Raw Footage: Unprocessed Images from the Mojave Desert

When I make images there is usually a long lag before I share the picture. My recent Hotel Rooms, for example were photographed in September and October of last year, photoshopped in November (essentially correcting the geometry of the images), and then printed in December. That’s extraordinarily rapid. It can (and usually does) take a year or two from the pressing of the shutter button to the signing of the print. It’s like the Sun and the stars: The light you are seeing took a long time to get to you.

I thought I would try something new and instead of waiting for images to be finished to instead share images at their most unfinished state, to show how things started rather than how they ended.

Sunday night I got back from another trip out in the Mojave Desert. I’ve been to that same part of the desert with the burned Joshua tree forest many times over the past three years since the fire and I have a large photo project in development based on those images. My goal with this trip was to wrap things up, to fill in a few holes, so to speak, and to otherwise bring the shooting phase of the project to a close.

Let’s look at a few images:

Intellectually this image owes a lot to photographer Richard Misrach’s early work from the mid-1970s. I first saw this series in the first half of the 1980s (you can see samples here: https://fraenkelgallery.com/portfolios/richard-misrach-night-desert-photographs) and they stuck with me somewhere in the back of my head all these years. They seem simple—a camera and flash in the desert—but they have a certain presence, a certain feeling that is awfully hard to achieve. If you had just read a description of Misrach’s images you might be expecting something in-your-face—The flash! The cactus!—but what he achieved instead was something of great subtlety. His work is an important part of the foundation of some of my night work on this project though, forty years later, I’m hoping to build on his ideas.

You might find it interesting to note how different the technologies are between Misrach’s 1970s and today. Of course, he shot film and I am shooting digital, but that “digital” part means more and more every year.

Consider this image:

This may, if you really peer at it, seem to be some underexposed error of the identical scene as the one above but it is, in fact, the same digital file. This dark version is the unprocessed file—this is how I saw it on the camera’s LCD panel at the time although, of course, I knew I would adjust it later on. What I’m doing here is taking advantage of a characteristic of recent digital cameras which allows you to shoot at a too-low ISO—thereby grossly underexposing the image—to prevent the image from getting all grainy (or “noisy,” if you prefer the correct digital terminology). Later the tones of the image can be corrected without that grain build-up. It’s a neat trick.

The light in the sky in the background is from Las Vegas, about seventy miles away by car, its sky-glow bouncing off the clouds giving a soft, dim illuminance to the desert below (that’s the light that is exposing the distant background).

Here’s another image:

Again, this is an “unprocessed” image with no cropping or other adjustments. I put the word unprocessed in quotes because no image is really unprocessed. The file format of the image is “raf” which is the Fujifilm raw format.

If you aren’t a photographer you might not be familiar with the raw format. Digital cameras generally shoot one of two formats. The most popular is JPEG, which looks good and has a small file size—great for sharing online and web pages. The other is “camera raw” which is a format different with each camera manufacturer but which preserves the data of the image capture, allowing you to maximum the ability to manipulate the image without bad things happening. When you are done adjusting the image you can, of course, convert the result to JPEG or any other file format.

Raw files are often thought of as, well, raw files, untouched by any adjustments but that isn’t quite true. Raw files are processed to a degree by the camera itself and then, when you bring the file into your computer, you need to run it through a raw processor where a multitude of other adjustments can (and are) made. And then finally you are in Photoshop or whatever image editing program you use.

Even in this black and white image of a semi-monochromatic scene—the newly-grown grasses are primarily a light yellow color, the Joshua tree trunks are black and white, and the dead trees’ “blooms” at the top are a faint straw yellow—the adjustments are noticeable.

The first image was run through the raw processor with the “Adobe Monochrome” setting, the second one was set to emulate a Fujifilm simulation called Acros. There differences in tone change the feel of the photos—the Adobe is much more theatrical. Sort of like the difference between Ansel Adams prints from earlier in his career versus prints from later in life.

Let’s glance at one more image:

This image been cropped slightly on the right and is processed with the Arcos simulation, otherwise the adjustments were on their defaults.

There are many ways to get onto film (or onto the sensor) the feeling of what you are trying to get to, to get on the film the starting point that you know will lead you to where you want to go after the raw processor and the photoshop adjustments and the vagaries of the printing process. Working backwards you can think about what adjustments you will make to suite the printing paper and the ink, you can think about the Photoshop adjustments, and before that the raw processor settings. But you can go another step backwards and make creative choices at the physical sensor level, make creative choices even before the raw processor.

A camera sensor is really a sandwich of the sensor itself and various layers of glass. One of those layers is just protective glass—despite what you might read on the internet, sensors are very hard to scratch, and if you did scratch them you are only scratching the glass, not the sensor itself. Another layer limits the spectrum of light that reaches the sensor.

Photo sensors are, of course, sensitive to visible light, but they are also sensitive to ultraviolet and infrared light. But if you don’t remove the UV and IR with special filters the images will look odd and unpredictable, and since lenses are not generally designed for use in the UV and IR part of the spectrum the images may exhibit odd abnormalities—a bright spot in the center of the image or pronounced flare, for example.

Even with the standard filter over the sensor some IR light does get through and you can buy screw-on filters that go over the front of the lens that block the visible spectrum letting that little bit of IR light through. You may have seen the images before—trees with preternaturally white leaves, weird, spacey colors to the sky (if in color), skin tones that look translucent and waxy white. Cool stuff but so easily overdone. Cliches are the norm in infrared photography.

An alternative to using the filter over the lens is to change the filter over the sensor—to actually reach into the camera, remove the filter that blocks the UV + IR light, and replace it with one that blocks the UV + visible light. What you have then is a camera that sees only infrared light and lots of it. Of course, you wouldn’t do this yourself at home—there are services.

Many photographers go a little crazy with an IR camera, shooting anything that has a pronounced IR effect, those white trees, that waxy, glowy skin, anything to show off the IR effect. But you can use the effect in subtle ways that doesn’t call attention to itself.

This particular photo is indeed a little dramatic with the black sky and ultra-white “blossoms” and so when I work on this image, if it makes it past the culling stage, I’ll aim for something a little less garish, like this:

This version doesn’t let the infrared aspect jump out at you, allows the technique to serve the creative ends of the picture rather than being a demonstration of that technique.

I know some people will insist that they can spot infrared images a mile away and for them I offer this comparison image of an “unprocessed” black and white image from a non-infrared camera, made last year in that same area:

And, full disclosure, the first daytime image I shared in this post, the wide view with the downed tree in the lower foreground, was also made with the infrared camera.

I’ve gone on and on here far too long, I know, but I wanted to give you a sense of the subtleties that different techniques can bring to an image and how those subtleties can be useful to a photographer. You don’t have to hit the viewer over the head to get an emotion or visual idea across. Viewers are smart. Trust them.

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