Photo Talk 5

September 09, 2014

This article is my fifth "Photo Talk" article, showcasing the photo below: Levels.

Waterfall and a Red Leaf

(Click to see on black  ::  Link to photo in gallery)


Waterfalls are one of the most beautiful natural formations, and it is usually easy to find one wherever you live.  This falls was a couple hours from my house, but it was worth the drive.  In this article, I want to describe two things related to this photo: the review button, and artistic license.  


This photo is a prime example of using the review button to my advantage.  Especially with flowing water, it can be hard to predict how a photo will look before you actually take it.  I had no way of knowing that this zig-zag pattern would appear when I used a long shutter speed for this photo (six seconds).  I just had to take a photo.


In fact, the first photo that I took of this falls is below.  


Waterfall long exposure


It's a decent photo, but it's not one of my best.  Still, it was an important photo to take because it inspired me to take Levels.  As you can see, the bottom portion of the waterfall appears in both photos.  I took this wider view, reviewed the image, and noticed that my favorite part about it was the bottom of the waterfall.  Everything else about the photo is okay, but the bottom few feet of the waterfall are much more poetic than the rest of the photo.


I believe that most of this beauty is because of the dark diagonal rock at the bottom of the falls (the one which doesn't have any water flowing over it).  It contrasts the bright, silky water very nicely, in my opinion.  The diagonal lines also attracted me to that section of the waterfall, again due to the inconsistencies of using dramatic lines in a very peaceful way.  The composition of this photo was built around this diagonal, as well as the many levels of the waterfall behind it (hence the photo's title).  The leaf balances the composition, which would otherwise be heavy at the top-left because of the bright water.  Especially for a peaceful photo like this, a balanced composition is key.


The second part of Levels relates to the red leaf at the bottom corner.  After I took this photo, I asked two questions to four different people.  The first:  Out of ten, how likely do you think it is that I put this leaf there?  For this question, I got 2/10, 3/10, 8/10, and 8/10.  This splits the opinions almost 50/50.  What do you think?


Then I asked, "Does it truly matter?"  


If I said that I put the leaf there, would you like the photo less because it wouldn't be as natural?  Or would you like it more because you could tell how much thought went into the photo?  And if I told you that the leaf was there to begin with, would you be more appreciative of the serendipity of the shot?  Or would you like it less because it didn't require as much artistic skill? 


Interestingly enough, out of all four people I asked (none of whom are photographers, either), all four said that they would like the photo just the same whether or not I was the one who put the leaf where it was.  I agree with that idea, and I don't believe it matters whether or not I put the leaf there.  Either way, the shot would be the same.


This brings me to the subject of artistic license.  When is it appropriate to manipulate a photo (either by changing elements of the scene pre-photo or digitally altering it after the capture), and to what degree can you manipulate the photo before it changes into something else?  


That's a huge question, and way beyond the scope of a simple article like this, but I will mention my personal philosophy on the subject.  I believe that it is completely fine to manipulate the environment of a photo prior to capture, and I would still consider the photo to be a realistic depiction of nature.  Now, if you're the type of person who places glass spheres all around a random landscape to make a statement, then clearly you are no longer accurately representing nature.  Of course, in that situation, realism wouldn't be your goal in the first place.  To me, if you're simply rearranging items already found in the landscape (trees, flowers, or leaves included), it is still 100% natural.


I have slightly different feelings about digital manipulation of a photo.  In my opinion, if you can make an edit in Lightroom (and your goal is to create a believable landscape), then I would consider the photo to be realistic.  This includes changing around colors, such as making green spring leaves more orange-tinted as if it is autumn.  I even believe that if you take a photo into Photoshop and move around the elements of a photo, it's also fine (although this can be a bit borderline depending upon the degree of change).  Personally, I never do this, but I still consider those who do to be producing realistic photos.


For me, what crosses over into the realm of digital art, even when the goal is a natural photo, is when the photographer drags elements from one photo into a completely different one.  If I had photographed the red leaf last year and I added it into this shot with Photoshop, I would consider it unethical to say that the scene was realistic.  You may disagree, but that's my current stance on the issue.


No matter what I think, I want to end this article by saying that this photo was a realistic depiction of the scene by my definition.  I don't think it matters whether or not the leaf was in that spot originally, and I feel like the photo is better if you don't know.  I am curious, though; out of ten, how likely do you think it is that I put the leaf there?  And, to you, does it matter?


6.0 second shutter, f/11, ISO 100, 24mm (36mm full-frame equivalent).  I used the Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lens on my Nikon D7000 camera for the photo, and I used aperture-priority mode at -2/3 EV. 


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