Sunday, March 10, 2013

Photo Purity?

Wrestling action captured at 1/50th second while zooming the lens to enhance the movement recorded. This is one of my favorite images captured that day. Chikara champion Eddie Kingston versus Tim Donst.
Throughout photography’s history, there have always been people that frown upon some of the tricks and tools that many photographers use. Photo purists, as I call them. Photo purists frequently can be heard complaining about things like optical filter usage, fill flash, retouching, the removal or arranging of elements in a found scene, computer effects, and more. Anything other than a straight capture warrants complaint by photo purists. Some of these photo purists have even complained about such things as a photographer’s use of autofocus, or use of any other lens other than a standard 50mm "normal" (for 35mm equipment) lens. They write complaining letters to photography magazines, post their complaints to photography forums, and complain verbally to any photography lover within earshot. I remember often laughing at those letters in my photography magazines, especially when I was first starting out with photography.

So imagine my surprise at some of my own recent attitutdes that I recently expressed in December of last year. As loyal readers of my blog may already know, I do have a preference for getting my images as close to "done" in camera (see my post "Why I Like Getting it Right in Camera".) It is not because of an anti computer or photo purist attitude, but rather because I don’t really like spending too much time fixing images, especially images that could have been better had I just made more of an effort at the point of capture. Plus I just like being out there in nature, enjoying its beauty and experimenting with camera techniques to capture an image that expresses the joy that I feel in the presence of nature’s beauty.

Because I am not a photo purist, I use many "tricks" in my photography. I never hesitate to experiment with different lenses for the visual effects they will render. Fill flash, optical filters, compositional techniques, exposure variations, filters, and movement of subject or objects in a found scene are all techniques that I regularly take advantage of. And I am not shy about using a few tricks at the computer end of things either. Many of my images don’t require much computer editing, if any at all. But many also do, and if an image can be made better in the computer I will not hesitate to take advantage of the tools available to me. I am a notorious spotter of my images. I frequently use the clone tool and healing brush in Photoshop to clean up small flaws, especially spots on flower petals, and to remove any distracting background elements. In "You Can Always Fix It In The Computer Later", I discuss my favorite computer techniques.

So why did I get a little bit annoyed when a few people asked me what computer filter I used on some of my wrestling photos? I had just experimented with zoom and panning effects in camera at a wrestling event last December. It was a bold move on my part as I risked ruining, and did ruin, some once in a lifetime images that could never be reshot. Anybody that shoots wrestling or any other fast paced action/sport, can imagine how hard it is to capture a great shot using those techniques. There are so many throw away shots taken just to capture one great image. Plus I was shooting the event professionally and the pressure was on. I needed to make sure that I didn’t lose too many of those never to be repeated moments. But even as a professional, I still needed to fill my need for artistic expression and experimentation. I was very proud of those experimental shots. I had experimented with those techniques before with varying degrees of success, and that was the first time it worked out that well.

When a few people assumed that I took the easy way out and rendered the effect in the computer, I felt bad. It was almost like all the hard work that I had put into capturing those images meant nothing. I had wondered how many other people seeing those images also thought I used computer trickery to render the effects. Professional photographer Tom Till also expressed this very same view in his book "Success With Nature Photography." There is a photograph of a temple in Egypt bathed in red. He used slide film and the printed image is as it came out of camera. He expressed disappointment over how that image, which he put a lot of effort into getting, was considered a product of digital trickery.

Bottom Left: The zooming technique works well with still nature subjects too. Here I zoomed during a 1/6th second exposure.
Bottom Right: Although I captured this soft and dreamy image of Snapdragons in camera, using my Lensbaby. Some photo purists would probably disapprove.

My strong reaction started me thinking, had I become some type of photo purist? A true photo purist would probably think that the zooming effect captured in camera was even a cheat. No, I’m not a photo purist. Or am I? I started thinking about other photographers’ photos and the images that I liked and the ones that disappointed me. It would all too easy to say I don’t like Photoshopped nature images. But that is not necessarily true. I love beautiful nature photography that has been subtly enhanced in the computer. Slight HDR effects, subtle color enhancements, a little bit of minor cloning/healing to clean up distracting elements. But I do dislike nature images where animals or elements have been added or removed liberally, or images where animals had parts of their bodies rearranged or cloned to create a cuter image. Unless those images are being presented as fine art, I admit that I feel kind of cheated when viewing those photos.

This is about as close to those fantastic butterfly
photos that I have been able to capture in camera.
But I will not give up trying, even if there is a
chance that photos I use as inspiration may in fact
have been composites.
Most recently, I have seen a few stunning photographs of butterflies against beautiful backgrounds of bokeh (out of focus areas) that were similar to what would be captured in a dewy field on a summertime morning. The images appear to be composites, the lighting direction on the butterflies don’t seem to match that of the backgrounds, nor does the color of the lighting. And that made the photo purist in me sad, it cheapened the images to me. I felt that way not only as a viewer, but as a photographer. When I view other photographers’ work that I admire, I try to imagine how I could possibly capture similar images. Trying to capture an image in camera to emulate a photograph that is more digital art than photograph is a futile endeavor. But it is one I find myself on frequently. Unless the photographer/artist indicates the techniques used to create the image, usually revealed only in photography publications or forums, I am left to decide whether the image is heavily digitally manipulated or not. Such is the case with those butterfly photos. Did they create them in camera with only minor color adjustments, or are they in fact composites like I suspect? Can I take a photograph similar to it, like they did? Or did they? But Can I?

So where am I going with all of this, other than to doubt my own actions and opinions? I think it’s an important subject that all photographers should consider regarding their own work. It is not only a question of artistic expression but also of taste and ethics.

Sometimes photographers can go too far with the manipulations and the image no longer resembles a photograph. Taste is a subjective matter, and it is up to the photographer how far they want to take their own images. Viewers will make their own decisions as far as to whether they like the image or not, but unless you are creating a photograph for a client, it is really up to you how far you take your images with in camera or in computer techniques.

This image is pure fantasy. It is not supposed to look realistic in any way. I rendered the background in a couple of 3d imaging computer programs. I blended the resulting image with a posed photograph I took of wrestler Psychosis. I cut him out of the original background, and to further help blend him in with the background I enhanced the lighting in Photoshop and also added some shadows.

Quiet Shades of Striped Gazania.
Here I used Photoshop to create this tinted
black and white photograph.
Generally, photographers that represent their work as fine art have the most leeway as to what techniques they can use. Works of art are expected to be products of the artist’s imagination and most viewers accept the fact that the photograph before them may not exactly be a realistic representation of the scene, or if in fact the scene even really exists in real life.

Although just a photo of a common backyard
bird, this image would rate the approval of
scientists and nature lovers. I used fill flash to
brighten the shadow side of the bird and to
help add a catchlight to the eye. Other than
that and cropping the image in the computer, it
is as captured in camera. I could add something
more attractive than the rope that she is hanging
on, but then that would make this image more of a
fine art interpretation. I may do so in the future,
but for now it is a just a straight photograph.
But photographers that market their work as photojournalism or as nature photography for the purpose of conservation or science, should use more restraint with regard to use of special effects or alterations of any kind. It is a matter of ethics here. How much is too much? Less is always better in this situation. Many have argued over how much is too much, and some people prefer no artistic alternation s be made to such photographs. I feel that minor improvements are acceptable but major alterations should be left to images being presented as art. Many photo buyers and publishers of photojournalism and nature photography feel the same way and insist photographs with little or no manipulation at all.

What about advertising? That’s a subject too big for this post. In the case of advertising it is usually up to the advertiser how retouched an ad is. I’m not sure if there are any legal regulations on advertising photos, there surely doesn’t appear to be any. Extreme skin smoothing, hair cloning, digital weight loss tools, and more all seem to be acceptable in the world of advertising. All that can be said about that is buyer beware. If you are marketing your work to an advertiser, be sure to find out how much manipulation is acceptable before logging in the computer time.

Is this shot a product of digital manipulation? Well, I can't gaurantee that the petals haven't had some spotting to retouch out some flaws without looking at the original. But I can tell you that the colors and the soft bokeh were all captured in camera.

So, are you a photo purist? Or do you take a more liberal view and feel that any techniques should be used to reach the goal of creating an image that expresses the artist’s vision. Or perhaps you are like me, a little of both? And if you haven’t thought about it before, I hope this post gets you thinking about it. There is a lot of good reading online on variations of this subject and some time on an internet search engine will lead you to more writings on this subject. Let me start you off with this great article by Tom Till (yes, again) from Outdoor Photographer magazine:

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