A recent conversation with my mom left me feeling a bit dejected. She had been looking through my new website and she complimented me on all the nice photos, but then she asked, “Are all those photos for real?” Yikes! One of my biggest fans was calling me out! Are your photos real, or were they manufactured in Photoshop?
It’s a legitimate question, though, and the fact that my own mother was curious enough to ask suggests that a lot of other people must wonder the same. I wasn’t offended, but I was definitely interested in learning what specific attributes led her to question the authenticity of my images. “The colors,” she replied.
After some clarification, my mom explained that she simply hasn’t witnessed such spectacular colors or light in real life. That’s what left me feeling slightly sad and dejected. As a nature photographer, I am frequently outdoors during the golden hour – that magical period of the day when the sun is low and the landscape is bathed in rich, gold light. Most everyone has witnessed a stunning sunrise or sunset, but if you’re standing on your front porch, or driving in your car, are you able to fully appreciate the fantastic light and color as it dances across the Earth?
Nature photographers seek these moments out, and with some practice and patience (and some luck) we hopefully find ourselves immersed in a beautiful landscape, camera in hand. Indeed, these moments do happen, and the colors are very real. These are the moments that inspired me to become a photographer, in the first place.
But, as photography moves from film to digital, and the use of computer processing (the “digital darkroom”) becomes ubiquitous, people who haven’t witnessed these moments firsthand might legitimately question the authenticity of a photograph. That’s fair.
Rather than rehash the tired debate over the ethics of digital processing, or the pros and cons of using Photoshop, I want to take this opportunity to examine some of the most special moments I have experienced as a photographer; these are moments and images that might lead some to conclude that I am a photoshopper (whatever that means). It saddens me to think that these images, which represent very real, and often breathtaking moments in my life, might be viewed as fake or disingenuous.
A Magical Sunrise
Without a doubt, the image above represents a sunrise that I will remember for the rest of my life. I was very fortunate to have caught this brief moment at all, since I was lying in my tent, half asleep, as it began to unfold. I have witnessed light like this only a handful of times in my life, and on this morning I was lucky enough to be in Zion National Park.
As sunlight travels through the atmosphere to reach our eyes, it is scattered by all manner of compounds. Gases like nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Particulates in the air such as dust and smoke and pollen. Even the rising heat from the surface of the Earth. When the sun is low on the horizon, the light we see has traveled through a thicker atmosphere, and is scattered in such a way that we see the reddish-orange part of the spectrum more so than the blue. This casts a beautiful light across the landscape, and it’s the key to an especially romantic sunset.
What happens when you combine this orange sunrise light with the clearing skies that follow a thunderstorm, a smoky forest fire hundreds of miles away, and red sandstone cliffs that rise thousands of feet into the air? You get the glowing, almost surreal image you see above. Indeed, this was a magical moment and a fantastic light show that few people will witness firsthand.
Approximately 75 seconds after I shot the first image, notice how the light has changed. Dramatically! The clouds have darkened and have lost their magenta cast, the lower portion of the cliff is in dark shadow, and the glow on the upper cliff has grown even more intense. This is a copy of the RAW image file, straight from the camera with no adjustment to color, saturation or contrast. The white balance is the same as in the previous picture. It’s almost too colorful and saturated!
A few minutes later, and the light is distinctly softer and more diffuse. The sky has lost any trace of color, and only a hint of orange glow remains. Again, this is the RAW file. The scene is pretty, without a doubt, but it has lost its magic.
The last image I shot before packing up my tripod and heading back to bed. Twelve minutes have elapsed since I made the first photograph, and the difference is striking. No amount of Photoshop wizardry is going to transform this photo into a winner. Yet, it’s a virtually identical composition, using the same camera, lens and settings, and taken just minutes after the first image. Remarkable.
This series of photographs illustrates the drastic change that can come over the landscape in a very short period of time. Pressing the shutter release NOW or waiting until THEN can have an enormous impact on the final image. I usually press the release now, then, and as much as possible in-between to increase my odds of getting the shot! On most mornings, sunrise light will peak with color for several seconds or for as long as a couple of minutes, but nowhere near as intensely as in the example above.
There is a reason why a nature photographer will arrive at her location well before the crack of dawn, and is so meticulous in her planning and prep. It’s so that she will be ready to capture a fleeting, ephemeral moment like this. Sadly, these moments are few and far between. I suppose this is what makes them so special.
An Amazing Sunset
This next series of photographs is much like the first, except that we’re dealing with an amazing sunset on the other side of the planet. I shot these images at Railay Beach, Thailand in 2007. As the sun sets, the sky progresses through a similar range of colors, just like the Zion sunrise. The first two images are straight RAW files with no adjustment to saturation or contrast.
If you’ve got a keen eye, you’ll notice that I adjusted my composition to exclude the boat that is seen floating near the left side of the first picture. You’ll also see a few dust spots in the first two pictures, which I haven’t bothered to clone out. Notice what a stunning difference there is between the first and last pictures, taken only three minutes apart!
The difference between the last two photos is subtle, but you’ll notice that as the color in the sky peaks, the surface of the ocean reflects a much more intense orange-pink. The smooth sheet of receding water helps to accentuate this effect, by reflecting more light during the last exposure. The color of the sky also changes, just as it did in the Zion images.
The last image has been photoshopped, however. I would prefer the term processed or edited, which carries a less negative connotation. I have adjusted the color, contrast, exposure, and saturation in the final image. As you can see, the difference is subtle; I haven’t concocted colors or pasted in clouds. Without looking at the last two images side by side, you would be hard pressed to notice a difference.
Aside from the beautiful sunset, this particular night stands out in my memory because I was without a headlamp, and the rising tide forced me to scramble, wade and swim over a rocky headland to get back to my hotel on the other side of Railay Beach. Took a couple of hours, as I recall.
To be fair, there are some images in my portfolio where you would most definitely notice a striking difference between the RAW file and the final, processed image. Still, I hope that even those images still appear realistic.
My goal, as a photographic artist, is to capture and create images that might spark an emotional reaction in the viewer. To be effective and compelling, I believe my images must appear natural, honest, and within the realm of reality. This does not, in my opinion, exclude the use of Photoshop or any other digital technology, so long as these techniques help me to reach my goals. While I have profound respect for other artists whose photography tests the boundary between reality and fantasy, it is not my personal style (though I acknowledge I am influenced by such amazing work).
In my next post, I will examine several images and techniques that some might say are outside the acceptable range of “realistic” nature photography. Just for fun, I’ll leave you with two final images. One is virtually unedited and straight out of the camera, with relatively little processing in Photoshop. The other is one of the most manipulated images in my portfolio. See if you can guess which is the more processed of the two.