What Is Photographic Reality?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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 petereastway.com.au and more about his Photoshop technique at betterphotography.com.