I’m trying a new, long form, blogging style in this post. I’ll be revisiting it often. I’m going to use it as a mental dump, a place to share some inner thoughts and discoveries. Although the topics that I’ll discuss here may not be purely or strictly ‘photographic’, they are deeper parts of me than I haven’t shared with the general public before. They do make me who I am today, as well as guide how I act in the future. Perhaps you will find some common ground with them, or something will resonate with you. If so, I hope you’ll chime in and leave a comment.
Recently, I shared a new image - "Chugach in Transition". Shortly afterwards, while chatting with some friends and showing them the final mastered file on my laptop, several of them mentioned that the image looked more like a painting, than a photograph. They were blown away by the detail in every section of the image. I zoomed in and moved around inside the image. They could plainly see individual branches on many of the trees, detail in individual leaves, a high level of clarity in the mountains, ripples in the river, etc.
I was able to create this image using a mixture of my panoramic techniques (you can read my free panoramic photography tutorial here) and another technique I recently learned and have been experimenting with. It involves shooting a scene like an HDR image, but without using an HDR program to bring out the details. You start the same way, basically bracketing several exposures above and below the primary exposure. I import all of my images into Lightroom 5, select the images I want to 'blend', right click and select "Edit In: Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop CS 6". The images automatically load in Photoshop, and are merged into one composite file in HDR Pro. The difference is, when you are in HDR Pro, you select 32 bit processing in the 'Mode' drop down menu, then save the image as an uncompressed TIFF file, as a 32 bit image.
Because when you import this new, 'faux-HDR' image into Lightroom, your Develop Module sliders will now give you 20 units of adjustability, rather than the standard 10. Yep, you just got more flexibility in the post processing of your image. An image that (in my case) now has a much broader dynamic range. It allows you to use Lightroom as you would normally, and skip using an HDR program for the processing and manipulation part of your workflow. I used this process for each of the 6 vertical panels that make up this panoramic. Sean Bagshaw has a great video tutorial on this process, on YouTube.
My friends comments got me thinking though. What makes a photograph real.
The elements of this image are 'real'. Every tree is 'real'. Every section of the mountains are 'real'. I haven't added anything, or removed anything from this photograph. In fact, I dare say, I believe this image is one of the most 'real' images I have ever created (at least in my landscape images portfolio). Over time, people - whether they understand the physics of cameras and optics - have come to expect photographs to have certain characteristics. If you try to describe 'dynamic range' to a non-photographer, you are likely to get a blank stare. Try explaining exposure compensation, shadow clipping, blowing out highlights and you will get more of the same. Put basically, as I stood at this overlook, watching this scene play out in front of me, I knew that my eyes could see far more detail (from the bright white snow on the mountain peaks, to the dark shadows back in the valleys) than my camera could possibly capture. The light was very warm, and soft in most parts of the image.
Not long ago, I never would have entertained the idea of using HDR tools to augment my work. It was for "photographers who couldn't get it right in the camera". It was cheating. Lying and trying to pass it off as art, when a computer program did most of the work.
Then I realized something.
Truth is all in the interpretation.
Every photograph is a manipulation. It starts with the framing of an image, the selection of a shutter speeds to freeze (or the allow blur), apertures to blur background or to keep the entire image sharp, polarizing filters to remove glare and saturate colors, and high ISOs to allow us to see faint subjects in dark scenes.
I am not a documentary photographer. My images do not need to stand up in a courtroom, as evidence of a crime scene. My interpretations are the best way that I can express what and how I was feeling the moment I clicked the shutter. I don't remember how this scene actually looked in real life, as I was standing there making these images. I certainly couldn't remember how it looked when I was working on this panoramic in my digital darkroom, several days and weeks later. But it doesn't matter.
I consider myself a 'fine art photographer'. The goal of my photography is to enhance lives, by showing someone a beautiful image of a scene they were not there to witness. Were they there when the image was made? No. Did they feel the crisp, pre-dawn breeze? No. Did they feel the sun's warmth as it finally crested a ridge line to my left, as my fingers were about to go numb from the chill? No. Could they see their own breath, lingering for just a split second after each exhalation? No. Could they watch the clouds slowly drift above and between the peaks, changing the light as it slid past and swept across the mountains? No.
But I can remember those feelings, they are much more engrained in my memory than the color temperature of the light, or the shade of the green and yellow in the foreground. These physical memories informed my digital processing work, and pushed me to create the panoramic photograph that you see in front of you.
Truth is in the interpretation. You find truth by interpreting your photographs with whatever tools best suit the job. To be truthful to only one person (yourself), before anyone else sees your interpretation. As I've said so many times; compose, edit, and display your photographs for the only person that matters - you. Don't search for justification from anyone else.
Here are links to Ruminations – Part 1, Ruminations – Part 2, Ruminations – Part 3, Ruminations – Part 4, Ruminations – Part 5, Ruminations – Part 6, Ruminations – Part 7, Ruminations – Part 8, and Ruminations - Part 9.