Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between a technically accurate photograph and one that has been modified, enhanced, composited (you pick the word) in order to give it a broader audience appeal. Nature is both stunning and surprising in its raw magnificence which begs the question: why should we mess with it at all in photographs?
This topic bubbled to the surface a few days ago when the journal Nature published their “Best Science Pictures of 2017” which featured a clearly composited image of the August 2017 total eclipse. The shot depicts three kids taking a break from their basketball game to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. As a composite image, I think it is nicely done. It has a Norman Rockwell-esque “snapshot of America” feel to it. As a science image, it is all wrong. Photographically, it would have been impossible to capture the wide-angle view of the boys in the foreground with the scale of the sun and moon in the background. Not to mention that in Missouri, where the images were taken, the eclipse happened about 60 degrees above the horizon so it would have been difficult to get it in the frame. More troubling is the fact that the phases of the eclipse are reversed from how they actually happened across the sky. And, on top of that, the image shows the full disc of the moon against the sky and sun. During an eclipse, only the part of the moon that is in front of the sun would be visible. Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no issues with what the photographer created, it is wonderful art. The thing that I struggle with is that a highly respected publication would portray the image as science. Good art, absolutely. Good science, nope.
As a photographer with a portfolio ranging from classic astrophotography to landscape and nightscape photography, I have images that are pure science, a mix of art and science, and many that are predominantly art. Even with shots that I would categorize as art, I rarely composite a picture element taken at one place and time into another photograph. When I do, I am diligent about pointing it out if it is being published on social media, print, or anywhere else. With astrophotography and nightscape photography in particular, I make every attempt to preserve stars and not to add in anything that wasn’t there in the first place. Some say this is a “purist” workflow, which I would mostly agree with. That said, I have no problem with photographers and artists who take an alternate approach to their craft. When we are talking about art, there are no rights or wrongs in my book. There are only the photographer’s interpretation and rendition of a scene.
To put some firm footing under each of these types of images, let me take you through a few examples. Below is an image that I captured with a long focal length, large aperture telescope that I would place squarely into the “pure science” category. It was used to identify and catalog a new asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. The frame is inverted to provide better contrast between the small, faint asteroids and the dark background of space. The stars are beautiful, but I don’t think that anyone would confuse this with an artistic shot.
Next is a photograph originally taken as a science image to confirm a gigantic bubble being blown in space by a relativistic jet emanating from the black hole Cygnus X-1. It started out as a science shot but turned into what I think is a nice artistic astrophoto as well. The colors may seem a bit obscure, and this is where artistic license comes in to play, I used a color palette typically seen on Hubble Space Telescope images. In fact, the color scheme is called “The Hubble Palette.” The scientific purpose of using these colors is to highlight various regions of gas that emit light at specific wavelengths. As an artist, I also happen to like the way the colors look. The ethereal blue shell of the bubble could be a five-light year wide version of the ghost character in Pac-Man.
Being a landscape and nightscape photographer, I am often asked about the authenticity of my photographs. With nightscapes, in particular, the question that frequently comes up is “would I really see that if I was out there?” My answer is pretty straightforward, no you will not see the same colors or brilliance that you see in my photographs. But, there’s more to the answer for those who want to know the reason why. To start with, the eye has a focal length of approximately 22mm and an f-stop of about f/2.1 at night which is not far off from a typical camera used for nightscape photography. However, the sensor in the camera is able to capture more of the photons (i.e., light) that fall on it for a longer amount of time. Our eyes are also relatively color blind at night given the way the rods and cones in our retina function. Cones, come in groups of three photoreceptors, which gives us color vision in brighter conditions. Rods are a singular photoreceptor, that only affords us black and white vision in low-light. With all of that said, what shows up in my nightscape photographs does accurately depict what someone would see if humans had super-duper nighttime color vision. Nothing is made up, nature is simply being enhanced to show what we can’t see due to our own physical limitations. To my mind, it’s the exact same concept as a macro photographer taking you into the microscopic world of bugs. Who hasn’t marveled at those incredible close-in images of a fly’s segmented eyes? We would never see that world with our normal human vision either.
At the end of the day, with my "photographer as an artist" hat on, creative choices are mine to make regardless of popular opinion. If others like the result, awesome. If not, at least I held true to my vision for the work. As a photographer doing precise, scientific imaging, I don't get to make those decisions and must do everything in my control to ensure the integrity of my images.
Back to the original question that I posed, “Why should we mess with nature in our photographs?” In short, because there is a lot more to the natural world than meets the eye. Evolution has delivered some incredible capabilities in human vision but also some limitations. Science and technology have enabled us to go beyond those limitations and see more than perhaps we could have ever imagined.