The Eternal Mirror

(© Ian Plant) The advent of digital photography has come with a number of challenges, both technical and artistic. The technical challenges are mainly related to acquiring proficiency in image processing programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop. The artistic challenges, curiously enough, arise in part from mastery of these technical challenges. Once competency in the digital darkroom is achieved, some difficult questions emerge, such as: How much computer processing is too much? At what point do we cease to be photographers and instead become “computer artists”? Does it matter?

These are questions I wrestle with all the time. I suspect many of you do too. Maybe some of you don't wrestle with these questions at all, deeming them irrelevant. Perhaps they are—but not to me.

These questions do not have easy answers, and everyone needs to decide for themselves what is right or wrong. But—and this is an important but—I offer this food for thought. If the magic of your image is primarily the result of what happened before your eyes (and was subsequently captured by your camera), then you have created a photograph. If, on the other hand, the magic is primarily the result of what you've done on the computer, then it is arguably not a photograph any more—at least not entirely. Call it "photo art," "digital art," "computer art," or some other name—but in the end you have produced some sort of mixed media creation. Not that there is anything wrong with this, but I think it is important to be honest about what one is doing, and to make a conscious decision as to the path one wishes to take.

Don’t get me wrong—I'm not saying you need to stay 100% faithful to the raw file in order to be called a photographer. Raw files are, by their very nature, well . . . raw. They lack contrast and color saturation, and no one has ever claimed that a raw file is an accurate representation of reality. Your raw files will typically need some work to reveal the magic seen by your eyes, and accordingly the digital darkroom has become a critical part of the photographic process (as my Photoshop video tutorials attest). But when you start adding magic on the computer that wasn't perceived by the eye when in the field, at some point you cross over that ephemeral, inchoate line which separates photography from the vast sea of "something else."

Granted, this digital art "red line" is a little fuzzy for a lot of stuff you might wish to do—if indeed, it could even be characterized as a line at all. When, for example, does pushing contrast and color saturation go too far? Certainly, color slide film captured a vibrant and colorful variation of reality, and it was the staple of nature photography for decades. And what about blending multiple exposures for dynamic range or depth of field? Personally, I see these as merely sidestepping technical limitations, achieving digitally what might have been accomplished in the past with graduated neutral density filters and tilt-shift lenses. But then again, other things seem to be an obvious departure from the traditional art of photography—such as adding a great sunset sky taken a year ago to a lackluster image taken yesterday, and then throwing in that rainbow from last month for good measure. It is kind of like Supreme Court Justice Stewart's famous definition of pornography: we may not be able to precisely define when someone has crossed over from photography into computer art, but we know it when we see it.

These days, the Internet is awash with digital creations that began as photographs, but have been assembled, combined, twisted, and altered on the computer past all recognition as such. I've been practicing photography and Photoshop for a long time, and I can spot a lot of these digital darkroom tricks a mile away. Yet in almost every single case, this stuff gets presented to the world as "photography," and no one seems to notice the difference—or for that matter, to even care.

Is this wrong? Beats me. I just know that I much prefer taking photographs over making digital art. And I believe that photography’s magic arises from its unusual connection with reality, which is a result of how a photograph is made—a chemical emulsion or digital sensor array reacts to light emitted from or reflected off of real world objects, and a "copy" of this light is recorded by the photographic process. It is not a perfect copy, but it is pretty darn close. One way to look at it is that a photograph is an eternal mirror, freezing a fleeting moment—a real moment—forever.

Famous French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue said it best: “Photography to me is catching a moment which is passing, and which is true.” This is something which photography, of all art forms, is perfectly and uniquely suited to do. This connection with reality gives photography its power. People respond to a photograph, in part, because they think it is real—making their response to a photograph different than, for example, to a painting. And I believe this is something we should not cast aside lightly just so we can dazzle our Facebook followers.

So, do I have a definitive answer to this vexing question about whether any of this matters? As usual, I prefer not to tell people what to think, but rather to give them something to think about. So here's an observation, one that ends the debate for me personally. Capturing the reality of the moment matters because experiencing the moment is what it is all about. Maintaining a photograph's tether to reality is important to me, because I do this (that is, photography) to experience those magical moments for myself, and to preserve those moments in order to share them with others. Because at the end of the day, for me, staying faithful to the truth of the moment is more important than keeping up with the Photoshop Wonderboys.

To live in the moment, to experience the grand mysteries of Earth, and to witness the rare transformation of the mundane into the sublime—to me, this is what photography is all about. The pinnacle of the art form is to patiently wait for random forces to temporarily assemble into something meaningful and beautiful, before spinning along on their merry way. This is what Henri Cartier-Bresson famously called the "decisive moment"—a moment which is decisive for the subject, but most of all, decisive for the artist. If you rely on Photoshop to make your magic, you may produce something beautiful, but you rob yourself of experiencing those special moments when it all truly does come together. And that is something worth considering.

It may be hard to cling to analog thinking in our fancy, splashy, and seductive digital world. I've felt the pressure as much as anyone else, and I find myself pushing the Photoshop sliders a little bit more than I did in the old days. But I’d much prefer to keep my art rooted in the "traditional" photographic craft as much as possible, rather than rely on the cheap and easy thrills of digital darkroom wizardry. To me, witnessing a real moment, when the sky lights up red over towering walls of granite, perfectly reflected in a serene pool of water (such as with the image below)—this is why I do this, and I wouldn't trade such moments for all of the fake Photoshopped skies in the world.

About the image: "Eternal Mirror"—Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile. Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VC USD Lens for Canon Cameras, polarizer filter, 3-stop neutral density filter, ISO 100, f/11, 30 seconds. Click on the image above to see a larger version.

P.S. Join me on my 2014 Ultimate Patagonia Photo Tour for the photo adventure of a lifetime! Spaces are filling up fast so don't delay.


    Ian, I agree whole heartedly with you. I have no problem with individuals who spend hours computer enhancing but please, please acknowledge it as so. My pet peeve, because many do not take the time to see an added element — aka an eagle in a tree that has lighting on it that does not correspond with the lighting in the original photograph or different animals that appear in same scene standing in the same spots (please stand on this “X” and turn your head this direction).

    I believe, as I teach photography to middle schoolers and high schoolers who are tech wise beyond my years, that they are looking for the easy way. Why get up before sunrise to get to a location where they may or may not get the perfect sunrise. Whereas I find that part of the energizing factor — witnessing first hand a breath-taking sunrise and if it doesn’t happen then you do it another day but you appreciate the effort.

    There are wonderful digital manipulations and I give kudos to those who are patient and diligent enough to do a ‘good job’ of it — but acknowledge that is what it is.


    This is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for putting into words what I’ve always believed, and for doing so in such an articulate manner. I always look forward to your images. Incredibly inspirational work.


    Thank you Ian for such a grounded article on a sensitive and controversial subject. Over the years I have gradually settled on a balance between being faithful to the scene and tweaking with digital software. Being 55 years old and late to photography, I absolutely enjoy the “thrill of the hunt” and the grandeur of nature. When I am photographing in home territory I prefer going back again and again to capture the best but while travelling I have neither the time nor the money to indulge in such pleasures. Instead I depend a lot more on computer software to bring out what I see but cannot capture. That’s my balance.

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