As I headed out to meet with friends the other night, the skies looked as though they might light up a bit as the sun headed down. I didn’t take my real camera along, as I knew I didn’t have time to make it past the city limits. Almost nearing my destination, I stopped a couple blocks short, where there was a decent sized clearing away from structures and power lines. I snapped a couple shots on my phone, but mostly I just stopped to take it all in. Here in Las Vegas, we’ve had a couple really spectacular sunsets this spring, but this might be the best one we’re going to see all year. This photo can’t possibly bring justice to the surroundings that night, not all of which would fit in the frame. There were so many variations in cloud shape, texture, and color that a phone camera just can’t pick up. After getting back in the car, I realized the heart of the city was the best viewing angle, and any trip I would have taken to the nearby desert or mountains would not have yielded similar results. I wasn’t planning on printing this one, and besides, thousands of people saw, and possibly captured, the same thing.
Upon showing the photos to some friends the next day, one remarked, “You should always have your camera with you. You could have just added a different foreground to it, and it would have made a really amazing photograph!” That comment reopened a can of worms that had its origin a few years ago. I was at a highly attended event where one of the major camera manufacturers had a photographer with his powerpoint slideshow. As he neared the end of his talk, he said “and this is one of my favorite photographs from the trip, but it didn’t really look like this. I started with this sunset, then added this group of animals (a shot taken in the middle of the day), to get my final result.” At that point I thought you’re not a photographer, you’re a graphic designer and completely lost interest in anything else he had to say. I felt his presentation would have been better suited for the folks at Adobe.
A couple of my non-photographer friends have made comments in the past stating that they don’t know what to believe anymore when it comes to photography. The deluge of imagery on social media has them distrusting of anything they see, and significantly less appreciative of the medium.
When Ansel Adams was photographing, b&w sheet film was his preferred method of capturing images. His real masterpieces didn’t happen, however, until he got into the darkroom. If you or I used those same negatives, our results would probably look nothing like the prints that Adams produced. Yet nobody ever said his work didn’t represent photography accurately. Darkroom manipulation was considered part of the process that allowed each artist to put their signature on their work. Now that the majority of images captured around the world are in the form of pixels, and a large number of those go through some form of editing software, it’s not reasonable to expect many photographs to be exactly the same as they came out of the camera.
But how much is too much? I know in several large photo contests, there are separate categories for lightly retouched images and full-blown manipulations. That makes me believe that images once considered graphic design have come to be accepted as photography if the elements were all captured with a camera. My friend’s comment has stirred up a debate, so I’d like to know how you feel. Is there a point where you don’t like or at least appreciate someone’s work if you feel it has been over-manipulated? Or the opposite….completely untouched? Should I have taken my camera along to capture this sunset, then gone out next week to add a Joshua Tree forest to the foreground?