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White Orchid and Spider. Pacifica, CA 2013. Canon 5D III. Click to order a print. Next Workshop Flora and Form April 23-25, 2015.

Welcome to the April 2015 Edition of the Photography Newsletter.

Two printing workshops and one new Pacifica workshop all just finished in March, and those experiences are fresh in my mind. I love to make a difference in students love of photography. Even after almost 40 years teaching, it continues to be an honor and a pleasure that people come to the classes we offer.

This month's View From Here column explores Contemporary Notions of Photography and Truth. We hope you find the column interesting and will consider sending us some comments. Our Tutorial Section is a video of a Photoshop History Brush demo from the Black and White Printing class last month.


photo review

Steve in daily group discussion with his April Image Editing Workshop.
Photo by Fiona McDonnell.

Scholarships and Mentoring

As part of our ongoing commitment to photographic education, there is one student scholarship spot in many of our classes. Please pass the word along.

For discounted time studying with Steve, keep in mind our Mentoring Program.

With all of our busy schedules and limited budgets, destination workshops or classes become a challenge, but many of you still have questions you need answered, or feedback on some new work. We want to remind you of our Virtual Online Consulting Program. This service allows all of you out there around the globe to consult online live with Steve on technical, aesthetic and workflow issues using Skype and your webcam.

Our Essays and Tutorials from the past couple of years can now be found on Google Blogger.

We hope you can come by the gallery and see the new Panoramic Prints we've added to the National Parks Gallery, and the Exquisite Earth exhibition with its accompanying very special Exquisite Earth Portfolio 1. We invite you to join us on a workshop, rent lab space, or just say hello and let us know what you are up to photographically and what you might like to see us offer. We value your input.


Workshop Testimonials



Agate Strata. 2015

Agate Strata
Epson v750 scanner.

11x14 Pigment Inkjet Print on Cotton paper
$195 each. Purchase this print.

The abstraction and ethereal beauty of this world around us continues to amaze and delight me.

2015 Workshop Schedule
Critique Session for April 30, 2015
Flora and Form April 23-25, 2015
The Golden Gate May 2-3, 2015
Raw to Print Summer Digital Bootcamp June 1-5, 2015
Fine Art Digital Printing Hands-on July 11-14, 2015
Highway One Coastal Journey. July 25-26, 2015
Mono Lake and the Eastern Sierra October 10-13, 2015
New Zealand November, 2015

Death Valley in Winter January 23-26, 2016

printing class

March 2015 Black and White Class. Photo from demo video by Fiona McDonnell

Speaking Events (see below)

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Wavecrest, Last Light. Pacifica, CA. 2015.


New Photo Link

Last Light on Wavecrest
Devil's Slide. Pacifica
, CA.
2015. Canon 5D III.

Click to order a print

Stopping at the Devil's Slide Trail parking lot, as I often do, just to watch the light on the cliffs and the water. On looking down to the surf, the low orange last lighting the tops of the waves as they crested was uniquely beautiful.

The camera was only 50 feet away, and although the air was cold, the waves kept me on the cliff side. It was hard to pick one to show, the constantly changing form and light on the moving structures made every image so different.


Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858.
Combination Print - 5 Negatives.

by Stephen Johnson

Perspectives on Contemporary Notions of Photography and Truth

Another controversy has arisen over truth in photography, prompted by image manipulations disqualifying some entries into the World Press Photographers contest. Some of the negative reactions to the disqualifications characterized all photographs as "lies anyway," and suggested the judges get a "little more modern." I've heard this "photographs are lies" assertion often in the last few years, almost always in defense of non-disclosed manipulations of images purported to be realistic. This prompted me to sit down and reflect on the subject once again.

It has become a modern truism that photographs are lies. Many are, most are not. By the billions, photographs are not lies, even if merely snapshots from our cell phones. They are visual records of what was before the lens. Some are manipulated into being other things, through Instagram, Photoshop or dozens of photo editing software packages in between. But for the most part, the photographs in our lives are straight, un-manipulated by intention, a record of the scene that we want to preserve.

Photography can be about so many different things, performance, fantasy, fashion, as a starting point for so many visual media expressions. It is a splendid wide range of possibility for communication, art, documentation, fine arts of all kinds, journalism, personal history. Fashion is probably the most notable of the common photo-editing distortions, but we see it too often in journalism, and all of the time in nature photography. I believe huge damage is done to women's self-image and male expectations with our perfect skinny large breasted female iconography via Photoshop.


Magazine Ad for a Portrait Software. 2013.

Photography can be a powerful truth-telling medium when we choose to use it that way. Even in abstraction, the power is in the underlying reality we work to understand. As an educator, I encourage abstraction, ambiguity of scale, unusual points of view and perspectives to stir the viewer up, knock us off our normal expectations. It is often those characteristics that engage our imaginations.

A Simple Reality
A photograph is made when a light capturing tool is pointed toward a scene and the light energy is captured as light and dark values. It is a simple thing, as humans we desire to hold a scene we see, we compose and frame that scene within the camera's view, and we trip a capture switch. It is a simple truth, the light that passed through the lens, makes a 2d image of the scene. It is a simple truth, these are the light and dark values before the lens. It is an objective recording of that light.

Photoshop has nothing to do with this process.

Truth, Editing and Lying
Ansel Adams is often quoted as saying that "cameras don't lie, photographers do." Photographers, by definition, are carefully selecting what they want to include, just like any recorder of experience. It is certainly not a picture of where the camera was not pointing, any more than a truthful telling of a news event that doesn't interview the person standing next to the person with the story and inquire about their breakfast. The reporter is interviewing someone about a story, adding their own reporting experience. Reporting is not telling the entire collected possible observations from the scene, but the the views and information illustrating the story. A simple photograph may be among the greatest truth tellers we have. It is truth limited by the camera frame and captured at a moment of choice by the photographer. It is always a limited truth, but all truths are, they are never all encompassing.

Photoshop can be a powerful tool for distortion and light lying. For me though, Photoshop enables the opposite of that distortion. Photoshop is a tool for processing that photographic truth into a finely tuned story, similar to a writer who would carefully choose and edit their words into a well written story. Of course a photograph, being a somewhat objective recorder of what was before the lens, may contain all sorts of information the writer would leave out. That's what makes a photographer's job hard, distilling the scene down to only what they intend to record, when they actually make the recording. The very nature of what a photograph is, hasn't allowed the editing of an image as you would fine tune a paragraph, until now. That is the quandary we now find ourselves in, because a photograph is still understood to be the recording of a scene. Once real information is removed from the scene after the fact, the photograph is then a doctored image and loses the deep power its truth telling ability can bring. This is clearly true in photojournalism, but I believe it is true of any photo that presents the image as real.


Oscar Rejlander The Two Ways of Life, 1857.
Combination Print - 30 Negatives

Photo-manipulation has been with us for most of photography's 176 years, since the earliest days of photography. Early on, photography was more about magic than truth. With the widespread interest in personal and family portraits, it certainly became a mixture of record, performance, documents, and after-the-fact alterations. The popularity of the tintype became an obvious demonstration of people's desire for that "record" of the image of loved ones. It only took a few years for photography's documentation powers to become clear. Photographs from the Crimean War in the 1850s and our own Civil War in the 1860s began to impact our impressions of war. But it was still often seen as illustration as well as document. This was related to the fact that photographs could not yet be printed into books and newspapers, needing illustrators to re-interpret them into printable line-art engravings, often leading to great artistic license. Somehow through all of that, we began to believe in photographs as evidence of events that happened. We've also generally known that photographs can be altered, whether for political intent for Stalin, or perhaps a photographer who really liked one sky and kept printing it into multiple landscapes. A great exhibition Faking it: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop was mounted at New York city's Metropolitan Museum of Art in late 2012.

Manipulation can certainly take place in camera, all sort of ill intentions can be brought to bear right up front. Objects in the scene that were found can be moved, real objects can be arranged to deceive, even bodies, but that is the photographer lying, not the camera.


Timothy O'Sullivan (now attributed). Moved Dead Confederate Soldier in the Devil’s Den,
Gettysburg. 1863.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: LC-B8171-7942
The moved soldier controversy mentioned in the LOC site. and at

Like any truth, we must have confidence in the story teller to believe the story. Our confidence has been shaken in many trusted story tellers. It is an understatement to say that our confidence in the truth of a photograph has been shaken. It has virtually been annihilated. And for good reason, given the history of photography, and modern manipulation. Nonetheless we still believe in photographs. We make photographs because of their truth. We want to witness wonderful scenes because we want to remember and believe the scene existed. We appreciate a photograph often because we believe it shows us what was there.

Straight with Your Audience
Thus a huge weight of responsibility now rests with the photographer in this digital age of easy manipulation, enhancement, and photographic lying. I would suggest we at least try to adopt a way of describing a photograph so that we can let the viewer know what they are seeing. Even if fine art, if the work depicts a scene that appears to be real, a description could clarify it as fiction or commentary when appropriate. If the photograph is presented as a photograph, a rendering "written in light," perhaps we should leave the content alone and keep exaggeration out of it. If the image is meant to use photography for painterly-like impression, compositions or fantasies, would it be that hard given where we are at, to help the viewer understand what they are seeing.

We often hear that in the processing of the photograph, even in the routine interpretation of a now conventional "raw" file, there is such great distance from the captured scene as to make terms like truth seem naive or simply un-informed. It is true that we have to process our limited ability cameras into a finished photograph, very similarly to developing a film negative. But today it is so much more than that with abilities to tune color, tone, brightness relationship and geometry. If we aspire to realism, that can require a lot of work. Cameras do not record with the versatility and adaptability of our eyes and mind as we encode the real world around us. We must process the data to get the most out of cameras, and to chase our visual experience of the world. That is expected and understood by most people.

My objection to current and growing practices may have to do with the degree of the processing and deception as much as anything. I want photographs that appear to be real, to actually be realistic representations, or if not, to inform the viewer that they are actually looking at something else. The heavily manipulated enhanced image may be delightful, but I think some distinctions should be made. I've attempted to find words to describe something so over the top that despite its beginning as a photograph, it might now bear little resemblance to the scene. I've suggested pixel-graph as a naming option, which has been greeted with very little enthusiasm.

As a landscape photographer I have a very deep ethic about not adding or removing real objects within a scene. Nor am I comfortable with an "enhancement" that creates an overt unreality like heavy saturation or extraterrestrial HDR. There is plenty of desire for fiction and fantasy, but I think there is also value in letting people know what they are looking at. We have fiction and non-fiction in literature, we could strive for something similar. Those interested in embellishing their so called non-fiction with dramatic "enhancement" could perhaps consider informing their viewers of the nature of the "changes." Better yet, in my opinion, consider that there may be real value in depicting this beautiful world for what it is, not for what it can be pumped-up into being.

We have always had fiction in photography. With Photoshop our fictions became ever more indistinguishable from non-fiction. That is problematic. I realize there are mud gray areas everywhere here, and I am quite clear that I am making value judgments, but the recent controversy over Press photographs point to a need for further discussion. I hope this column makes a a contribution.

I often tell the story of standing next to the Grand Canyon on a hazy day where I witnessed some visitors get out of a tour bus, remark on how the scene just doesn't look like the postcards, and walk off disappointed. I'm sure they went off and bought some postcards having come to witness the exaggerations rather than the real canyon. And yes, they might have needed some sensitivity training to appreciate the nuances of the real world. But as more and more pressure is put on our national parks, I think it is critical to build constituencies for the real places, not transformed fantasies that the real places cannot live up to. It's bit like on-line dating, showing a potential acquaintance a photo that is a souped-up younger skin, plasticized version of you, doesn't help much on actually meeting.

...continued top of right column of the essay


Pyramid. 2012. Ted Orland.
An exercise in the delights of Photoshop to seduce viewers into fantasy.

Perfect landscapes with perfect skies and over the top color can change how we value what we actually see. Our expectations of this wondrous world grow into cartoon versions of the earth devaluing the most precious life giving resource we have, our very planet. I have spent much of my career attempting to help people rebuild real connection to the natural world of this planet, trying to reconnect to the vital link we need to be human and whole. The plastic neon Photoshopped world we often now see has the potential to make us more alienated rather than more connected. This may be for me the most disturbing of all on my concerns.


Not-Faked Elk in Forest Fire. Bitterroot Valley. Montana. 2000. John McColgan, BLM

We have come to a point where if a wonderful photograph is captured, there is in many viewer's minds, an instinct to question what the photographer may have done to the image in Photoshop. There is also in many photographer's minds a despair at how they can never get wonderful photographs like many they see, not realizing how manipulated the photographs they admire might be.

The power of a truly wonderful photograph to be believed is now in question. When wonder captured is looked upon suspiciously, we have truly crossed into a very sad state of affairs. But that is the current situation.

I know rules for expression are absurd. I also know I am in no position to set myself up as some ethical arbiter of photographic truth. But I contend that photographs are unique in their truth telling ability, perhaps almost singularly unique. We have systematically devalued the photographic image with our casual manipulations. Perhaps it is too late for the wonder of photography to ever regain its truthfulness. But it it also interesting that we are, every day, making millions of photographs precisely because we do want to remember what was there, not what we can fake the scene into. It seems there is something deeply engrained in us that desires to hold photographic truth.

I frequently tell people, the world is already self-embellished, it doesn't need enhancing.

book book

Explore: Photography and Truth: Imaging Ethics in the Digital Age
Chapter 19 of Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography. 2006.
Drawn from Steve's Keynote of the first Photoshop Conference in New York City, 1995.



Wet Plate Group Photo Black and White Printing Workshop. Pacifica, CA. 2015

Photograph by Chris Honeysett

Wet plates

During our Black and White printing class in late March we had the privilege of having my friend photographer Chris Honeysett come in and give a wet-plate collodian demonstration during which he made our class group portrait.

Chris naturally brought his whole portable darkroom to make the plate, coat it, expose it and develop it right before our eyes. It was a real treat.

We are talking through the possibility of doing a historical processes workshop. Stay posted, and email us if you might be interested.

Some New Work


Sunset, Shelter Cove. Pacifica. 2015


Pigeon Point Lighthouse by Moonlight. Pescadero, CA. 2015

New Developments at the Studio

Pacifica Workshop Video Posted.


Custom Workshop Scheduling

People often want to take workshops and the dates just don't match up with their schedules. Sometimes they watch the newsletter and webpage for years for their interest, free time and the workshop to all coincide. We've decided to be proactive in creating a forum for potential students to tell us what you need and when you can take a class. Please email us with workshop ideas and suggestions.

More formally, we are experimenting with a workshop poll to determine when interested people can make particular workshops they really want to take.

Currently we have up three workshops to experiment:

Workshop Polls Homepage

please email your comments to us



Consulting Programs and Speaking Events

Virtual Education: Our Virtual Consulting and Mentoring Program is working well. Readers of this Newsletter can still get a discount by mentioning this reference when you enroll.

Our One on One Program links you up with Steve at his bay area studio, or when he is on the road near you. Keep an eye on when Steve will be near your town.

Catch Steve Live: Steve will be speaking here and there over the next  few months, such as his up coming talks in New York City at Photo Plus.

  • The Craft and Passion of Fine-Art Digital Printing with Photographer Stephen Johnson. ProPhoto Portland Oregon. April 18, 2015.
  • McAllen Texas. November 7, 2015
  • Phoenix, Arizona. November 2015
  • Pacifica: At the Gallery
    Come by and talk with Steve about his ongoing Exhibitions of work on display

Canon Sponsors Steve to speak at Universities, Colleges, Photo Groups and various events around the country. If you would like more information on arranging for Steve to do a Canon sponsored event, go to: Canon SJ EOL talks



Steve Lecturing at Photo Plus. New York City. October 2014.



Photoshop History Brush Demo

A short demonstration of how Photoshop's History Brush can be used to paint back earlier stages of an edit while preserving other things you have done since.

In this particular case, a Layer Mask simply could have been created attached to this duplicate, now sharpened background copy, and painted with black or gray to block part of the sharpening, but that would have been a different demo...

The demo was captured with ScreenFlow.

Previous Tutorial and Technique Posts

The Stephen Johnson Photography Gift Shop

Featured Products

gift certificate

Gift Certificates for Prints and Workshops!

Emailed or shipped with beautiful gift notecard.

2015 Calendars

11" x 17"
Price $25.00

2015 Life Form Calendar
12 selections from Steve's Life Form work.

Life Form Calendar order


2015 Pacifica Calendar
12 selections from Steve's Pacifica, CA work.

Pacifica Calendar order.


2014 Life Form Note cards
5x7 inches,

Click to Purchase

12 image Note card set with envelopes featuring photographs from Steve's new Life Form work.

Printed by Steve in his studio in very limited numbers on a color laser digital press


National Park Note cards

note card

National Park Color Note card Set
Stephen Johnson
12 cards/envelopes $20 set

From "With a New Eye" Beautiful 300 line screen offset reproductions with envelopes in clear box. A great gift.




or call to order 650 355-7507



Please come visit us at our gallery and see our original prints in person. The subtle detail of the prints and the beautiful texture of the fine art paper have to be seen to be understood. And while you're here, browse through our books, cards, posters, and specially priced prints.

We're happy to mail you a copy of our product catalog, just send a note to or call us.

We're located at:

Stephen Johnson Photography at the Pacifica Center for the Arts
1220-C Linda Mar Boulevard, Creekside Suites, 5-7
Pacifica, CA 94044
(650) 355-7507



Pacifica Center for the Arts from Linda Mar Boulevard

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Stephen Johnson Photography at the Pacifica Center for the Arts
1220-C Linda Mar Boulevard, Creekside Suites, 5-7
Pacifica, CA 94044 650 355-7507

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Last updated on April 14, 2015 . Mail comments to:
Photographs and Text Copyright ©2015, Stephen Johnson. All Rights Reserved Worldwide