Reality in a photo? Doesn't exist!

I recently updated some things on my web profile and blog photography page about my approach to photography and post processing and I thought I would further explain my take on this in this post since I do tend to get into this discussion about digital processing from time to time. Digital post processing has become a bit of a dirty word, it is sometimes considered ‘cheating’ as if post processing was something new. Where did this obscure idea that a photo has to be ‘real’ come from anyway? Why is Picasso not held to the same standard – those Picasso paintings look unreal to me! Reality doesn’t exist. One of the worlds most famous landscape photographers, Ansel Adams, processed his shots like no other and his shots are not ‘real’ – but they are absolute masterpieces!

My point is this:

A camera or photo that reflects reality as you see it does not exist.

Explaining this is not so simple though, I’ll give it a go and also explain why the RAW format is the only way to go.

My use of post processing

No camera can capture an image like your eyes see it, so I use digital post production to make my photos more accurately reflect the scene as I saw it. I am not a photojournalist and I am not particularly interested in reality. I am interested in recreating how I saw and felt the scene when I shot the photo. To accomplish this I use digital post production to do what the traditional darkroom has been used for in the past hundreds of years: adjusting exposure, saturation, white balance, correct any colour cast, do dodging and burning, remove purple fringing and chromatic aberation, add contrast. I do NOT modify the visible content of the scene and I feel this is an important difference between photography and digital art (digital art is not ‘cheating’ either it’s just another art form). I do not add or remove content like clouds, cars, people, animals or people etc. I simply modify the look to make it more accurately reflect the scene as I saw it!

Have a look at my photo from the park ‘Søndermarken’ in Copenhagen, shot in October 2005 (please click to see larger on my web to truly see the photo):

Click to see large size on my gallery!

I love this shot. So does a lot of my customers, I have sold this many times. Some people who know Søndermarken love it but say “did you do stuff to this photo?” because they know nothing like this has ever been produced by their  own consumer compact digital camera. I usually reply “YES! I made it reflect the scene as I saw it and felt it when I took the photo.” But I didn’t alter the visual content (even if I was very tempted to remove the lamp in the top left corner). This is a unique shot of Søndermarken. I have been back many times and it has never looked quite like this. The sun is very low and provides lovely warm light from the right side (look at the shadows) and this lights up the brown/yellow leaves on the trees. I shot only one shot this day not discovering how fantastic it was till I looked at it back home. I have revisited this exact spot many times but it has never come close to matching this one day in October 2005. This is what great photography is about for me. Capturing the very special light in that unique moment.

Capturing real light in a box

The hard part about capturing and presenting this special light is that the human eyes and brain are a million times better at seeing things than any camera. For one thing your eyes can see at least 20 stops of dynamic range – the difference between white and black – whereas even the best cameras can only capture somewhere between 7 to 8-9 stops of dynamic range. This is why when you look against the sun (a scene with huge dynamic range) your eyes can easily see the details in both the sky and the shadows – but take a photo and it’s either one big dark shadow with no details, or detailed shadows with a totally overexposed sky. Compressing at least 20 stops of visual dynamic range into about 7 means a lot of information has to go. You have to decide where you want the details – in the shadows or in the highlights! On top of this your brain is an amazing image processor. Your brain automatically and in real time does white balance correction, colour cast correction, tilt and perspective shifting and correction so all lines look straight etc. Your brains visual centre will filter out irrelevant things like power lines and garbage bins and interpret the scene and the colours differently from person to person.

So what I have in my camera is nothing like reality as I saw it, far from it. The scene needs to be re-created to represent what I saw and felt when I was there and shot the photo. I shoot RAW exclusively so I do all my own post processing (like having your own dark room). Is this processing ‘cheating’? No. Or well if it is then everyone cheats! It doesn’t matter if you’re using film, slides or digital (in-camera jpeg or raw file) – reality does not exist and post processing happens. Ansel Adams was a master of the darkroom, do you find his landscape shots to be a ‘cheat’ knowing that they are heavily processed?

Post processing happens everywhere

If you use film or slides: the post processing happens on the film, the film has a certain built in white balance, grain level, saturation and contrast level. Fujichrome Velvia iso50 for example is a fine grain super saturated contrasty film for landscape photography – comes with built in saturation and contrast at about 5400 degree Kelvin white balance.

If you shoot digital jpeg: You let the camera convert from RAW to jpeg and add lots of processing. You probably have the camera on auto white balance meaning it tries to measure the temperature of white by itself – of course this often ‘fails’ since this is tough to do and there is no right white-balance anyway, it is an artistic decision. You have set the contrast, saturation, sharpness, brightness etc. parameters in the camera. When you shoot a photo the camera then takes the raw data from the sensor, tries to guess the white balance and adds the contrast, sharpness, saturation etc. from the camera settings, add heaps of digital noise reduction and worst of all – compresses the colours and the dynamic range into 256 levels of tonal range per channel and turns this into a compressed 8 bit colour jpeg file. Mega loss of data! This is why the jpeg is certainly not straight out of the camera, it is very heavily processed! A jpeg file straight out of any digital camera is certainly not reality and is certainly not how the scene actually looked.

If you shoot in RAW format: You actually have the real “straight out of the camera” file! The raw file is just that – raw data straight from the sensor no processing. But a RAW file is certainly not reality either. If you have seen a RAW file unprocessed you will know that it is a very flat under-saturated dull and boring looking thing. This demonstrates how heavily processed jpegs from a camera are – ‘cos here you have the raw file next to it. You have to do all the work with raw files, you have to set the white balance, contrast, saturation, white and black level, sharpness etc. – and then convert it to a readable format like 16-bit tiff. But the work is worth it, with raw files you have at least two major advantages: you can change the white balance with no loss of quality and you have the full 12-bit colour range of data from your digital sensor. 12-bit vs. 8-bit is a mega difference! 12 bit has 4096 levels of colour per red, green and blue channel! 4096 levels per channel! 8-bit has a mere 256 levels. 256 vs 4096 levels – RAW files rule!

Photojournalism – and digital art

Digital art
is when it stops being photography and you actually alter the visible content. You remove or add people, you change the sky and bring in clouds from another shot, you add some sunshine etc. It’s not ‘cheating’ it’s just another art form, but I do feel that you should make your viewers aware that it is digital art you’re presenting so they’re not mislead.

Photojournalism is something else entirely of course and here the authenticity of the visible content is the most important factor. You cannot alter the content at all and if you do then that is definitely ‘cheating’ and faking it. You’re showing a photo on the cover of a newspaper for example and people take this as fact and it should be – with regards to visual content anyway. Lot’s of famous fakes have been discovered and reporters fired because of it, here’s a great post from Photopreneur about the world’s most famous photo fakes.


Reality doesn’t exist! At least not in a photo.

I am not interested in reality necessarily anyway. I am an artist, a landscape photographer and I will process the image to make it reflect how I saw it. I do not alter the visible content, but I alter the look. If you feel this is cheating so be it, you’re very welcome to your own opinion. I just wanted you to understand that the heavily processed 8-bit jpeg out of a digital camera is certainly not reality either and is just as much ‘cheating’!

I’m off to capture some more light – not reality!

5 Comments on “Reality in a photo? Doesn't exist!”

  1. Rock on, Beavis!

    When is reality for real….dude, you don't know what a monster of a Pandoras Box you are opening here…google ontology and epistemology and lose your mind…..

    Joke aside, as always your burning passion for good photography is a joy to read and you are indeed an artist.

    Q: Which is more important to you, the process of creation or the end result?

  2. Trust my philosopher friend to love some metaphysics 😀 Reality is just reflected light!

    Re. your question, it's the end result that's definitely the most important!

    – but as a Monty Python fan I would like to answer this question in 3 parts in a funny voice:

    1) Shooting the photo on location. This part of the creation process I love.

    2) Developing the raw file. Can be a lot of fun, but most of it is just a lot of routine work though.

    3) End result. This is what it's all about. Getting a photo that I like. No matter how much fun no. 1 or 2 was, if the end result sucks I delete it.

  3. You make some very interesting points, and I must say that your post-processing definitely does add to the image, rather than detract from it.

    There are a number of other photographers who also claim their post-processing is intended to provide a similar result as what the eye sees, but many of their photos look way over-processed (particularly due to over-use of HDR).

    Keep up the great photography!

  4. Right on Flemming! Creativity demands a vision. Not everything in this life represents truth and is in most cases subjective. Even in photography we are authors. It is up to us present the story therefore we must be honest in our interpretation. What do I mean? Honest to ourselves. With a good moral compass we can present a story with our own vision. I was watching Inside The Actors Studio on Bravo (great show and it should still be on but is not) and Liza Minnelli was the guest. I can’t remember the story she was telling but I remember it was very good. At the end of the story the students were very pleased. Her response? ” There your stories and you have to live with them so make them good.” Flemming, there your photographs so make them good. You do.

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