It looked perfect through the lens. I had the shot all lined up: blue mountain in the background, a rocky trail winding through the middle, and wildflowers in the foreground that made up two-thirds of the composition. I rotated the polarizing filter just enough so that I had a bright blue sky. Click.
No sooner had I snapped the shutter release than a fellow eco-tourist standing at my elbow leaned in and remarked, “I could take great photos, too, if I had the fancy camera you do and knew how to fix them in the computer.”
I smiled and said nothing, but the comment rankled me. Cropping a photo and lightening or darkening areas, after all, are nothing more than techniques that generations of earlier photographers have used for years in the darkroom.
But that fellow did have a point. Some of the nature photos you see today in outdoor magazines or framed and for sale in stores depict images that don’t exist in the real world. Some are so doctored, in fact, that a disclaimer of “photo illustration” has to be added for purposes of disclosure.
The “doctor” is usually in …
Many of the most iconic nature shots popular today are composites. How probable is it, for example, to capture that perfect moment of a wild wolf howling in front of a moon so big that it would have to be hurtling toward the Earth to make such an image even remotely possible? Or what are the chances that a photographer could catch a polar bear standing in the perfect spot beneath an incredible array of northern lights? Those types of photos are almost always the result of merging two or more separate shots.
Is that photo, then, any less of a “nature shot” than one you’d take, say, of a tree growing in your backyard, without any digital alterations made after you depressed the shutter? Would you be more likely to purchase such an untouched shot, or would you go for the Great White Bear pondering the aurora borealis?
… and has been for a long time
Manipulating scenes for the camera and the images the camera captures is nothing new.
As far back as the 1860s, photographer Matthew B. Brady, whose name is almost synonymous with Civil War photography (although he was often only the “project manager”), was rearranging carrion and debris on battlefields for more dramatic impact.
Then there’s the infamous 1994 Time magazine incident, when the publication darkened O. J. Simpson’s skin to make him look more like a criminal.
I’m an amateur photographer, so my “doctoring” is usually minimal, limited to taking out a telephone pole here or removing a bit of jacket sleeve there that just happened to move into the corner of the frame before I quickly snapped.
Do even these manipulations “ruin” a nature shot? Should we be interested only in pure documentation of what’s out there? Or should we, rather, be more interested in creating the image of what we see out there, much as a nonfiction writer uses his or her own style and choice of words to convey an emotion — to make you feel what he or she does about the “facts”?
Drawing the lines — or taking them out
In truth, almost all good photographers create a “vision” for every photo they take. Whether before taking the shot (moving a leaf for a better composition) or after clicking (lightening the shadows or changing a horizontal format to a vertical one), they are all manipulations.
Are these tweaks a threat to the integrity of “purist” documentary photographers, who don’t believe in altering anything? Is the goal in nature photography to capture an unadulterated moment, or to create an image? And, how do you answer the question, “Is your photo real?”