildlife simply blew my mind. Towering snow-covered peaks dropping vertically into tormented, white-capped seas; tens of thousands of penguins crowded onto small islets surrounded by icebergs; and the deepest, richest ultramarine blue you can imagine locked under tons of glacial snow. It was a reality far stronger than anything I have seen before.


The passengers on board had a wide variety of backgrounds, from photographers to artists, naturalists to scientists, doctors to lawyers. On the voyage south, I showed them my photography. The images were taken with a camera, but created in Photoshop. Some passengers loved them. Others did not, concerned that my photographs were not true reflections of reality. Indeed, they asked if they were really ‘photographs’.

Here’s an example of what I showed them

Most readers of this blog will be pretty comfortable with what can be achieved in Photoshop. We think nothing of adding in a new sky or taking out an unwanted lamp post, yet this is probably the exception rather than the rule. Most of my images only had subtle adjustments using curves or hue/saturation, but they were applied in a way that transformed the original capture. The base subject matter was the same, but light and colour were applied to create added drama, atmosphere and impact.

Is this wrong?

It seems that many people who are not photographers are concerned about how easily we can change a camera’s definition of reality. Why this is a concern intrigues me. I mean, photographers have been dropping in better skies and removing unwanted lamp posts for over one hundred years. Frank Hurley is famous for his black and white Antarctica photographs taken in the early 1900s on glass plates, but few know that he was also the master of double exposures and image manipulation far more extensive than the examples of my work shown on board ship.

Frank Hurley created his images in a darkroom, away from prying eyes, and people didn’t know that changes had been made. Few understood the process and most just accepted the images as they were. Today, those same processes when done with Photoshop are being questioned by the masses who now understand how easy it is to manipulate a photograph. To manipulate reality.

In some contexts, it’s important to know this is a straight shot; in an art context whether it is or isn’t doesn’t really come into it.

For a news, documentary or nature photographer, this is an important issue. If we tell people our photographs are true records, then it isn’t right to move things around or change the reality that was recorded because people have an expectation that what they are seeing is real. I could understand the naturalists on board ship worrying that I might exercise digital skulduggery.

But I wasn’t making penguins fly or giving an orca three eyes. All I was doing was recreating what I experienced.

So what is photographic reality? Is the exposure we make in our camera more ‘accurate’ than an image we have worked upon in Photoshop?

The ice is amazing, but the straight capture in flat light struggles to show the texture which can be clearly seen with the naked eye. A little invisible Photoshop helps.

I can remember clearly the aquamarine blues of the icebergs as we cruised around them in our zodiacs, looking for the best angles, yet these same colours were not seen in my raw files using the default settings. My memory of what I saw is different to the electronically captured image recorded by my camera, but by increasing the contrast in my files using Photoshop I was able to better reproduce what I saw. Is this okay? Is it still reality?

Some passengers were doubtful, yet if I changed their cameras to capture a higher contrast JPEG, they felt this would be acceptable because the image came directly from the camera. Does this mean the camera manufacturers are the arbiters of ‘correct reality’?

As photographers, we know the limitations of our cameras. Issues like dynamic range and colour spaces have a huge impact on the camera’s ability to accurately record a scene. We also know that different cameras record tones and colour differently – just compare the high quality captures of the current generation of digital cameras with older cameras and you’ll know what I mean.

And non-photographers are forgetting or don’t know that in the days of film a photo lab carefully adjusted the density and colour balance of their negatives before producing a print.

The deep blues below the surface of the water were wonderful to behold – no colour adjustment needed for this photo, just an increase in contrast to bring out the blues.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and because everyone knows how powerful Photoshop and other editing programs can be, there is a fear that any use of Photoshop in some way affects the reality of the image. The problem is that they don’t really know how much Photoshop manipulation is okay. When do you cross the line between reality and interpretation? Most people can’t answer this question, so they say if the image comes directly out of the camera, then it must be okay.

The mountains in Antarctica are high. Very high, but if you use a wide-angle lens they lose height in the resulting photograph. I find that a little upward stretching in Photoshop can better show exactly how high the mountains appear when you’re standing there, but this would be unacceptable. So what happens if I attach Canon’s 17mm TSE perspective control lens, shift the lens down and point it upwards. Now my mountains are towering over my head and the effect is optical. Is this okay?

South Georgia Island is amazing, but I needed to use the Canon 17mm TSE shift lens to accentuate the height of the peaks.

Of course not! One form of distortion is just as bad as another, yet the very act of taking a photograph distorts reality. Your choice of lens focal length, which direction you point your camera and when you choose to press the shutter button all distort reality because we limit the record to 1/125 of a second.

Photography is not a perfect representation of reality, rather a means of communication or a form of expression.

Today, Photoshop is such an integral part of photography that I can no longer separate the processes. Capture and post-production are two parts of a single process that turns an idea into a photograph. And personally I think post-production is essential because no matter how good cameras become, they can’t create. Someone needs to point the camera and press the shutter, and after capture, that same someone can choose to enhance or modify the result in any way he or she pleases. It is a choice.

I like to think of my post-production technique as being ‘invisible Photoshop’. The trained eye will know the image has been enhanced, but it should not be obvious exactly how or where. It should bear a strong resemblance to reality, strong enough to fool people into believing it is reality.

How much post-production you apply to your images depends on the context in which you wish to show them. For news and nature photography, less Photoshop is allowed, but for art or pictorial photography, why should there be any limits?

Wildlife photographs of these orca are true in all senses, except the colour has been enhanced a little closer to what I remember.

There are always debates in photography and I find it interesting that now it is the non-photographers who are the most conservative. Yet it is far too late to be concerned because photography has never been a true representation of reality anyway!

Peter Eastway is an Australian professional photographer, an AIPP Grand Master of Photography, and the co-publisher of several Australian photography magazines including Better Photography, Better Photoshop Techniques and Better Digital Camera. You can see his portfolio at and more about his Photoshop technique at

Australian photographer, Peter Eastway! We got an email from James, one of our Australian readers, suggesting we give Peter’s work a look.  When I (Brad) did, I was quite impressed and immediately contacted him about doing a guest blog!

Peter is the editor of Better Photography Magazine and is a great teacher and photographer.  Come back tomorrow to see some of his beautiful images from a recent expedition to Antarctica, and hear his intriguing thoughts on post processing landscape images!

Myself, my daughter Isla, my wife Nichelle, and Oliver the Pomeranian in our 2011 Christmas family portrait

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone.

Four years ago, my friend Jessica asked me to take a picture of her and her boyfriend Brian to send out to friends for the holidays. This was not really the type of thing I typically do, but Jessica is a good friend and a really creative person, so I agreed. It would be fun. Jessica happens to be an amazing producer with a great sense of humor, so I knew it wouldn’t be your typical family portrait.

When the shoot day arrived, the studio was filled with bags of old sweaters, tights, tutu’s, suspenders and some pretty funny props. It looked like tacky Christmas threw up all over the studio. It was awesome.

It didn’t take long until I was laughing so hard I was crying during the shoot. It was a completely new experience for me. I have had some laughs at photo shoots before, but never to the point where I was crying. When it’s personal work, and you have total freedom, you can laugh so hard you cry. Who knew!? That shoot got me thinking about photography in a different way, and really opened up my eyes to something new. Humor, and laughter have always been a big part of my life, but learning how that can be integrated into my photography was an exciting thing. It was also a good reminder of why I like photography so much, and why it is so important to shoot what you enjoy.

I took so many pictures that day, it was hard to narrow them down. But eventually I landed on a few selects I liked the most. After thinking a little about the shoot and how much fun it had been, I really wanted to do something similar with my family. How fun would it be do do something like that every year. Especially when you think about 20 years from now, and how great it would be to have a collection of amazing family pictures. It would be a really great way to look back and not only see how people have grown and changed, but also how I have developed as a photographer. And also to see how my interests and style adapted over the years from picture to picture.

Over the next few years, I continued to take a Holiday picture of Brian and Jessica, but we also did a shoot with my family. The first year of our family photograph, we went the Christmas sweater route, but I wanted to add some additional subtle plot points. I decided to be in a wheel chair with a sling and a neck brace, which came about from a sledding accident with my pomeranian Oliver, who also had a bandage on his leg. And my sister Allison is holding him.

It went over really well, and it was fun to see the picture up on walls and refrigerators when I visited friends and clients. The next year, I put a lot more thought into our picture, and came up with the idea to do a snow scene with yeti.

Having mostly been a portrait photographer at that point, I had been developing a new interest in environmental images, and that interest ended up working its way into our family picture. Our annual Christmas pictures are not only becoming a fun family tradition, but they are a great way to show potential clients my style, as well as who I am as an artist. Photography is not just something I do for work, but it is literally an extension of who I am and how I think. I am already looking forward to next year’s shoot.

The pictures of Brian and Jess from our very first shoot have gone on to heights I never imagined. TV shows, magazines, billboards, posters, Holiday party invites. I wish most of these uses were legal and approved by me, but that’s the power of the Internet I suppose, and a story for another time. As I look back on 2011, I am happy to say I am enjoying photography more than ever thanks to fun personal projects like this. Each year is more fun than the last, and I look forward to taking on new challenges and ideas in the new year.

So what new things are you interested in? Who are you as an artist, and how does your personality influence your work? In the coming year, I encourage you to look for new ways to challenge yourself and try something new. I never would have thought family pictures would be something I could tie into my commercial work, but as they say. You never know until you try. Thanks for reading, and I hope you are able to finish out 2011 laughing in a cheesy Christmas sweater. It’s the best way to end the year.

You can see more of John’s work at, follow him on Twitter, and “Like” him on Facebook

John Keatleysm

My story has very little to do with me, and much more to do with those with whom I have crossed paths.
My life would be very different if it were not for the kindness of others. Through reflecting on events in my life, I realized I need to write down my story, as a way of honoring those who have had a hand in shaping my career path. Hopefully you will be inspired by something you read here, and in turn encourage someone you cross paths with. It doesn’t take much.


Before I began my career in photography, a total stranger stepped into my life and encouraged me.  We spoke for only a few minutes, but what she had to say was so impactful, my life completely changed.  The woman’s name was Kolene.  Years after we had our brief exchange, I called the number for the store she worked at when we met on the off chance she was still working there.  I explained who I was, but before I could get very far, she exclaimed she remembered me.  I told her I was calling to thank her for encouraging me.  Because she took the time to talk to me for a few minutes, I was now working full time as a photographer.  At this point she started to cry, but I suspect they were tears of happiness.



I never thought much about photography until half way through college.  I realized, not only did I not own a camera, but I didn’t have any pictures of my friends, my adventures, or even myself.  I thought maybe someday if I had kids they would want to see me in my college years. (more…)

Seattle-based photographer, John Keatley. A while back, I (Brad) put out a tweet asking who people’s favorite photographers were. Among the responses I got was Mr. Keatley. I took a look at his site and immediately contacted him about doing a guest post.

For those who know me, you know that I have a fairly sarcastic/dry/twisted sense of humor, and John’s work is right up my alley.  He does a number of commercial and editorial assignments that are fairly straightforward.  But his personal work tends to be a bit off-kilter, in a good way.  His clean and simple style is also very appealing.

For tomorrow, he has a great story about one of the first people who helped him decide to pursue a career in photography.  It’s a great reminder that we influence the people we come in contact with every day, whether we realize it or not.  So be sure to come by tomorrow (or late tonight if you’re a night owl) and check it out!

Photo by Bill Frakes

I grew up in a family of storytellers.

My grandfather, Bub, could tell a story better than Tom Brokaw.  In fact, he was Tom Brokaw’s first boss at WSB-TV in Atlanta.

My mom was a popular news anchor in Jacksonville, Fl, for 25 years.  She taught me the importance local activism and the difference it can make.

My dad is the quieter type.  He was a news reporter in his younger years but is now a small business owner and avid amateur photographer.  He gave me my first camera and taught me how to use it.

My background is what ultimately drew me to photojournalism in college.  It was the culmination of telling stories and making images.  The big question mark over my future suddenly disappeared.  Professional photography was where I was headed.

While a student at the University of Florida, I was introduced to Bill Frakes’ work when he gave a lecture to a group of photojournalism students.  A couple months later I saw him in the Atlanta airport and introduced myself.

We hit it off immediately.  We are aligned in a way neither of us expected.  Other than our obvious differences in age and gender, we come from opposite backgrounds.  He grew up in the sand hills of Western Nebraska.   I grew up on the beach in Florida.  Yet somehow we ended up in the same place, geographically and mentally.  We both have a work ethic that exhausts and exasperates almost everyone else we know, our humor is identical and our creative tendencies are shockingly similar.

I started working as his assistant about two-and-a-half years ago.  Bill was patient with me.  I didn’t know exactly what being an assistant entailed but learned quickly.

To get a job as an assistant you don’t have to know everything about photography, you just have to be open minded and willing to learn.  You have to listen to instruction and be willing to take chances.  Most of all you have to want to work and be flexible.

You need to be able to work with every camera format from 35 mm digital to 8×10 film.  We work with them all, and if we don’t  have what we need we get someone to build it for us.

Photo by Bill Frakes

I think that’s what ultimately made Bill decide to hire me.  I was very open to the education process.  Any project he wanted to tackle I was up for, whether I knew how to do it or not.  I never back down from a good challenge and I never quit until the job is done.

I’ve also been very lucky in that Bill has given me a lot of room to learn.  From day one he has sent me web sites, given me books and sat down and really worked with me through an idea or problem.  He has let me grow as a photographer and a person.  Through working with Bill I have not only learned the mechanics of photography, but the thought behind it.

Bill has taught me to take pictures with my heart, my mind and my soul.  The camera is a tool, albeit a very important one.  At the end of the day the photographer takes a photo, not the camera.

My grandmother riding in the hearse on the way to my grandfather’s funeral in March. (Photo by Laura Heald)

Bill exemplifies this belief in his coverage of the Kentucky Derby.

An average Derby for Bill means about 60 remote cameras, dozens of Manfrotto ballheads, magic arms and super clamps, and hundreds of feet of cable and connection cords.  This equals out to about 25 large cases of gear.

Photo by Bill Frakes

He puts cameras everywhere he can’t physically be during the race.  His position is head-on from the finish line.  The remotes are under the rail, around the turn, on the roof–anywhere he thinks he can make a photograph the readers will want to see.

Photo by Bill Frakes

Photo by Bill Frakes

Photo by Bill Frakes

Photo by Bill Frakes

Photo by Bill Frakes

What he does with the remotes is nothing short of genius.  A lot of photographers set remotes up at races like the Derby.  Very few can do what Bill can.

Bill calculates every possibility.  He pays close attention to what horses are competing and the jockeys riding them.  The under the rail remotes are set at different focal lengths and focus planes.  He has a camera set for every possible outcome, from a win on the rail to one 10 feet off; a jockey celebrating his win 10 feet before the finish line or 10 feet after.  That’s a lot of distance to cover with lenses ranging from a 14-24mm f/2.8 to a 600mm f/4.

That’s just the 30 remotes under the rail.  The rest are set to capture a graphic, something offbeat or beautiful.  He tries to find a different angle every year, and some how, after 20 years of covering the event, he always does.  He always finds a new angle or has a new technique.

He uses his tools, whether it be a Nikon D3, a Manfrotto support or a remote cable, and creates beautiful images year after year.  His mind and eye make the image. The camera is simply the vessel that allows him to capture it.

Being Bill’s assistant is an education no amount of money can buy.  Photography is one of those professions you just have to do.  Theory is an important background to have but real world application is how you learn, and learning from one of the world’s best photographers has been a dream experience.

People always ask me what an average day of work is like for me.  I never know how to answer.  There is no average day.  One day may be spent editing and organizing in the office, while the next day we are trekking through the outback of Australia or standing on a cliff over the Panama Canal.

Photo by Bill Frakes

In the last two years I’ve been with Bill on most of the 400,000 miles he’s flown.  We’ve worked on 5 continents and in at least 30 different US states.  We have fun.  Trust is everything.

Subject matter varies as widely as the locations.

For example, this summer Bill and I spent a month in Australia working on the ad campaign for the Nikon D3s.  Immediately after we finished that project, we had another ad campaign that has yet to be released.  The day after that finished we were on a plane to Berlin, Germany, to cover the World Athletics Championships for Sports Illustrated.  After two weeks of track and field, we rented a car and drove to Rome, Italy, to work on the documentary on Missy Koch that Bill discussed in his guest blog last week.

Photo by Laura Heald

Photo by Laura Heald

That was two months of work.  Each assignment was drastically different from the one before it.  Sports photography is what Bill is known for and it is something we do a lot of and enjoy.  But it is not everything we do.

Photo by Laura Heald

I say we because through the course of our working together, we have evolved from a mentor/student relationship to a business partnership.  Bill and I recently started our own multi media production company, Straw Hat Visuals.  I still work as his assistant on his Sports Illustrated assignments and I don’t think that will ever change.  But we have been actively moving into a broader range of subject matter.  We are currently in production on two ad campaigns, a music video and a long-term documentary project.

We never want to get stuck in one subject or one genre of visual communication.  Multi media has taken us to a new place visually and creatively.

We are constantly evolving, learning new technology and trying new techniques.  We work fast and decisively.  Bill’s mind is constantly in motion.  I not only want to keep up, I want to be ahead.

The new cameras have allowed us to do as two people what it used to take a crew of 30 to accomplish.  Everything we need is now in one camera body, one tool.  We never leave home without a D300s or D3s over our shoulders.

Our individual skills have been extremely important in this evolution.  Bill is really good at conceptualizing an idea and executing it.  I’m good at putting it together in post-production, whether we’re creating videos in Final Cut Pro or still productions in Aperture.

We have access to every imaging and editing tool you can imagine.    Bill’s Aperture library now has over 1.5 million images.   We have  91 terabytes of raided storage.  And well over a million analog images. Fortunately we have an offsite storage location–our office is comfortable but not that big.    It’s a lot to keep up with but without it our production would crash and burn.

Bill has done a significant amount of directing music videos and television spots.  Documentary film is one of the places we are headed

In this world of tight budgets we’re working hard to streamline our operation.  We are learning how to create multiple platform stories from start to finish.

All gear and technology aside, we are ultimately storytellers.  We want to push the creative envelope and create content that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages, beliefs and biases across every platform, traditional and new that you can imagine.

Our latest multi media was posted on SI.COM last week.  It’s on sorority and women’s league flag football at the University of Florida.

Photo by Laura Heald

The story isn’t complicated or uncommon.  It is just a fun story that is not commonly told.  The key for us is finding an angle or something humorous in the every day.

From Gainesville, FL to Beijing, China, Bill and I have traveled near and far to cover stories across all genres and age groups.  At 23 years old, I am one of the lucky ones.

As our friend Mark Suban from Nikon Professional Services said to me recently, “Bill has had a career most photographers only dream about, but man, I want to be in Laura’s shoes.”

Thanks Scott and Brad for creating a place for photographers to visit and learn.  I’m incredibly flattered that you asked me to contribute.