Altered States

Cameras never lie, but a computer can

Maybe I’ve two of three qualities required for a little premature success. I can take above average pictures, am an above average retoucher, but unfortunately I lack an important third quality, which is the appetite for fakery.

I’ve a long shelf of books by wildlife photographers and it’s a collection I’ve often sought inspiration from. But sadly I’ll be putting a couple of those away now, now I’ve seen that of the photographs within, many aren’t photographs at all. They’re manipulated images, or they’re composites — where two or more photographs are combined to create an image that existed only in the maker’s mind in the pretence that they’re photographs.

There are many photographers whose work is superb without requiring such embellishment, but unfortunately there also seems to be a number who appear to deem themselves not good enough, so have to add extra elements to their photographs to be competitive. Only they’re not photographers now, they’re digital artists, for want of a name. Fair play though, but if you’re a digital artist then you must say so, just don’t have the world think you’re a photographer.

It’s not about what they’re DOING that irks me, it’s what they’re NOT doing, and that’s being unclear about their affiliation by not declaring their vocation properly, or indeed at all. It’s not illegal, but it’s deceptive, and in the minds of many it’s unethical.

You may write of your profession, your cameras and lenses, your understanding of your subjects, not to mention your skills in locating them. And you might write about the light, whether to shoot at ƒ2.8 or ƒ5.6, or the best focal lengths to use. But by not mentioning your Mac with the big processor, your compositing skills of adding falling rain or snow, more zebra to a herd, or more dust for drama, is deceptive. Deliberate omission of the whole truth is deception.

You’re afraid to show your hand because your integrity may suffer or you may not sell so many. You may also no longer be considered a photographer of exotic wildlife but instead, of an image maker more akin to a digital David Shepherd. It’s a shame that all your bona fide photographs will now be suspect on the evidence of your altered ones. And it’s a shame too, that bona fide photographers might be judged on the prescence of a suspect few like yourselves. You’re also taking from an unsuspecting public who believe they’re admiring a great talent – deceiving those who fund your profession.

I recently spent £40 on a large book, a wonderful book full of wildlife photographs taken by an experienced wildlife photographer who I’d long admired. It purports to be a book on wildlife photography. Indeed it’s text speaks of a love of photography and the animals photographed, but now I know – only some of those images really existed before the camera or the photographer.

Those images were largely or in part created on a computer in an office, combining ordinary images to make better ones. They existed only imaginatively and subsequently probably exist as a layered image file on a hard drive. Those images were never played out on the savannah or ever existed in a camera.

So I was misled, duped into thinking that it was a book of wonderful photography.

I’ve been taking photographs for twenty-five years, wildlife for five. I’ve also nineteen years of digital retouching behind me and I’ve never been tempted to alter a wildlife image. It just does not sit with me, it’s akin to photojournalism where the genre requires an accuracy and honesty of the recording of the scene before the camera. If I ever do choose to remove a leaf or branch for the sake of the image I’ll say so, and keep the integrity of my other pictures intact.

There’s no complaint here about manipulating an image to make it better, or of combining two images to make it one. But don’t call it photography, or pretend it to be because that would be a lie.

If you’re a digital artist then for the sake of photography say so. And if you’re a photographer, don’t be afraid to claim yourself as one.