Did You Doctor That?
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 bestanswer, Briot suggests, is "yes".
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 the 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's 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.
My second adventure took place on the evening recently when the "Northern Lights" were visible in parts of Northern Ireland... even rarer 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.
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.
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".