Friday, March 6, 2015

My iPhone and I during the evening commute...

So I've had my iPhone for about two months and haven't quite gotten to the point where I feel lost without it, but I'm getting there. There are still a few things I'm fumbling around with, I still haven't mastered the art of typing on the device, especially on a moving train, as being able to write this blog during my daily commute was one of the justifications for getting this thing in the first place.

Another justification was being able to have a camera with me at all times without having to carry around my rather cumbersome gear. Again, taking pictures with my phone at a moment's notice, isn't second nature to me just yet.

But the other night on the way home during a spectacular "sky event" as a good friend would call it, I got inspired...

I posted this image on Facebook and got about 50 likes in a day, I'm guessing it was the sunset. A friend asked if I used any digital manipulation or if I published the image straight from the camera file. I responded merely that the image corresponded more or less to the way I saw the scene at the time, which was in fact, true. Having been a serious photographer since high school, a very long time ago, I know that photographs seldom look the way you see the image in your mind's eye when you take the picture. There are lots of reasons for this but the most obvious one is that a camera and the recording medium, whether it be film or an electronic sensor, do not "see" an image the way our eyes and brain do. Photographers since the advent of the medium over 175 years ago, have understood this and have worked very hard to make their final images look just the way they think they ought to look.

Yet another surreptitious smartphone photograph of
people using smartphones on the train.
In the case of the picture above, there is a great difference between the amount of light coming from the sky and the amount of light reflected by the woman's coat or the tracks. Photographers call this the dynamic range. Photographic media can record a far more limited dynamic range than we can see. When we take a picture, if the range between brightest part of the image and the darkest is too great, compromises have to be made. If we want to preserve detail in the shadow areas, then we have to be willing to lose some detail in the highlights which will be rendered as solid white. Likewise; if we want to preserve details in the highlights, such as the vivid colors in the sky, we have to acccept that the shadow areas will be rendered solid black, unless of course we do something about it.

Back in the day when we shot black and white negatives, we could control the exposure and the development of the film to maximize its potential of producing a suitable print.  Ansel Adams took this technique to its logical extreme when he developed what he called the "Zone System." Then when we made a print in the darkroom, we had the ability to selectively control the amount of dark and light by means of what we call burning (adding more exposure) or dodging, (subtracting exposure), to specific areas of the print. Burning and dodging a print is an art form unto itself; watching the hand gestures of a skilled photographic printer dodging and burning in the darkroom is a truly sight to behold, akin to watching a potter on a wheel or a woodworker on a lathe.

Moonrise, Rogers Park
Alas, as a result of modern technology, this is becoming a lost art as most of the post-production of the photographic images we see today is done on a computer. If prints are made, they are produced on a machine. Today we can digitally control images to a degree that we could only dream about in the old days.

We like to think of photography as a medium that accurately represents reality but the fact is, photographs represent reality no more than paintings or any other kind of visual representation, as the act of framing and recording any three dimensional image onto a two dimensional surface, whether it be film, paper, canvas, or a computer monitor, is by its very nature, artificial.

Moonrise  RP2
Ever since the advent of the revolutionary digital photo editing software Photoshop in 1988. many people have viewed any kind of image manipulation as artificial, and therefore, cheating. Some folks for example, go to the extreme of claiming that the photographs they publish on the social media site Instagram, were made without the benefit of one of that app's many image-altering filters. Somehow they feel this is more pure and honest. But the truth is that every photograph made since the very beginning of the medium has in one way or other been manipulated.

Do photographs lie? Of course they do. Every one of them, to some extent.

All digital technology has done is make the process simpler and more accessible to the general public.

Today, there are apps for smartphones that make it painfully easy to do what once took a skill developed after years of practice in the darkroom to accomplish.

So there's the long winded answer to my friend's question if I used Instagram filters and other digital manipulation techniques on these photographs from the other day. Here's the sort version:

You're damn right I did.

Casa Bonita and Venus (the planet)


Michael said...

Although I know much less about photography than I would like, I am somewhat familiar with astrophotography through my association with the Mobile Astronomical Society (aka the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society) and one of its members in particular who is an associate editor for Sky and Telescope Magazine. Most laymen seem to be under the impression that the fabulous photos of deep sky objects they may see in various media such as those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope appear as they would through eyepiece observation. Little could be further from reality. The fact is, such photos are time exposures of varying lengths processed with stacking software on a computer. This also requires rather sophisticated, high-end telescopes and equatorial tracking mounts. These photos are often taken by amateurs with DSLR cameras and, for those able to spend the money, with dedicated astronomical CCD (charged coupled device) imaging paraphernalia. The CCD chips (sensors) in these cameras are far more sensitive than the human eye, able to capture photons en masse; a feat far beyond human capability. Even at that, for an image to be worth a hoot a significant skill set must be developed by the astronomer both at the telescope and at the computer. In terrestrial photography I would think the eye of the photographer would be much more important. Even though, as you say, because of nuances of the camera no photo will be quite what one sees as they are depressing the shutter. Insofar as computer processing techniques being akin to darkroom techniques used to make a photograph appear a certain way an artist-photographer most certainly has license to to as he or she sees fit and we are left with the works of people like Ansel Adams,, that are arguably the equal of any great painter or sculptor. I do take issue, though, with some who use processing techniques to mislead, whether intentionally or not. For example, we have a fellow down here on the MS coast who promotes tourism with pictures of local attractions that are photoshopped to the point that they barely resemble what one would see if they were here. Such endeavor is, IMHO, deceitful. I guess there is just a fine line between enhancing the natural color and lighting of a subject and flat-out overdoing it. Photography as art is one thing, hucksterism in the guise of art is quite another.

James Iska said...

Thanks Michael for your always insightful comments. I'm reminded of my first views through my new 6" reflecting telescope at the Orion nebula and being terribly disappointed that I couldn't see the magnificent colors that were visible in my astronomy books!

Photoshop has indeed made us all aware of the way photographs can deceive, but in reality, the medium ever since its inception, has been used as a tool for deception. Think of all those shots in commercials of the beaches in Jamaica populated only by one or two remarkably beautiful bikini-clad people. I've never been but I'm guessing the reality is quite different!

Another bit of wanton self-promotion here, but I wrote a post a few years ago about the famous photograph showing four or five twenty-something Brooklynites engaged in friendly conversation, who appear to be completely indifferent to the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center behind them. In the piece I cite a few examples of some other iconic images that while being by any reasonable standard, unaltered, were nonetheless entirely misleading, and used in deceitful ways.

You can find the piece here: