Truth, Lies, and Digital Doctoring on Photographs

Back in the ‘80s, there was a great ad campaign for cassette tapes (anyone remember those?) put out by Memorex. It suggested their tapes made such high-quality recordings, a person might not realize they were recordings. “Is it real or is it Memorex?” was such a popular campaign; people started using the phrase to describe any fake that was convincing. These days we’ve got a new question for that situation, at least with photography: Is it real or is it Photoshop? The difference now is that it’s often harder to tell.

The rise of photo-editing software spurs the skeptic in us all. Almost any striking photo makes us question whether we’re seeing something from reality or something doctored up—perhaps even completely Frankensteined together—from the artist’s imagination. Skeptic is not a bad word here: Photographs are powerful forces, and when documenting (as with photojournalism) or influencing (as with fashion magazine covers), there’s a strong argument to have them vetted. One 2012 study even showed that our very own memories can be revised by doctored photographs. To think, a stealth Photoshopper could rewrite someone’s history!

On the brighter side, there are also studies that show how photography can reinforce accurate memories of real things in our lives. And ironically, this is where I think digital photo-processing, done right, can be a godsend—because, hey, sometimes photos become truer with a little doctoring. They might not tell the truth about the photographer’s raw camera skills, but they tell the truth about what the photographer saw. Particularly for amateur photographers, SOOC (straight out of camera) photographs don’t always do that. With photo-editing software, it’s possible to make corrective adjustments until the photograph comes to life in a way that makes the photographer go, “Ah-ha. Now, that’s what my mind saw.” Isn’t that the point? We want to remember what moved us, and why.

Maybe the question shouldn’t be “Is it real or is it Photoshop?” Photoshopping doesn’t necessarily make an image “not real.” Sometimes it can do quite the opposite. Maybe the question should really be Does it tell the truth?

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Photographing the Yin

In a lifetime, we all experience calm and fear, happiness and sorrow, victory and defeat, beauty and ugliness. As you’ve seen on this blog, we tend to share and talk about photography that captures only the calm, happiness, victory, and beauty. Hey, most photography blogs do. Those who share here capture weddings and sunsets, laughing children and opening flowers. There are photographs of birds in flight and moons rising. We talk about technical stuff to make our photography look better. We talk about practical stuff to protect or transport our equipment. In other words, there’s a lot more yang than yin.

Have you ever tried photographing the harder, heavier stuff in your life? Of course there are some things that are just so awful we don’t want to remember or capture them in images. But some of the hard things have a beautiful side. Photographers are naturally good at seeing that. I think some of our hardest moments are important to capture. In fact, these might be as worthy of a photograph as our wedding kisses and our little babies in their first moments in our arms.

Photography of difficult moments in life

Think of this: There are professional photographers who make their living capturing the last days or even moments of those nearing death. They all seem to agree—as do their clients—that in those painfully tough moments, a kind of transcendent beauty is often afoot. They feel that these moments should be preserved for survivors to revisit as they grieve. In other words, in those hard times, there are things worth remembering: families reuniting, spouses experiencing their love on a whole new plane, revelations and larger perspectives. People are often reconnecting with what’s important in their lives.

In the end, it’s sort of like that photograph you’d take of the tiniest, prettiest, most unexpected flower in the most desolate, homeliest eyesore of a location. Isn’t it? Photography can help you notice and remember that there is beauty between the hard spots.

Celebrating 40 Years of Photographs: Looking Back (and Forward!)

Lawrence Camera Grand Reopening and 40th Anniversary

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of our store in Springfield—and the grand reopening after our renovations—I’ve been thinking a lot about change. Once upon a time, our little store was swimming in film canisters and negatives. Now we’re chockablock with high-tech tools that the man who started it all, Charles Lawrence, probably could never have fathomed.

Photography itself has undergone extraordinary changes. (Who knew four decades ago that we’d all be snapping pictures with our phones one day?) No longer is the top-shelf camera the only way to take a truly beautiful photograph. Gone are the days of slide carousels. Instant results are thanks to LCD screens instead of Polaroids. Cameras are smaller and more portable than ever. I can’t begin to list the breadth and depth of technological advances. I’m just happy we’ve played our part in what the best photographers of decades past predicted. Photography today is so much closer to what they thought it should be.

In 1944, When Eliot Elisofon, an American documentary photographer and photojournalist, was asked what he thought photography would be like in the post-war era, one of the things he said was, “It is possible to perfect the camera to the point where it will become an automatic instrument which will focus, expose and process the film by the mere push of a button.” Prescient, right? His contemporary, Bernice Abbot, a photographer famed for her photos of NYC architecture, didn’t have predictions as much as requests. She wanted technological innovators to resolve the limitations of the equipment of the day—for example, a good way to capture tonality throughout a photo, even those with complex lighting. Basically she was wishing for what HDR and photo-editing software now deliver! Pretty much all the things she wished for have come to fruition.

Just as today’s photographers are living the dreams of yesterday’s photographers, I feel like we at Lawrence are living the dreams of our predecessors, too. Our namesake, Charles Lawrence, who opened the first Kodak franchise west of the Mississippi 85 years before our descendant store opened here in Springfield, would be proud.

In our fast-moving, increasingly digital, increasingly interconnected world, I can’t help but wonder what the next 40 years will bring for photography. If Annie Leibovitz is to be trusted, it’s all of you—and not your equipment—that are going to be the biggest force now:

“What is going to happen now is that we are the sensitive matter. You, the photographer, are the sensitive matter. What makes an impression on you is what will been seen. In this day and age of things moving so, so fast, we still long for things to stop, and we as a society love the still image.”

—Annie Leibovitz, Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, June 2013

Fireworks Photography 101: Snapping the Light Fantastic

July 4th is a spectacular day for photographers. You want to capture photographs of the American Spirit and that includes the fireworks at the end of the day. Time’s wasting, you haven’t had luck in the past, and you don’t need a biblical length tutorial, so let’s get down to brass tacks:

  • Use a zoom lens. If you don’t have one, use a wide-angle lens.
  • Use a tripod. If you don’t have one, position your camera on something still and flat.
  • Use a remote shutter-release device. If you don’t have one, use the self-timer.
  • Use ‘bulb’ mode. If you don’t have one, manually set your camera’s shutter to stay open longer, for a few seconds (from just before the firework erupts to just after).
  • Don’t leave your shutter open too long—just a few seconds is usually fine.*
  • ISO 100 is usually ideal.
  • Apertures between f/1 to f/16 generally work best.
  • Try to position yourself away from bright streetlights and other ambient lighting.
  • Train your camera on the spot you want before the firework goes off. Anticipate the shot.
  • Don’t use a flash. Period.
  • Go wide. Remember you can crop into firework using photo-editing software later.
  • Try to include some landscape in the frame, for scale and visual interest.
  • Shoot upwind so that smoke moves away from you and doesn’t cause hazy photos.
  • The earlier in the show that you take your shots, the less haze they’re likely to have.
  • Watch to the show! Don’t miss it for the sake of photographing it.
Lawrence Photo Fireworks Photography

Photograph by Steven Wilson

There you have it, the basics that should get you those firework shots you’ve been longing to master. When you’ve taken some, share them with us. We love to see your work!

*If you want to photograph multiple bursts and need more than those few seconds, some people suggest putting a piece of black paper or foam in front of the lens between bursts.