Guest Columnist – Jay Goodrich
Nature Photography and Photoshop – How Far is Too Far?
There are two schools of thought here. One is that limiting the use of Photoshop in nature photography restricts our creativity as photographers. The other is that the over-use of Photoshop compromises the integrity of nature photography. So who’s right?
When someone looks at an astounding photograph, the first question they often ask is, “Is this real?” What is this need we feel to label an image real or not real, true or not true, fabrication or reality? It’s one thing if the purpose of the image is documentation. Reality is important in photojournalism, for example, or to portray the shrinking of a glacier. But what if the purpose of the image is simply to capture beauty, or to startle the viewer? What then does it matter if the artist altered the original photo? Does it look less beautiful hanging on the wall, or less striking on the cover of the magazine?
For some reason, we as viewers often feel “cheated” if we find that a photo has been altered, as if the photographer somehow is lying to us. But if we look at nature photography as simply another art form, then isn’t post-processing photos in Photoshop simply another medium in that art? How do we determine how much alteration is acceptable, and when the artist has gone too far?
How do we draw the line between creative license and misrepresentation? There are so many people out there imposing “the rules” of image making, that drawing the line can become convoluted and quite frankly impossible. Who are these rule makers and what gives them the right to create ideals such as “no HDR”, “no over-saturation”, “it needs to happen in camera”, “no merging of two or more separate subjects”? People have been making rules since the dawn of photography. In the film era, the discussions were regarding exposure, composition, film type, and the like. These rules existed because if you did not expose correctly, there weren’t any images to view. In present day it seems as if people are rule making as a way to control creativity. And why would we want to limit ourselves in that way?
There isn’t a photographer, painter, architect, musician, or otherwise successful creative out there who hasn’t bent or flat-out broken the rules in his or her career. Have you ever taken a flat, colorless sunset image and pushed your white balance to 9000 degrees Kelvin to yield a perfect orange glow from nothing? Or taken a backlit, rim-lit shot and pushed the sliders to the far right with a Levels Adjustment Layer in Photoshop? Think these processes go beyond the standard accepted rules of how far is too far? Miguel Lasa of Spain went beyond when he used the aforementioned Levels technique to take the prize in the Creative Visions division of the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for 2008.
We are in an ever-changing photographic world now. Digital cameras become more powerful with each new generation, and the same holds true of our software. Imagine what Photoshop CS10 will be able to do. So how far is truly too far? That is the question. Guy Tal said it best in one of his recent blog postings:
Certainly any freedom can be abused, but this is no reason to demonize the technology that enables it. This is especially true for creative tools. To put it simply, those who use the tools for the sake of using them will always produce gimmicks and clichés. This is true of any art at any period in time. Those who see such gimmicks and blame the tools are not much better, though. Ultimately the artist is responsible for the art. If the result fails – the artist failed; not the tools.
I believe that it is up to you to decide how far is too far. Your failures will be your own, as will be your successes. Create to discover your vision, and utilize “the rules” as guidelines, but also as a springboard to take your work beyond the rules. Bend them and break them every time you click the shutter and post process those images in Photoshop. Throughout history, success has always been achieved by those who listened to everybody else, and then said, “What the hell, I’m doing it my way.”
The two images that I have included here are near copies. One has star trails and the other does not. I know what you are already thinking, “Which one is the original?” Did I pull the stars out of the original image with the Spot Healing Brush Tool to create the second image? Or did I adjust my light levels giving the star trail image the alpenglow of an amazing sunset? Good question. My question to you is, does it really matter?