May 26th, 2014
For landscape art photographers, this is unfortunately, a common question posed by the viewing public. My answer is simply no, I do not enhance my regular photographic images; I make them what they are. I feel that this is akin to asking a sculptor if they enhance the clay, or a painter if they enhance their paints. However, I do understand people's confusion with interpreting art photography as it relates to their everyday exposure and familiarity with snapshot, journalistic, and advertising photography.
There is an ingrained expectation of the public for all types of photography, even art photography, to represent the accurate reality of a scene due to the photographic medium's very nature of being able to replicate optical details of a subject as well as its use in recording family events, news events, and advertising pitches. However, when it comes to replicating the qualities and dynamic range of light and color, camera systems are much more limited in truly recording reality. It simply cannot be done and besides, for art photography, accurately replicating reality is not the objective.
No camera system has been made, or I believe ever will be made, that can capture reality or what a landscape really looks like to the human eye and the mind. Our eyes in conjunction with our mind can process and interpret so much more qualities of light, detail, and experience than any camera system can ever hope to accomplish. Add to that, each of us will even "see" a particular landscape scene differently due to our own unique physiology, mentality, and life experiences.
Camera systems are very limited in accurately reproducing the full dynamic range of light. Our eyes in conjunction with our mind can see more than double the levels of light than what typical camera systems with film or digital sensors can resolve and record.
Color is highly interpreted and influenced by a camera system, printing system, and ultimately the photographer. There is no such thing as an accurate color photograph resulting from the exposure and development process that records the reality of a given scene as seen by the naked eye. There is no reference faithful image from which to enhance an image.
With film photography, the resulting colors of a photograph are influenced by choices made by the photographer; the type of film with its chemical composition and characteristics, the different wet chemicals and techniques employed to develop the film, and the different papers used to print the image. With digital photography, color is influenced by the characteristics of the sensor, the software in the camera that interprets the digital ones and zeros of information from the sensor, software in the camera that generically adjusts color hue, white balance, saturation, levels, and contrast of the exposed image in an attempt to be generally appealing to the consumer. Photographers can even change these settings in the camera according to their aesthetic preference.
If the digital photographer is using the RAW image format in the camera, then the photographer must develop the image characteristics themselves according to their own interpretation instead of allowing the software in the camera to impose all of the generic brightness, contrast, and color adjustments to the exposed images. My own approach in developing my RAW images in Photoshop is for the image to reflect what I saw, what I felt, and what I wish to convey about a scene or subject. Landscape photographs with beautiful colors in a particular quality of light can seem way beyond reality to many. But then again, how many people wake up before dawn and travel to Bryce Canyon in freezing weather to witness the first rays of beautiful rich colored light illuminating the multi-colored Hoodo formations of such a magnificent landscape? I can tell you, not many. Usually, it’s just a few of us crazy landscape art photographers.
Again, documenting how a subject really looked is not the goal, nor the value in the imagery. Art photography is a creative, interpretive, and expressive endeavour. Those questions of “is that real?” and “do you enhance your photographs?” is a great challenge that all photographic artists have to endure in trying to progress those expectations of reality of the viewing public. Even the widely recognized and celebrated landscape photographer Ansel Adams stated, “Many consider my photographs to be in the “realistic” category. Actually, what reality they have is in their optical-image accuracy; their values are definitely “departures from reality.” The viewer may accept them as realistic because the visual effect may be plausible, but if it were possible to make direct visual comparison with the subjects, the differences would be startling”. He also states, “The emotionally satisfying print values are almost never direct transcriptions of the negative values. If they are, the print may be informative, but nothing more than that.” Ansel Adams acknowledged that he spent far more time in creatively developing his images than in the field exposing them, not in the pursuit of representing reality, but rather in the pursuit of art.