Did you doctor that?
"Just say yes". That's the advice of French fine art landscape photographer Alain Briot in answer to the question that sooner or later just about every photographer has to face. I've been asked it at least a dozen times over the past year, both in person and on-line (Facebook). It comes in different forms. "Did you doctor that?" "Do you manipulate the colours?" "Is this Photoshopped?" "Is this real?" The easiest and best answer, Briot suggests, is "yes". To answer with lengthy explanation sounds defensive, as if I'm trying to cover up a crime. It also can either get technical or arty or both, which normally are major turn-offs. Far better simply to say yes and wait for the next question, if there is one.
Now what? Well, perhaps I could tell a few stories and through them smuggle in an explanation or two? For as the Gryphon in Alice in Wonderland advises, "The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time!"
The first adventure took me to the Giant's Causeway just before midnight a few weeks ago. It was a beautiful moonlit night, the kind of night that is something of a rarity in this part of the world. A night to see familiar landmarks under a (literally) different light. When the moon is up it is impossible to see the Milky Way. But so much else comes into view, especially in the landscape.
The Causeway was predictably deserted. The receding tide was still making a splash on the rocks and low clouds reflected the moonlight on the horizon. I made my way carefully over the slippery surface until I reached a favourite viewpoint. This is what I captured.
But is this what I saw? Not exactly. At that time of night, there was almost no colour (visible to my human eyes) either in the stones or in the sky. It also was darker than this. But the camera can see more, depending on how it is set up. (Sorry, here't the technical bit.) With a 15 second exposure at 1600 ISO, at an aperture of F4 and with the help of moonlight, the camera sees a great deal more while at the same time altering what it sees - smoothing the water, for example. So I had choices to make in what I told the camera to do.
Then I had more choices. The resulting photo was a little too bright, looking more like midday than midnight. Should I leave it exactly as I had set it? Or should I "doctor" the photo - darken it and remove the colour (I couldn't do anything about the wispy water) so that it more closely resembled what I saw? But why? I loved the colour.
In the end I went for a compromise. I darkened the sky and at the same time increased the contrast to bring out the stars a little more. In the end it was a matter of personal choice, of what I wanted to convey through the photograph.
My second adventure took place on the evening recently when the "Northern Lights" were visible in parts of Northern Ireland. Even more rare than clear nights! I headed for the coast at around midnight and was startled by the amount of traffic. Clearly word had got around. So I chose a spot where I thought few others would venture. I was right. I was on my own. I was quickly wondering what all the fuss was about. I was aware of a strange brightness on the northern horizon, but that was all. I nearly didn't bother putting up my tripod and taking a shot. Then common sense kicked in. What had I got to lose? After all, I was there. So I set an exposure of 20 seconds and pressed the button, more in hope than faith. I nearly fell over when I saw the result on the back of my camera.
The camera could capture what I couldn't see. And as the night wore on the effect became more and more pronounced with the flaring pink adding to the characteristic green. But it wasn't what I actually saw. It was what the camera made possible. Even then I had more choices to make. How bright to make the sky, for example. A longer exposure and I could bring out even more detail in the island but probably lose some detail in the sky. And the sky was really the subject. So in the end I lightened the middle ground a little and darkened the sky to bring out both the colour and the stars. And I cropped the photograph to remove a distracting lighthouse at the extreme right. Choices. How 'real' is this photo?
My third adventure was to Bonamargy Friary in Ballycastle, a very atmospheric place especially on days of dramatic weather. I chose a day of violent showers, heavy dark clouds and sudden bursts of blue sky and sunshine. Here is one photo straight from the camera.
Here I deliberately exposed for the highlights, casting the friary itself into almost total darkness. I did this because I knew that the camera would actually capture much more detail than this - detail that could be recovered in post processing. But as it is I find it utterly uninteresting. It also was not what I actually saw and experienced. However, with a few tweaks on my computer this was the result.
I prefer this one. It captures at least some of the drama and atmosphere I both experienced and imagined being there. Is it Bonamargy Friary? Absolutely. Is it real? Yes and no. Will everyone like it? Certainly not.
One of the things I could do differently with this photo is to remove all the colour like I did with the following, my favourite shot of the Dark Hedges.
Is it real? Few of us see the world only in black and white. And since I don't shoot film it is obvious that this effect was produced on a computer. Yet here's an interesting thing: no one has ever reacted to any of my black and white photographs with the question, "Did you doctor that?" Of course, if they did, my answer would be - "Yes".
Keywords: Astro photography, Bonamargy Friary, Landscape photography, Manipulation, Moonlight, Night time photography, Photoshop, The Dark Hedges, The Giant's Causeway, The Northern Lights
Thank you so much for this valuable post. I really empathize with that part of a photographer's mindset that struggles with being questioned about whether you "doctored" a photograph or not. It is art, and because you have the skill and head-knowledge for how to program your camera "just so" in order to get these magnificent pieces of artwork or how to rework them in Photoshop, does not make it any less valuable as art or as photography. It is not "cheating;" rather, it is skill, talent, and hard work. (And, I particularly love the black and white one.) As a fine artist, my primary medium is graphite on paper. Although I paint in watercolor, oil, and acrylic, my most frequently requested works are graphite (and primarily architecture). White I love and appreciate color, there is something that so draws me to the black and white. So much of the time I feel like the art world (whatever that is) doesn't really see my work as art. However, God has given me the ability to capture images with graphite. This takes skill and talent that I can claim no responsibility for. But, God has seen fit to give it to me, and for that I am thankful. I wrestle at times with not being looked at as an artist. But, at the end of the day, I must praise my Creator for giving me the gift He has given me and pray that it brings honor to Him. Your gift and skill, and your perseverance in capturing just the right shot (i.e. work ethic), certainly do bring Him honor and glory. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. I am thrilled that this summer I will have the opportunity to visit and view, in person, many of the places that you have shared with us in photographs. I cannot wait.
Thank you for this brilliant explanation of your awareness of the scene, your window of opportunity and the creative power that the computer editing program gives you. But the decisions are yours and your selections make ethereal other-worldly possibilities real. Each one opens up our eyes to see things 'only God sees'. What else is HE keeping for our NEW EYES? You will be delighted because you already see so much. Thanks for your work.
4.EWhiteside, for David McFarland(non-registered)
Thank you Gilbert. Brilliant article.
Yes, I asked you that recently, particularly about your Scottish photos. I didn't really think that they were straight out of the camera. I suppose what I really want to know is what did you do to them! So thanks for the above. Your pictures are stunning!
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