Real or No Real

February 15, 2015  •  2 Comments

A subject for discussion

Photography techniques, and the use of the technology available to us photographers are always great subject for discussion, and sometimes controversy.

A photograph of mine, was recently the subject for discussion in an open letter to the Outdoor Photography magazine (Issue 189/March15). Firstly, I must say that the letter was lovely and complimentary, and the response from the editor of the magazine was perfect. In an earlier publication of this magazine (one of my favourites I might add), they ran a feature on some of the winning photographs from this years Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. My image 'Bright Eyes' was published, alongside another brilliant image of Red Setters on a beach in Sussex.

The Author of the letter felt cheated, when he read that the Red Setter image was digitally manipulated. The Man, and one of the Dogs had been added from separate exposure, the image was a composite. This then caused him to doubt, or at least raise a concern as to the genuine nature of my image with the hare. In short, was the Hare added from another file? This is a perfectly reasonable question, and one I am sure has been muted before about my shot. Let me assure you, this was a genuine moment.

Competitions, like Landscape photographer of the year have strict guidelines stating what you can, and cannot do with your entries. They also have different categories, some allow digital manipulation, some do not. The purists amongst us can be very Anti this technique, but, if you are honest, is it a problem?

So, when to Blend, and when not to.....?

My photoshop skills are limited in comparison to many others, so I have never, until recently attempted to blend two images together. I like a real, natural look to my images, and assumed that I would never need to learn, to make a composite. But even with my style of imagery, I am noticing the 'occasional' requirement of some digital darkroom adjustments.

I have recently returned from a trip to Australia, where I managed many wonderful hours with my camera. At a couple of locations that I visited, I decided to produce a long exposure image (generally referred to as an image taken with a shutter speed longer than 2 seconds). These can be wonderfully calming images, but sometimes nature throws a spanner in the works.










The old Jetty at Hamlyn Bay, is a perfect example. I loved the simplicity of this shot, and decided that a 30second exposure would be perfect to smooth out the ocean, and make the then dull sky slightly more interesting. The only problem was the constant arrival of seagulls, and the tethered boat in the distance. Both refusing to stay still for so long. 

Straight away I knew that I was either going to have to either digitally remove the offending blurred areas of the image, or take 2 separate shots. 

So thats what I did. Without moving the tripod, a second exposure was taken as soon as the first had been recorded to the memory card. This time much faster, at 1/80second. You can see the second image here>


Once back at the laptop, and with the help of a couple of free tutorials on Youtube, I learned to place the long exposure image over the short exposure, and cut through to allow the detail of the sharp seagulls to show through. A little bit a housekeeping to tidy up, and voila, there you go.

SO was I wrong to do this? I was either going to have to remove the seagulls completely (so not what I saw anyway), or settle for an image with smudges on the top of the wooden posts. Its a no brainer.....but I know it couldn't, and shouldn't be passed off as a single image at competition level.

and again...

A similar problem happened with the Boat shed at Crawley. This simply had to be a long exposure photograph, the scene almost screamed for this technique. The problem was, and anyone thats been to Perth will back me up here, its always windy! The flag on the boat shed was never going to sit still, so again I knew I needed two images.











You can see the problem clearly with the photograph on the right. So again, is it wrong to use the same technique as with the Old Jetty, I think not.

Other uses possibly?

There are other occasions where I think this technique would be useful. I shoot a lot of sunrise and sunset images, where the contrasts between light and dark are huge, and often beyond the dynamic range of the camera. In most instances, a Graduated filter can be used to darken the light areas (generally the sky) sufficient to get a correctly exposed image. However, if the horizon isn't perfectly straight, you can end up darkening parts of the image you don't want to. This can be a problem with jagged cliffs and shore lines.

These are some of my favourite images, but with hindsight, would they have looked better if I had taken two shots, one after the other, the first exposed correctly for the sky, the second for the foreground. Then I could have manually blended the two images together. Don't get me wrong, I love both (one is framed on my wall in my hallway even), but could they be better, or is this where we cross the line with deception?












A similar technique would be the use of HDR of High Dynamic Range. This is where we set the camera to automatically take several exposures, one after the other at various settings. I.e: you would expose for the middle tones, and the camera would take an image 1, 2, or 3 steps under exposed, and the same over exposed. Then, using wizardry it automatically combines the 3 images to create what it considers to be a single, balanced exposure. 

This is a marmite technique. I personally don't like the look that this gives 9 times out of 10. Very skilful photographers can use this technique well, and you would never tell it was a HDR image. But in the majority, it is very obvious, and not to my taste. Im not knocking it, its just not for me.

A case for honesty & the spirit of Photography

So, this is all just my opinion. When there are no better alternatives, blending is a perfectly good way to prevent a photograph being spoiled by elements out of your control, but you can never claim its a single exposure. Should I have walked away from the Boat shed at Crawley, just because I knew the flag would ruin the image I wanted? of course not. Would I enter it in a competition where blending isn't allowed, of course I wouldn't. 

And finally, back to the hare in my image 'Bright eyes'. On the left, my final artwork, and on the right a snapshot of the back of the camera, showing the raw file from the shoot. Ill never delete this image from the memory card, in case this discussion crops up again. I see nothing wrong with using technology to help in certain circumstances, but adding random detail, (which adding the hare would have been) to create magic that simply wasn't there, would, in my opinion not be right, and this would be where I would draw the line. Its all about the spirit of photography. I take, what I hope people consider to be realistic landscape images, adding something alien would not be in the spirit of this genre of photography.

Bright EyesBright Eyes
















Thank you for bearing with me on this subject. I hope the above has been useful and maybe thought provoking? I hope I haven't caused any offence or shattered any illusions. I would love to hear opinions from other photographers and lovers of photographs in general. This will be a discussion for debate for years to come


2.Sharon Mcallister(non-registered)
Great blog Dave .... I agree with just about everything you said ... and actually I also use exposure blending (one of my fave images was 5 exposures to get the depth of tones but it is subtle and people do not notice it and it is definately not the bright gaudy HDR style that Im not fond of) ..... but certainly competition rules need to be followed (not that I really enter any lol). I certainly wouldn't want to randomly "add" things in or "delete" things and pass it off as a single capture .... but agree with the hows/whens that you use 2 exposures ... and in my book its still a real photograph that results. I have to add though, that I also like composit work that some people do ..... and am dabbling a little myself these days .... but composits where the person has declared it so and its known that its a "make believe' scene. Is that still photography? Not in the pure form for sure but it is still artistry and creativity. As you rightly point out, this debate will go on for years to come and I guess at the end of the day, whats right for one isn't for the other .... but so long as everyone is honest about their style/techniques, then thats fine by me. Each to his own. live and let live
1.keith Truman(non-registered)
Hi Dave, a great Blog. Its great to see this debate being aired.

In my opinion, the key for Competitions is to read the Rules and then abide by the Rules. If the category allows manipulation then I think anything goes-you can do what you want. The end result is a single image which may not have been how the subject looked at the time but its the “art” the photographer wishes to share ultimately. The reality is that the great Masters always manipulated what they saw into what they laid down on Canvas. Constable’s Haywain couldn't have looked as it does on canvas with Dedham church having been moved by JC to better compose his own image.

So, if we are talking about "manipulation", in fact, the purists could say that even using a big-stopper is manipulation. In my opinion, a Big Stopper isn't allowing you to record EXACTLY what you saw, its allowing you to express some more of the emotion and mood of the shot. Absolutely nothing wrong with that at all.

Regarding blending 2 images together for instance with your seagull or flag scenarios, is fine if it produces a more interesting image which is more appealing to the viewer and if it abides by the Rules if the image is being submitted into a competition. The only time such manipulation may not be acceptable is if the image is being used in a competition which specifically forbids this type of manipulation. As another example, anyone who has tried to take photos inside a church will know that it is impossible to expose correctly for the church interior AND for the stained glass windows and image blending or HDR will be the only solutions.

In fact, to add to the accusation of manipulation debate, I personally would also remove anything extraneous which maybe gets in the way of enjoying an image, for instance removing some litter or a telegraph wire (but only if the rules allowed).

One final point, for some competitions, the Raw file may be requested by the Judges to check on how the image was manipulated making reading the rules important.
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