Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill


Commentary: Reality in the Age of Digital Photography

The question "How real are our photographs?" has never been more topical than it is now. Perhaps our digital photos have the potential to be MORE "real" than film-based photos?

Is That Real or Has it Been Photoshopped?

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that question I'd be a rich man! And there's irony in my normal pat answer - what I'm saying is exactly what the questioner is expecting, but what I'm really meaning is something very different! To avoid a time-consuming and mostly pointless debate my usual answer is, of course, "No, and yes". Which almost always produces the predictable "Hah, I thought so!". If I think the questioner is serious and seeking enlightenment - rather than just reinforcement of their entrenched beliefs - I give them the same overall answer, albeit in a longer and more complete form: "No, like any photograph it is not real. But, yes, I did use Photoshop to partially correct the image and to increase its reality." And then the fun begins...

What I'm driving at is that there is a general preconceived notion circulating that digital photography is somehow less "real" than traditional film photography. My belief is that this notion begins with an erroneous assumption, i.e., that ANY photographic image is an accurate record of reality. And I believe the conclusion of film being the "more real" image recording medium is wrong as often as it is right. I believe digital photography can produce final images that are MORE accurate reflections of reality than film images, especially in the realm of nature photography.

No Photographs are Real!

Photographic images are often considered to fall into one of two categories: documentary images or fine art images. Documentary images are assumed to be reasonably accurate reflections of reality. The degree to which fine art images are expected to conform to this "reflection-of-reality" standard is usually more relaxed. I contend that the boundary between documentary and fine art images is extremely arbitrary and ignores a large number of "reality-modifying" factors employed in all photography.

In-camera Sources of Reality Modification

There are a number of reality-modifying factors that reside largely within our cameras. Some are unique to film photography and some are unique to digital photography, but most are available to both digital and film photography.

Film Choice: Film photographers have a wide variety of film types available to them, and each has its own unique characteristics. For example, film types vary in grain, contrast, colour balance, and overall colour saturation in predictable ways. And photographers have long matched film type to photographic task, and not always with the goal of "maximizing reality." In nature photography, Fuji's Velvia has long been the number one film of choice. It is a super-saturated, high contrast, extremely fine grain colour slide film which carries a light red or magenta overall colour cast. When projected, Velvia slides are often visually stunning and have an almost 3D look - if you want shockingly blue skies, astonishing greens, and "more-alive-than-real-life" images, Velvia is the film for you! But real? Not a hope! A tagline on a current (as of January 13, 2007) brochure on Fuji's website says it all: "COLOR THAT GOES BEYOND THE IMAGINATION."

Lens Choice: Film and digital SLR cameras (and many medium format cameras) offer interchangeable lenses with different focal lengths. Short focal length lenses provide a wide angle of view (which is why they're commonly called wide-angle lenses) and tend to produce images with crisp, clear focus from foreground to background (take this mountain scene, for example). But, they also tend to exaggerate the distance between objects in the immediate foreground and the distant background. They also tend to make objects appear to be further from the viewer than they actually are.

In contrast, telephoto lenses do pretty much the opposite: they bring objects closer, compress the apparent distance between objects in foreground and background, and tend to have a more limited foreground-background "zone of sharp focus" (or "depth of field"). Super-telephoto lens (those of a focal length of about 400 mm or longer in 35 mm SLR standards) are wonderful at isolating a subject, but the resultant image can be dramatically different from what an observer would see with the unaided eye.

Aperture Choice: The size of the opening of a lenses diaphragm is known as its aperture, and changing it impacts the amount of light striking the camera's recording medium. This, in turn, has a direct impact on the photographer's shutter speed and depth of field. Using wide apertures has the effect of reducing the depth of field of the image, which in turn allows the photographer to isolate the subject from its surroundings. This aperture-related effect of keeping the subject in sharp focus but throwing the background (or foreground) out of focus is more pronounced with telephoto or super-telephoto lenses. It can make for striking images (check out this Grizzly Bear or this Common Redpoll or this Tree Swallow). With images like these the viewer has little choice but be drawn to the subject. But, the resulting image differs drastically from what your eye recorded at the time of exposure. Your eye simply does not throw the background this much out of focus (which is probably a good thing or our ancestors probably wouldn't have noticed that sabre-toothed tiger until it was too late!). Stated another way - our eye never pulls the subject as much out of context as a good telephoto lens can!

Incidentally, serious nature photographers seek out lenses with soft and smooth out-of-focus zones. The term "bokeh" is used to describe this characteristic - if the out-of-focus zones are very smooth and very soft the lens is said to have "good bokeh." And, lenses with good bokeh tend to be very expensive. Ironically, these photographers (myself included) are really paying more for a lens that produces images that are less realistic!

Shutter Speed Choice: When photographing moving objects the act of choosing a specific shutter speed has a direct impact on how that subject is perceived by the viewer, and definitely impacts on the degree to which the image mimics reality. Extremely high shutter speeds (of about 1/1000s or less) can provide tack-sharp images of moving subjects that show detail far beyond what a human eye can perceive. I'm sure most of us can remember those images of a bullet emerging from the side of an apple that appeared in popular magazines and science textbooks. Your naked eye could never capture this image, and while these type of images are fascinating, they represent an extension of our visual reality (assuming that the ability of our unaided eye to capture images shapes our perception of reality).

Choosing extremely slow shutter speeds also produces images that can be visually interesting, but the images differ from what we would have perceived with our eye. We're probably all familiar with creatively blurred images of runners (or birds in flight) or of those soft, silky waterfalls, all of which are produced by slow shutter speeds. Creative? Definitely. Visually pleasing? Hopefully. Accurate reflections of what we can see with our eye? Decidedly not!

Overall Exposure Choice: Any camera that can have its overall exposure manipulated by the photographer allows manipulation of the final image of that scene. We can produce images that are not only darker or lighter than the original, but also scenes with more or less colour saturation. And, in the hands of a competent photographer, the mood of the scene, and our emotional response to it, can be dramatically modified.

Optical Lens filters: SLR and medium format camera users, and especially those shooting black and white negatives, understand the profound effect that filters that are placed in front of the lens can have. Everything from overall contrast to colour balance to reflection reduction to tonal range - and more - can be manipulated through careful use of optical filters.

Post-exposure Sources of Reality Modification

I have little experience in a traditional darkroom - at best only a tiny fraction of the time I've spent within my digital darkroom. But, if you have any doubt about how much film-based images can be manipulated just pick up and skim through any in-depth treatment of the zone system employed by many serious black and white aficionados (e.g., The Practical Zone System for Film and Digital Photography by Chris Johnson or Beyond the Zone System, Fourth Edition by Phil Davis). The photographer can have a huge impact during film "development" (by choice of developer times and dilutions, actual chemical choice, etc.) or during print production (through paper choice, lightening or darkening specific regions using dodging or burning techniques, etc.).

Digital photographers have access to virtually all of the reality-shaping tools found in a traditional darkroom, plus many new ones. And, these tools do tend to be more readily available, and fall into more hands, than did those found in a traditional darkroom. But the vast majority of the images in the hands of the bulk of today's recreational digital photographers rarely see the light of day, or, if they do, normally have an audience base limited to a small group of victims (normally family and friends/soon-to-be-ex-friends). And, only a small subset of today's consumer-level digital photographers actually have the ability to open an image in Photoshop, let alone successfully (or convincingly) manipulate it. So, I would argue, the millions of the digitally-manipulated images of amateur digital photographers have minimal impact on public perception of the reality of digital images.

So what's my point? Simply this: NO photograph, whether film-based or digital, should be considered an accurate reflection of reality. All photography is a creative endeavor, and all photographs - including both documentary and fine art images - stray to a varying degree from reality.

Digital Images: Either MORE or LESS Real?

Another interesting assumption made by many digital photography skeptics, and especially of dyed-in-the-wool film photographers, is that any digital manipulation of an image is in the direction of reality reduction (as opposed to in the direction of reality augmentation)! The reality is that digital images have the potential to be more accurate reflections of reality than film-based images. I believe there are many reasons for this, but I'll limit my argument to one aspect of an image - the brightness (or dynamic) range of an image. And while I'll focus primarily on nature photography, I believe the same argument applies to other photographic disciplines.

Dynamic range refers to the brightness range of a scene or photograph. While you can find different estimates of the limits of human eye's ability to record image detail over a brightness range, most sources suggest that the human eye can record detail over a brightness range of at least 2000x. This means that we can simultaneously see detail in shadows and highlight areas that differ by a factor of 2000x in brightness. In photographic terms, we can say that our eyes have a dynamic range of about 11 f-stops.

But what do our cameras see? With film cameras it varies with the film type. Some black and white films can capture detail over a brightness range of 1000x (they're normally rated as having a dynamic range of about 8 to 10 f-stops). Colour print film doesn't stack up quite so well. Kodak Gold print film (which is a high quality film) can capture a brightness range of only about 128x (7 f-stops of dynamic range). But most serious nature photographers shoot slides, and the preferred film is Fuji's Velvia. How does it stack up in this single parameter? Not so well - Velvia can only record detail over a dynamic range of about 32x to 64x (5 to 6 f-stops). Does this mean that images shot with Velvia capture only 10 to 20% of what contributes to our impression of a scene? Of course not - most of what we perceive in a scene IS in a small brightness range and, although the detail is technically visible in both dark shadows as well as in well-lit portions of a scene, we tend to ignore a LOT of that detail. Our eyes and brain tend to focus on a very small subset of any scene.

How about digital cameras? If you're shooting JPEG images (which are saved by your camera as 8-bit images) you do a little better than colour print film, but not as well as black and white prints. JPEG's capture detail over a dynamic range of 256x to 512x (8-9 f-stops). You do better if you record RAW images, which are normally captured and stored by your camera as 12-bit images (and can be converted to 16-bit TIFF files). RAW images can capture detail over a dynamic range of 2000x (11 f-stops). Hey...this closely mimics the human eye (you say)! Yep. By the way, if you doubt me (as a sales manager from Fuji did during a recent seminar I gave), feel free to check out the dynamic range numbers that are readily available (two good starting points for the technically inclined are and

Now is the time for a film diehard to go red in the face and scream "...but you'll always blow out the highlights with digital capture" (just like the Fuji sales rep did). Yep, you're right - but only if the photographer doesn't know what she or he is doing! The solution with digital is simple - shoot RAW images, expose for the highlights, and process for the shadows. Using Photoshop's "Merge to HDR" command or other multiple-RAW-conversions-with-compositing-and-merging techniques (which I like to use) you can MANIPULATE the image to much more closely mimic the brightness range that you saw! And you're manipulating that image TOWARD REALITY! How 'bout that!

So why does your local nature photography club accept film submissions in ALL their categories of competition and digital submissions only in a smaller set of categories? It's hard to say. Maybe they're just trying to protect their remaining members who haven't (or won't) try shooting digitally. Perhaps they're simply resistant to change. Or perhaps they just haven't read this commentary yet! The ultimate irony is that by not accepting digital images they're inadvertently saying "...but we just don't want to accept images that are THAT realistic"!

January 12, 2007.


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February 8, 2007. Stephen H. from Calgary, AB responds:

I read both your articles regarding "digital manipulation" and "digital reality" with interest as these two subjects (more or less one central theme) have been debated for the past few years with no apparent resolution. You raise a few good points and I appreciate your effort in trying to settle the discussion. When I first started shooting digital I had similar questions of my own work and, through the club and colleagues such as yourself, debated the issues but the answers avoided me.

However, in the past year or so I have shoved the debate into the closet and really could care less about the final outcome. You talk about honesty and that is the really the gist of the whole matter. But how honest do we need to be?

If I were a photo-journalist then I would certainly feel obligated to tell the true story. No objects removed; no objects inserted - the scene would represent what the individual experienced at the time. Sure the photographer would be allowed to clean up the image by removing dust spots (they weren't in the scene anyhow) and to crop the image to reinforce what he wanted to portray. State the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth.

However, I see myself as an an artist and, as an artist, I have can state that I have "artist liberty". I capture the scene with my camera and, for the most part, very little change is required. Afterall, it was the dynamics of the scene that compelled me to take the shot in the first place. However, I feel that it is acceptable to make adjustments to the image to improve the final product. I am creating art where mother nature was the source of inspiration and Nikon and Photoshop are my pallet and brushes. The boundary for me is where do my artist liberties end and false storytelling begin. As a rule I will:

- adjust contrast and saturation to improve the feel of the scene and to better define the subject;
- balance exposure through the scene;
- remove any dust spots on the image;
- crop the image to add dynamics, improve the scene and to remove unwanted objects;
- remove distracting elements in the scene such as power lines and other such irritating objects; the odd branch; erroneous highlights and catchlights; and lens flare;
- I do not add objects to a scene (zoo bear to wilderness bear, etc.)

I am creating art and I feel comfortable that I am doing so in an honest manner with good intentions. My goal is to create the most pleasing scene with what nature provided me; with the Nikon in my hands; and with Photoshop at my disposal. I do not lie but the truth is buried in the RAW file in my archives...

My mom was a painter and she enjoyed a career in paints for nearly thirty years. I don't ever recall hearing her and my dad discuss the honesty in her work. She painted a scene as she saw it; she added light as she felt is was needed and she omitted objects that didn't add to the value of the scene. I can only imaging that 99% of the painters in history worked as she did. However, like many couples, they did debate color versus B&W TV; paved versus gravel roads in the country; natural versus processed foods; yellow versus white cheddar; and, and and.... Endless discussions in which there is no simple answer - the wheels of progress just turn and those that resist slowly fall beneath the wheel...

I believe that much of the debate on whether or not we are truthful in our work is sparked by those who do not understand our tools or our goals. Photoshop for many appears to be a complex tool, difficult to understand and, from my perspective, the possible root of the problem. There have been many examples of images that have been 'created" to prove a point but obvious mistakes in the image reveal a false representaion of the facts. The dishonest mistakes of a few spoil the honesty that many of us try to portray.

Ah Hah - caught ya, is the typical response from two sources - the digitally naive and the "shot it as I saw it" photographer. I've met both and I respct their options, to each his own and I wish them the best of success. Many people are set in their ways so who am I to judge them. However, I have seen many images where a tiny bit of "manipulation" could have improved on the work and no one would have been misled, tricked or taken advantage of.

Like you I disrespect those who falsify their work in an attempt to prove a fact or to mislead the viewer. All you have to do is look at a model in a magazine; there are certainly many lies on each page. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but is that the "holder" of the magazine or the "holder" of the RAW file.

Other Commentaries

Reality in the Age of Digital PhotographyDigital Manipulation vs. Digital CorrectionNature Photography as a Resource Extraction Industry
My Top 3 Reasons for Shooting in the RAWOn the Value of a WolfOn the Cost of a Wolf
The Challenge of Being a Green Nature Photographer


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brad Hill and do not necessarily represent those of any other group, organization, or corporation. In fact, it is possible they do not represent the views of anyone else on the planet - yet!