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.

Elizabeth Carmel is a professional fine art photographer specializing in unique, expressive landscapes and "waterscapes." Elizabeth’s fine art prints combine dramatic photography, vivid colors and artistic touches to create new, captivating visions of the natural world. Using ultra-high resolution 50-megapixel digital photography, she’s able to capture the subtle details of the natural world and transfer them to large prints with stunning clarity and color. She does her own printing on fine art paper or canvas with long-life pigmented inks. Her award-winning images are in numerous galleries and private collections throughout the United States. Her prints have been displayed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., at the California Museum of Photography and the Nevada Museum of Art. Elizabeth published a book of her photography, Brilliant Waters, Portraits of Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and the High Sierra with a foreword by Robert Redford.