During a recent image study night at my favorite (and only!) camera club, I was explaining how I had cleaned up one of my favorite red-tailed hawk photos, removing many distracting branches and “reconstructing” the raptor’s tail where twigs had previously run across it (see the attached images). A remark from another club member got me to thinking. His comment (paraphrased for lack of remembering the exact words) was: “Wow! You never know what’s real in photography anymore!” He sounded somewhat disappointed.
This was actually an expression which underlined an inner conflict I have had since learning how to digitally edit my own photographs: Are my pictures “real”? Photo editing is something I enjoy second only to taking the pictures in the first place. We have all seen over and over again how running an image through our favorite editing program or programs causes the shot to “come alive”. There is so much potential in a well-made image that cannot be realized without applying Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, (or any number of other applications) to the image!
However, photography has always been perceived as a medium that most represents reality, compared to other art forms. The most famous of images became so because they captured a moment in time that was extraordinary, due to the action, emotion, and/or quality of light shown in the photograph. It implies the perceptive and discerning eye of the photographer, and his or her impeccable timing of the shutter release.
Of course, photography does vary from reality. It is a two dimensional medium relying on a particular perspective, choice of lens and filters, and the use of color or monochromatic presentation. So why do we feel betrayed when we learn that what we see in a photograph is not actually the way the scene appeared to the naked eye at the time it was taken? The use of digital post-processing has pushed the variation of the final image from the original to the extreme! So many changes to an image sometimes result in more of an expression of art than a traditional photograph.
In this “digital age”, those of us who were originally involved in conventional (film) photography have a different world in front of us.
In the competitive environment of a of camera club, post processing is encouraged, and basically necessary! We are expected to optimize the color, sharpness, exposure and framing of each photo presented. When not done, an image straight from a digital camera falls flat in comparison to an optimized image.
Beyond these basic editing steps, club members are often advised that stray branches, errant bright spots, and other distracting elements should be removed or darkened. These more advanced techniques like cloning, burning, or dodging can have a dramatic impact on an image, particularly of a nature subject or portrait! Thus is my struggle as a nature photographer as to how much to change, and how much of the original scene should remain.
Which brings me back to the thought-provoking comment I mentioned at the outset; it seems unsettling when one learns that much has been done to an image that was perceived at first as a serendipitous capture! This is photography in the digital age – there is no going back!
What can we conclude from all this? I can offer you my ideas, and would encourage other HDP’ers to share their thoughts.
First, I think it is important for each of us to have the personal integrity to adhere to the guidelines and restrictions for image modification prescribed for particular competitions, both within and outside of HDP (for example, the prohibition of cloning for a nature competition image). Second, and perhaps more important, it is crucial for each of us to be frank about the conditions under which a photo was made when the question is raised, and/or the work that was done in post-processing to bring the image to its presented state: was the beautiful bird or animal in the photo captive, or free and wild? Third, we should ask ourselves: what is the goal of my photography: highlighting fascinating aspects of the world for others to see, or using the medium to create art? Most of us fall somewhere in between.
After all, hasn’t an exemplary photograph always been part what was before the lens, and part the creative energy of the image-maker?