Stacking and Stitching: So is All This Real Photography?
Back when everyone shot film, nobody questioned whether a photograph was real or not. Indeed, a photograph was generally held to be the definitive proof of reality. But with digital photography, the situation isn't so clear cut in the minds of many people. I've been writing the past few weeks about techniques for combining multiple images to create photographs that would be difficult if not impossible to capture any other way. So once again the question has come up as to whether these sorts of images are truly photographs or works of art. It doesn't have to be an either/or of course, but let's consider things.
The dirty secret is that it has always been possible to manipulate photographs, but the skill to do so in the film darkroom was limited to the select few for the simple reason that very few photographers even processed their own film. Most sent it out to be developed and printed. If that many photographers today gave their digital files to someone else to print the prevailing wisdom on digital manipulation would likely be the same as it was when film reigned supreme. Software does make is easier now, but the number of people involved is also a huge factor. When you put the tools to work on photographs in the hands of the masses you get both monstrosities with parts of any number of images crudely bolted together that look obviously faked as well as amazing images that push the bounds of what cameras and lenses can do and took someone serious skill and effort to realize. The variety of digital renditions of images today is endless.
But that doesn't mean that all digital images are bad or untrustworthy any more than it ever did with film. Ansel Adams is widely praised for his depictions of the American west even though he extensively used manipulation in the darkroom to achieve those images. By the same token it is just as possible today to create realism through manipulation when the basic tools of camera and lens aren't up to the challenge.
Cameras record only what you point them at. Lenses are focused only at the distance you focus them. These are basic ground rules. But when we look at the same subject our eyes scan the scene, automatically refocusing as they go and adapting to changes in brightness as needed. What we think we see is a composite of all this automation and adaptation. The various techniques I've been covering for stacking and stitching all have their origins in the desire to go beyond the ground rules of traditional single shot photography and get at least somewhat closer to what our eyes and brains do automatically.
That's not to say these same techniques can't be used for other aims of course. I've written before about the way "HDR" has come to mean super-saturated hyper-realism to some while at the same time retaining its original meaning of high dynamic range to others. It's not that either of these is right or wrong but they aren't always compatible aims. In the same way, the distinction between stacking images of the same subject shot at different focus distances differs mainly in intent from the idea of stacking totally different images on top of each other to composite a larger than life full moon rising over a scene that lacked any moon in real life.
Photographic evidence plays a key role in many legal proceedings. Both Nikon and Canon have software that is supposed to enable verification that images shot with compatible cameras have not been digitally altered. Yet encryption specialists recently discovered flaws in the Nikon method that enabled them to create hoax images that still authenticate as real. They cracked the Canon system last November so users of both systems are pretty much in the same boat. I'm sure Canon and Nikon actively started work to fix these flaws as soon as they found out about them, but with determined hackers pretty much anything can be broken eventually. The bottom line is that in photography "what you see is what you get" only if the photographer and everyone else involved want it that way. Nothing has ever stopped someone from doing whatever they want to with their images if they put enough work into doing so.
But when it comes right down to it, is this so different from other mediums? The written word can accurately describe events or it can embellish them. Sometimes this embellishment may be simply a matter of the subjectivity of the person describing those events. Just as it can be limiting to use a camera to simulate the way we see the world around us it can also be difficult to capture that world in the written word.
So long as the aim of manipulation is to create a closer version of how the person attempting to communicate their experiences saw or felt, I'm more than OK with whatever works. If software makes it easier for me, that just means I can do a better job of it. Not every technique will be appropriate for every situation, but if it creates a more compelling image that stays true to what was actually there, I'm game to give it a try. Photography is more than just documentary, it's about creativity.