A question I get many times is, “Does it really look like that?” There is a connotation that comes with that question that is not unlike the unscrupulous lawyer that asks the witness, “Do you STILL beat your wife? Yes or no.” Either response may answer the question but does not really tell the story. Nevertheless, the short answer is, “No.” The longer answer contains any number of things.
I first started taking pictures when I was in High School. One afternoon I was wandering about and took a picture of a house that had a shake siding. I was using a Rollieflex camera. This unit had a really fine lens, plus it had a magnifying glass over the prism image so I could use it to fine tune the focus. The photo I got was crystalline clear. It was, quite literally, clearer than I can see with my own eyes!
So, for me, no picture is what it “really” looked like.
I may answer, “It is what I was striving to capture.” Or, “I manipulated the image to express what I saw …” (or felt, or wanted to convey). Or, we could get really philosophical about all this (Is anything really real? Or, how would you know what is real if the brain is just interpreting what is actually there?)
It can be argued that Photography should be “real”. If leeway or “expressionism” is desired, then paint a picture.
Horse feathers! First of all, Photography is an art and, quite literally, means “writing (graphy) with light (photo)”. Even photojournalism takes liberties of what is “really” there. That gives the photographer the freedom of self-expression, thereby creating, or more to the point, underscoring that piece of reality that is important or meaningful.
Secondly, the camera is not the same thing as the eyeball and the brain that interprets what it captures. An eyeball sees without boundaries within the limits of the field of vision. That field of vision is flawed. We all tried that experiment back in 7th or 8th grade where you look straight ahead with one eye shut. Hold a finger up in front of you. Then slowly move it to the right (or left) and eventually, the finger disappears into the background before reaching the edge of your field of vision. Well, that’s the “blind spot”. It’s where the optic nerve comes into the back of the eyeball; there are no vision receptors there. Rather than seeing a blank spot, the brain fills in the hole with what’s around it. A camera captures all light reflected from all objects from as much of a scene that will fit on the film or sensor. There is no “filling in”; there is no interpretation. That creates a whole set of rules, mostly dealing with composition, that just aren’t important in a “real” scene.
Third, the eyes see in three dimensions and a photograph only shows two. I have found that boosting the saturation will sometimes overcome the lack of a third dimension. It adds a depth that is otherwise lost to the viewer.
Finally, the brain will “weed out” things that are extraneous or disruptive (at least in a minor way) in a “real” setting. In a photo, you will see all those distractions; indeed you may actually focus on them. For example, one morning I was coming out of my office and was struck by the sunrise so I snapped a few pictures. I took a moment to position myself (and the camera) to avoid as much of the extraneous stuff as possible; like TV Antennas, Telephone and power wires. But I couldn’t avoid all of it.
After removing the TV Antenna and the telephone poles with photo editing software and further cropping and boosting the saturation of the image, I got more of what I “saw” when I walked out of the office. There was still a roof line and some trees in silhouette, but, I would argue, it lent context to the image rather than the distraction the “real” image did.
The point is, all I “saw” was the sunrise. My manipulation of the image was to make it more “real” by removing things that I did not see (or notice or care about) at the “real” scene.
One of my favorite scenes at Yosemite is “Tunnel View” or “Inspiration Point”. On a particular November day (2010) I took a picture because I was intrigued by the way the sunlight was hitting El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks. I exposed for the sun lighted rocks. The foreground was too dark and the background and sky were washed out (see Basic Image). Ironically, this is not what it was “really” like. So I set up the tripod and took the same picture at the same focusing point, same aperture, changing only the shutter speed. The foreground shot was taken at 1/80 of a second and the background was taken at 1/400 a second.
Using layers with the photo editing software, I was able to merge the bottom of the Foreground Image with top of the Background Image to get:
This is what I saw.