Creative photography – to separate or not to separate, that is the question?

I have recently been sent a very long email from a (fairly) local photographic society, many of whose members seem to be quite incensed by the continuing trend by some photographers (including myself, I suppose,) to use computer software to significantly enhance images or the even worse “sin” of creating photo-montage and special effect photography. Some of these critics appear to blame our local photographic Federation, the L&CPU, for encouraging this trend by not separating such work from that which they consider to be “pure” photography. I’ve been asked to give my view on this.

Here is a created image of mine as an example of the type of creative photography that people want to separate:

12_Joker

First of all, let’s get out of the way the fact that people have been manipulating photographs for well over a century. Victorian photographers loved to create tableaux, which took sometimes a great deal of darkroom skill to create montages. Two young girls produced images known as the “Cottingly Fairies” in 1917, which actually fooled many people into believing that fairies actually exist (and yes, of course they do!). Dictators of the 20th Century had people airbrushed out of photographs and more recently Jerry Uelsmann and others have produced amazing montages by traditional darkroom means. You can see Jerry’s work at the link below.

http://www.uelsmann.net/

So what exactly is the argument? It cannot be that photo-montage and special effects photography is something new and therefore to be mistrusted. The argument seems to be that such computer manipulated work is more likely to beat traditional work in competitions and should therefore be separated from photography that has not been given any post-processing. Here are a few examples of what has been said:

I have seen all types of images and now with computers you could (b)e a bad photographer but a great computer expert and have bits o(f) images put together to make a single image which to me is not taking the art of photography seriously”

My answer is: “Yes, that could sometimes be the case, but most photographers who have become creative photographers/photo-montage artists started out as good photographers, not bad ones.”

The art of creating montage fulfils the need for the photographer to create something personal and different or to express an idea that can often not be achieved in a single exposure. Such a photographer may seek out subject matter specifically for a particular composition. This will naturally mean that they will not be too concerned about distractions in the background, because the item is destined to be extracted…it does not mean that it is a bad photograph, but it may lead other photographers to believe that the person in question is not a good photographer.

I am not the best computer person and I know members have the same feeling I sense they are slowly being put off entering”.

“maybe I am getting older now and was brought up printing in the darkroom but I know I cant compete anymore”

“the bar has been pushed up to a level where its so much more difficult to achieve”

“its clear to us there is no longer an even playing field on images anymore heavy manipulated or straight we have both mixed in our club, we all like what we do i am of the old school and like very traditional photography as you know and don it this way from my darkroom days, as i take in the camera is what you get the computer just prints them.”

“Someone stated that 90 percent of the L&CPU population would not be able to create such images. This is an obvious guess, but it makes the point that advanced skills are required and therefore, makes this genre prohibiting for many L&CPU members, irrespective of whether they like or dislike surrealism.”

My answer to these arguments is that they are really saying:

“They have moved the goal post and I can’t achieve it. I don’t like surreal images. I don’t have the skills, so I can’t compete any more”.

This has never been an argument for banning or separating images. When I first joined a  photographic society, 26 years ago, I had much inferior equipment to many of my peers, some of whom could afford a Hasselblad and the very best lenses. I could only print in black and white at first, so of course I was disadvantaged in the colour section because my trade processed images had to compete with the expert darkroom workers who were at the club then. My images always struggled with achieving a competitive quality…so I learned the skills I needed to compete, learned to colour print in the darkroom and to burn and dodge and I became very proficient at spotting prints, so that I had a big advantage there over many members, whose work would often look less “clean” than mine. Level playing field? never was, never will be! though I didn’t worry too much about my so-called “inferior” camera. Even today my equipment choices surprise many club members. “Why don’t you get a Canon or a Nikon?” they say. I say it’s irrelevant…so long as the camera is good enough for purpose, why worry? One of the most successful competitors in photography today only owns one camera with one lens – so what kind of level playing field is that? It is that person’s skill that counts, not the level playing field of what equipment can be afforded.

The next statement is one that I would strongly challenge:

“The creation of a category within its own rights is a simple solution, that would allow all members to enjoy Camera Club Photography in whatever genre they choose.”

This is a perfectly reasonable sentiment…but please tell me where would be the division? I have asked many people and it is in a different place for each of them…cynically I might suggest that it is just to the right of the skills that they possess at present.The problem with the real purists is that many of them admit that they do not understand what is involved in editing an image in Photoshop, therefore they think it is a simple matter to make a division…actually it is more difficult than most people allow for. Clearly, if you were trying to separate images into categories, there will be some pictures which are overtly creative, e.g. surreal images of fantasy subjects…no contest…they could go into a creative section. Next there will be a variety of images that appear to be un-manipulated and they could go into a “pure section”…

…or could they? This is not something that can be policed and so will need to be taken on trust (after all, we trust that the work you put into competitions is your own, even though recent events have shown that, even at top international level, people do sometimes cheat). So, assuming the image to be the photographer’s own work and only his/her work, where do we draw the line? I’m going to place some of my own images below for discussion and your consideration.

Here is an image that I took in Whitby last weekend. I didn’t take it, intending it to be a competition image, but I did my best to show the image as I felt it. At sunset, there is too great a dynamic range in the scene to render the scene “as they eye sees it” without some extra work. I chose to create the image by blending together three images in an HDR programme.

_IGP3093-Edit

Image 1

Already I can hear groans of “it isn’t pure”. But, regardless of what you think about HDR processing, like it or not, it was one way to record the image “as I felt it”. HDR can be done in camera these days, so you can do it without even opening up your editing programme. Another way around the dynamic range problem, of course, is to use a grad filter at the time of taking. A vignette was then added in the processing.

Whether or not you like my picture is largely irrelevant…it is as near to what I wanted as I could achieve without stepping over the edge of the pier and into the sea. A second version is posted below. This version has been given a number of tweaks in Photoshop – much more that you would be able to do in the darkroom unless you were a top darkroom printer:

_IGP3093-Edit-Edit

Image 2

So, what have I done to images 2?

  1. Clone over some of the large areas of mortar on the stone paving
  2. Level one of the flags, which had created a dark shadow area in the middle of the picture
  3. Remove flare at the bottom of the left hand lighthouse
  4. Remove people from left hand edge of shot
  5. Intensify natural reflection on right hand side
  6. Remove birds
  7. Remove some clouds, top left corner
  8. Add texture to some clouds, top middle
  9. Change colour balance on sky on right hand side of image only
  10. Change the perspective of the image, which brings both lighthouses a little to the right, creating a slightly more balanced image
  11. Some burning and dodging here and there
  12. Removal of halo around left hand lighthouse

At a quick glance, the image may not look so very different, but it has had a lot done to it, requiring quite a bit of Photoshop skill. Now this image is slightly better, in my opinion, but has had a significant amount of post processing, does this now put it into a creative section? Where do you draw the line? If I had not told you what I had done to image 2 and you have not seen image 1, would you have known what I had done to it? Would it have changed your enjoyment of the image?

Now, if image 2 were placed into a “pure section” it would presumably not obey the rules and I would be cheating. If it were placed in the creative section, the judges would be expecting to see something overtly creative (I know, because I am a judge and would mark it down as not being in the correct section). Logically, it seems to me, that you would now need to separate into three categories.

  1. Images straight from camera – minimal corrections done (as per SRGB salon rules for this year). Very few images would satisfy that criterion these days, if people are truly honest.
  2. Images that have been tweaked to get the best out of them, but could be said to look natural, regardless of how much fiddling and diddling has been done i.e. photographic realism.
  3. Images that are avant-garde and overtly created-looking.

However, I really don’t see a future in creating three pictorial categories like that.

Now consider the next image:

IMGP8551-Edit

Which section would you place it in? Is it a montage? has it had a significant number of tweaks to make it really not a straight image? or is it in fact a straight image? What do you think?

Answer: The owl was taken at 1/200 sec at f/7.1, ISO 320 on an 11 mm lens on a 1.5 crop sensor. Most people say it is definitely a montage but it is actually a single shot. The original image has only been cropped, vignetted and slightly sharpened. These I would consider to be simple image corrections, not remedial work to save my “bad photography”.

Here is another of my pictures:

William

This is a montage but has been created to look as real as possible. If I were given the choice, I would enter it into an open section – but many might wish to put it into a creative section, because it is a composite, where it would compete alongside surreal images and images with special effects. Unfortunately, images placed into creative sections tend to be expected to look creative…and this doesn’t.

I am not immune to the problems of the average club member, who dislikes competing against someone with better photo-editing skills and therefore stops competing. I have experienced their expressions of dissatisfaction myself and it was largely adverse comments from other members which led me to stop competing at Oldham PS and contributed to my decision lately to join Wigan 10. I do not blame people who feel that way or who demand separation of images, but what I would say is: “be careful how you write your rules” or you will create a monster that will create more problems than it solves.

Those who come down on the side of separation of pictorial images into “pure” and “creative” (or otherwise named), will often cite nature rules, where the image may not have significant editing work. I would lump together nature, record and photojournalism into a category called “documentary”. This enables work which is “pure” to compete together on as level a playing field as possible (given that there really isn’t one). I would like to include in that “sports photography” but accept that a great deal of post processing goes on in many sports photos today. This leaves pictorial photography to be just that – whatever the creator wishes, achieved by whatever means, to be enjoyed or not without the constraint of rules, with the exception that it must be photographic and the author’s own work.

Final thoughts: those salons who are already hosting categories of colour, monochrome and creative are shooting themselves in the foot at the moment, because photographers who edit their work significantly can actually enter more work than the “straight” photographers. Just look at how many “creative” works are also in the open sections. This, IMO, is actually increasing the amount of created works “on the circuit” and the sooner we drop creative categories, letting the judges just pick the best pictorial images, rather than have to worry about whether or not it is in the correct category, the better!

© Christine Widdall First Published: 1 May 2013

Update October 2015 – since this article was written, there has been a move in many salons to separate work by introducing a traditional section, or conversely, a creative section. In each case you have to decide which category your image fits. Many of my images fit neither. One salon, which has tried to allow for “realism” as a level in between “unaltered” and “whacky”  has, sadly, found entrants confused and critical. I have decided that I will go my own way and be very selective about which exhibitions and salons I enter in the future.