A Moment Frozen in Time …. or not.

Headed HomeI’ve used expressions similar to this in the past (well the first part of it anyway), and occasionally see similar statements by photographers when discussing their philosophy or their definition of what they do.  Recently I have come to realize when capturing images to share ones vision and point of view, sometimes a “single moment” just doesn’t do it. I’ve also found that in some of those cases  I can use multiple “moments” to create a single image which may offer a better image of the experience when taking the shot.

I’m not talking about some crazy montage, I’m talking about an image created from two or more images which appears to be a single image capturing a single moment. And I’m not referring to  HDR or focus stacking with a static subject, blending exposures to overcome limitations in the capturing process.

There are times where I have a dynamic scene in front of me, and no single image can really convey the experience of being there in person. Life isn’t made up of “frozen moments” and sometimes a frozen moment doesn’t even look real. Granted in some regards that is what makes photography unique and compelling … isolating something down to an instance of time … but that doesn’t necessarily apply to all photographs. (I mentioned this in a recent post about moving water, and why capturing it blurry to some extent appears more realistic to what we experience when watching it in person.)  Sometimes when out shooting, I have an image in my mind and the circumstances make it impossible to capture, yet I can create it pretty easily by combining a couple of images.  Where this occurs most often is a dynamic scene that is rapidly changing to some degree, and the experience of being there is built upon watching the changes over time, such as the two examples I’ve used in this article, seagulls gliding in the ocean breeze at sunset, or waves constantly crashing ashore then retreating.

Photographers have been manipulating things since the beginning, often for this very purpose. Double exposing film was one such technique.  I’ve heard stories of 4×5 photographers who would expose several sheets of film of a full moon, then save those for double exposing into a scene later.  In the darkroom,  complex masking and alignment techniques would allow you to expose different areas of the photographic paper with projections from different negatives in the enlarger.  (I’ve done this myself several times in my darkroom days).

So there is nothing new about manipulating the image when it comes to photography, it’s been around pretty much since it started. Digital imaging and modern tools make things like this easier, but it has also made it easy to go to extremes. Some images taken to extremes have been publicized via things like social medai, creating a very common awareness of manipulation in the general public – “photoshop” is more commonly used as verb in describing something done to photographs than it is the name of a software product. Reactions to this are just like everything else in life, some feel it’s completely wrong, some feel anything goes, and most sit somewhere in the middle. Some buyers think it is wrong, some don’t care, and others are OK with it once what has been done has been explained.  But there also many that aren’t OK with it, but aren’t told (or worse, lied to).  Let’s not forget about all the photographers that market their use of film, bragging about “no photoshop” as though it is somehow more real or better. (sorry, but Fujichrome films were created specially boost saturation, and there is nothing natural about the intense dyes in Cibachrome).  Of course all those film guys scan their negatives now, and if you want a scan to look like the original you have to post process it just like anyone else does when they shoot digital. End result,  it’s as gray of an issue as there is, and while I suppose there really is no right or wrong, there does seem to be a little bit of ethics involved to me.

One respected landscape photographer recently wrote an article about his philosophy on this … basically saying anything goes.  Before then I had no idea he did this much manipulation to his work.  He has no problem doing whatever it takes to create the final image, the only caveat is when he is done it looks like a normal image. Personally I have a little problem with this … what he is selling is photo illustrations, not photographs.  Once you start manipulating the scene to the point that it doesn’t actually exist and can’t exist, it’s a creation, not a photograph. (he talks of making mountains taller, moving trees and bushes or adding them, changing the path of a stream of water  – basically an anything goes approach)  At this point I can no longer identify what is real and what isn’t, and because of this philosophy I can no longer view any of his images as real.  We’re not talking about cranking up saturation here.  Is this faking it?  Seems like it to me.  I sort of have a problem with faking it and passing it off as real, which is what he seems to be doing. The images are terrific, and believable, but they are creations and not disclosed at that.  Those doing this make it somewhat challenging to others, because there is a pretty big distrust of photography and many that buy landscape work expect it to be a real place and time.  But he sells his work and is respected by many other photographers.

Another well respected photographer has the complete opposite philosophy.  He believes whatever he shoots, that’s it.  If he takes a beautiful image of a sunset at the beach, and someone left a bunch of trash laying on the beach, it stays in the shot. I don’t know if he would clean it up first if he could or if he just feels it’s part of the world.  I certainly have no problem cloning out a Coke can that some disrespectful jerk left behind.  But these two examples illustrate the extremes in philosophy quite well.

I tend to be closer to the second one than the first.  I try to make sure the image is really just that, a photograph of when I was there.  But I also try very hard to convey my reaction and emotions to the scene, and with a dynamic scene that can be a little challenging if not impossible.

The first example of this in my work since I switched to digital dates way back – to 2001 when I was shooting the medium format Kodak DCS Pro Back.  I was in Southern California, and each evening I ventured over to the LaJolla coast for sunset.  I was trying to get the cliche “seagull in the sunset” shot. I spent 4 evenings, and despite the fact that there were seagulls everywhere, none of them would cooperate and position themselves in an acceptable spot in front of the setting sun for what I had in mind.  Some were too close, some too far, or turned wrong, or ended up blurry.  I took hundreds of shots of seagulls flying in front of the sun … and none of them turned out.

Frustrated, it occurred to me the last day to shoot the two things separately. I took several shots of seagulls about 20 minutes before sunset to silhouette the birds against the sky. Then while trying to get a bird in a good location during sunset I took a few frames without any birds in it.  I had never really tried to merge two digital files like this before but figured this was my last chance to get the shot I was after.

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The end result was what I had in mind – the image at the top of this article. Yes it’s a creation, but it does convey the experience of watching the seagulls soaring in the ocean air currents as evening approaches. There were many  times the seagulls flew in front of the sun, but none where the image could convey the experience.  So I combined two images taken within about 2o minutes of each other to try and capture some of the emotion I felt each evening watching those peaceful sunsets and the birds enjoying their last few minutes of freedom before hunkering down for the night. (if that’s what seagulls do.  Maybe they keep flying around it the dark and you just can’t see them )

Ever since creating that image I’ve struggled with the “ethics” of it.  I often get asked if I “photoshop” my work.  Of course I do … you can’t do digital photography without some effort in post production.  But I think what people are really asking is if I “cheat” or “fake” things … create something that wasn’t there and could never look like what the image shows.  In my mind I don’t feel this is cheating. It’s something I rarely do, and I’ve done it for a long time … many years before digital photography was anything but an R&D project inside various companies.  But there are times where you can’t convey the feeling with a “moment in time”.

A more recent example was while on Kauai last summer.  I spend most evenings enjoying the sunset on the coast when I’m anywhere near the ocean.  I’m not talking the beach here (I’m not a swimmer, I don’t think I’ve been in the ocean for a decade or more.)  I’m talking waves crashing on the rocks kind of spot.  As I watched this evening, I enjoyed the waves coming in, catching the setting sun, followed by all the water rushing back out to sea with all the little rivulets and puddles, along with white foam and spray.  I took quite a few shots, trying to capture a blend of  those two different actions of the water.  They don’t happen at the same time and even if they did, while there you cannot watch both at the same time because of the wide angle involved.

In fact that is how we “see” the world in general.  While  peripheral vision allows us to see a pretty wide angle, we really only extract detail from a very narrow angle which we are focusing on.  An example is depth of field.  Our eyes have depth of field as well, but do you ever actually see anything blurry?  No, because you instantly focus on whatever you are looking at. Only if you look at something then deliberately  use your peripheral vision do  you notice most of that is blurry. Not only is it blurry but you can’t make out any real detail as well.   So when we see an image with shallow depth of field, we are seeing something that we wouldn’t see if there in person.  Our visual system “builds” a scene in our mind by quickly moving our eyes around.  Here’s an interesting article in Wikipedia about the process. Pretty amazing when you think about it … two eyes in perfect sync moving around incredibly fast to build an image in our mind.  But I digress, the point I’m making is about this scene in particular, and as I worked on them later that night,  no one image – no moment frozen in time – portrayed the feeling of being there.  What to do?

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This is my result, achieved by combining two images.  I had one image that captured the waves coming in nicely, and another that was more about watching the water retreat from the previous wave through the rocks.  A simple mask in photoshop blended them effectively, leaving me with an image that visually portrayed more what I was seeing and feeling that evening.  Here are the two images, as well as the mask I used.

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Did i “cheat” or “fake” it?  Perhaps, but my intention wasn’t to create something that was beautiful to look at despite not actually existing, but to offer some type of connection to the experience of watching the waves crashing in the sunset.

I try not to judge other photographers and their personal philosophies on this. I do feel there is a point where you should disclose that what people are seeing doesn’t exist, but is a fabrication.

But this means drawing a line, and there is no way to do that.  . Some would feel I crossed that line with these two images, other obviously think this is pretty minor.

Myself, I’m ok with it.

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2 Responses to “A Moment Frozen in Time …. or not.”

  1. Great post Wayne. You don’t take a photograph, you make it.
    ~Ansel Adams

  2. There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs. ~Ansel Adams