“If It Looks Real, It Is Real”
June 27, 2012
Recently I discovered that I couldn't always tell the difference between one of the best images of a photographer's career and an obviously unrealistic HDR. My mistake made me completely rethink how I evaluate images when I'm asked to judge photo contests, and, by implication, how I view every nature image I see.
Here's what happened. Recently my friend Craig Lewis sent me a link to some images on his website taken at sunrise on Windy Ridge, near Fairplay, Colorado. He explained that the images showed one of the most spectacular sunrises he had ever seen. He also mentioned that he had used HDR Efex Pro to create the images. After visiting his site, I wrote back to him that while he had certainly witnessed a beautiful sunrise, his use of HDR software was so blatant that it detracted from his images.
He wrote back in words that were more telling than he knew: "Your comments are typical of people who weren't there." He included a tif file showing the image in the HDR sequence that was properly exposed for the sky, along with a screenshot showing the minimal adjustments he had made in Lightroom before creating the tif. Craig had used HDR Efex Pro simply to increase the detail in the foreground limber pines, which were nearly black in the single tif.
At first I felt embarrassed. That amazing sky, which looked too good to be true, actually was true. I had mistaken one of the best images of Craig's career for an over-baked HDR. Then I realized something important. Unless we know the intentions (and integrity) of the photographer, we cannot actually form any conclusive opinion about the photographer's images. While this has always been true of photography, the advent of digital has brought the issue into much sharper focus.
This may seem blindingly obvious, but many camera-club competitions seem to ignore this fact. Most clubs divide images into broad categories, often including a "realism" category and a "surrealism" or "special effects" category. At Flatirons Photo Club in Boulder, for example, the competition guidelines state, "The distinction between the categories is one of style, not the technique used. Some images captured in the camera can be in the Special Effects category, and some images that have been extensively post-processed can be in the Realism category." It further defines Realism: "Images in this category exhibit realism in the style of a traditional photograph no matter how it (sic) was created. Some images look realistic even if they have been highly edited. More than one image may be used to create the final image." In other words, "if it looks real, it is real." Or at least it goes into the realism category.
The image's category is all the information the judge gets. So on what basis should I judge the "realistic" photos at Flatirons? Sure, I could judge them on traditional photographic standards: sharpness where it is called for, correct exposure, and composition. Sharpness is quite objective. Exposure is nearly as objective as sharpness, and composition, while certainly more open to different opinions, is still subject to certain generally agreed-upon principles, at least in most situations. Flatirons is a pretty advanced club, however, so nearly all the images submitted easily met those basic standards of photographic quality. What was left was the highly subjective question of impact.
Here is where things got sticky. My mistaken first impression of Craig's beautiful image made me realize that the philosophy "if it looks real, it is real," has a corollary: "If it looks fake, it is fake." Craig had witnessed, and captured, a truly rare and magnificent sunrise. If I had been standing next to him when it happened, I would have been awed and overjoyed. And if my reaction when I first saw his image had been the same as his when he made the photograph, I would have felt privileged to have witnessed such a beautiful sight.
Let's digress briefly into neuroscience. Some recent research suggests the existence of "mirror neurons." If the theory is correct (which is controversial) then the old cliché, "I feel your pain," is literally true. The same neural circuits that are activated when we ourselves experience pain are activated when we witness another person in pain. It's not much of a stretch to guess that the circuits that fire when we ourselves see a beautiful sunrise are the same as those that fire when we see a well-crafted photograph of that sunrise. Yet I hadn't shared the emotion Craig undoubtedly felt, because his image was so unusual that I assumed it was fake. Judging by Craig's comment on my reaction, it seems like most people respond as I did.
I can only conclude that is impossible to accurately and fairly judge a competition at a club like Flatiron ‒ indeed, any nature image at all ‒ without knowing whether an image was "captured" or "constructed." A captured image is one about which the photographer can say, "What you see in my image is what I saw through the lens." All other images are constructed. Unless the judge knows the photographer's approach, all captured images are at a disadvantage. If I assume all photographers are using that approach, then captured images will inevitably fall short of constructed images. I might say, "You've got a great foreground, great background, and great light, but your sky is bald." Well-constructed images, of course, never have boring skies. If I assume that all photographers are using a constructed-image aesthetic, that again puts the captured-image shooters at a disadvantage, since their images will look less perfect.
Putting constructed images in the realism category, without revealing the photographer's intent to the judge, creates another problem: how do photographers know when to quit? If seeing the moon in the sky adds interest, why not add the moon to every shot? Why not add an eagle silhouetted against the moon? If one moon is good, why not add two moons? Has the goal of nature photography become to construct images that are almost but not quite perfect so that they still look real?
One final point: many photographers object to this line of reasoning by saying, "If you can't tell the difference between a captured image and a constructed image, what difference does it make?" It's true that it's possible to deceive most of the people most of the time. But when and if people find out that an image has been constructed when they thought it had been captured, they feel cheated. Why? I think we value landscape photographs because we can vicariously experience the wonder and joy that the photographer felt when he or she was standing there. Once we realize that the photographer never felt the emotion the image seems to be conveying, we feel manipulated. Arguing that there's no difference between a captured image and a constructed image masquerading as real is like saying it's okay to cheat on your wife so long as she believes you when you tell her you've been faithful. I don't know many women who will buy that argument.
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