Should we change the way the world looks with Photography? Photography is art, not reality. In fact, all we perceive is just an invention of our brains. Reality isn’t the data sent along the optic nerve from our eyes. Nor is it even the light that passes through our pupils or the sound coming into our ears. What we think is real is just our limited personal interpretation of the world around us based on limited sense data we receive.
Additionally, much of what we think we see isn’t observed at all, it’s actually a creation in our heads; our brains invent and add new information using what we already know. It creates a personal model of the world around us. Thus, what is already in our brains, including our beliefs, our prejudices and experiences, contaminate what we perceive.
What is more, our vision is limited by our eyes’ construction. They can only detect a very limited range of the electromagnetic spectrum. That’s probably a good thing as we would be in trouble if we could see gamma radiation or ultraviolet light. Then, at the other end of the scale, seeing radio wavelengths would require huge eyes. Besides, then we would not have the ability to see detail any finer than a house.
We have a restricted view of the world and cannot conceive all reality at all. Can we apply this same fluidity of reality when creating a photograph?
Of course. Firstly, the camera’s sensor detects even less information that your eyes. Then, with a photograph, you stop time into a single frame, something the eye cannot do with the continuous flow of time. Additionally, when you view a photo, it then becomes your eye’s subject, so affected by the same personal interpretation as viewing the world around you.
Your camera’s internal computer processes data from its sensor. If set to take JPEGs, the processor will be programmed – probably by a team of clever technicians in Japan – to dictate how the picture should look. If you apply a filter or shoot in black and white, the processor will alter that data. The photo’s millions of red, green and blue pixels change in luminosity, adjusted according to whatever settings you choose to apply.
Throwing away the unused data in a process called compression, the camera records one usable, shareable and widely compatible JPEG file onto the memory card. All modern cameras can produce great-looking results in this way.
There is nothing wrong with that approach. A talented photographer I know takes amazing photos. Her camera is set to record only JPEGs. The finished images straight from her camera look great. Almost every picture is a wall-hanger. Her Zen-like workflow reminds me of entrusting my rolls of Kodachrome to a laboratory to develop, process and print. Her methodology emphasises the importance of getting the composition and exposure exactly right.
Additionally, all her images have a similar style and the pre-programmed development in the camera helps maintain that look.
‘Shooting raw’ is another option. The camera records all the raw data from the sensor. That data becomes a file on the memory card. This involves no image processing in the camera.
With more versatility, when shooting raw, you choose how the photo looks, as opposed to the camera’s programming deciding. Raw file developing, using tools like Lightroom, On1 or Capture One, is non-destructive; anything you do to the file can be undone. Additionally, nothing is thrown away or lost as with a compressed JPEG. Akin to creating prints from a film negative, you can produce any number of different-looking JPEGs from that raw file without damaging the original. Plus, you have all the data to play with.
Shooting raw has its disadvantages. File sizes are larger. Also, raw file previews are not universally compatible. Consequently, processing and developing skills, which need learning, use up time.
One school of thought says that a photo should always be untouched, a direct record of what was seen when it was taken. We should be trying to replicate reality as much as possible. For reportage, I agree with this; the picture must be an honest representation and news photographers have damaged their reputations for editing pictures to deliberately mislead. Then images have to be as close to perceived reality as possible. But we still must accept that a photo is just a representation of the truth. In other words, the camera always lies.
However, in portraiture, I have no qualms about removing a spot from a face or adding blur to soften wrinkles. In most photography, we try to create something aesthetically pleasing. If a lamppost detracts from a landscape photo, I can’t physically remove it as I would litter. Is there anything wrong with deleting it using a computer to make a stronger composition? To my mind, so long as it is done honestly and without causing harm, then we should develop and edit as much as we like. After all, our brains change reality all the time.
Do you agree?
I hope you enjoyed this blog post. If you did (or didn’t) please join in the discussion below or send me a message.
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