Reality and deception in photos

In this rather meandering article, I begin by recounting some of the rather misconceived opinions of digital vs film images, then describe my own principles of what is and isn’t acceptable manipulation.

One of the common complaints about digital images (whether straight from the camera, or scanned from film) is that because it is so easy to tweak them, they are less ‘real’ in some way. For example, Christopher Burkett (a fine photographer) wrote what I always thought a rather misguided article on this very subject – now considerably toned down – here: Veracity.

The ease of editing is true, but good film photographers and printers have always been able to tailor their results by choice of film, filter, paper, and exposure techniques in camera and in the enlarger.

The only difference is that digital post-processing is more precisely controllable, and perhaps a bit quicker to master. (Or should I say, that it is very easy to do brashly and poorly and quite hard to do subtly and well.)

Another complaint is that digital photos are easy to fake. It has long been common practice to sandwich, for example, negatives of interesting skies and nice foregrounds in the enlarger to get a composite: I ask, is that more or less fake than when someone has done the same on the computer?

For example, John Hedgecoe’s classic “Practical Landscape Photography” (Ebury Press, 1988, written well before digital cameras were invented) makes numerous references to altering the appearance of a scene by dodging and burning, use of filters, and printing two negatives together on one piece of paper. He includes what seems to me to be a very crude composite where the sky overlaps the land, and the clouds are out of proportion. So, incompetent comping is nothing new, contrary to what contemporary film purists like to think! But apart from that, it is a very good book if you are new to landscapes, as it covers both technical and creative aspects with numerous examples.

So, where do I stand on all this? In the following paragraphs, I have set out my own principles.


Poppies on Salisbury Plain

When I take a landscape photograph, I want to capture an inkling of how it felt to actually be there, and my reactions to what I saw. This is not the same as saying I want an accurate visual record of a place, more an evocation of the genius locii. By choosing a specific viewpoint, framing and focus, I hope to present my own take on a scene.

For example, the first image probably looks to the casual viewer like a pastoral landscape from 50 years ago, when poppies were common in cornfields. However, it is actually a field of cultivated poppies if you look closely (see the glaucous foliage and the sturdiness of the plants compared to the wiry common poppy). And although you have the illusion of rural peace, I took this standing with my back to a major trunk route (the A303), with traffic thundering past at 60 mph. Careful framing allowed me to compose a simple image that excludes all the concrete contrivance of modern life.

Contrast and saturation

Poppies and wheat on Salisbury Plain

In my own work, I think it is acceptable to adjust the settings on the computer to get a colour balance and range of contrasts as I remember them, or how I previsualised the image – which may be different.

I have an accurate colour memory (perfect pitch as it were), so you will not find any landscapes of mine with lurid emerald grass, lemon yellow straw or sapphire skies. My intention is for my images to be believable and sometimes subtle, rather than necessarily chocolate-box pretty. The first example on this page is rather an exception to this rule! The second example is a shot of the same field from about 500m along the road, and much more my style.

Although there was a rolling green plain and glorious blue sky with clouds beyond this view, I wanted to reduce the image to a semi-abstract, waiting for the sun to cast the right cloud shadows on the distant corn and nearby flowers. I also deliberately focused on the poppy horizon to reduce the jarring detail in the foreground. (So, all those of you who believe a landscape should be pin sharp throughout will doubtless view this as a fault.)

Spotting in

Sometimes, I remove or tone down small blemishes in a photo (specks of dirt, distant litter on the ground, unexpected small reflections off man-made items in a rural scene etc). What I never do is to remove or add things wholesale and then pretend this is what I saw through the lens.

I once saw a greetings card in Lyme of an orchard of sugar-pink flowering cherry trees growing in a field of yellow rape and backed by a deep cyan sky with pale cyan clouds. I think that is unacceptable both in terms of visual trickery, and sheer bad taste.


Although there are none on view here, I do sometimes construct panoramic views from a series of images taken at the same time, to get a wider angle of view than would otherwise be possible.

One rule for me, …

Other people have their own personal standards, and it is everyone’s choice as to what is acceptable and what should be disclosed. Just because I won’t drop in a different sky or paste a tree over an inconvenient eyesore, that doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t if it satisfies you. But please don’t comp several bits together then swear you waited two years to get the perfect shot in real life: that is disingenuous and makes all your images suspect.