About nine years ago, I moved into a new community where I knew few people and I became, frankly, a bit lonely. I heard that there was a local photography club so I decided to check it out hoping to learn about the art I love and perhaps make a friend or two.
I was relatively new to digital photography and hadn’t had a decent film camera in years but my passion was still there. In terms of getting images to work to spec in printed documents, I had some experience with image-editing software as a pre-press technician but wanted to learn more about getting the most from digital photography from the standpoint of creativity. Surely an established camera club would be the ideal forum for the exploration of the new possibilities digital photography had to offer.
On the first night I learned that submissions to their periodic assignments and competitions were subject to some rather strange rules — rules that fettered creativity. The permitted digital manipulation of images was limited to global corrections, i.e. you could make changes to an image’s overall colour cast , for example, but making slight changes to a section of the image or performing some radical change to the entire image was forbidden. The members shooting film were not similarly constrained. They could “dodge and burn” while printing or use infrared film if they so desired. The attitude of the club seemed to be that digital treatment was an unfair advantage. Creativity and the possibilities offered by digital photography were being oppressed to preserve “the purity of the art”.
I didn’t bother returning for a second meeting.
The introduction of each photographic innovation was likely met with disapproval from the old guard. The introduction of the shutter (instead of just removing and replacing the lens cap) was probably seen as a gimmick by some, roll film was seen as a cheapening of the art by the large format guys, colour film for the masses was most certainly viewed with disdain by the people who had spent their lives or careers shooting monochrome, built-in exposure meters were laughed at, zoom lenses were snubbed, and still today there are those who look at digital as not being true to the art unless you constrain yourself to the limitations of chemistry-based photography. I have a funny feeling that some painter responded to Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s landmark world’s-first-ever photograph by saying, “Sure you’ve set up a box and after an eight-hour exposure you got an image, but it’s not art unless you dab a brush in paint and cause each line and shadow to appear with your own hands.” But is art defined by the process, or the product itself?
Let’s take Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup I painting as an example. Frankly, it does nothing for me (but maybe the message that is the key to its artistic merit eludes me). Could I paint it? Not on your life. But would I ever claim that Mr. Warhol wasted his time painting it or would I ever suggest it should not be displayed because through conventional photographic processes a more accurate and literal depiction of the can could be had? No! Warhol’s reasons for creating this painting were his own and he was pleased with it. That is what makes it art. If I was a judge at an art contest where Campbell’s Soup I and The Mona Lisa were submissions, which would I vote for? I would vote for The Mona Lisa because it says something to me, but I would be open to comments from others as to why a fairly literal rendition of a common soup can was held in such high regard.
That being said, I do believe that there is a time and a place for restricting creativity in the visual arts. I am of the opinion that photographs used in legal proceedings and serious journalism should be as literal as possible and true representations of reality. Advertising is a different story where photos are used to spark an emotional response so there’s more latitude allowable, as far as I’m concerned — if Revlon wants to Photoshop Cindy Crawford’s mole off her face and Cindy gives her OK, then it’s OK with me too. But something really should be done about submarine sandwich ads… there should be a federal law that says food product photos must contain the exact same ingredients and quantities as the product sold!
Fine art photography and pictures created for the sole purpose of visual enjoyment are another story altogether. In recent years I’ve noticed trends, like the revitalization of the Street Photography genre, and photographers whose work includes a lot of heavy vignetting, muted colours, or specialized techniques — most of these stylistic approaches are no doubt due to the ability of the common person to edit their images digitally and digital cameras’ ability to store a large number of photos.
One of these techniques is High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI) and, to a lesser extent, Fake High Dynamic Range Imaging (FHDRI), the latter’s method I quickly describe in my post Weekly Photo Challenge: Hidden. A couple of years ago it seemed like everyone was creating HDRI images and some photographers were only posting HDRI images on their Flickr pages. Frankly, at the time I felt that it was a little overdone. So I tried it myself and found it to be a useful way to convey my vision of a scene that could not be realized any other way.
Sometimes, though, you might want to convey a scene as realistically as possible but for one reason or another the finished image just doesn’t live up to what you had envisioned for it. Other times you try to create something otherworldly, but that doesn’t work out. Here’s a case in point…
The image above was taken as part of a set of nine photos bracketed in one-stop increments. I bracketed because I wasn’t sure what I would end up doing… whether one of the nine would be good all on its own, or maybe I’d take two and combine the best exposure of the concrete and place it around the best exposure for the foliage. Maybe the HDRI treatment to the whole scene would bring out what I saw at the original scene.
After uploading the images to my computer and reviewing them, no single image recreated what I saw in the parking garage that morning. The foliage was pretty good, but none did justice to the concrete so I decided to go the HDRI route. Maybe I’d get even more out of the garden beyond!
So after creating several HDRI images from all nine exposures, the photo above was the best of the bunch. I got what I wanted out of the concrete, but the foliage lost its “freshness”. So I masked out the concrete and went to work trying to revitalize the greenery. After the better part of an hour, I gave up and decided to insert the original non-HDRI foliage behind the HDRI concrete and this is what I came up with…
This is what I was shooting for! In this final image I also tweaked the garden’s colours a bit by removing the blue cast and I corrected the lens’ spherical aberrations. Unfortunately, when I shot the image I wasn’t aiming square at the wall so things are a little lopsided. I didn’t bother correcting for that but, hey, I’m no Warhol and that’s no can of soup!
So the lesson learned from this is that strange new techniques can be used to bring out the realism of a photo instead of defeating it. Used judiciously, what was taboo at the photo club helped me preserve a scene pretty much as my mind’s eye saw it.
Go forth and create, no matter what the pseudo-artistic purists say about how you do it!