Thursday, February 19, 2015

Veritography III: A Real Reality

"Veritography" was the word I coined for this series of posts about my experience of photography. I liked it because it sounded like an intensifier (VERY-tography) but also because it incorporated the Roman god of truth, Veritas (or, if you're under 25, a good Harry Potter word). The series was conceived as being about the "truths" of photography, as they came to light (heh!) in the course of taking pictures. Today's entry is also about TRUTH, in the capital-letter sense of establishing the pure, real, and essential nature of something.

In addition, I just launched my own photo gallery website. I borrowed the name of this series for that website, partially because I like the name, and also because it was available as a domain (that part is important). You can find my photography site at

Reality is a tricky subject with photography. Assuming one hasn't applied any after-exposure manipulation, each individual shot could be considered "real." If I take a picture of a dog, like Hannah (photo above) then I know that's a real dog. She looks like that. We were out for a walk in a park -- that part is also real.

One standard of reality is a basic acceptability test: this seems real, so we're willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. I'm showing a picture of a dog and saying that it's a dog. That makes it easy to use our innate senses to say, "Sure. I've never seen that dog, but that's definitely a dog... and it's not in front of the pyramids or anything, so I'll also stipulate to the fact Andy might know that dog. That's real."

If I show you that picture of Hannah and then say that it's actually a suit with a person inside, then several things happen. One, you're probably going to look a lot closer at that picture -- just glancing at it will tell you its a dog, but if you're trying to determine if it's a costume, you're going to look a lot closer. For the zipper, if no other reason!

Second, it's going to flip the "fail" switch on the benefit of the doubt. The initial response will be doubt: "Is that a costume?" And then details will be observed: it's the wrong shape to fit a human, it has incredibly life-like details by the score, and where did Andy find so many leaves that are scaled big so the dog would look small?

And eventually, everyone will reach the same conclusion: that isn't a human in a dog costume; it's a dog. The dog-costume is not real.

So the context of what we're supposed to be seeing helps us decide whether or not the photo is "real."

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When I first started working with photographs in my current "professional" work flow, I made an agreement with myself. I was going to refrain from digital editing! So many pictures I'd seen had been obviously doctored, from the ridiculous (like stray extra hands in clothing ads) to the more subtle (high dynamic range photos with colors that are *very* intense). I wanted to avoid all of that, even if I could never exactly prove that I didn't use it. I was going to go straight out-of-camera (OOC, in some circles).

But there were complications.

First: all editing is digital editing now. The files my camera takes are digital files. So even if I just want to crop the edges, that's a digital edit. If I want to brighten or darken the entire picture, it's a digital edit. The only "analog" edits I can make are printing photos, then drawing on them with a marker.

Second: the camera doesn't always capture what I think it's going to. This can be due to the camera or to the human operating it. Consider this edited photo:

It's a neat little self-portrait in the reflective glass of an empty park sign. It was a bright summer day, and what the camera actually captured is this:

Yes, there's the obvious color/black&white difference. But I set the camera to expose for the reflection (so I could see my face). It dutifully did so, raising the exposure of the entire scene. Now the green grass at the edges of the frame has been brightened into invisibility. But the camera still captured enough data in that white-out for me to "recover" by selectively darkening those edge portions.

The border from the first photo isn't an addition, copied from a different photo. It's data that the camera could see, but the translation to digital file meant that it was obscured. So the edits to darken the edges still represent the reality of the scene, if not the reality of my exposure. I also digitally straightened the sign -- having a non-level camera is one of those "human" errors I mentioned.

Now let's look at a different level of reality. Consider this photo from a jazz club. First, the un-edited OOC image:

Wow. It's dark. When I developed this, I made several artistic alterations. I changed the color balance, because this particular club's lights tend to make everyone look vaguely Ooompa-Loompa, suffused in orange glows. Those lights are canister lights in the ceiling, so they're extremely directional: in this case, the direction is down. Those under the lights are bright, but those outside are lost. In this case, the only face you can see is almost lost in shadow, while the light illuminates the near figure's neck and shoulders. Not ideal. The fix:

I darkened the foreground figure to further de-emphasize him (since you can't see his face or expression anyway), leaving him more a suggestion of a player. I brightened the drummer's face, making visible the outline of his hair and beard. I cropped the photograph to get rid of the extra 35% black space at the top.

Hopefully, the edited picture doesn't feel any more or less "real" than the original, though I'll admit that it doesn't help to show them back-to-back. Yes, that wasn't what I captured... except that it is what I captured. I didn't add anything -- the changes were altering the details that were inherently in the photograph. I sure didn't spend time digitally copying a brighter beard onto that guy!

I've got two more examples.

That previous example was taking away darkness (if only in a limited sense). Now let's look at an artistic use of added darkness. Here's the edited picture:

And the original:

This original isn't even the entire picture. It's a crop of the lower-right portion of a larger exposure that contained an out-of-focus bass player in mid-blink, and a person standing up into frame. You can still see the bass player's hand and shirt on the left of the original.

Our eyes are drawn towards light in photographs. If too much is bright, the eye becomes distracted. There's a lot of stuff in the original to look at, from the keyboard buttons in the lower left, the drinks and candle on the table, the music stand, the bass, the exit sign behind the player's head...

So I wanted to de-clutter this photograph, increasing the focus on the player and his concentration on the music. As you can see, the edited version retains the glint of the bass and the things on the table. But I was aggressive with my darkness. If I had brought the shadows in evenly, you would still have seen the glowing exit sign, considering it's brighter than the table candle. It would be even more distracting than it is in the original. So I brush-painted the darkness over it.

It's a fairly transparent and unsubtle editing job, when I lay it plain. I'm sure I'd do it differently now (this is from August), because things about it annoy me. What's with the unnaturally dull candle on the table? Why does the back of his neck get thrown in shadow?

It is interesting to see how much reflected brightness comes from the saxophone. I doubt his face would be nearly as well lit without the light bouncing from the instrument. The bright glow on his downturned face is entirely the result of the shining instrument he's holding. It helped to balance out the picture, in a totally unintentional way.

Finally, let's look at a picture from a different jazz club:

This is an unreal effect that was created naturally. I shot with a long enough exposure to fix most of the picture, but then accidentally moved the camera right before the end, causing the brightest lights to smear. The resulting picture is a particular kind of "unreal" (nothing like this light show has ever happened there!) while still being one of the most real shots in this entry, in the sense that I did no editing. It came from the camera like this. That doesn't make it a better or more "real" photo.

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Photography can represent reality. A photo can establish someone being in a particular place, capture a particular event, or even just record the row I parked in at the airport. But the photographs can also misrepresent reality, presenting only a particular point of view. What happens behind a photographer? Whatever it is, it's lost, but that need not be as tragic as it sounds. Maybe it's just a plain wall.

In the same way, there is no one pronouncement about editing photos. Sure, editing is a great way to introduce unreality, whether in the form of hyper-natural colors or photoshopping my father from one picture into a different one he was taking. But it's also a way of applying a personal touch to a mechanically- and algorithmically-derived series of ones and zeros. Maybe the shadows need to come up. Maybe the highlights need to come down. Maybe the blue needs to be more blue in order to look normal.

I abandoned my original no-edit intentions, but replaced it with a desire to move towards the truth of the moment I captured, even if that moment isn't real -- and never was. I still edit with a conservative eye towards alterations -- I purposefully don't own Photoshop or other high-powered digital editing software -- but don't be surprised if sometimes the shadows fall on the guy making the distracting face, the single hair gets removed from a woman's chin, and the lights may flare to hide busy background.

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