Veracity: Is it "real," or is it… Photoshop?

Decorating the highline, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

Decorating the Highline, Glacier National Park.

For several years I've been making our Christmas cards, with a photo appropriate, more or less, for the holiday season. So far these photos have been something “wintry”, taken in Glacier National Park. Making the cards takes some time, but it's fairly easy to do and can be fun. It's necessary to create an appropriate photo, of course. A layout is created for an off-the shelf card stock, the inside greeting is printed on the laser printer, the outside is printed on the photo ink jet, and then the cards are folded. Sometimes recipients of the cards will comment on the photo. These are nearly always positive and gratifying to hear. I received lots of comments this year, but several of them were a little surprising to me. Without quoting specific examples, people wanted to know if (or more often "how") the photo was put together in Photoshop.

Here's the picture. For two years we carried that little red ornament around in the car or backpack. Each time we visited Glacier National Park, which we do at least a dozen times a year, we'd take the ornament on our hikes and keep an eye out for an appropriate setting. I had in mind a small tree, something like the forlorn-looking little thing in A Charlie Brown Christmas, in a snowy field. I planned to hang the ornament, make a few photos, and use one for the card. Over time the vision changed, and finally the photo you see here was made in late September, 2006. It was taken up on Logan Pass, from a steel catwalk overlooking the McDonald Valley and the Livingston Range. The ridge you see in the clouds is the Continental Divide, below which runs the Highline Trail (a very nice walk, next time you're in the area). At some peril to life and limb, I reached as far out from the icy catwalk as I dared, hung the ornament, and took a few pictures. This was repeated several times. The photo you see here was finished in Photoshop much like I finish all my photos—a little clean-up, perhaps some adjustment via levels and curves. Nothing was added to or removed from the original photo. There was some effort and even a little risk involved in making the photo; I was disappointed to learn some thought it had been “Photoshopped.”

Those who'd asked assumed I'd created this by pulling elements from at least two photos and combining them in Photoshop to make the card picture. I mentioned to a friend I'd been getting these responses and explained how the card photo was made. His reply: “I had to laugh when I read what you wrote about your card. People assume it's 'faked' not because it looks faked but because no one would carry around an ornament like you did! On a different level, when combined the comments you're getting say we live in an age where unusual photos are assumed to be fake unless proven otherwise.” I agree; I find this a little disturbing, but not really surprising.

Reality vs. Truth

So, what's reality, and how can that be different from the truth? I find this an interesting question, given the dual nature of the photographic medium. Photography combines technology and art; neither exists without the other.

Nature photographs as we know them can never perfectly render a mountain range, a polar bear and cubs on floating ice, a rainbow above a river valley, or an approaching storm in the desert. A photo is a two-dimensional representation of some part of a three-dimensional subject. Photographs are entirely visual, utilizing only our sense of sight. When viewing a photographic print, one cannot experience the breeze or temperature, the smells, the sounds, or the full panorama of the photographer's experience when he or she made the exposure. Photos contain distortions introduced by the equipment used to capture the images, artifacts that don't exist outside the photo and so are never seen by the naked eye. The photographer's choice of lens for a given shot, and the quality of that lens will impart their own characteristics on the image. Most photographers use a selection of filters. A polarizer can reduce reflections off of water, darken skies, and increase color saturation; colored filters affect the overall cast of a photo. Split neutral-density filters are used to balance bright skies with darker foregrounds, bringing them within the exposure range of film or digital sensor. Electronic flash can be used to similar effect to some degree. Film choice, or in the case of digital cameras, the RAW converter software and settings used, can have a dramatic influence on the color, saturation, contrast, and grain (or noise) visible in an image. And of course, the use of black and white film or conversion for digital files can result in images unlike anything we see in nature. Perhaps most importantly, a photo represents the photographer's vision and interpretation of the scene, and his or her ability to capture that vision rather than a simple documenting of what's in front of the camera.

Yellowstone aspens

Yellowstone aspens in color

Yellowstone aspens

Better in B &W

The photo at left is as close as I can make it to the scene before the camera. These aspens in Yellowstone National Park were lit by an October morning's first light, giving them a golden over-the-top glow.

The final image didn't look “real” to me; I felt the color was distracting, and took away from the photo what I best liked: the texture and detail in the bark, and the tonality of the light and shadow areas. On the right is a version made black and white in Photoshop.

Yet we tend to accept what comes out of the camera as a true rendering of the scene. When the photographer works on the image with photo editing software, it's assumed the image has been changed and no longer reflects the “reality” which was in front of the camera when the exposure was made. The fact that image editing programs can alter a photo in ways that exactly mimic what can be done at the time of capture with filters, flash, lens or film choice, still means, to many, the image has been manipulated. “Photoshop” has become a verb (regardless of the software actually used), meaning to alter a photograph, often to deceive to misrepresent.

So, this photo was altered, perhaps dramatically, in Photoshop. If I'd used black and white film to get the same end result, would you consider this altered from “reality?”

I do use Photoshop, every day. I prefer to say I “finish” my pictures with Photoshop. To me, finishing means making the final print (or to the greatest degree possible the image seen on the Web site) match, as closely as I can, my vision of the scene, my interpretation of the subject, the light, the weather, the time of day. Finishing means eliminating as best I can undesirable artifacts introduced by the equipment -- lens flare, fringing, vignetting, film grain, color cast, dynamic range limitations, etc. In some cases the image may be cropped from the full frame to eliminate distracting elements or improve composition. I will adjust color, contrast, and other attributes in an attempt to bring to you some of what I felt when I when I tripped the shutter; this will probably be somewhat different from the base image captured by the camera. The use of this software to turn a raw slide scan or digital file into a printable photograph in no way changes my vision of the image at the time I capture it. The use of Photoshop does not reduce the skill or talent, however questionable in my case, required to capture a good photo and produce a work of art. If the slide on my light table isn't great, I may be able to improve it somewhat with Photoshop, but I'll never make a quality, fine art print from it. It is still necessary to start with the best image I can capture in the camera.

January 2007

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