What’s “Wrong” With This Picture?

Carrizo Rainbow by Steve Shuey

This is not my picture, but it is one that sparked a lively discussion that I thought might be worth sharing with those of you who follow this OP forum. It is a shot of a spectacular rainbow over a vast field of Tidytip flowers on California's Carrizo Plain, taken just a few days ago by my friend Steve Shuey.

We had gone to the Carrizo, not chasing rainbows, but rather endangered Kit Foxes, part of a long-term project I am doing on this vanishing mammal. While I was maintaining a vigil at the fox den, however, Steve went off to shoot landscapes, and came back one morning with this zinger from a brief, intense rain shower in this little-known, but beautiful, corner of California. When I asked how his morning shoot went, Steve said it was OK - but that this image, among many others, had been "ruined" by a staggering number of contrails in the sky.

This comment initiated a long discussion on the nature of beauty, honesty and expectation. I'd love to get your thoughts on it, for despite Steve's concern that his picture was diminished by the presence of the contrails, I thought it was terrific - who cares if there are lines in the sky?  But I was also puzzled - why is this even an issue? After all, if a photograph has merit, it should be because of its composition, and the quality of the light that inhabits it. So how does the presence of contrails (which some viewers might not even recognize as such)  diminish either of those criteria?  To suggest that it does is to imply that the picture has failed some standard of "image purity" - that the REAL world had intruded into an image in a way that could not be cropped out (like, say,  the nearby fence, or the road that passed a few yards from where Steve was standing) .

Why is it that we insist that our photography exclude things that we otherwise consider unavoidable elements of modern life?  Think about it; the only time most of us have not seen a contrail in the sky was immediately after 9/11 when the skies were closed to air travel. Other than for those few days the skies are typically filled with planes, often accompanied by the vaporous traces of their passing. We all accept this, and I, for one, do not feel that my time in the wilderness is significantly degraded by their presence. So why do we obsess about a few puffs of steam in the sky when they appear in a landscape photograph?

As nature photographers, we often say we want out pictures to be authentic representations of the world around us - but where is the authenticity if we simply Photoshop out the things that undermine, or offend, the imagined "perfection" of nature?

In my view, Steve had three options when he saw this scene:

1) he could have decided that the contrails ruined the shot - and simply not taken it.

2) he could have g0ne ahead and taken the picture - and then tried to "fix it" in Photoshop after the fact.


3) he could have taken it and celebrated the moment  - the light and the joy of a desert Spring - and ignored those damn lines in the sky.

Option one, it seems to me, would be a sad choice, ignoring a scene of beauty because it failed to measure some twisted standard of purity.  Option two sends a very mixed message; it was worth a picture, but you might want to hide its "imperfections". Understandable, maybe, but not entirely honest. (Question: Are contrails the same as offending blades of grass snipped out in Photoshop? I can tell you, they're a lot harder to remove!)  Then there is Option three:  the only reasonable choice.

I think it's a terrific shot,simple and direct. But consider this: such a picture will probably never be chosen for a nature magazine cover, or appear in a Sierra Club calendar. Why? Because we cling to the idea that nature exists in some sort of ideal vacuum, one that humans apparently do not inhabit. Is it any wonder that the entire field of nature photography has been accused of being a trivial celebration of eye-candy?  Hey, if a few contrails are enough to undermine this picture's value then let's just abandon the idea that nature photography represents anything but a soft-focus, hyper-saturated, idealized world of nature -  one that barely exists in 90% of the planet.  Is nature photography just a form of ecological nostalgia, a way to cling to a world that has largely vanished?

OK, I've had my rant. I'd love to hear what you think.  And I expect that Steve might weigh in as well, since he may not agree with anything I've said beyond being willing to have his terrific picture held up for discussion. By the way, he also provided me with another shot from the same morning - one with a gentler composition (and no contrails). Is this one more successful or less so?  Why?

Carrizo Rainbow #2 by Steve Shuey

Both Photos (c) Steve Shuey 2011


    I didn’t even notice the contrails until you pointed them out. I like the first picture much better because the color is brighter and the sky is more interesting. I agree we do tend to think of nature in the vacuum of perfection….or is it wistful thinking? Somehow we’d like to see nature, but not impact it and no matter how careful we are that just isn’t possible. I wish I’d taken either picture 🙂

    I am not by any stretch of the imagination a professional photographer, but I have enjoyed

    several trips out to Ca. & the Southwest, where I have had the fortune to take some really

    cool shots. I particularly like “being there” when a storm is passing through.

    And now to Steve’s shot of the rainbow & the contrails. My first reaction was Wow, great

    color on the flowers in the foreground, nice angle on the rainbow, and good storm clouds.

    But the mts., clouds, and rainbow all seem to be a little flat — the contrails seem to give the

    pic some depth of field and give the pic a sort of third dimension. PhotoShopping these out

    of the pic would, I think, diminish the scene.

    I was loving the rainbow, the clouds and the golden flowers. In my first look – and until you commented on them and I went back – I didn’t notice the contrails either. The first photo is vastly superior to the second version, with or without the contrails. That said, if it were my shot, I’d most probably have Photoshopped them out. I guess it’s like when you take a great shot and then see the power lines or whatever in it afterward. Once you see it it really stands out to you.

    Kath, Tom & Jeff : Thanks for your comments. It is striking that many viewers don’t even notice the contrails right away, although they bothered Steve enormously. So clearly they are not immediate deal-breakers (and Tom argues that they actually give the image greater depth! ) But I was really aiming for the larger question – why do we almost instinctively want to remove non-natural objects?

    It all depends on what you are photographing and the issue of photography as art. In the arena of documentary, the trails are there and must stay. Perhaps the sound of the planes is upsetting to the foxes? Unlikely, but as a potential issue the trails are a graphic means of demonstrating the possibility. By contrast, in an ideal world, the trails would not be there and so by all means take them out if you want a “perfect” fine art print.

    I too, like the others, thought the first picture with the contrails was really nice. the photographer grabbed the moment and the rest is history. I suspect we are beginning to think that only “sterile” shots are art – let us turn to Picasso, to see the art that is there in the moment!! Paraphrasing what Dewitt Jones said recently, “only you see what you see” – Seize the moment and share it for the world to either appreciate it or critique it – What others think – remember also –

    Those that matter will not mind, those that mind do not matter.

    What an interesting discussion on this photo. My thought process when I made it was to simply concentrate on finding the best spot I could (within the somewhat limited field of flowers) to place the rainbow and then how much of the flowers to include. I saw the scene, loved it, shot it, then, when I saw it on the LCD screen on the back I noticed the contrails and my reaction was not positive. I guess I felt they intruded but also there was nothing I could do about them (I am not nearly good enough at PS to eliminate them without it being obvious). I also am somewhat of a purist and, for all instances except some playing around to put a print on my wall, I would choose to not remove them as they were part of the scene I shot. I also agree that they give some depth to the photo. But, the bigger question is what Kevin posed, should I really be worried that they are non-natural and they “ruin” a nature shot. Frankly I am not sure. I’ve seen photos by Galen Rowell that are wonderful, but if you look hard, there are telephone poles. Well, they still work for me. Could it be too much to expect, in this day and age, the complete elimination of human objects? After-all, humans are natural parts of the earth. Thanks for everyone’s comments on my photo.

    I would honestly remove the contrails. In the end the final aesthetic is what truly matters, not some sort of no photoshop purity. We are not journalists and so we are not burdened to try to make a camera make a truly accurate depiction of a scene rather we are artists descended from painters. The blue sky acts as important negative space in the image that when broken by the contrails becomes less effective. As a landscape photographer much of what you are doing is seeking the ideal. We find the best light, the best time of year, the best weather, the best composition that creates idealistic and romantic view of the land, removing a disturbing element can only further this fulfill this demand. In this case it becomes even more acceptable to so modify an image precisely because of some of the point you made. The contrails are there, will always be there, and are unavoidable while the light, the clouds, the rainbow are fleeting and rare in that setting. While it would great to say that he should seek this shot on a day the contrails were not there for what reason (storms and such diverting flights) the singularity of the event becomes so great that it is an unreasonable demand.

    How can one not notice the contrails? They are the only linear and parallel markings in the sky. If they were black one may even think that they are power lines. Even in an some movies about cowboys and the old west there is the occasional contrail or power line in the distant background that escapes the editor’s eye. Watch for them the next time you view such a film.

    Everyone who has commented on this photo brings out valid points, both pro and con as to whether to eliminate them. Although Photoshop is great and I use it “purify” some of my shots, I can’t help but feel some degree of guilt when I remove an element of human involvement in the scene. But some landscape photography is about trying to capture an almost dream world that is in the eye of the photographer which he or she would like to convey to others. Some other is intended to show man’s impact on the land, positive, negative or neutral. It all depends on what Mr. Shuey intended to convey.

    I love both images. The first has the incredible color and contrast that all great landscapes must have, but the contrails are a little distracting. I like the second image for it’s cleanliness, but it could use a crop to bring the sky down. If true life is the point then #1 is the clear winner, but for commercial use, it need to lose the trails

    I’m not a photographer but a writer who has dealt with this issue of excluding the human from the natural world. I found my way to this discussion from Steve’s Facebook page. I appreciate both the work of Ansel Adams (his “pure nature” work and his work with human landscapes) and of Mark Klett, who likes to include power lines and all those things other nature photographers leave out.

    The lines in the sky were obvious to me immediately, but not necessarily as contrails. I found them distracting, if not jarring. Then of course I recognized them as contrails. If I try to ignore the fact that they are contrails and go back to that initial reaction, they seem to be the only sharply linear feature where everything else is soft. So in some sense they clash with the rest of the photo, regardless of whether they are natural or human-made.

    But then if I go back a step further, I realize that a lot of our modern response to nature is itself aesthetic. When I go into nature, part of what I’m looking for is an aesthetic experience that goes back to the Romantics and ideas of the picturesque and the sublime. John Muir’s “Nature’s peace will flow into you” and all that. The kinds of human intrusion that really disturb this aesthetic are often linear — power lines, roads, tire tracks, an expanse of recently cut stumps — and they have the same effect whether I see them in a photo or out on a hike. So perhaps my reaction to those linear elements is actually an ingrained response to human intrusions, whether or not I immediately recognize them as human-caused.

    The simplest way to put this is: If I try looking at just the bottom half of the photo without the contrails, I get that sense of “peace in nature”. If I then go back and look at the whole photo, I immediately feel a sense of conflict and tension and strife that ruins what I expect from a nature photo. On the other hand, the contrails aren’t foregrounded enough to make a statement about the human vs. the natural or humans as part of nature, as in this photo:


    (there’s another Klett photo of some sort of road sign with Yosemite in the background, but I can’t find it)

    So in the end, I guess I’m just confused by the photo. Judging from Steve’s statement above, the photo didn’t convey what he intended either.

    I’ve always loved reading critiques from folks on the photo blogs and forums that I frequent and seeing them say things like “well this might have been a nice picture if the blah blah had not been there”. Hmmm. Let me just ask that light pole nicely to move to the right just a bit so I can get the incredible building I want without you in it. How silly is that?!?! Many many times we find ourselves in a moment that you can either take the opportunity when you can (as Steve did in this shot) or you can walk away and later regret not taking it. Photography is an art but it’s also not a perfect world. We can’t always control everything in every picture we snap but we sure can record our world in the real, honest and true way that it exists and accept those things that we can’t change. I prefer the first shot. It is a true representation of the time he shot the image.

    I also, on first glance, failed to notice the contrails, but once pointed out, found they grated a bit. As James Hamilton pointed out above, it might also be that they are straight lines in a very ‘curvey’ photo.

    I also find myself agreeing with Larry Hogue. On TV recently I saw a programme about classical paintings which pointed out that, even in the cityscapes, all humans have been removed. This is also ‘false’ and a conscious decision by the creator. Do artists and photographers actually not like humans? Is this a form of anti-social-ness? Do they regularly find themselves railing against the modern world?! I chuckled when I heard it because of the times I have waited for ‘those damned people’ to get out of the way. I now try to be a bit more patient or think of ways to incorporate people into the frame so that they add to the composition. On that basis, these contrails are nicely aligned with the horizon, have variety of intensity, and have a pleasing vertical position. If you wanted to Photoshop them *in*, this is what you would probably hope to end up with.

    David, I agree that people in a scene can add to the composition but sometimes one wants to capture a feeling of solitude in nature. In Assignment #63 I have a photo, “Maroon Bells 1977”, in which I did just what you mentioned – waited for the people to get out of the way – but the result was what I intended it to be. At other times a single person in the image can also convey a sense of solitude. People can also give a feeling of proportion to a subject whose size might be difficult to otherwise judge. On the other hand, I find cityscapes devoid of people to be lonely and stark, except when the main idea is to capture an architectural theme.

    I, like many who have posted before me, did not even notice the contrails at first look. To me they are not a distraction at all, but in fact, part of nature in action. It is only our egos that seem to think that we, humans, are not at all part of nature. We have developed to be who we are right along with the rest of what we call nature. Contrails are part of that human impact just as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon are the result of years of erosional development by other forces of nature. It is all very beautiful and natural.

    Mark, thanks for your comments – indeed, thanks to everyone who has been weighing in on this very interesting discussion. As I expected, opinions are pretty much all over the map – e.g. whether to remove the contrails or leave them – or even whether they are noticeable! I do find interesting the notion that several people would take the contrails out in the name of Art. For while nature photography can be seen as an art form, it seems a rather unique one – one in which there is a direct expectation on the part of the viewer that the scene they are viewing is, in fact, REAL. If you take that away, the idea that a picture is a faithful record of a scene, what, really, is left? A pretty illustration that carries none of the power to amaze and delight that is photography’s unique gift.

    Again, what a great discussion. So, I am a naturalist at heart and I guess that is why the contrails bothered me at first. They simply are not part of what a truly natural scene would look like. But, I am also a realist and by that I mean I know they are there and they are part of what I saw (although, as I mentioned, I do not recall noticing them until after I took the shot and saw it on my LCD screen) so I don’t feel I can remove them. I feel that, as a photographer who prefers realistic over highly manipulated images, it would not be right. The image I shot really was meant to be a simple show of a wonderful flower field and, an in the right place at the right time, rainbow. Honestly, I did not have time to figure out any more in depth motivation for the image other than the simple beauty unfolding in front of me. Frankly, the more I look at the image, the more I think it worked. Now, as a friend told me today, I doubt it would be published on a cover or win a contest but that may be more to the question Kevin first brought up – that is, why? I mean can every shot be “perfect”?

    Steve, perhaps it’s because nature photography allows us to momentarily imagine that things like airports or airplanes don’t even exist. Is it unrealistic? Absolutely. But if I’m going to have a false illusion in my life, I’d just assume it’s that one.

    So it’s just selfishness in a way….it ruins our illusion of perfection in the world.

    Kevin, I think we want the purity of nature when we are shooting landscapes. I shot some lovely sunsets recently but my location was poor to me since there were a lot of highlines in the area, and there was just not enough time to get to a “clean” location for other shots. I was in the magic hour. A attempted to use a building to block the lines but it also blocked teh better colors. I think the contrails are missed by a lot of people simply because we see them so often we do not even notice they are there. They have become part of nature. I shoot a lot of old buildings and sometimes they had been used in fairly recent times so some have electrical wiring running to the building or an electrical pole sitting next to the house or barn. I certainly try to avoid getting these in the shot. I recently found an old building I really wanted to shoot. The windows had been blocked up by old metal signs to try and keep intruders out. Great shot except they had placed the electrical pole directly in front of one of the signs. I shot it anyway but have never liked the finished product. I think you are right that we are willing to shoot man-made objects but we don’t want man-made objets in the picture.

    This whole discussion reminds me of a similar discussion of “authenticity” on a travel website.


    Especially point 1. Why is it that we are allowed to change, and nature not? The everchanging force? She, who will find a way to adapt?

    I live in a very densely populated country (The Netherlands) and I can only see maybe 10 stars at night.

    Most of the western European plaintraffic passes over our country. I have counted up to sixty trails on a sunny cold day.

    At the same time, nature (to me) is more than just the wide open plains. It can also be the pheasants running around in the isolated and desolate areas in between freeways. The last bit of untouched wilderniss. The wide open cloudy sky that painters of old represented on their canvas.

    If you want to make art, fine. But don’t do it under the pretense of showing “true” nature.

    Nature rarely stays the same for a long period of time.

    You might be trying to recreate something that you already broke a long time ago…

    It’s refreshing to here that thier are still some photographers out thier that are what I would term a realist. They shoot the world for what it is and nothing more. Yes they may adjust things in photoshop some. but at the same time they keep the shot basic, simple and clean. After all it’s the world we live in, it’s whats is around us every day. I personly have have images rip apart becouse of things that didn’t make the photo PERFECT… like sea weed hanging out of a duck’s mouth. You get the picture. I guess this is my rant also… This is a wonderful photo showing nature at work.

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