What Is Photographic Reality? By:Peter Eastway

3 08 2010


I’ve just returned from an expedition to Antarctica where the landscapes and wildlife simply blew my mind. Towering snow-covered peaks dropping vertically into tormented, white-capped seas; tens of thousands of penguins crowded onto small islets surrounded by icebergs; and the deepest, richest ultramarine blue you can imagine locked under tons of glacial snow. It was a reality far stronger than anything I have seen before.


The passengers on board had a wide variety of backgrounds, from photographers to artists, naturalists to scientists, doctors to lawyers. On the voyage south, I showed them my photography. The images were taken with a camera, but created in Photoshop. Some passengers loved them. Others did not, concerned that my photographs were not true reflections of reality. Indeed, they asked if they were really ‘photographs’.

Here’s an example of what I showed them. (klik on link to watch the macromedia flash video)

Most readers of this blog will be pretty comfortable with what can be achieved in Photoshop. We think nothing of adding in a new sky or taking out an unwanted lamp post, yet this is probably the exception rather than the rule. Most of my images only had subtle adjustments using curves or hue/saturation, but they were applied in a way that transformed the original capture. The base subject matter was the same, but light and colour were applied to create added drama, atmosphere and impact.

Is this wrong?

It seems that many people who are not photographers are concerned about how easily we can change a camera’s definition of reality. Why this is a concern intrigues me. I mean, photographers have been dropping in better skies and removing unwanted lamp posts for over one hundred years. Frank Hurley is famous for his black and white Antarctica photographs taken in the early 1900s on glass plates, but few know that he was also the master of double exposures and image manipulation far more extensive than the examples of my work shown on board ship.

Frank Hurley created his images in a darkroom, away from prying eyes, and people didn’t know that changes had been made. Few understood the process and most just accepted the images as they were. Today, those same processes when done with Photoshop are being questioned by the masses who now understand how easy it is to manipulate a photograph. To manipulate reality.

In some contexts, it’s important to know this is a straight shot; in an art context whether it is or isn’t doesn’t really come into it.

For a news, documentary or nature photographer, this is an important issue. If we tell people our photographs are true records, then it isn’t right to move things around or change the reality that was recorded because people have an expectation that what they are seeing is real. I could understand the naturalists on board ship worrying that I might exercise digital skulduggery.

But I wasn’t making penguins fly or giving an orca three eyes. All I was doing was recreating what I experienced.

So what is photographic reality? Is the exposure we make in our camera more ‘accurate’ than an image we have worked upon in Photoshop?

The ice is amazing, but the straight capture in flat light struggles to show the texture which can be clearly seen with the naked eye. A little invisible Photoshop helps.

I can remember clearly the aquamarine blues of the icebergs as we cruised around them in our zodiacs, looking for the best angles, yet these same colours were not seen in my raw files using the default settings. My memory of what I saw is different to the electronically captured image recorded by my camera, but by increasing the contrast in my files using Photoshop I was able to better reproduce what I saw. Is this okay? Is it still reality?

Some passengers were doubtful, yet if I changed their cameras to capture a higher contrast JPEG, they felt this would be acceptable because the image came directly from the camera. Does this mean the camera manufacturers are the arbiters of ‘correct reality’?

As photographers, we know the limitations of our cameras. Issues like dynamic range and colour spaces have a huge impact on the camera’s ability to accurately record a scene. We also know that different cameras record tones and colour differently – just compare the high quality captures of the current generation of digital cameras with older cameras and you’ll know what I mean.

And non-photographers are forgetting or don’t know that in the days of film a photo lab carefully adjusted the density and colour balance of their negatives before producing a print.

The deep blues below the surface of the water were wonderful to behold – no colour adjustment needed for this photo, just an increase in contrast to bring out the blues.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and because everyone knows how powerful Photoshop and other editing programs can be, there is a fear that any use of Photoshop in some way affects the reality of the image. The problem is that they don’t really know how much Photoshop manipulation is okay. When do you cross the line between reality and interpretation? Most people can’t answer this question, so they say if the image comes directly out of the camera, then it must be okay.

The mountains in Antarctica are high. Very high, but if you use a wide-angle lens they lose height in the resulting photograph. I find that a little upward stretching in Photoshop can better show exactly how high the mountains appear when you’re standing there, but this would be unacceptable. So what happens if I attach Canon’s 17mm TSE perspective control lens, shift the lens down and point it upwards. Now my mountains are towering over my head and the effect is optical. Is this okay?

South Georgia Island is amazing, but I needed to use the Canon 17mm TSE shift lens to accentuate the height of the peaks.

Of course not! One form of distortion is just as bad as another, yet the very act of taking a photograph distorts reality. Your choice of lens focal length, which direction you point your camera and when you choose to press the shutter button all distort reality because we limit the record to 1/125 of a second.

Photography is not a perfect representation of reality, rather a means of communication or a form of expression.

Today, Photoshop is such an integral part of photography that I can no longer separate the processes. Capture and post-production are two parts of a single process that turns an idea into a photograph. And personally I think post-production is essential because no matter how good cameras become, they can’t create. Someone needs to point the camera and press the shutter, and after capture, that same someone can choose to enhance or modify the result in any way he or she pleases. It is a choice.

I like to think of my post-production technique as being ‘invisible Photoshop’. The trained eye will know the image has been enhanced, but it should not be obvious exactly how or where. It should bear a strong resemblance to reality, strong enough to fool people into believing it is reality.

How much post-production you apply to your images depends on the context in which you wish to show them. For news and nature photography, less Photoshop is allowed, but for art or pictorial photography, why should there be any limits?

Wildlife photographs of these orca are true in all senses, except the colour has been enhanced a little closer to what I remember.

There are always debates in photography and I find it interesting that now it is the non-photographers who are the most conservative. Yet it is far too late to be concerned because photography has never been a true representation of reality anyway!


Peter Eastway is an Australian professional photographer, an AIPP Grand Master of Photography, and the co-publisher of several Australian photography magazines including Better Photography, Better Photoshop Techniques and Better Digital Camera. You can see his portfolio at petereastway.com.au and more about his Photoshop technique at betterphotography.com.


Less Cursing, Better Pictures: 10 Suggestions

2 08 2010


Published: New York Times June 8, 2005

RECENTLY, I was lying next to a hotel pool, keeping an eye on the children, when the guy on the next chaise swore like a sailor.

He was peering at his little digital camera, looking furious. I couldn’t help myself. “Do you need help with that?” I asked.

“This is the stupidest camera,” he said. “I’ve tried three times to take a picture of my son going off the diving board, but the delay is so bad, I miss it every time.”

I knew he was talking about shutter lag, the maddening time it takes for most digital cameras to focus and calculate the exposure after you have squeezed the shutter button but before the shot is captured.

I nodded sympathetically. “And even the half-pressing trick doesn’t work, eh?”

He looked at me as though I had just spoken Aramaic. “The what?”

Suddenly it dawned on me that this guy didn’t know the half-pressing trick. He didn’t realize that you can usually eliminate the shutter lag by half-pressing the shutter button before the action begins. The camera prefocuses, precalculates and locks in those settings as long as you continue to half-press. Then, when the child finally leaves the diving board, you press the rest of the way down to capture the shot. No lag – no lie.

The guy was so happy, he bought me a ginger ale.

I realized that day that the world could use a handy, clip-and-save digital camera primer – not so much an FAQ (frequently asked questions) list, but more of an FGA (frequently given answers) list. Here are 10 tips everyone should know:

1. End shutter lag. If your camera has a shutter-lag problem, the prefocusing trick may be your best bet. Another option: many cameras offer a continuous-focus option that eats up your battery faster but also reduces shutter lag by focusing constantly as you aim the camera (or as the subject moves).

Newer and more expensive cameras tend to have the least shutter lag, and digital single-lens reflex, or S.L.R., models (the big, heavy, $900-ish cameras that take interchangeable lenses) have none at all.

2. Don’t believe the megapixel myth. More megapixels do not make a better camera.

Megapixels measure the maximum size of each photo. For example, a four-megapixel camera captures pictures made up of four million tiny dots. Trouble is, camera companies hawk megapixel ratings as though they are a measure of photo quality, and lots of consumers are falling for it.

In truth, the number of megapixels is a measure of size, not quality. There are terrible seven-megapixel photos, just as there are spectacular three-megapixel shots. (Lens and sensor quality are better determinants of your photographic results; too bad there are no easy-to-compare statistics for these attributes.)

Meanwhile, more megapixels means you have to buy a bigger, more expensive memory card to hold them. And you have to do a lot more waiting: between shots, during the transfer to your computer, and opening and editing.

Megapixels are something to think about only in two situations: when you want to make giant prints (20-by-30-inch posters, for example), and when you want the freedom to crop out a large portion of a photo to isolate the really good stuff, while still leaving enough pixels to make reasonably sized prints.

But if you don’t edit your shots and don’t need them larger than life, don’t get caught up in the megapixel race. Four or five megapixels is a nice sweet spot.

(Bonus tip: Photos intended for display on the screen – the Web, e-mail, slideshows – don’t need many pixels at all. Even a two-megapixel photo is probably too big to fit your computer screen without zooming out. High megapixel counts are primarily related to printing, which requires much higher dot density.)

3. Ignore digital zoom. In a further effort to market their way into your heart, camera companies also tout two different zoom factors: the optical zoom (usually 3X) and digital zoom (10X! 20X! 30X!).

Digital zoom just means blowing up the photo. It doesn’t bring you closer to the action or capture more detail; in fact, at higher settings, it degrades your photo into a botchy mess. For best results, leave this feature turned off. The optical zoom number is the one that matters; it means a lens that brings you closer to the subject.

4. Ditch the starter card. Unfortunately, it’s a universal practice to include a very low-capacity memory card with the camera-a teaser that lets you take a shot or two while you’re still under the Christmas tree. But it fills up after only four or five shots.

When shopping for a camera, therefore, factor a decent-size memory card – 512 megabytes, for example – into the price.


5. Beware the format factor. Memory cards come in an infuriating variety of sizes and shapes. The least expensive formats are Compact Flash (big and rugged, about $55 online for a one-gigabyte card; available in capacities up to eight gigabytes) and SD (about $70 online for a one-gigabyte card; maximum two gigabytes).

Most Olympus and Fuji cameras require XD cards (about $85 online for a one-gigabyte card, the maximum), and most Sony cameras require either the Memory Stick Pro (about $90 online for a one-gigabyte card; maximum four gigabytes) or the smaller Memory Stick Duo (about $115 online for a one-gigabyte card; maximum two gigabytes).

Note, too, that you can also find memory-card slots built into laptops, palmtops, cellphones, game consoles, printers, photo-printing kiosks and other machinery. They are most likely to accommodate Compact Flash or SD cards. Memory Stick-compatible slots are less common, and XD slots are downright rare.

6. Do your research. Fortunately for you, the prospective camera buyer, the Web is filled with sites, including dpreview.com and dcresource.com, that do elaborate testing and reviews of every camera that comes along. Look them up before you buy; if you’re pressed for time, at least read the intro and conclusion pages, and look at the sample photos.

7. Know your class. Please don’t ask a technology columnist, “What digital camera should I buy?”

That’s like asking, “What car should I buy?” or “Whom should I marry?” There just isn’t a single good answer.

Cameras now come in several different classes with different pros and cons. There are card cameras, no larger than a Visa card and less than an inch thick (gorgeous and very convenient but with few manual controls and short battery life); coat-pocketable cameras (bigger, but still self-contained with built-in lens covers, longer battery life and more features); semipro zoom models (too big for a pocket but with built-in super-zoom lens ); and S.L.R. models (endless battery life, no shutter lag and astonishing photos).

8. Turn off the flash. A typical digital camera’s flash has a range of about eight feet. In other words, using it at the school play does nothing but fluster the performers.

9. Turn on the flash. On the other hand, here’s a great trick for when someone’s face is in shadow: turn the flash on manually. Forced flash or fill flash brings your subject’s face out of the shadows, and rescues many a portrait that would otherwise turn into a silhouette. (On most cameras, you turn the flash on or off by pressing a lightning-bolt button.)

10. Turn off the screen. The back-panel screen is, of course, one of the joys of digital photography. But it’s also the No. 1 consumer of your battery power. If you’re comfortable holding the camera up to your eye and peering through its optical viewfinder, turning off the screen while shooting can double the life of each battery charge.

There you have it – the 10 habits of highly effective digital camera owners. And may all your diving-board photos be lagless.