The Processing Debate: Is Digital Art Photography?

No, it is not.

I have seen this issue debated many times over the 15-plus year span of my photography career. The discussion becomes more heated and more important as cameras and photo processing software become more powerful and more available to the public. A recent podcast hosted by fellow landscape photographer and friend Matt Payne is an excellent summary of the two opposing viewpoints, and after listening to it I felt it was time to again add my voice to the discussion. My own philosophy has evolved over the years but I have not strayed from the basic belief that there should be a distinction between landscape photography and digital art. Just as painting could not be called photography and vice versa, I think there is a clear distinction between digital art and photography, one that has been blurred my many artists to the detriment of all.

To illustrate the distinction, I have posted three versions of one photograph that I took outside of Sedona in July, a shot of the Milky Way and crescent moon over a desert landscape. The top version is straight out of the camera, a ‘RAW’ file as it appears when imported into Adobe Lightroom, with no processing or profile applied. As with most ‘RAW’ images, it appears rather dull and lifeless. The second version appears directly below it, and represents my final processed version of the shot. It represents my attempt to capture the scene as I observed and experienced it. I purposely chose an image that is on the extreme side of what techniques I regularly use to process the RAW files. For this version, I brought out the shadows in the foreground, increased the contrast, and bumped up the saturation a bit. I probably spent an hour or so just tweaking the colors and contrast in Photoshop. Finally, in order to compensate for the extreme dynamic range in the scene, I used a second faster exposure (1/20s compared to the original 20s exposure) to replace the blown out area where the moon was in the original with a ‘properly’ exposed version of the moon, so the crescent is visible in my final version. Does my processed version look exactly like the scene as I observed it in person, on site? No, it does not. The foreground in my processed shot is much brighter with more detail than I could observe with my naked eye, although with the moonlight and city light pollution I could make out some amount of detail in the landscape. Also, while I could see the Milky Way and galactic core quite clearly in the dark sky, the Milky Way as captured by my Sony A7rii shows considerably more detail than I could make out with my eyes. On the other hand, in person I could clearly see the waxing crescent shape of the moon, whereas the 20 second exposure obviously wiped out all that detail. The final version is clearly a compromise–my attempt to capture the scene as closely as I experienced it, while conceding that the camera never takes a photo that looks “just as you see it.”

The final version on the bottom represents an extreme version of post-processing. It looks ghastly to me, but I routinely see similar ghastly images rack up thousands of views, likes, and shares on social media, so perhaps my disgust is misguided. For this version, I bumped up the exposure and saturation considerably, by processing the foreground and background separately and then combining the two versions. Then, I completely replaced the moon with a full moon version from an entirely different scene, to create a ‘fantasy’ scene. The result is something I saw in my mind’s eye, certainly not with my unassisted eyes. It’s a creation of my imagination rather than a representation of an experience in nature. I would not hesitate to differentiate between this creation and the version above it. I am comfortable calling the latter “landscape photography” while the former, in my opinion, can only be called “digital art”

Why is the distinction important? Because, as the podcast reveals, landscape photography is unique in the arts in that it is the only medium that directly captures the light of a scene through mechanical means. It therefore creates an expectation that what one sees in the photograph is something that one could see and experience in person with the right motivation and the right circumstances.

Why are expectations important? To answer that question, let me propose a hypothetical. Suppose I decided my life purpose was to observe and photograph an aurora borealis at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Since there have been aurora sighted as far south as New Orleans, this is not outside the realm of possibilities. But it is probably a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. So…I patiently wait year after year, targeting solar storms and following the cycles, spend many hours and days scouting the canyon for the perfect location. Then, one lucky night, I get extremely lucky and observe that aurora; I’m prepared and get the perfect exposures, and I’m able to process the shot so it reflects this experience of the lifetime. It’s a ‘holy grail’ shot that every landscape photographer dreams of. Meanwhile, someone who feels that there is no line between digital art and photography decides that they would like to boost their popularity on social media, so they spend a couple hours in Photoshop combining a shot of the Grand Canyon with a second, unrelated, photo of an amazing aurora, taken somewhere in Norway. Since the aurora as seen from the northern latitudes is almost certain to be more impressive than one seen as far south as Arizona, this composite image is quite impressive and quickly goes viral on social media, earning the ‘photographer’ quite a bit of attention and offers of licensing and print purchases from prospective buyers.

Both versions of this “Grand Canyon Aurora” are deserving of the title “art.” So who is the greater artist? Arguably, it is the second person, the one who created the image by combining two unrelated images. His resulting image is more impressive visually, and he can be applauded for coming up with the idea in the first place. As anyone who has worked extensively with Photoshop knows, the mere process of combining the two images at least somewhat convincingly takes a great amount of acquired skill with the software–the average Joe could not pull it off. In contrast, the first photographer simply was very patient and got lucky, and required a minimal amount of skill to process the shot to present this amazing scene of an aurora over the Grand Canyon. However, who is the greater “landscape photographer”? I don’t see how anyone could argue otherwise–it has to be the first photographer. He is the one who put in all the time and effort to capture and amazing–and true–natural experience, one that anyone could truthfully aspire to see in person. The manipulator’s version is just a sham–and if presented as reality it is also a lie. Ethics have a place in any art form, and landscape photography is no excpetion. This is why labels matter.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Processing Debate: Is Digital Art Photography?

  1. Nic Wegner says:

    Hey Stan, been a while since I’ve been to your website. I know this is an old post, but I’m bored waiting for a some storms to hopefully pop in my neighborhood today. Truthfully, this debate is why I’ve moved almost entirely to timelapse and disconnected from social media and the photography sharing community in general. It’s become to easy to fake amazing imagery. Once I see a full length timelapse of some of these unbelievable moments people seem to be capturing every day, I’ll gain more respect for the individuals creating them. It’s just become too easy to create anything in photoshop. Especially still imagery. I don’t consider it art. Now if they painted the scenes by hand over several days or hours I’d call it art. But in general, it’s just digital compositing. Not art. Anyone can do it with a couple of tutorials and a half hour of their time. We’ve become an over connected, oversharing society that celebrates mediocrity. And it’s too easy to fake it and make it than it is to put in the hours to capture truly amazing natural scenes. But to each their own. If it makes people happy to pretend, let them pretend.

    Enjoyable and insightful blog post btw. Hope to see more from you as the storm season progresses. Even if it’s just those AZ monsoons in the next month or two! If you get up this way, drop me an email if you want to hang out on a supercell on some random northern high plains county road. ;]

    • Stan Rose says:

      Hi Nic, good to hear from you! Needless to say, I agree with your comment. The only way to ‘combat’ it, as you hinted at, is to be true to your own sensibilities and goals and not be affected by the trends or styles. If that means flipping burgers for a living, oh well i’ll flip ’em with finesses LOL. I’m looking forward to July, looks like it will be lightning chases for me this year…hope you catch some amazing storms!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.