This blog post is part of Darwin’s 50 at 50 project which chronicles the stories behind the making of 50 of Darwin’s favorite images after hitting the milestone of 50 years old.
The Making of the Image
One of my favorite images I have taken over the years is the photo of a great gray owl and a tree swallow together on a fence. Although I really like this image, once viewers know the backstory of its creation the image loses its power. Read on to see if your initial impression changes once you know how the image was made.
When I was living in Water Valley, Alberta I would take Brando (our dog) in the car and go drive to a quiet country road where the two of us would go for a jog. I was on my way to my favorite jogging road when I saw this owl sitting on a fence post. I stopped the car and watched it for a few minutes; it did not seem disturbed by my presence. I did not have a camera with me so I turned around and drove back home to get a camera and a 300mm lens. When I returned 15 minutes later the owl was still there. I got out of the car, sat on the edge of the ditch and photographed the owl for nearly one hour!
At one point a tree swallow landed on the barbed wire a few feet away from the owl. The owl looked down at the tree swallow. With a 300mm lens I could not get both the swallow and the owl in the frame at the same time. If I had a 70-200mm lens I could have gotten both in the frame together. I quickly photographed the owl staring down at the swallow and then swung the camera to the left and captured a frame of the tree swallow. Later in Photoshop I merged the two images into the one image you see here.
Is this an accurate representation of what I saw? No, of course not… the two birds were not that close together (they were probably twice the distance apart in real life). For me, the image records a very cool moment I experienced in nature and it’s my interpretation of that moment. For most viewers they won’t have the same emotional connection to the moment and so this image just becomes a faked nature photo. Fair enough.
But How Far is Too Far?
Moving birds around in a photo or adding or removing elements like a sky or a moon is often deemed too far to be ‘nature photography’ by most people. But what about the common and seemingly acceptable practice of altering tone and colour in a photograph? Samantha asked me this question after looking at some of my processed landscape photos. She pointed out that the finished images were fairly removed from how the scene looked to our eye. The images are ‘interpretations’ of nature but, as Sam suggested, there is a tendency when looking at nature photos to believe that they are accurate representations of a scene…similar to what the human eye would perceive.
Which got us both thinking – when an image has distinctly altered tones and colours from the ‘real’ scene is that not just as ‘false’ as adding or removing elements from a photo? If we were to guess, we would suppose that many photographers probably will be OK with manipulating tone and colour but not content. After all we have accepted the alteration of tone in photography for a very long time. For example, Ansel Adams took pains in shooting, developing and processing his images with selectively altered tones to direct the viewer’s attention to various parts of the scene. His images are considered ‘realistic’ although they are highly manipulated black-n-white images and look nothing like the reality we see with our eyes.
Most of us shoot digital in raw format and then bring our photographs into Lightroom, Aperture or Photoshop and ‘develop’ them. We easily do as much work or more with alteration of tone as Ansel did in the darkroom. But perhaps one thing that is new over the darkroom tradition is the ease with which we manipulate colour. And manipulate colour we do! Just check out landscape photography on the internet; things look better than real life! Changing the hues, the luminance and saturation in our photos is super easy with image software. Often we will selectively alter some colours in parts of the scene and not in others. Many images we see of the Rockies or of Iceland don’t look anything like they do to our eye – and we’ve seen these places in person. The images on the internet are fantastical or romanticized versions of the place and not a ‘reality’ as our eye sees things – nature images are interpretations, plain and simple.
And why should there be anything wrong with this? Isn’t it up to the photographer to express their artistic goals and present their work to the viewer, who then decides if they appreciate the work for itself? Why do many of us believe a photograph of nature is documentary?
So back to that owl and swallow…the tones and colours are accurate, and the subject matter (the owl looking at the swallow) is real, but the content is forced to fit into the frame. In the photo above, the content is accurate but the tones and colour have been manipulated. Is one more acceptable than the other? We guess most photographers will feel fine with manipulated tone and colour but not with manipulated content (although most photographers we know have no problem cloning out sticks, branches, bright rocks and other distractions from their photos).
Would it be less acceptable if the swallow wasn’t even in the same scene, having been photographed at a different time, and the owl was looking at something else? Is altering colour and tone for interpretation purposes more acceptable than adding or subtracting elements from a scene? Or are both equivalent sins? Has photography moved from documentation firmly into interpretation – and is it time to not take as a literal truth every photo we see? How far is too far… what do you think?