Compositing and Honesty

Questions regarding the ethics and taste of digitally composited photos have been a hot topic on the landscape photography internet recently. Issues surrounding manipulation of photographs are as old as photography itself, but this most recent round of discussion was jump-started by this piece by Matt Payne entitled “Pretty Little Lies”. The topic received a boost in relevance coming on the heels of the much-hyped SuperBlueBloodMoonEclipse on Janury 31st, a celestial event that apparently inspired a great deal of heavy digital photo manipulation, and which I photographed myself. A largely justified cloud of suspicion now surrounds eclipse photos in particular, and I too have received some comments indicating that some do not trust my image as a fair representation of the real event. This is a good time to discuss both the particular image in question and my view on photo manipulation more generally.

Regarding my eclipse image, things are pretty simple: it is not a composite, it is not any kind of digital blend and it is in fact a very straightforward representation of the view through a telephoto lens. It was shot at 345mm equivalent as the moon was setting behind the Sierra crest 12-1/2 miles away. The moon was just reaching the end of eclipse totality, hence the brighter light on the left, and I believe that atmospheric haze caused glow. The eastern sky was bright enough before dawn to show detail in the mountain. Processing consisted of only very light adjustments to exposure and white balance in Lightroom; quite frankly, my Photoshop skills are nowhere near up to the task of compositing such a scene, even if I were so inclined!

Split Mountain Lunar Eclipse Sequence

Sequential shots of January 2018 lunar eclipse setting behind Split Mountain, Sierra Nevada.

Split Mountain Lunar Eclipse Before and After

Lightroom screen capture of January 2018 eclipse before and after processing.

The same can be said of my lunar eclipse images from December 2011: they are a single-frame telephoto shots of a sinking partly-eclipsed moon with dawn light illuminating the landscape from behind. My images of the May 2012 annular solar eclipse in New Mexico are similar telephoto views, though in one of them I blended in a somewhat brighter exposure for a little better detail in the landscape. The two shots in that blend were taken at identical focal lengths fifteen seconds apart and nothing was moved or otherwise manipulated. The image is an accurate representation of the sun’s position relative to the landscape at the time of capture. It’s partner, shot three minutes later, is again a simple single-frame image with no fancy processing.

Crescent Sun Sequence

May 2012 solar eclipse sequence – the dark frames were shot through a solar filter, others are unfiltered at different shutter speeds. Images 129 and 132 were blended into my final image.

It’s worth pointing out that these were really not very difficult images to capture. I’ve shot enough eclipses now to have an M.O., and it’s pretty simple: Look out for one that will be low in the sky, spend a little time with an astronomical calculator such as The Photographers Ephemeris considering options, and shoot with a telephoto lens from far enough away that both peak and moon/sun will fit in the frame. Hope clouds don’t interfere. That’s really all it takes – most of the ingenuity behind these shots was in knowing the areas well enough to choose landscape features that would work and having the competence not to mess up the shot in the moment. Any competent photographer could do something similar, so it’s beyond me why someone would feel the need to manufacture such a shot via digital compositing.

Why am I making such a point of clarifying the genesis of these images? It’s very  important to me that my photography maintain a close relationship with the world we live in. The world’s an amazing place full of amazing things, and landscape photography is a means for myself and others to know it more deeply. I strongly believe that nature photography derives much of its power from the unspoken assumption that images depict real places and real events that can actually be experienced. I would not Photoshop wildflowers into barren desert or waterfalls into dry gullies, because doing so would distort the relationships between the land, its creatures and condition, and myself. Eclipses and celestial events in particular are rare opportunities to perceive our place in the universe with one’s own senses, and to modify such an event out of shallow aesthetic ambitions diminishes its power and resonance.

I hasten to add that I am absolutely not opposed to digital processing of images. Modern software affords us amazing control over tones, contrasts and colors, and I am an enthusiastic user of some of these tools. Everyone who spends substantial time in nature knows that intense colors, amazing skies and dramatic light exist in the world, and using software to interpret those sights and overcome limitations of the hardware is fair game to me. I strive to keep my interpretations tasteful; viewers are free to judge whether I succeed. But I never intend for my images to deceive.

How do I process my images? Mostly, as mentioned above, I fine-tune tones, contrasts and color balances (I use Adobe Lightroom for most adjustments and do detail work mostly by dodging and burning through luminosity masks in Photoshop). I sometimes digitally remove small or ephemeral distractions, e.g. spots floating on water, twigs or small patches of snow, contrails. I don’t remove large or permanent objects that might give a visitor a different impression of a scene, for example the power poles in this shot of Church Rock in Arizona.

I sometimes find it desirable to focus-blend, that is to merge multiple shots with different areas in focus to achieve an image that is sharp throughout, though I try to avoid the hassle. I sometimes stitch panoramic images. Rarely, as with the solar eclipse above, I will blend multiple exposures to capture a wider range of light, but I’ve often found this technique disappointing, it’s always a pain and I usually find it unnecessary for the subjects and light I prefer to shoot.

What techniques do I not use? I emphatically do not believe in adding anything to a scene that was not there when I was. I will not add or move clouds, sky, celestial objects, trees, flowers, mountains, reflections, etc. I will not digitally paint in light or light beams that weren’t there. I do not digitally stretch or shrink objects in a photo. I do not blend captures from dramatically different times of day. (One gray area technique here that I’m open to but have not actually practiced is the “blue hour blend,” in which a photo at dusk with some light on the landscape is blended with a later image of stars in a darker sky. I may try this at some point, though I would be concerned about keeping the results tasteful and natural.) While I can imagine ethical arguments for the very new techniques of perspective and focal length blending, in which several images shot at different focal lengths or camera positions are blended into a composite (generally to achieve a wide-angle foreground while keeping the background large and impressive), these techniques strikes me as slippery slopes and I would approach them with great caution in my own work, if at all. (Good explanations and illustrations of these techniques can be found here.)

When all is said and done, I simply don’t see the appeal or necessity of heavily manipulated or composited images for my work. In my experience, spending a lot of time in processing is often a sign that something is wrong with an image on a deeper level: maybe the color palette is off, the light just wasn’t right or the composition doesn’t work. After more than a decade of serious photography, this no longer bothers me much when it happens. The world’s a wonderful place, there are plenty of great scenes out there and I’d rather work with an image that flows than one I need to force.

Sadly, I believe many people today are uninterested in landscape photography because they have ceased to believe in its honesty and therefore no longer accept its connection to the world. In a media environment where landscape composites are routinely used to advertise SUVs and depict alien planets, and where highly successful photographers are shamelessly faking moon images, I can’t really blame them. But this loss of trust is truly a loss. It’s a loss for the power of nature images to inspire stewardship of the natural world. It’s a loss for art’s ability to stir a viewer’s emotions. It’s a loss for the possibility of finding solace and connection in our amazing planet for a populace that increasingly lacks direct access to our world of wonders.

I hope always to keep exploring the world and bringing back photos of what I see. My audience will find the inspiring, beautiful or not as they are moved, but I sincerely hope no one will ever find my images deceitful.

Cabezon Eclipse

7 thoughts on “Compositing and Honesty

  1. An important footnote: It’s hard to make a statement regarding one’s own ethics without others whose ethics may differ feeling attacked. So I feel it’s important to add that there are photographers I respect and appreciate who use techniques and approaches that I choose not to employ myself. There are also photographers who use similar techniques to me who I feel push their images too far. The lines between overcoming limitations in one’s equipment, interpreting a scene artistically and producing a digital fantasy can get blurry at times, and I did not write this post to denigrate people who may draw those lines differently than I do. Digital imagery is still a young art form, experimentation with new tools is a valid impulse, and it’s possible that I may someday find a use for techniques that do not interest me now.

    As a generally rule, I find it is unwise to judge harshly acts towards which I have not myself felt tempted. As I said above, I do not generally feel the inclination to push the limits in my photo processing. I am also not in the position of requiring substantial income from my photography. If I were confronted by scenes whose interpretation is beyond the limits of my current gear and techniques, or if I felt the need to be strongly competitive in the photographic market, I might make different choices. So I do not summarily or casually dismiss artists who make those choices now.

    That said, the loss of public trust in nature photography and the potential loss of the genre’s power for conservation concern me deeply. I would urge all artists to consider seriously the impacts of their approach to digital tools on their potential audience, their fellow artists and their subjects, and always strive for integrity in their work, whatever techniques they may employ.

  2. Jackson, this is a really well-written treatise on image manipulation. The whole notion of image manipulation (“How much was that image Photoshopped?”) is certainly hotly debated and I’m happy to read your thoughts on it, although I think we’ve discussed much of this already on our trips together. My goal is the same as yours, and I want nothing more than for people to learn to appreciate these wild places.

  3. Hi Jackson, well written article and agree 100%. I often wonder why landscape photographers who heavily digitally manipulate/create their images even bother going out in nature anyways, since the natural beauty doesn’t seem to ever be satisfactory for them!

    • Thanks, Jack! I’ve been toying with the idea of whether the real divide is between photographers who want to create their images with nature as raw material versus those who prefer to find images and therefore place more emphasis on experiencing or observing than creating. It’s certainly a continuum, not an either/or. But your work, among others, certainly proves that nature needs no augmentation to be epic. Thanks for dropping by!

      • Yeah that’s a good point and interesting way of seeing it — creating vs finding. I’ve been thinking along similar lines too. Another way of saying this could be that much of the differing opinions on this topic might be explained by the differing perspectives of what’s the core of the artistry — is nature/Earth itself the true artist, or is the human the true artist? I know I’m more inclined to believe the former, thus it’s important to me to represent natural scenes faithfully. But for someone who believes that the photographer is the root of the art and nature is just the palette I can understand how they would be far more accepting of all kinds of digital manipulation/creation.

  4. You touched upon the essence with these words: “…and to modify such an event out of shallow aesthetic ambitions diminishes its power and resonance.” So long as the photographer is transparent about what he has done to a composited image, I have no quarrel on the ethical front. But your observation about “shallow aesthetic ambitions” truly encapsulates how I feel about most of these manipulation efforts. The usual defense is equally shallow (“As an artist I have the license to blah blah”). On a slightly different note, I have also seen many a mediocre image converted to black-and-white in a desperate attempt to infuse it with virtue where there was none to begin with.

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