Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The Message of Nature and Photographers

In my last blog entry, I outlined my views on reality in photography, but why is it so important to portray reality in nature photography? You can argue about photography only showing what the photographer wants the viewer to see, but that is slightly different to manipulating the image as seen. Sometimes manipulating the viewer is wrong, but sometimes it is needed to put a message across, it's no different than a newspaper article putting a slant on a story. Photography is also telling a story, if you are making a documentary point, then it requires different ethics to an image that is simply an artistic creation. For example, near where I live, I could photograph an idyllic rural scene, with a country pub next to the canal. This would paint a picture of a quiet drink next to the canal, but in reality, right above my head would be the M5. If I was simply making an artistic photograph, there would be nothing wrong in this, but if I was photographing the pub for an estate agent and then sold that quiet scene, it would be unethical. The same would be true if I was trying to portray an animal in a similar manner. The key is to declare any concepts and manipulation.
If we as photographers portray a false impression, then it is harder for the public to trust what we tell them. It is already difficult, with people having the assumption that anything can be done (or rescued) with Photoshop and other editing software. But again, why is it so important? Does it really matter what people think? It depends on the purpose, for an artistic creation, it doesn't matter at all, but if we want to inform the public of a particular problem, then they need to trust and believe in what we are saying. For example, a few weeks ago, I came across an article (from last year I think), calling for the culling of otters, as they are decimating the stocks in fisheries. It's only 15 years, since we came very close to losing the otter entirely in England and Wales, yet already there are calls for controlling numbers. In 2003, it was estimated that there were around 4,000 otters in the country, which is barely enough to maintain a healthy population, let alone increase numbers. Further, more recent evidence comes from here in Somerset. The 2008 annual survey for the county estimates around 65 otters FOR THE WHOLE COUNTY, with a significant proportion of these otters on Exmoor, which isn't considered to be a highly productive area, due to low prey density. If you add to that, the death rate was high at 27 for part of the year (with a high proportion being cubs) and it starts looking more and more bleak. The report for the survey (written by James Williams) suggests that the known births, assuming survival, is only enough to maintain the population and not expand it. Many of these deaths were road deaths, but as part of a study, post mortem investigations were carried out, which showed a high level of a bile fluke, caught from imported oriental fish, another threat to health and survival. The dangers from pollution aren't averted either. Just last month, the South Drain that runs through the nature reserves of Ham Wall, Shapwick Heath and Catcott Heath was contaminated from an industrial plant in Glastonbury. Several dead fish were found as a direct result, plus a dead swan was found, but the cause of death will remain unknown, as there seems to be a reluctance to investigate properly. Considering the effects of pollution and the resulting decline in the otter population since the 1960's, this makes alarming reading. Just because the toxins implicated in the decline are now banned, doesn't mean that an environmental catastrophe can't be caused by a new agent. If pollution can happen in a nature reserve, without too much noise being made, what hope is there in the countryside at large? You only have to look at the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, which quite frankly, is in an appalling state, yet it is home to otters. Gross pollution with everday waste, such as bottles, cans and even shopping trolleys, is obvious, but there are also signs of chemical pollutants, judging by some of the scum.
The Somerset Levels, with all their waterways represent an important area for otters and their survival, but they are also prone to pollution from the runoff of agricultural pollutants, the source of the original toxins that caused all the problems up until the banning in the early 1980's.
The public needs to heed the messages hidden within the recent and past events, but for nature photographers to help get that message across, they have to be trustworthy, otherwise it will do more harm than good.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Reality of Photography

In recent months, there has been much debate on about whether or not nature photography should portray reality. It reached a head, following the disqualification of "The Story Book Wolf" from the 2009 Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, after many discussions over its authenticity as a "true" wildlife image. The accusation was, that the wolf was a captive wolf, as it closely resembled one such wolf that was for hire. The evidence centred around the resemblance and the likelihood of a wild wolf behaving in the manner portrayed in the photograph. Ultimately, it is only the photographer and perhaps others associated with the photographer, who knows the truth behind the accusations, but it has sparked a more widespread debate.
Recently, I received a comment on one of my photographs that had been uploaded to a stock photography site, stating that it was nicely taken, but didn't look real due to the "Photoshopping". To say I was confused and irritated was putting it mildly, as I aim for reality in most of my photos and don't have the patience for lengthy processing. Also, the photo in question had, had a simple curves adjustment to increase the contrast and nothing else.

After contacting the photographer who made the comment, I was able to ascertain, that he had looked at the EXIF data and assumed that it had been "Photoshopped", simply because I had edited it in Photoshop, so basically, even if I hadn't done any editing and had simply converted to a JPEG, he would have accused me of "Photoshopping". I think this is a sad reflection on how photography is now viewed and how people believe that anything is possible (including getting a good photo from a bad one) and that it doesn't portray what was seen. The reality is, that with few exceptions, you can't rescue a bad photo and probably most photographs are still a reflection of reality or at least the photographer's reflection of reality.
I find this attitude frustrating, but at the same time, I understand how it has happened. HDR photography has become widespread and in my opinion is overused, to the extent, that it is no longer original. In fact, there is a danger, that photographers are becoming clones, simply copying what has come before them, because it's the vogue, instead of searching for their own style. Don't get me wrong, I have used HDR, it is a useful tool when other techniques aren't possible, either because of the unavailability of graduated filters or because the terrain prevents their use. However, that is all it is, another technique to achieve the look you are aiming for and I usually use it to portray the reality, as closely as I saw it at the time.

That's not to say I haven't pushed the technique a bit further though. At times, I do experiment with post processing work, sometimes with the Orton Effect, sometimes with some infra-red and sometimes with HDR, but it's been a long itme since I did use HDR, really not since I acquired my reverse ND grad filter. Until then, it was the only tool I had to photograph sunsets effectively.

So in summary, there is a place for manipulated nature photographs, but only if used sparingly for an effect and I feel it should be declared where it isn't obvious. Certainly integrity should not be compromised when an image is used for a contest, otherwise the photographer and perhaps photography as a whole loses its credibility. The danger isn't so much in the act, but in the belief that anything is possible, the assumptions that have become widespread, the jumping on the bandwagon that has occured and the loss of creativity and ability to think for yourself as a result. To a large degree HDR has become popular because it gives the impression of a painting, which in some ways makes it fair game for the surreal and artistic licence. I feel that for the good of photography as an art form and for its continued evolution, editors, both of websites and of paper publications, must offer a more balanced viewpoint and selection of techniques. It's far too easy to feature HDR, just because of the impact, but if realism is shunned, then photography stagnates and doesn't develop.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Tigers: A Celebration of Life

I mentioned in my last blog entry, that I attended Focus on Imaging on Tuesday. One of the "events" at the exhibition was the pre-release of Tigers: A Celebration of Life, a book by Andy Rouse. Andy is one of the better known wildlife photographers in the UK and was commended in the 2009 Veolia Wildlife Phtographer of the Year with his image of two tigers fighting, with claws unsheathed.
The book itself is the culmination of a project and his love of tigers, stretching back to his early years. It is full of beautifully constructed images of tigers, from cubs to full grown adults. Unlike some photographers, he hasn't just gone for the close-up portrait shots, you so often see, but he has also gone for some wide-angle shots, showing the tigers in relation to their environment. If you're looking for photographs of tigers that portray the essence of the tiger, then this book is for you, but if you're looking for an in depth scientific study, then perhaps you'd be better off looking elsewhere. That said, there are also some conservation notes from Sarah Christie, outlining the plight of the tiger. Andy also has some advice on visiting reserves and looking for places to stay that help the local community and the environment. With just 4,500 tigers left in the wild, they are just as endangered now, as when I was a child, when I avidly read what I could. Tigers capture the imagination, like so few other animals can. I have a fascination with all big cats and while many animals come close to the same fascination for me as tigers, there is only one that exceeds it. As you might have guessed, it is an equally endangered animal and one with more mystery, it is the snow leopard.
For anyone interested in the book it can be purchased as a standard edition or a limited edition, complete with limited edition print from the 12th March 2010.

ARWP Store

More of his work can be viewed at his website.

Andy Rouse

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Focus on Imaging 2010

I spent most of the day today at the Focus on Imaging exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham, UK. It's always interesting to see what's going on and to try out equipment first hand. I attended on the Sunday last year and you could barely move. It was busy when I arrived at lunchtime, but it was quite a bit quieter in the afternoon. This made it much easier to try things and to talk to people.
Last year, I didn't buy anything, but I spent some money this year on some pretty good deals, including a very good price on Sandisk Extreme compact flash cards, cheaper than I've seen anywhere online at the Camerworld stand. I also managed to find a refurbished macro ring flash, which I've been looking for, for a while, just waiting for the right price. I didn't succumb ot the temptation of a 5D Mk II though, although it was a close call until I bought the flash. To top off a successful day, I found some more options for a heavier duty tripod, that I can use with my 300mm f/2.8 lens. Up until now, I thought I'd have to get a Gitzo tripod, which aren't cheap, but it turns out, that Giotto also make mor ethan one that also cope with the weight. All in all, a successful and interesting day, with a critique at the Futurenet stand that went well.