I came of age (photographically speaking) in the 1970s, before digital photography, when it was impossible to change the content of photos. Most people only did darkroom work in black and white because color was too cumbersome. We could change contrast by choice of paper, chemicals in the bath, time in the bath, and with filters. We could change exposure by various techniques. We could dodge and burn by phycially blocking the light from reaching the photo paper. Ansel Adams was the master extraordinare. His finished photos looked nothing like his negatives. There was never a question of was he doing something “wrong” and we all strove to imitate him. In digital terms, we could create adjustment layers in contrast and brightness, and we could do spot corrections in luminosity. What we couldn’t do was change, remove, or add pixels.
Fast forward to now. In Photoshop, Lightroom and other software we can easily create many many adjustment layers in color and black and white. What is new is that we can change, add, or delete pixels. People constantly ask “Is it OK to…” and you can fill in the blank with a multitude of things. Add a sky, or just add some clouds in a bright area of a cloudy sky, remove things you don’t like by clonlng away or erasing, combine different exposures, add more real estate using Content Aware Fill, etc.
I recently spent ten days in Southern Utah. The trip was wonderful, but the biggest negative was that in many locations during many days the sky was very hazy and therefore looked muddy and dull. Many otherwise nice and maybe even great photos were ruined by the sky. At home while reviewing my photos I also just got around to learning whats new in Photoshop and played around with the “Add Sky” feature. Voilá. Suddenly I could make my “ruined” photos attractive!
I have long felt comfortable getting rid of unwanted small things in my photos. Like in a forest scene, I will clean it up a bit by using the spot healing brush to remove some of the more agregious wayward branches, or a sign post in a otherwise pristine landscape, contrails in the sky, or dust spots on the sensor. I often exposure bracket so that I can combine two photos to get a better balance between light and dark areas (usually sky and land). I have never felt the pull to add a sky to my photos, but after this trip finding myself with so many beautiful scenes with ugly sky, for the first time I was tempted and just for fun tried it on a few photos. Yikes. By paying attention to luminosity and hue, it is possible to add a great sky that doesn’t look fake.
So, I have been wondering about that old question “Is it OK to…”. I am not a photo journalist (I think it is universally agreed they can’t change pixels in their photos), nor do I sell my photos. But I am trapped in the conundrom this question presents. Why isn’t it OK to add a sky to my photos? Or, why is it bad to add a sky? Why is authenticity important? Why are there any rules? I’d be interested in hearing this community’s thoughts and experiences around this question. I’m interested in both what you are willing to do, and what the line in the sand that you won’t cross is, and most importantly “WHY”?
And to keep the discussion from going off the rails, let’s not try to define what art is.
Here is my heirachy of post processing changes from innocent to questionable that my mind has created:
1, Adding adjustment layers (contrast, hue, brightness, exposure, vibrance, color saturation, etc).
2. Using a new blank layer to paint in additional color.
3. Removing unwanted pixels (the wayward branch, the sign post, the contrail, the person in your photo, etc).
4. Adding pixels, small amounts or insignificant things: cloning in a few clouds to balance the sky, using Contrast Aware Fill to create something in a small area of your photo, etc.
5. Changing pixels in a major part of the photo: warping a mountain, scaling an object to make it bigger and using a mask to feather the edges to make it blend in, stretching an object, etc.
6. Adding pixels, large amounts or significant things: adding a totally different sky, or adding a full moon to a photo where one doesn’t exist.
I’m totally comfortable doing 1, 2,3, and 4, somewhat comfortable doing 5, and uncomfortable doing 6. I don’t know why number six makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it is this: I’m a total agnostic when it comes to believing in God or not. Natural beautiy is what is sacred to me. This beauty is almost (almost, not quite) enough to make me believe in God. To quote a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
I take photos to share this beauty with others. Unlike some other photographers, its not about being creative, or making art. For some unexplicable reason, I want to share the beauty of nature. Its about sharing the sacred. If I create a photo that strays too far from the original scene that I was awed by, I’m not feeding my heart, I’m stroking my ego. I guess it would be easier if it was just about making art…then I think I would feel fine about adding a sky.
What do you think?