Blurred Lines Between Science and Art in Photography

Blurred Lines Between Science and Art in Photography

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.

The December 18th, 2017 headline image for Nature Magazine's "2017 in pictures: The best science images of the year."

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.

The discovery image from a search for minor planets (aka asteroids).

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.

The jet-blown nebula near Cygnus X-1 captured in the light of hydrogen-alpha, singly ionized sulfur, and doubly ionized oxygen.

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.

"Land that Time Forgot", a nightscape photograph of the Milky Way arching over White Pocket in northern Arizona.

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.

Steve Cullen's picture

Steve Cullen is a photographer and videographer based in the Pacific Northwest. He's a professional wanderer and night sky nerd trying to capture the spirit of the places he explores through his nightscape, landscape, and aerial work.

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Very informative article and I'm impressed with the breadth of your knowledge on the subject. Of course, being among the more ignorant people you'll ever meet, it doesn't take a lot to impress me. ;-)

The better question is how to get people to understand what that technology is showing them. If they bother to look at the caption they might see what the exposure time is, but who includes how many times they boosted the color curve? I love looking at nasa pics but even them telling me what color represents what wavelength I still don't have a clue because i don't know what the full range is.

As for Nature selecting that photo, it reminded me of when the post office issued a stamp with the face of the Statue of Liberty in Las Vegas instead of New York on it.

Great article Steve and I can share all your sentiments here.

One thing that always crosses my mind when editing nightscapes is how do other people see the image? I often get comments referring to some light pollution in the image as a sunrise which leads me to wonder. With no experience in night photography you can appreciate how people struggle to see it as a 'reality' but IMO no photograph can do justice to the sight of the Milky Way with your very own eyes anyway.

Good article Steve. From my experience color, magnitude (faint limit) and compositing are usually covered in the discussion of astronomical images- but there is a dimension rarely covered that should (in my opinion) be addressed with equal weight in the discussion- bit depth. Most appreciators of the art do not know that in digital imagery there is more data (discrete brightnesses) recorded in an image than can be expressed on a device/medium for our eyes to see at any one time. This results in the NECESSITY of choosing how to represent the information. Although as an arbitrary choice, it is not always an "artistic" consideration per se- and other times it certainly is. Displaying an image in a linear way is no more "purist" than any other algorithmic method (usually non-linear).

So getting back to your article- it isn't that the photographs reveal more than the eye can see due to sensitivity alone- there is also a dynamic range of finely detected brightness levels that permit greater contrast (when the data is processed) than our eyes can perceive as well. It is this photographic element that I think always get short shrift.

Excellent additional thoughts to the article Adam. As always, your expert knowledge is appreciated.

Great Article Steve. I agree wholeheartedly with your views here. While I shot the eclipse from Missouri as well, I could not in good faith create a composite, exaggerate colors or even retouch my images. I was oh so tempted to remove a white spec (a bright star) in my image off to the left of the moon/sun, however it wouldn't be very scientific to remove a star.

My children are too young to have seen the eclipse and as a parent I want my kids to know what the eclipse looked like.

Image and video of it here:

When it comes to weddings/engagement portraiture I always retouch and adjust colors. A much different approach.

I think a good explanation for being able to express why the camera can see those things but we can't, yet the image is still "real" in a nightscape image (in the purist fashion, as author described), is to relate it to the trails of car lights on a long exposure. Everyone has seen those cityscape images and more or less understands them. Can you see it that way with your naked eye? No. Did the camera capture what happened? Yes, just differently than you or I. But even this may be flawed, just thought I'd share.

I hope that those kids stat stopped playing basketball for the solar eclipse were wearing eclipse viewing glasses; otherwise, they would be like rapper, Joey Bad-ass, who was "Blinded by the Light".

I wondered the same, but if you look closely at the image you can make out what appears to be viewing glasses.

This seems like an appropriate time to share a quote by the late Galen Rowell, one of the godfathers of adventure photography...

"When we alter an image to draw attention to an effect that wasn't there on the original film or in the eye of the beholder, we are using the belief system inherent in 160 years of photography to create a false impression that this unusual image represents something film recorded in the natural world. To say that somewhere in there remains a real vision of nature is as bogus as trying to convince someone that a counterfeit $1000 bill created by adding zeros to a ten-spot is really okay because the original bill does represent a certain value held in trust in the national coffers. The operative word here is greed."

OK- but that is a narrow view based on biology. The above, concerning only the intent of what the image purports to communicate is correct. However, there is a broader view of the natural world and "reality" that the camera captures. This is the "real vision" that could be considered and with regards to astrophotography is especially important.

When you look through a telescope, no matter how large, you will not see the colorful pictures displayed on the internet or in magazines. But when looking through the telescope those wavelengths of light- those colors are hitting your eye!

As is the case in most fields of science the detector and in this case the camera become our surrogate senses. We perceive a nearly gray view through telescopes- but nature provides color. In this sense an astrophotograph contains more information. It isn't necessarily that all astrophotographs are enhanced (to show color for example), but it is instead that our view with our eyes is diminished. So a closer approximation to "reality" (that is a more complete degree of information) can be obtained through the photography- whereas our eyes subtracted the zeros from nature's currency right off the top. The operative word here is perspective.