Art vs. misdirection

Listen, I’m not in any position to tell someone what “art” is, not only from my poor ability to execute it myself, but overall just from the term being so ill-defined and subjective. If you get any kind of acclaim or recognition for what you do, great! And even if you don’t, self-expression is still a legitimate pursuit and if it makes you feel good (and doesn’t harm anyone else,) go for it!

And naturally, with all that said I’m going to come out with something a bit more negative, or at the very least, thought-provoking – I just have to get the clarifying statement out of the way first before anyone categorized this post differently ;-)

The ability to edit images has been around since almost the dawn of photography, and remains an inherent trait – we’ve always been able to change contrast and affect how bright something is selectively, and with masking we’ve been able to composite together portions of images from completely separate settings or locales. Going digital just made this cleaner and far less time-consuming, but it hardly introduced the practice; it just introduced a new verb, “Photoshopping.”

Bodie Island lighthouse against impossible starfield and Milky WayBut for some reason, this has really taken off when it comes to astrophotography. While the image seen here is my own because I’m not going to target any specific example from someone else, it is representative of many such efforts that can be found now, and it is manifestly impossible to capture in-camera; no one would be able to ‘take’ this photo. Not just is the Milky Way impossible to even see in post-sunset conditions where the glow from the sky can color the lighthouse, it cannot even appear in this position by the moon, and the light from our galaxy is hundreds of times dimmer than the light from even a half-moon (or a lighthouse beacon,) so in an exposure that captured that cloudy look, the moon would be so overexposed that it would appear like a sunburst in the frame. Moreover, it would scatter so much light from atmospheric humidity that, like the sunset glow, it would overwhelm the Milky Way. It’s simply not happening, and this image is just as fake as one showing me shaking hands with Albert Einstein (who died ten years before I was born – I’m not that old, you shithead.)

Astrophotography is a challenge. The really interesting stellar subjects are pretty dim and low-contrast, so getting a decent image of them requires long exposures, at the very least – from several seconds to several minutes. And they usually require being someplace where light pollution has a minimal effect, so traveling to an ideal (and usually remote) location. That’s fine, and part of what makes the subject interesting in its own right: if it takes skill and effort, then fewer people can do it. This has always been a mainstay of photography, and what so many of us seek. But it largely defeats the purpose when images are digitally constructed. I don’t have anything against digital compositing as a tool, but as a skill set it’s not particularly impressive or rare.

And when it’s being used to represent an astrophotograph that should take skill and effort, that is by its nature known for being tricky, well, what’s the point? I cannot tell you what motivates all of the people who present such composited images, and I’m sure it isn’t all the same thing – but can we consider it any different from any other manipulation?

Most especially, very few of those that I’ve found actually admit that such images are manipulated, which seems to suggest that they don’t want it to be known, and/or don’t want to be recognized for editing skills instead of photography. It’s misleading at best.

And it does a disservice to all others out there who don’t fully understand the demands of the subject matter and want to try such shots on their own, because it simply isn’t going to happen. Really distinct and sharp images of stellar dust and galaxies and so on are going to require very long exposures, and that means counteracting the rotation of the earth while this is going on – in other words, a tracking support that pivots the camera in the opposite direction of the earth’s rotation so the camera remains pointing at the same spot in the sky the entire time. These are expensive, or tricky to build, and require very precise alignment – it’s a skill in itself. And of course, you can forget about foreground subjects because now the camera is moving to track the sky and everything earth-bound will be blurred. Photographers have been dealing with these issues for decades. So when you see a really sharp deep-sky shot with a really distinct foreground subject, the chances are overwhelming that it’s complete horseshit, pasted together from separate frames of hugely different exposure times.

[I’m going to insert a specific caveat here. Many photographs produced by telescopes and NASA, especially the Hubble images, are also digital manipulations and composites, but of a special kind. Hubble, for instance, has a monochrome image sensor that only captures light intensities without any color at all, and a selection of color filters that range far beyond what our eyes can see, while even images from ground-based telescopes often use special filters for certain wavelengths specific to hydrogen or oxygen and so on. Separate exposures are made solely to see how much light is being produced within a very narrow range of wavelengths. The purpose is to tease out information about the nature of the dust clouds, or the age and formation details of stars and galaxies, and when they’re presented for public viewing, they are often ‘false-color’ representations of multiple exposures for better definition and, yes, artistic effect. While these can be misleading for anyone wishing to tackle telescope photography, NASA at least is very good about labeling them as false-color composites, and the primary purpose of the images is scientific, not wowing people with something vivid. I give such pictures a free pass from my rants.]

Astrophotography isn’t the only topic that sees a lot of digital manipulation, since a lot of landscapes (especially exotic locales) show evidence of a technique called high dynamic range, or HDR, which even in name is misdirection – photography has not undergone a significant increase in the range of light levels (dynamic range) that it can capture, and in fact, digital photography actually possesses less range than films of just a few years ago – especially when displayed on the abysmally short range of a computer monitor or LCD screen. HDR is just pasting together images of two or more different exposures, and it’s so trivial that it is an option within some cameras and smutphones. For a typical scene with a wide range of light conditions (such as a sunlit beach and a shadowed cliff overhang,) the camera can capture only one set of light conditions usefully, while any others will suffer from bad exposure – get the beach looking right, and the shadowed area under the cliff will drop into darkness too far. Expose for this darkness, and the beach will be bleached out and overexposed. So two or more exposures are taken and put together using the portions that look best in each.

In a small way, I’m more in favor of this than of compositing night sky shots, because our eyes capture a very wide range of light, more than photography can yet achieve, so in some cases the resulting composite image hews a lot closer to what we see than any in-camera efforts. But again, it’s editing skill (and not very significant at that – I can show you how to do it within a couple of minutes) and not photographic skill. Once again, for years, photographers had to cope with these limitations, and found creative ways to handle them – that’s what made good images of some of these subjects so notable. And while it might be useful to throw down an HDR shot for advertising purposes, does it reflect any particular skill of the photographer? Is it art of any kind? Especially, I ask again, if the photographer somehow never admits to it being a composite?

When I’m teaching people how to use their cameras, two of the key topics are contrast and low-light photography, because they’re constant issues that every photographer deals with regardless of experience. Some things just aren’t going to happen, like stopping action in even moderately low light levels, and in many cases the answer is simple yet not at all encouraging: pick the factor that you need the least in an image, because that’s what you’ll have to sacrifice to the gods of photography. Generally, this is a choice of speed, depth, or quality, but in more extreme cases (and astrophotography counts as such,) it might even be all three. The thought that everyone has regarding photos is, “Hey, I like that shot! I need to know how to do it,” and with too many dramatic images nowadays, I have to explain that it’s not a photograph, but an editing creation. And while the opinion of the legitimacy of this as an art form is all down to personal taste, in many cases, people are far less impressed when they find out that it’s not an in-camera endeavor.

Personally, I’m a fan of full disclosure: if you had to edit it beyond simple cropping and color/level tweaks, then own up to it. Not only does it give people an accurate impression of what can, and cannot, be done with a camera, it even serves as motivation to accomplish the really tricky shots that do take a lot of preparation and effort – that’s the kind of thing that everyone can be proud of.