My answer to the question ‘Have you changed that image in Photoshop?’ is invariably “yes”, followed by “shamelessly”. If you are tempted to respond to that with a negative reaction then I’m afraid that I have got news for you: photographs do not represent reality.
Having a training in philosophy I could now bore you stupid with an exploration of the metaphysics and epistemology of the matter but it’s not really necessary (nor viable in anything less than a book-length treatment) because any fool can see that any photograph ever taken does not look exactly like the scene it depicts. If they did then perhaps we would be consistently delighted with the photographs we take rather than rejecting so many of them.
Photographs are interpretations of reality, not representations.
The world that we interpret in our photographs is in flux. Everything in it, including ourselves, is in motion (albeit at different rates) and thus no two photographs of a scene can ever be exactly the same. For us to see the world light must be present, but that light changes colour constantly throughout the day, and the colours of the reflected light from the objects we see, and the camera sees, changes accordingly.
The photographer chooses which tiny proportion of reality they want to interpret. If the photographer shoots with a 50 mm lens on a full frame camera they get an image that roughly corresponds to their field of view. Most photographers us a variety of lenses, including wide angle or fisheye ones, which capture a wider field of view than the eye can see, whilst simultaneously distorting it. Some photographers go wider, stitching together a series of photographs into a panorama, but we don’t have eyes in the sides or backs of our heads.
If instead the photographer chooses a telephoto lens, or zooms in on part of a scene, then we can achieve detail in an image that surpasses our visual acuity at the time, whilst simultaneously foreshortening the scene and altering the spatial relationships of objects within it. However, it is not ‘as if’ we had walked closer to the subject of the photo, zooming with your feet and zooming with your lens will result in different photographs.
Similar considerations pertain to macro photography, except here there is no direct analogue to the notion that we might turn our head in wide angle photography, or get closer to the subject in telephoto shots, because here we must rely on the intervention of a lens in order to see the detail revealed; indeed, it is just because macro photography reveals what we cannot normally see that we find it so interesting.
In portrait and close up photography particularly, but more generally in other forms of photography, the photographer may choose to manipulate the depth of field by controlling the aperture of the lens. The resulting effect at a very wide aperture bears so little similarity to reality that if our vision was like that we would be straight off to the optician whilst trying not to get run over on the way.
The photographer has many more tricks up his sleeve. He can, for example, freeze motion by using a very fast shutter speed, enabling us to see, perhaps, a fast moving animal, or water droplets hitting a surface. He can also slow motion, using a neutral density filter to create longer exposure times, to produce star trails, motion blur, creamy waterfalls or misty looking seas and lakes.
Alternatively the photographer might use coloured filters to enhance scenes, skylight filters to reduce reflected blue sky tones in scenes, UV filters to reduce haze, split neutral density filters to enhance dynamic range or polarising filters to see into water, enhance skies or cut specular highlights in vegetation.
The photographer chooses where to point the camera, what lenses and filters to use, how much space to incorporate, how much time to incorporate, the light, and hence the colour of objects, at a particular time of the day etc. He interprets reality. This is not a bad thing, it is part of what can make photographs art, when we would not consider stills taken from an automated security camera to be art (though I admit that some might!).
“That is not what I am getting at…”, I imagine somebody protesting, “… it’s about unreal colours, compositing, removal of distracting elements… etc”. I will still answer “Yes, I do some of that, sometimes (and still shamelessly)”. These are all things that can be involved in post processing and to explain why I might sometimes do them to particular images we have to look at why we use Photoshop (and RAW convertors) in post processing.
This will be the subject of the second part of this article.