50 at 50 – Interpretative Nature Photography – How Far is too Far?

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.

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

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.

©Darwin Wiggett -  The scene as captured by the camera with fairly accurate colours as I remember them.

©Darwin Wiggett – The scene as captured by the camera with fairly accurate colours as I remember them.

©Darwin Wiggett - The processed image with altered tones and colours. The final result looks way better than the actual scene looked to my eye! Is this ‘interpretation’ of nature more or less valid than the owl photograph above which has little alteration of tone and colour but has alteration of content?

©Darwin Wiggett – The processed image with altered tones and colours. The final result looks way better than the actual scene looked to my eye! Is this ‘interpretation’ of nature more or less valid than the owl photograph above which has little alteration of tone and colour but has alteration of content?

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?

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

47 Comments

  1. jerry grasso
    November 19, 2013

    If what we are doing is considered by us to be art, then we have the right to express our artistic vision. That said, if the audience presentation context is packaged as reality, i.e. documenting a scene as artistic reality, then the audience has been deceived.

    In general, artistic license is used in many other mediums (poetry, painting, etc…) and is considered acceptable. I feel that it is up to the viewer to decide if the image’s final artistic impression is more or less diminished by the maker’s technical application.

    Reply
    • Lou Cragin
      November 27, 2013

      I started to read the replays to the question you raised above and got through the first comment. I couldn’t agree more or say it better than Mr. Grasso did. So I’m done.

  2. Olivier Du Tré
    November 19, 2013

    Great post. Exactly what I struggled with when I did colour photography. I was never really good at it. But photography is not about capturing reality. It’s about interpretation like you said. I find colour photography challenging for that aspect. People look at colour photos and they instantly believe what they see without thinking about it. I strongly believe that b&w photos work around that problem because the viewer had to interpret the scene for him/herself. They need to use their own imagination to understand a photograph. A viewer looks AT a colour photo and INTO a B&W photo as the famous saying goes.
    Great post!!!

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      November 19, 2013

      I agree; I think colour has a big part to play here. Which is also why when photographers alter a hue substantially, I bet the perception of deception would go up. Less so with tone, because we don’t consciously see tone like we do colour. Seeing tone requires training.

  3. Stephen DesRoches
    November 19, 2013

    The difference is expectations and possibly in the viewers ability to recreate it. If you were there instead with a blank canvas and a set of paint brushes, this interpretation would be perfectly acceptable. I see no difference if you use a camera instead. We’re already manipulating the scene by compressing large landscapes on a flat canvas at extreme perspectives. Is a long exposure of water or the night sky any different?

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      November 19, 2013

      Good point Stephen. The camera can see a wider range of shutter speeds than the human eye…obviously it is not a ‘human reality’ to see a long exposure of clouds, water, or star trails, but I wonder if people still perceive it as ‘real’ somehow.

    • Stephen DesRoches
      November 19, 2013

      Although the more I think about this, the more I might have double standards. I have certain expectations when I pick up an issue of National Geographic.

  4. Robert van Essen
    November 19, 2013

    I guess one can compare photographs with paintings.Paintings are the creations by a person who looks at a scene and mixes colors to makes it look as close as possible the real view but many are enhanched to a point where the colors are too much over done.Things are added to paintings that are really not there,such as a fence,tree or buildings.I love the above shot and would never known it was two shots merged into one.This was very tastily done and it made for a wonderful scene.Nothing wrong with this as it reflects the real experience of the photographer as it unfolded before him.I am a birder and nature photographer but as a hobby and to go out and appreciate what I see and experience in the outdoors.The only things I normally adjust are,shadows , highlights and sharpening,yes there are some were I removed a twig or so but in general I put my shots on Flickr for everyone to enjoy as I shoot them.So enjoy the professional’s creations,they spend countless hours to get their shots/paintings ,not to mention money.They deserve our appreciation.

    Reply
  5. Wayne Nelson
    November 19, 2013

    As a photographer myself there are times when I am more interested in the photography than the subject. Most people I know, photographers or not, care more about the subject than the photographer. It is a let down when they (sometimes me too) find out the image is a creation of what might have been photographed, instead of a true event. That includes light on the land and other aspects of imagery that are manipulated daily.

    My biggest issue personally, is that I see the same manipulations from the same photographers and it gets to be a bit boring.

    This is a great, thoughtful, article and good for you for using your own imagery as the focal point.

    Reply
  6. Chuck Klingsporn
    November 19, 2013

    Darwin

    I think your assessment about how the general public perceives nature photographs is exactly right. ‘They’ expect a photo to be real but have come to accept and expect the saturated images on the internet to be the definition of real. I also suspect you are right about how most landscape photographers would feel about your two examples. We pretty much all saturate and tone images but don’t yet approve of additions/subtractions; that too is evolving. Great post Thanks for raising the subject.

    Reply
  7. Michael Uyyek
    November 19, 2013

    In my opinion, all photographers are artists, even journalists. The very act of taking a photo noticeably alters a scene, because the photographer has chosen the angle, the lens, the camera settings and the right moment to click the shutter, giving you only a glimpse of a specific point in time, and only a part of the overall scene that he or she saw at that time. The image is then distorted as it passes through the lens, projecting a 3-D scene that you personally see stereoscopically onto a 2-D surface. So any editorial changes you do in your darkroom are simply further artistic choices made to “improve” upon an image that already departs from the reality of the actual scene.

    Understanding that, someone who identifies as a photographer (versus photographic or digital artist) should make some effort to remain faithful to the original material. The owl and the swallow were actually present, and were indeed amazingly close to one another, so the scene was truly amazing, but there was no way to document it powerfully without moving one closer in post. You didn’t introduce an element that wasn’t there (extra trees, a unicorn or Robert Downey Jr.) The landscape elements in your other example were likewise present at the time you took the photo, but you simply adjusted the color to give the viewer the same sense of awe and wonder that you had when you took it, because you understand (and your public implicitly accepts) that the straight, unaltered image doesn’t have the same impact as being there to witness it in person.

    I simply state that yes, I alter my photos to make color, exposure, framing, selective focus and lighting, and content improvements in order to make a more powerful image (at least to my eye). I do indeed shop out telephone poles and sticks, because they detract from my photo and I COULD have removed them physically if I wanted to either endanger myself or risk losing the animal I’m shooting by stomping down the hill to snap some badly-licated twigs or breaking the law by chopping down the tree it telephone pole that’s in my way. The scene that I photographed obviously existed before I got there, but MY IMAGE OF IT did not — I have created a work of photographic art that strikingly resembles the real scene, but you are not likely to see it quite that way if you went there yourself, unless you are fortunate enough to get there on the exact same day of the year, at the same time of day, under exactly the same weather conditions. You are showing people something beautiful that you saw that they are unlikely to ever see themselves (because if an owl sitting next to a swallow were an every day occurrence, you might not have bothered photographing it, right?) How you choose to present that is tout choice as an artist — the exact same image rendered as a watercolor (very patient birds) wouldn’t get the same complaints about accuracy because people accept it as art – photography looks enough like reality that people think of it differently, though it is only anotheredium to express the artist’s/photographer’s vision.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 19, 2013

      This statement of yours really resonates with Samantha and me because some people claim to be photographers but in truth are digital artists:

      “Understanding that, someone who identifies as a photographer (versus photographic or digital artist) should make some effort to remain faithful to the original material.”

      Many self proclaimed ‘photographers’ are not at all faithful to the scene – maybe they just need to redefine themselves as ‘digital visual artists” and all will be right with the world… I am thinking I may have to redefine who I am as an artist. When I shot with slide film I was a photographer, but with digital I am closer to digital artist.

  8. Lyle Krahn
    November 19, 2013

    Rather than starting with a photo, it’s probably better to start with the approach to photography.

    I think whatever artistic or creative choices you make as a photographer, you should own them and push to the max. But … you should also be crystal clear with your audience about what you are doing. The problems arise when there is a disconnect between the understanding of the audience and the photographer.

    For the photographers who say none of their photos reflect reality, it’s easy. For others who make their photos appear realistic but substantially change colours or content, it’s more challenging. If those photographers are reluctant to disclose their approach, then they will likely run into credibility problems at some point.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 19, 2013

      Last paragraph really sums it up well!

  9. Gary Crabbe / Enlightened Images
    November 19, 2013

    Great post, Darwin.

    My line is “everything there was in front of the camera, in the frame, at the time it was shot.” Love your moment, and the re-construction of it works well, but it’s definitely constructed. As for color, we all know the knobs now go to 11, but if it looks realistic, if even ‘interpreted’, I’m still OK there. Once those colors go past 10 into the unbelievable range, that to is constructed. As for removal, I may personally opt to remove a small bright leaf, rock, or blade of grass if it obviously catches too much attention, or perhaps a tiny piece of a small branch sticking into the edge of a frame that can’t be cropped out. I use what I call the ‘de-minimus’ standard, like attorneys use with copyright. But I won’t clone out powerlines or whole trees or a fence.

    Btw, congrats on 50. I turn next year. Any good ideas on ways to celebrate?

    Cheers & as always, keep up the awesomely great work!
    – Gary.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 19, 2013

      50 shots of scotch was not a good idea even if at the time it seemed fun!

    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      November 19, 2013

      It was the next day when the ‘reality’ of the shot(s) was appreciated!!

  10. G Dan Mitchell
    November 19, 2013

    The whole issue of how far is too far is a tricky one, and much more complex than many people understand.

    A photograph is not an objective recording of reality, for all of the reasons that you doubtless already understand. I like to say, “All photographs lie.” It is literally impossible for a photograph to objectively recreate the literal experience of the subject, again for too many reasons to enumerate here. (Ask me, though, and I’ll give it a shot!)

    What we probably actually hope for in a photograph, at least in the sorts of photographs that we are probably thinking about here includes the communication of the subjective response to the subject that the photographer had, along with – quite bluntly – and image that speaks to us effectively using the tools of visual language. These things essentially require that the photograph be an interpretation (not a recreation) of the subject and that it reflects all sorts of subjective choices made by the photographer – focal length, time of day, composition and crop, selection of the instant of exposure, how dynamic range is handled, choices to use filters, use of TS lenses, selection of printing paper, color balance, and much more.

    Does this mean that anything goes? Well, yes. And no. I think it is a slippery slope to try to declare that any particular technique or outcome is automatically bad (or good) by its very nature. We see that in some comments about HDR or cloning or you name it. But at the same time, we (mostly) are quite ready to accept monochromatic renditions of scenes – which are as far from the real as just about anything else.

    One of the things that does, I think, perhaps help us find some personal boundaries in this regard is simply the question of integrity and honesty. If our art is not honest or pretends to represent or be something it is not, we have a problem – since our art is an expression of who we are. (A good photograph often tells us more about the photographer than about the subject.) Whether our claim to represent an authentic vision of things is implicit or explicit, if we don’t follow through on that we risk cheapening our work and appearing to be inauthentic. A boundary that works for me is to ask myself: “Would I be comfortable explaining exactly what I did if someone asked? Or would revealing this truth be embarrassing to me?” If I’m doing something that I would be embarrassed to admit to, or if I’m making claims that would make me appear dishonest if someone investigated them, I’m likely heading over an ethical line and I’d better stop.

    Take care,

    Dan

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 19, 2013

      “Would I be comfortable explaining exactly what I did if someone asked? Or would revealing this truth be embarrassing to me?”

      Oh yes, this is it exactly!

  11. Susan Drury
    November 19, 2013

    Interesting post. For those photos taken to appreciate the scene/subject and record a moment in time, the photographer as an artist should feel free to manipulate to his/her heart’s content. While I do appreciate the finished product and admire the skill of using software to develop, I’m a bit sad that I can’t trust the truthfulness of a photo especially when wildlife is the subject, and that I need to remember this as a novice photographer when lamenting that I never get such good photos.

    Reply
  12. Tom
    November 19, 2013

    What is reality anyways? Some people claim that there is no reality and that it’s only an illusion. Everything I see, touch, hear, smell, and taste is just an electrical signal in my brain and therefore one could argue that reality is only in my conscious brain. How can you know if what I see is actually “out there” or if it’s just a signal in my brain? Are you guys even out there? 🙂

    In practicality, I have absolutely no problems with your owl image. So what if you merged two images? The essence of the story you witnessed of the two birds is still intact. And even if the small bird wasn’t there and you decided to put it there would it matter? Are you not allowed to? Most people think and believe that nature photography needs to be documentary or otherwise it’s considered a “fake”. I think this comes from the fact that most people take pictures to document or record their vacations, birthdays, parties, and life in general. Usually people judge things based on their experience with them – they use a camera to document something therefore every image they see must have been made by someone documenting something “real”. If not, it must a fake. It’s funny because these same people don’t have this problem with movies and books. How many people out there love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings? Do these people have a problem with these stories because they are fakes? I doubt it! What about music? Are all songs an exact representation of actual events?

    For me personally, I’m willing to clone out or move elements in my images and play with the tones and colours. I don’t like to add things that weren’t there for the simple fact that when I look back at the image I want to be reminded of my experience that day, in that location taking that image. I want to be reminded of how I felt throughout the experience. What I don’t want to do is intentionally create false memories for myself. If you want to and enjoy creating fantastical images all the power to you!

    Reply
  13. Donald Esfeld
    November 19, 2013

    Darwin. I am badly color blind. As a result when I process my takes in the computer, my colors come out to be something different than what a person with normal color sight sees. So, the point is, I am satisfied with my results, even tho they are not true to the original subject. I think the owl and the bird are fantastic and if you had not admitted to inserting the bird I would not have had the slightest reason to doubt the final result. Thanks for all of your articles. They are a tremendous help and I have had many days of wonderful photography in Alberta, mainly because of you.

    Reply
  14. Brian Comeault
    November 19, 2013

    I think it’s perfectly fine to alter images to enhance the artistic vision. One thing I find is that in my mind, I see a fantastic sunset, colours in nature, or scene unfold before my eyes. I take a picture, and find that it never quite captures the feeling I had viewing it. However, with a few colour adjustments, I (sometimes) get that feeling back.

    Reply
  15. Richard Wong
    November 19, 2013

    I think it’s all about your intentions and how you portray your work. If on one hand you are saying, this is what I saw with through my camera and only used the computer to bring out the details that I tried to capture, etc… then compositing would be dishonest in that situation and I could see people getting upset. I see no problem with your approach though, Darwin, because you make no such claims with your work.

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      November 19, 2013

      Hi Richard,

      I agree…it is totally how you present your work to your audience. But I think a lot of photographers do not have this conversation with themselves, and can’t answer that question. I DO think many landscape and nature shooters present their work with a ‘this is how it felt, I only made a few adjustments’ when sometimes those little adjustments are actually significant, like altering not just saturation, but a hue. When you alter a hue, you convey very different information about a place, such as season or even the chemical makeup of the environment.

      I think many photographers are disingenuous about their work. And we don’t need to be. If we are artists, then we have artistic license as has been mentioned here. If pretend we are documentarians, then we have a problem.

  16. Cal Towle
    November 19, 2013

    I keep trying for the real feel. Sometimes I get the look of what I remember but it takes a bit of tweaking to bring out the “feel”. Now, about those over the top HDR grunge productions . . . . They are also valid; I just don’t want to feel that way.

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      November 19, 2013

      I think following your feelings is exactly the way to go. I also am usually fairly faithful to the scene in my processing, but I hope that I don’t try to convey to people that what I see is some objective truth that is ‘out there’.

  17. Sid
    November 19, 2013

    When it comes to wildlife photography, I take a photojournalistic approach and I do not add or remove anything in the image. This will include any radio collars, etc, or even other animals as I want an accurate representation of the particular animal I photograph and their habitat. The trick is to photograph the species without the photo looking cluttered or junky, which isn’t always easy to accomplish, but I also have a very specific purpose in mind when documenting wildlife and education / conservation is part of it. Landscapes, unless they are being documented for specific purposes such as conservation or environmental issues or even client specific, are free game and I say edit away and remove / add anything your heart desires.

    Knowing the backstory of the first image hasn’t ruined it for me because you are not claiming the image to be an accurate, unaltered portrait of a wild species in…the wild. If you had been, this would be a different story and it isn’t the image I’d be questioning …

    Great discussion topic, Darwin!
    Cheers

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 19, 2013

      Why would you treat wildlife one way and landscape another – why the double standards when both are nature subjects?

  18. Florian
    November 19, 2013

    Hello,
    I think this can be a very controversial issue with almost as many opinions as photographers. Here, I would just like to commend you on describing the “behind the scenes” of the owl-swallow photograph. In my opinion this is the best approach; people can then decide whether they consider this acceptable or not. I like the photograph anyway. I actually wonder what it would look like if you had also taken and stitched the frame(s) in between the two birds.

    Reply
  19. Wayne Nelson
    November 19, 2013

    I thought I should repost and state that I certainly believe that anybody does and should have the right to do anything they want with their own images. I have altered (and disclosed) a few images myself. I would also never inhibit someone’s artistic vision. The issue I have is that half the world views our images with an interest in the subject not our artistic intent. They don’t really care about our art, that child just wanted to know the image tells the truth. Nature/art to one is natural history to others. Every image can’t be created only to draw attention to the photographer. To sell another print or another workshop slot. Sometimes how we portray that animal or that landscape becomes a responsibility owed to some of those who will view it. Nature is not always scrubbed clean and sanitized.

    I have enjoyed the many thought provoking comments to this great (and necessary) subject.

    Reply
  20. Claude
    November 19, 2013

    I like to alter my images in the field using analogue techniques and at home using digital because it’s just plain fun and I find the results often appealing and express my idealisms.

    Reply
  21. Darcy Monchak
    November 19, 2013

    I tend to respect a nature photographers work more if they are good image takers rather than good image adjusters. I want to follow someone’s work because I appreciate the effort and vision and composition skill they employed in the field while taking an image.

    That said, I also appreciate when good image adjusting occurs. When good image taking and adjusting come together to show a photographers vision, then you can have magic.

    We are still going thru a period where the perception of photography is expanding to include artistic interpretation. However, in the interim, we should be mindful that the idea that our images are largely in-camera creations is still alive and well in the minds of many viewers. For example, when someone indicates that they like a specific nature image, their comments are often something like “great shot” or “it must of been nice to be there”. In most instances, I think they are referring to the act of image taking. They rarely say “great image editing” or “it must have been nice to be behind that desk doing that creative interpretation!”.

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      November 19, 2013

      I agree — I think though that we haven’t yet learned to differentiate between the two skill sets you admirably tease out here…therein lies the rub! I dislike editing on the computer and concentrate my creativity in the field. I know many photographers who just ‘harvest pixels’ and for them, their creativity happens when they build the image later out of multiple images on the computer (regardless of whether they try to make it look ‘real’ or not). There is no right or wrong artistically — but I do think the term ‘photographer’ has lost its meaning in the current digital age. I think we should call ourselves visual artists or digital artists if we spend most of our creative time on the computer and photographers if we spend our creative time capturing light onto a light-sensitive material.

      Ansel Adams wasn’t a photographer — he was a darkroom artist. There, I said it!

  22. Harvey Brink
    November 19, 2013

    Thanks for raising this interesting discussion and I appreciate the quality and depth of the responses. I have thought about this in various ways and want to hold intact my photographic integrity in my work. I have always had great admiration and respect for photographers (think National Geographic, and other photojournalists) who would loose their job if they so much as removed an ear tag from an animal. For a long time I resisted adding saturation, brightness, etc beyond that that which was necessary to make a print closely match what was “in camera”. I have also come to enjoy the visual artist part of me, which likes to play with colour and effects. Now, I am even considering doing some digitally manipulated images (after all one of the clubs I belong to has that as a category). I say considering, because I have fear around doing it. If I become known for doing the artistic side of photography, do I reduce the credibility of those special natural images that need no enhancements? Can I have it both ways? I believe I can if I specify that an image is in it’s natural form or if it has been artistically manipulated and hopefully earning the trust of my viewers and customers. I think this issue is more about establishing our integrity than it is art vs. photography, which are both worthy endeavors. May I be so bold as to ask what was your primary motivation for revealing that you had, in effect, ‘removed a few feet of fence’?

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 20, 2013

      Harvey, ever since I made this image in 2005 whenever it was posted I always revealed it was a ‘manufactured image’ of a real moment. To do otherwise is a misrepresentation of something that viewers would assume is real (especially with wildlife photos).

      Samantha got me thinking about the idea that most of us will not accept the alteration of content but we accept and embrace the alteration of tone and colour without questioning how those alterations affect truth. Should we reveal that we changed the colour of the ice, the leaves, the alpineglow?

  23. Drake Dyck
    November 20, 2013

    I really enjoyed this post. Since I started using a DSLR a couple years ago, I have slowly started to experiment more and as I’ve done so, I started to ask myself similar questions. While my images have been primarily for the enjoyment of myself, family and friends I initially felt a sense of guilt if I did any digital editing of an image, including any manipulation of colour, tone, hue, etc, never mind removing a piece of trash that blew into the scene which I hadn’t noticed at the time I captured it. I felt I had to rigidly capture what was there and whatever the results when I downloaded the images, that is what I had to stick to. The more I thought about it, I realized that many of the images did not reflect what I saw the way I remembered them and they required some adjustments to try and recreate that feeling. I have also accepted that sometimes extraneous objects (like that little piece of trash I mentioned) need to be removed to produce an image that is pleasing to me and closest to how I remember the scene. As someone has already mentioned, I would not feel embarrassed to tell anyone what I had done in these circumstances.

    Reading your description of how you created the great image with the great gray owl and the tree swallow has caused me to contemplate further manipulation of images and what I would find acceptable. My initial reaction was surprise – for two reasons. First, it looks very natural and I would not have guessed what had been done to create it; and second, it was a different level of manipulation than I had considered before and I wasn’t sure if I would feel comfortable doing something similar. As I finished reading the post, I continued to contemplate this and realized that I enjoyed the image because it is a great image, not because it is supposed to portray the scene exactly how it was at the instant you saw it. I think that enjoyment of the image is what is important. Not the details of how it was created or the degree to which it duplicates reality at a given instant in the past. If the image accompanied an article in an ornithological publication where the reader might interpret it to portray an unnatural behaviour for either bird, then it would probably be over the line of what is acceptable (at least without explicitly stating it was manipulated). There are times when manipulation of images would be inappropriate, such as when images are used in legal proceedings, with news articles or are otherwise held out to be an accurate portrayal of a specific scene, but for the images we are viewing for pleasure, I think if you stick to creating what looks natural and feels right a little manipulation is probably acceptable.

    Reply
  24. Digital Artist vs Photographer
    November 20, 2013

    […] discussion going on over at this site here: Interpretative Nature Photography What do you […]

    Reply
  25. Marko Kulik
    November 20, 2013

    Fab post with no simple answers that’s for sure.

    Personally, I like to know how the photograph was made.
    I like to know how much post processing was involved and I have to admit that in general I prefer less (dodging, burning, cropping, sharpening, levelling) rather than more processing.This is because I grew up in the film world where we processed less. Yes we still manipulated reality, but way less overall.

    Those people that were seriously able to manipulate (from Man ray to Jerry Uelsmann) reality, did so with their own hands – what they produced was more hand crafted than computer crafted. This is a big part of it for me. If the computer does most of the work or a large part of the work, the computer should get some of the credit. For me such a work he is no longer photography in the (more) classic sense of the word. It is digital art. I’d like to see it named as such wherever it appears and sometimes you will see this, as in a gallery setting.

    Composite images have a long history in photography and this image is a well done composite. You pre visualized this scene and used the computer as you would a saw. I’d still call this a photo but many people’s mileage will likely differ on this call.

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  26. Matthew Crowley
    November 20, 2013

    Darwin, your post definitely brings up some great philosophical questions. As much as some people seem to draw a line in the sand between a photographer and an artist, and split hairs on if someone is a “true photographer” or a “digital artist”, the fact of the matter is, it is all art. The only exception to that rule would perhaps be a snapshot, with no creative thought put into it. Even the act of composing a photograph is an artistic choice; what you are trying to convey to the viewer.

    I know a photographer who intentionally took photos of rare songbirds in urban areas, but composed them in such a way that it looked as if they were photographed in a preserve. He took a wider angle shot as well so you see power lines, light poles, even McDonalds arches. To some that could be considered misleading.

    I know other photographers who have a belief that the colors and tones that are captured in the camera is the only true version of the scene. I personally don’t follow this belief. With the ease on how digital images are created now, people seem to have forgotten that things like burning, dodging and cloning with film have been around for many decades. That developing a photograph, in a darkroom, used to be a creative process in itself. The camera does not have the dynamic range to convey what the human eye and/or brain perceives. The other thing that the camera does not consider is the artist’s interpretation of the scene; their thoughts and their emotions that they had at the time of making the photograph. Even a photographer’s perception of reality can differ from another photographer. Personally I see the world very vividly. In photo competitions I have been told by judges, “your photo may have won if you toned down the saturation.” While this may be good advice to score higher with that judge, in competition, are you then being dishonest with yourself if you feel this is how the image should look?

    Obviously you need to have made a good photograph to start with and having the right quality of light really makes a difference. The quality of light can be faked and that is where I maybe start feeling that an image is dishonest. But for me, on a scale between Albert Bierstadt romanticism and matching what was “in-camera,” I’m personally going to lean more towards Albert myself.

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    • Darwin Wiggett
      November 20, 2013

      When I shot with slide film I defiantly defended my photos as ‘real’. After all the image was captured in-camera and the slide could not be manipulated after the fact. It was ‘truth’. But of course it was not. It was my truth using lenses, filters, perspective and time of day to make the place look better than my eye saw it. And of course Velvia had artificial but believable colours. Now with digital I do not even attempt to say that any of my work is representational except that it represents my feeling s about the scene I photographed (always romanticized as Sam has recently pointed out to me!)

  27. Chris Fox
    November 20, 2013

    This is a fantastic conversation and I think a couple people have mentioned that there is not really a “right” answer here, but rather only an answer that is right for you. For me, I recall the first time I met Sam and Darwin when I was a workshop participant and they talked about making an image versus taking a photograph. This was a revelation for me and I suddenly began to think of myself as more of an artist, which in turn made me more comfortable taking artistic license when making an image, whether that was using filters, angles, shutterspeed etc. in the field, or using processing tools like photoshop or lightroom. At the end of the day I agree with what many people have stated already, which is that it all comes down to how you represent the image your putting out into the world. It becomes a personal ethical boundary as to whether or not you feel you are lying to the viewer. If you are willing to disclose the fact that you have altered the image then all is fair game, it simply becomes a personal choice as to where you draw the line of how far is too far. For me, at the end of the day I am not just trying to produce an image that represents reality. Instead I am trying to convey a moment and a feeling in time as I experienced it and share that with a viewer, that is what I love about being a photographer/digital artist/reality manipulator/whatever you want to call it.

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  28. Paul Sinclair
    November 21, 2013

    Interesting discussion and one I sense may have no ending. Great to hear the thoughtful and considered reflections.

    For me it comes down to what I personally feel comfortable with. If I get a niggling feeling that things aren’t quite right such as pushing colour saturation beyond what I remember at the location I will delete or modify the image. Sometimes this takes a few days as I have trouble letting go of a shot that looks good but just doesn’t ring true.

    Having shot film for so long I suppose I have developed an approach of everything looking right in the viewfinder. I still enjoy that sense of being in a place at just the right time and taking the shot – being there is more important than looking at the image afterwards. Spending hours in front of a computer has never been that attractive so my processing is fairly conventional and minimal. Though I do love being able to remove small annoying details that in the past I would not have captured on film in the first place -particularly scraps on a beach that I can’t get to without leaving footprints in the sand.

    If someone else has a different background and approach I don’t mind; I just may not look at their images. This is why I enjoy checking out and Darwin’s and Sam’s images they have explained their techniques and so many of the photographs are a pleasure to contemplate and ring true for me.

    Oh and as an aside can I just thank Darwin again for simplifying working with a tilt-shift lens – he improved my photography and lowered my stress levels in one hit!

    Reply
  29. Jeff
    November 22, 2013

    I see no problem with either situation. For you guys at least.

    The Owl couldn’t have been captured any other way what with the lens issue and all. What sets you apart from the herd is that you will explain how the picture came about versus some story about how you camped out in a puddle for 3 days waiting for this to happen. Credibility is a huge factor and I have considered you credible ever since I met you on Photosig years ago.

    I have gotten used to tweaked landscapes over the years. I understand what goes into capturing a good landscape and most of the good landscape folks don’t go nuts in post.

    I did have a guy in my camera club swear up and down that his hdr’d landscape was exactly as he saw it. He didn’t see the humor at all when I asked him if I could have a few of his mushrooms.

    Reply
  30. Martin Chamberlain
    November 25, 2013

    Your article talked about altered tones and colours, but altered from what? We need to remember that for those of us that shoot digital we are taking a bunch of noughts and ones and then creating an image which is an interpretation of that digital data. It doesn’t even make sense to talk about altering the default image in Lightroom or altering the JPEG that we see on the back of the camera – those are simply interpretations of the noughts and ones as “seen” by Mr Adobe or Mr Canon or whoever.

    Altered from how we remember the scene perhaps? That’s a tricky one too, because on location our mind will alter the colours we see depending on the situation we are in.

    I think the decision on whether we are crossing the line depends on what we are “saying” with our image. If we are creating a piece of art for our wall then anything goes. If we are exhibiting at a nature photography competition then we need to have “lines” which we shouldn’t cross to ensure we are being true to nature. Perhaps a swallow would never ever get so close to an owl!

    Reply
  31. Stan Rose
    January 7, 2014

    Im late to the party, but ill add my 2 pennies. I have a very clear idea of what constitutes photography (which can be artistic) and ‘photo art’. WIth the former, my goal is to recreate a REAL experience, something i saw or felt. Note the latter term: I acknowlege that 2D imaes cant portray a scene as i actually experienced it, so that gives me latitude to use digital ‘manipulation’ to better express that experience. As a landscape photographer with a lot of concern for the environment, my caveat is that i want to be as faithful as possible because i want others to be have the chance to share that same experiecne. Digital/photo art is 180 degrees different. There, my goal is to recreate my dreams, the truly surreal that i have not experienced in the concious world, but the world of dreams. C’est tout!

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  32. How Much Post Processing is Too Much - Interview w/ Darwin Wiggett and Sam Chrysanthou | Photography.ca
    September 28, 2015

    […] This dis­cus­sion pod­cast is inspired by a blog post by Dar­win where he asked How Far is too Far?  The post refers to Darwin’s pho­to­graph of an owl and a swal­low shot at the same time, […]

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