Realistic or Artistic – Which is Right (For You)?

I recently listened to an absolutely superb podcast by Brenda Petrella, creator of the Outdoor Photography School. This episode was in response to several viewer questions about how much creative license is appropriate in landscape photography.

This has been a long standing debate, as you will see in Brenda’s piece – very long standing. Artists have been the subject of critical opinion for centuries. The difference since the invention of photography is that photography, by definition, is a documentary record of the light and colour in a scene. Its starting point, by definition, should be realistic. Or is it?

This discussion is often associated with what is appropriate for competition, awards and professional recognition. I’m not intending this piece to be a discussion of what’s appropriate for competition or publication. Let’s make that clear. Competitions set whatever parameters they wish to set and participants agree to comply with those parameters by the very act of submitting their photographs. Publications do the same. This is a discussion of personal choices.

That said, what is the range of viewpoints? I’ll provide 4, but the spectrum is of course almost infinite.

  • Nature, including landscapes, should be captured as found. Nature is messy, disorganized and crowded. Things spring into life and things die. They should co-exist in the scene. Never move a natural object to reveal another object or to declutter the scene. Nature also has natural colours (a little tricky, since some of us are colour-blind in specific colours) and those colours should be presented as seen. That does allow for some different colour presentations, depending on the time of day, the direction of light and the quality of that light. But it does mean that no artificial light should ever be used. And no alteration of the hue, saturation or luminance of the colours present in the scene should ever be introduced (as long as the image is properly exposed). Also tricky since our eyes have 18 or more stops of dynamic range and the best pro cameras as of today have maybe 13. And the scene itself should be shot from the same perspective as we would observe it if we were just standing there. The field of view should be similar to what our eyes can see.
  • Nature should be altered as little as possible – only in minor ways to help the subject of the scene become more clear/evident/prominent when doing so or to compensate for limits in our gear. The main message of the scene is never altered, but the small distractions that detract from that main message might be lessened or even removed, such as tiny people in the distance. The angle or perspective of the shot may be altered too, to enhance that main message. Maybe a shot from ground level conveys that main message better. Maybe a field of view less or more than our eyes can naturally see also conveys the main message better. Maybe shutter speed is adjusted to capture motion. Colours remain natural, but the dynamic range of shadows to highlights may be enhanced to emphasize depth in the scene.
  • Images should look “natural” but artistic license is part of the equation too. Water can be blurred even more to emphasize movement, colours can be altered to be more complementary, with some more prominent and some less so. One photographer I recently took a look at apparently hates vivid greens in landscapes and adds warm yellows and browns to tone it down, even in the middle of summer. I made the yellows more prominent in the scene below to compliment the blueish greys of rocks and water. Shadows and highlights can be tweaked to convey even more depth and distance in this two dimensional world. Large dead branches at odd angles on the right side of the scene might (maybe?) have been cloned out too.
  • And lastly, anything goes. Artists – painters specifically – have for centuries interpreted the scenes before them to present a feeling, an emotional response that they wished the audience to have. Close to home, we have only to look at the work of the Group of Seven, who painted landscapes in the early 20th century. Not a soul would accuse them of being “realistic”. And yet, one of my favourite images, White Pine by AJ Casson, hangs prominently on my dining room wall. It is the perfect depiction of the message of the scene – solitude and struggle in a harsh landscape. So why not be this creative with our photography?

No one would ever label this American Elm (below) as natural. But somehow, when I created it, a totally unnatural treatment helped me express the majesty of this single tree surrounded by much smaller, insignificant elements paying homage to it. Even the sky was in awe. And not a single natural colour here.

Brenda’s piece was compelling in so many ways, not the least of which is that she comes from a scientific research background, having run a lab for several years. That speaks to me personally, as I too come from a science and technology background. Her narrative was well researched, objectively presented and acknowledged the pros and cons of all points of view. She also recognized that her own viewpoint was still evolving and may be different in the future. I truly love hearing from people with an open mind. So many more interesting thoughts to chew on that way. Keep up the good work, Brenda!