But Is It Real?

The goals and responsibilities of a photographer and photo manipulations

Napa Valley, California. This photo has been enhanced to create a print in keeping with Elizabeth Carmel's recollection of the moment.

If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe? Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater."
—Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Is that real? It's a loaded question that I respond to regularly at our gallery. Many of the images in our gallery were taken during the magic hour at sunrise and sunset, in beautiful locations that many people will never visit personally. People from urban environments who haven't spent much time outdoors find some of our images "unbelievable" since they haven't seen such places in such light. An image of a double rainbow in the Napa Valley that I have prominently displayed in our gallery gets the most questions: "Is it real?! You must have added the rainbow in Photoshop. I've never seen one that vivid."

Well, I was there, and I took the image, and it's every bit as vivid as I remember it. I made the print match my experience of witnessing the rainbow that vibrated with color and began striating into more bands of color as it intensified. I had never seen anything like it. People were stopping on the side of the road, getting out of their cars, to witness this amazing spectacle. We all stood along the side of the road in the rain, watching in awe. I kept photographing as the rainbow became more and more intense during the clearing storm.

Some people come in the gallery and this rainbow image brings joy to them. They often share experiences of rainbows they have witnessed. Others scoff in disbelief that I've added the rainbow or made it less "real" through Photoshop. I let them know that I did take the image with a digital camera and develop it in Photoshop, and then sent it to the printer and worked to get the print to a point where I wanted to release it to the world. The memory of the rainbow is now a print of the rainbow, translated through the technology of the camera, computer and printer. How real is that? I didn't add the rainbow in Photoshop, but I developed the color to match my memory of the rainbow I saw. My goal in creating a print is to share the impact and inspiration of witnessing this rainbow with people who see the image.

As an artist, I'll work on my images until they reflect the essence of the moment that I witnessed and want to communicate. If someone witnessed the rainbow who's color-blind, would they see it? Do people perceive colors at different intensities? What if you were wearing polarizing sunglasses when you saw it; would the colors be any less real? The world is a colorful place. In the realm of art photography, I think we're allowed creative license to translate the experience through our memory and senses. It's up to others to view our images and prints through their own senses, and to make their own judgments based on this experience.

I think it falls on us as creators of images to be ethical in how we respond to questions about the reality of our work. If an image is a composite of a sky and a foreground, then in response to questioning, we shouldn't say it was all created in one click of the shutter, but that it's a composite. Ultimately, what we're trying to achieve as photographers may not be an accurate photojournalist's perception of the scene that was there, but an expression of something larger that we may not be able to put into words. We're witnessing the beauty of nature, therefore our images reflect the reality of that inspirational moment.

See more of Elizabeth Carmel's photography at elizabethcarmel.com and thecarmelgallery.com. Workshop information is available at elizabethcarmel.com.

14 Comments

    Thank you, Elizabeth, for eloquently articulating a very common conflation of the roles of a photojournalist capturing a news event and a fine art photographer trying to interpret their vision.

    Ansel Adams himself would never have been able to create the startling tonal ranges for which he was known without red and orange filters, graded papers, push/pull development techniques, complex dodging and burning of print areas and a distinctive toning chemistry.

    I refuse to apologize for using a polarizing filter to enhance a blue sky and remove reflections or to use an ND grad to open up foreground detail during sunrise and sunset shots. The new 10-stop ND filters allow for long exposures that blur motion in full daylight and focus stacking allows for depth of field effects that finally mimic what the human eye sees. I will take all the enhancement techniques I can find and never look back (ok, maybe I will cut back on the “vibrance” slider a bit in Adobe Camera Raw).

    Thank-you for sharing your thoughts on this question which I sometimes get when people look at my photos. You put it eloquently when you said-typed “what we’re trying to achieve as photographers may not be an accurate photojournalist’s perception of the scene that was there, but an expression of something larger that we may not be able to put into words.”
    I sometimes get exasperated when trying bring this very point across to ‘people who just don’t get it’ or purists.

    I agree totally. Photography is an art. We are trying to create what we see through our lens in a form that others can enjoy. Even though some photoshop post production results are quite whimsical or fantastic, I consider it the artist’s freedom of expression. I prefer photos that are more “realistic”, but I also know that our eye can see more than the camera can convey. Thus post production work, filters, etc, are all ways to achieve the results our eyes remember seeing. Ansel Adams would have used our modern software with relish.

    Photography has always been “art” – it’s just that today we have wonderful technology/tools that allow us even greater control of what our mind’s eye perceives. Just as it’s a talent for a “purist” to capture and reproduce a scene in a near likeness to reality, so is it a talent to create and share one’s perception of that same scene. I hope those who question “is it real” are doing so out of curiosity and not with the intent to criticize if it’s not a perfect rendition of reality.

    I think that a picture should be created in the camera and nothing else. Of course people can do whatever they want, but I still think that a creative mind can make good photos using only the camera. I even do all my cropping in the camera and not on the computer.

    I feel really bad at ease when I see some horrible colors that people have added in the picture using all the abilities on the computer.

    Birger,

    A camera is just a machine, it can only record, it can make no decisions about what it records (except some small control on auto). I would not like to give up all my artistic decisions to a dumb machine.

    An artist is free to create and should be. An artist can make decisions based on skills honed over a lifetime. Anyone with a modern camera and a tripod can take “tack sharp” images with no emotion of feeling, no big deal and those images are what make me feel, “bad.”

    Taking Mr. Rommedahl?۪s position to its logical conclusion, one would always shoot only transparency film. Any other medium requires some interpretation, either consciously by the photographer or unconsciously by technology, whether the color balance of a monitor or the filtering of a print.

    Further commenting on Mr. Rommedahl’s position, just cropping a photo (even in camera) is making the image “not real” in the truest sense. If you are using any length telephoto lens, you are creating an image that we don’t actually see with the naked eye, because you are compressing the depth of field and looking at a subject essentially with blinders on and through binoculars. This is all done (even in camera) with the ultimate goal of creating a pleasing image to the viewer, not just documenting a scene, correct? If we just let the viewer decide what is pleasing, and don’t make any false claims about how the image was captured or processed than we’re all good, right…if you don’t like something as a viewer, then move on to something else, rather than try to tell other viewers what they should or shouldn’t like. And I don’t think Birger, was trying to tell people what to like or not – just using his position as a starting point. 🙂

    So Berger since you do not enhance the photo in any way and only take photos out of camera, I guess that means you do not shoot RAW then? If you did the images would be flat. So the logical thing to assume is that you shoot JPEG. Well…you are letting the camera enhance the image for you if that’s the case.

    Thank you for your thoughts on print manipulation. Something I have found is that things we used to do in the darkroom ALL the time have been rejected by editors simply because it was done in Photoshop. And while there is a lot you can do in Photoshop that could not be done, or easily done in the darkroom, an experienced darkroom tech could do an awful lot. But it just seems that the fact that it was done digitally makes it unacceptable. I could have done a lot with your rainbow shot in the darkroom.

    Damn, you people need to loosen your butt cheeks. I came up with darkrooms and trays and drum processors. That world of severe restrictions is gone forever. Even in that era I could dodge, burn, mask, filter and manipulate my prints. I could even manipulate my slides and negatives with masks and processing. I’m an old guy and I can easily embrace the creativity inherent in electronic imaging. You new troops need to lighten up. If the assignment doesn’t require accurate representation of a subject, then try new things. Just make sure your technique is up to your creative visions.

    I often used to look at a landscape on a bright day, with a deep blue sky and billowing white clouds, and because my eye could cope with the differences in brightness, think what a good photograph it would make; in the days of slide film this was often the case. But when I turned to digital photography I was

    disappointed when my camera was unable to cope with the variation and the clouds were so often washed out. But now, thanks to digital manipulation, I can expose on the sky and lighten the darker areas on the computer. The result is much more what I’d seen with my tolerant human eye!

    What is real? I’m prepared to say that the moment photographed was real. The resulting photograph is certainly real, though it may or may not communicate an impression of reality. People are free to make whatever imagery they want, but exercising creative freedom does not necessarily result in great art. Nothing has changed. Tons of gaudy, kitsch, visually arresting but artistically irrelevant paintings have been made over the centuries, and now that same is true for photography. The meaningful question for landscape/nature photographers these days isn’t whether it is ok to use tools like Photoshop, but instead, “Why should we care?” What have you brought to the table that advances art, science, and/or human understanding?

    The question that the viewer needs to ask is ‘Is it any good?’ There is a big difference between a very well balanced digitally enhanced image and a totally absurd image. The photographer must therefore choose their reputation. The photographer must always ask themselves ‘is this what I intended’. The photographer must also always assume the public is intelligent.

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