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.

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