Truth And Reality

Photography isn't automatically an accurate way to capture reality even though it looks like it should be

Truth And Reality

Several things have come across my desk recently that tell me that the transition to digital technology is still in the troubled adolescent period. There has become such a fear of digital manipulation in photography that it reminds me of media health scares. Some very real issues are being forgotten, as certain publications that should know better and some photographers have taken extreme positions that claim they're after truth, but actually they're favoring traditional technologies over photographers.

A good example from a fine nature photography book by an excellent photographer includes this note from the photographer: "Nature is reality and truth. My goal in photography is a true and honest documentation of nature; none of my images have been digitally altered or otherwise manipulated." Now, besides this being a divisive and unnecessary statement, it's also quite misleading. Nature may be reality and truth, but photography, in itself, is not.

To say otherwise is to deny the very dualistic nature of photography—a combination of art and technology. Neither can exist without the other. To ensure that the camera (film or digital) better captures the reality of nature, we use many technological aids and gadgets, such as graduated neutral-density filters, to balance tones that we can see, but that the camera cannot. We use flash to highlight things in a scene that the camera wouldn't highlight or to balance a bright background. We use different focal lengths of lenses to change how perspective is seen. These are all manipulations of the scene to make a better and truer photograph.

I find it odd, however, that an arbitrary line has now been drawn. Technological manipulations of the scene done at the time of the photograph are "okay," yet technology used after the photograph was taken in service of making a more truthful image aren't, according to a number of conservative photographers and publications. It's almost as if they can understand the technology and it has been around a long time, it's okay, but new stuff that they don't understand is strictly taboo.


Let's look at a new technology used to make a photo truer to the scene. Suppose I come across a beautiful group of flowers on a ridge against the sunset. My eyes see the reality of color both in the flowers and in the sunset. The camera sees something totally different that in no way represents what was seen. Yet some reactionary folks would have us consider the camera's "reality" as the truth, a case of technology (the camera) being better than people (the photographer). I realize that may sound a little harsh, but I strongly believe publications have a responsibility to the public to present the best photos they can, images that reveal the truth and beauty of the world and that aren't arbitrarily limited by rules that restrict that revelation.

The flower and sunset scene can be influenced by processing that image after the picture is taken. I could definitely "manipulate" tonal values of the flowers and sky to bring them more in balance.

Just saying those words upsets some people. "Manipulation is wrong!" they say. Hackles get raised. But then I say that I used a flash to brighten the flowers and balance them against the sky in another shot. "Oh, well, that's different. That's capturing reality." Hmm. I've yet to see flash naturally occurring in any park or wilderness area.

Manipulation that changes reality from what we see or can interpret about the truth of a scene is wrong for nature photography. I also believe that only the photographer can correctly and accurately interpret what he or she saw in a scene. Some subjects need enhancement and proper manipulation for them to be truthfully seen, and the straight photograph right from the camera isn't "truth."

Let's continue with that flower example. Now, suppose I take two exposures—one for the sunset colors and one to accurately capture the flower colors. I bring those two photos into Photoshop and create a new image that combines the best tonalities and colors of each, making a photograph that now more accurately and truthfully represents what was seen. It's certainly more truthful than a silhouette and far more accurate than using a flash. Yet many folks will say this "composite" isn't true and is a manipulation of photography that shouldn't be done.

Now I have to scratch my head. An unnatural flash is okay, but the use of real tonalities isn't?

I really don't understand. Why would we not want to use technology to make our photos truer to what's seen in nature? Why wouldn't prestigious "nature magazines" want and even demand that photographers use technology in the service of more truthful images? The composited two-exposure photograph is a far better representation and truthful interpretation of the reality of the flowers and sunset than what any traditional photographic technique can do.

Back in the 1850s, a photographer named Gustave Le Gray dealt with severe tonal limitations of the film used at the time. It couldn't register clouds in the sky and proper exposure of the ground at the same time. So he took two exposures—one for the sky and one for the ground‚Äîthen put them together in the darkroom. He did this many times and was considered brilliant for his innovative way of dealing with the challenge of technology of his time.

Photography is by its nature interpretation. Just selecting something to photograph out of a natural scene starts the interpretation process. The lens used, light captured, filters or flash employed, exposure chosen, color balance selected (whether by film choice or white-balance settings)—all these technologically influenced decisions are personal to any photographer (even if they aren't all chosen deliberately) and lead to an interpretation of the subject. This interpretation can be real or false at the point of exposure, and the degree of real or false to a photograph can be deliberate or accidental.

Work in Photoshop is also interpretation. What's the best tonality and contrast for this subject? Is the color accurate overall? In specific places? What truthfully and accurately interprets this scene for the viewer to best see and understand the subject?

This is exactly what reporters do when they sit down at the computer to make sense of their notes. What rings true? What doesn't? How can the event, person or other news be interpreted fairly, accurately and truthfully within the context of an article?

Yet this isn't what a lot of editors want from their photographers. They don't want real truth based on the photographer's vision of the world, but on an arbitrary and superficial truth of the image straight from the camera.

Columnist William Neill shared an interesting story about this issue ("The Truth Of Veracity," December 2005, OP), and I've heard similar stories from other sources. Certain editors have overreacted to the problems of false manipulation of an image, such that they consider any change to a photo "wrong," even if a mistaken exposure makes the scene too dark! Now the mistake is "truth" because it came from the camera, but the photographer's correct and true "manipulation" of the image to bring it to a correct set of values and colors true to the scene is now "false" in these editors' minds.

How odd. They would never do such a thing to one of their writers. Can you imagine that conversation, "Bring me all your notes. We'll just publish them rather than your article because you've edited and interpreted those notes when you wrote the piece. We think you could have lied, so we'll just use you as a notetaker from now on." No self-respecting journalist would accept that, yet some photographers are being forced to do that.

A news writer knows that a good, truthful article must be based on accurate notes interpreted honestly during the writing. This should be the standard for photography, too, not basing truth on what comes directly from the camera. It's time to trust photographers to do the right thing in their work on an image, then deal harshly with those photographers who would deliberately lie to mislead the public, whether in how an image is shot or in manipulating an image in Photoshop.

That's the model for journalists who write and should be the same for photographers. (I'm not talking about photographers who create wonderful and fanciful images with no intention of misleading anyone that they're truthful representations of reality.) I believe in nature and photographers, but I don't believe that photography is arbitrarily a pure and honest medium. That always depends on the person doing the photography.

OP editor Rob Sheppard's latest book is Adobe Camera Raw for Digital Photographers Only. His new website,, features photo tips and more.

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