27 January 2005

The Art of Digital Photography

To manipulate or not to manipulate

There is a reason that some shots don’t look like you thought they would. You and your camera see differently. Your camera merely records the way light from a scene passes through a lens and excites an array of solid-state devices at a single moment. You, on the other hand, (consciously) see a highly processed and synthetic memory that you have built up from multiple impressions of that same scene. Awareness of how you see versus how your camera sees can free you to make your photography achieve your creative vision.
 Unlike a camera, your eyes do not stare fixedly at some point in a scene. (If you succeed in staring at a fixed point without letting your eyes move, the whole scene will fade.) Your eyes sweep the scene in a series of twitching movements, called saccades. (Your eyes actually jitter durring each saccade, which your brain removes from your visual image before you become conscious of it.) During each saccade, your eyes change focus and pupil size (f-stop) as they take in various elements of the scene. What you consciously see is a memory your brain has built up from these eye movements, in which the whole scene is in focus, and everywhere properly exposed despite large differences in brightness from one part of the scene to another. To get a similar effect with your camera, you would need to use a tripod and take tens, perhaps hundreds of shots, and then make a seamless composite. [Note added 2016 - Something close can be achieved with High Dynamic Range (HDR) digital photography.]

Actually, you would need to shift the tripod about 2 inches (the distance between your eyes) and make two composites, which you would then view on two screens, one for each eye, to get the effect of your natural binocular, stereoscopic, 3D vision. Your 3D vision intensifies the drama of most senes, and separates scene elements that are mashed together by the 2D focal plane of your camera.
As if that were not enough, whenever there is a brighter area next to a darker area in the scene, your retinas enhance the contrast at the border by a process called lateral inhibition. In lateral inhibition, a retinal cell receiving a lot of stimulation (light) actually turns down the response of the retinal cells next to it that are receiving less light. This tends to sharpen or even create edges in the scene that your camera cannot see.

Then there is the issue of color response. Your eyes respond more to some colors than to others. So does your camera, but the response curves are different. Your eyes are most sensitive in the yellow-green part of the visible spectrum, while the sensor in your camera is most sensitive in the red, and perhaps even some of the (invisible to you) infrared part of the spectrum. And then there is the issue of the continuous, dynamic color-correction your brain applies, which far exceeds in subtlety the grossness of your camera's white-balance presets.

The bottom line is simply this: you manufacture what you see from multiple impressions of the scene you are viewing. Your preconscious mind together with your conscious emotional and intellectual reactions determine the course your eyes take as they dance over scene, the time spent on each element, and whether your eyes tend to return to some elements again and again, and how much your pupils dilate when you view those elements.

As you shoot the scene, and as you process the image through your workflow, you strive to choreograph the dance that your viewer’s eyes perform as they scan your photograph. Your tools are composition, focus, texture, tone, color, and subject matter. In the end, what counts is the emotional and intellectual reaction of the viewer to your photograph. Does that reaction match the reaction you had to the original scene? Does the scene evoke some emotionally or thematically charged likeness of it in your mind, which you convey to the viewer of your photograph? Can the viewer of your photograph feel why you made it?

That, it seems to me, is the goal of art photography. Other goals belong to documentary photography, scientific or engineering photography, advertising photography, or photography for graphic design. These other types of photography strive to meet various criteria of realism. Art photography strives to communicate emotion through esthetic sensibility. In art photography the reality to which the image must be faithful is the inner vision of the photographer.

Thus, the technology is not so much a vehicle through which an exterior reality is reported, as one through which an interior impression is expressed. All manipulations are fair, if they succeed in bringing the interior image out for all to view. To PhotoShop or not to PhotoShop? Ah, PhotoShop!
Let me give an example:
Before After

The sun was beginning to set as we passed this graveyard in Nova Scotia. There was a faint violet tinge to the eastern sky. I was struck by the way the wooden and stone crosses seemed to pop out of the background at me, as as if they were sheltered, looked upon with pity by the suspended figure of the crucified Christ, who had himself experienced death, who was himself going into the ground with each of these souls in his care, to gather them up and raise them tenderly, to a glory that none of us in life can imagine. Now, which image is more real? The way my camera saw it, or the way I did?

I could exhibit the un-manipulated image, and then describe what I had seen when I made it. But I'd rather fire up PhotoShop and show you.

Photoshop is still the state of the art in 2016, with a reasonable price to rent monthly or annually. But the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is free.

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