One of the topics that keeps coming up when I am teaching workshops or in talks with mentorship clients is reality and how reality is depicted in a photograph and if reality is honored by the photograph we have made. I have written about this before and in this time where many photographs are compilations which are created by AI or just by combining elements out of several images, this matter is perhaps more complicated than ever before.
How I like to explain this is that there is a reality that is there for everyone to see, but that reality is perceived differently by each and every person and that this perception and the feeling of the photographer about what he sees is the base of photography, or at least photography as I interpret it. My work is not documentary or journalistic photography nor is it to make portraits of real people who I would not like to be anything else than what they are. My photography deals with my impressions, my personal perception. This perception in turn has its origin in my way of seeing which is strongly rooted in how I grew up, what the conditions of my life have been thus far, in short: everything that colored my view on reality.
This is very important to understand, because every single person has a different perception and therefore the reality that they see is filtered in a way that is not without its flaws. We see through a filter that our brain created so we know what is important to us, what we want or need to look at, which makes us see reality a little bit differently than the person next to us.
I often notice this when I am teaching. Clients who simply did not see what I was seeing even though they were standing right there looking in the same direction. My brain has been primed in a different way by my experiences, by my former career, the place I grew up in, my grandmother who taught me to look at the extraordinary in the ordinary and so I see in a way that is personal, just like everybody else sees the world in a filtered way with their personal filter.
The question about reality came up for me personally recently when I made a photograph that people can hardly believe is true to life. People who don't know me well asked : "Is this real?" And this question is of course coming up more often as a result of photographers having tried to trick people and judges in competitions into believing that AI generated images were photographs of things that existed in reality. This makes photographs of really spectacular natural phenomena that perhaps not everyone has ever seen, suspicious in the minds of viewers.
The photograph in question was made at the end of a very foggy morning. I had arrived in the forest later than I had wanted and when I arrived, there were photographers everywhere. I quickly stepped away from the crowd, wishing others a wonderful day and moved into another direction. The fog dissipated and I knew that most photographers, if not all, would go home because the sunlight was immediately very harsh and the sky was blue. I know this forest extremely well, as I have been there so, so many times and I knew where I could still find some backlit scenes with probably a high enough humidity level to perhaps create some magic. I had no guarantees and I did not mind. I spent time photographing some pine trees, perfectly content to just be out there, not teaching for once and just enjoying some sunshine, which has been a rare occurrence this autumn. All of a sudden something happened that was so absolutely spectacular that I turned around and grabbed my camera and hastily walked up to the scene and was almost too awestruck to photograph it. It was overwhelmingly beautiful and even to me in that moment: unbelievable. I used both my 50mm lens and my 70-200 to photograph the scene and by then, the magic evaporated in front of me. It was gone.
The photograph in question of the most amazing sun rays I have ever seen
This was reality. Was this everyone's reality? I can tell you with absolute certainty that it was not. A family passed and did not see this spectacle at all and they looked around with puzzled expressions on their faces wondering where the animal was that I must have been photographing. The thing about this kind of magic is that you do not see it unless you are facing in the right direction and it only lasts seconds or sometimes minutes. It is fleeting. Was it reality in the way that you had seen the same thing if you had looked through my viewfinder? Yes. But....the experience I have built up by maybe a hundred visits to this forest all contributed to me being there at that moment.
Yet, I was worried, because I know that people are likely to be suspicious and think the sun rays were created in Photoshop or Luminar. They were not. One thing I do not want to do is to create striking natural phenomena that were not there, simply because I want to experience these moments, not because I condemn those who do create things that were not there. I simply live for these moments when nature shows its power, its magic and I simply do not care enough about the perfect picture to create something like that in post processing. I care about the moment and if this results in a photograph that manages to convey the magic, I am delighted.
Reality in photography is created by the frame you place around reality. Is this the reality that everyone sees? Well, perhaps or even probably not. Choosing focal lengths with intention means you can strengthen, establish or diminish relationships between elements. Framing means you make a conscious decision what goes into the frame and what you want to exclude. Viewpoints can hide things from sight or make them visible. Apertures can obscure things in the background or in the foreground. For some reason no one seems to ask the question if a photograph depicts reality if it is a portrait with a creamy background bokeh. If you think about this, this could also be considered to be not real. The point is that this does not matter. The camera is the tool I use to make photographs of reality as seen and interpreted by me and I exclude or include elements as I like by composing carefully so that what is essential to me ends up in the frame. I establish relationships that are not visible to others by making a conscious choice about which lens to use, I emphasize foregrounds and "cut through" dense fog by using a wide angle lens or I emphasize slightly misty conditions by using a telephoto lens.
Black and white is not reality as we see it, yet it is rarely questioned as being real
Photography is about your reality and you are the master of the frame in which you can choose the elements, their relationship to each other and the amount of elements needed to convey what reality meant to you in that split second. I have no issues with photographers constructing images in post processing or with the use of AI, but I do find that this has unavoidably lead people to doubt photographs of phenomena that they themselves are not familiar with. I recently received an email from someone wanting Photoshop recipes to create something similar to my latest foggy images. I explained that this is what fog looks like in this country. Sometimes people forget that in other countries the light can be different. The Netherlands has large bodies of water surrounding it and rivers running through it as well. This has an effect on the light, the formation and shape of clouds, but also the type of fog we get. If I am in the mountains the fog consists of clouds. In The Netherlands fog is most often a radiation fog. This looks different as the sky above the mist can be blue and the sun may be shining above this layer of fog illuminating it from above.
Reality is subjective and our filtered way of seeing makes it that way. It is my job to be aware of my filter and the way I feel about what I am seeing, which someone else might be totally oblivious to, and use this to put a frame around elements in which I consider their size, the relationships, the balance, the rhythm, the visual weight, the colours, the viewpoint etc. It is also my job as a creative photographer who cares about self expression to make sure that what struck me in a scene is clearly communicated in a way that the photograph holds within it the person who I was at that time in my meeting with the conditions of that moment. All the choices I make in the field add up to that single frame and then I come home and this photograph then becomes the base of the photograph I will share on my website if I consider it to be good enough. Usually I am careful in my post processing and there are times that I stick with a quick Lightroom edit, but sometimes they need more work to do justice to my reality in that moment. The reality of the fleeting, the reality of the evanescent impression, the reality of my filtered view, the reality that put a spell on me. I like the spell, I don't want to live without those unpredictable moments of awe and so I refuse to let software create sun rays for me. I would have felt like I cheated myself out of an experience that I would have wanted to have as a memory. To me personally, a photograph needs to be full, full of memories, meaning, expression and full of the person who made the photograph. A pretty picture without this fullness means nothing to me. I realize that this is my personal opinion and I have absolutely no problem with others thinking differently. I don't need to be convinced to think differently either. I belong to myself first and foremost and being true to myself is what is the base of my photographs, as it should be with others as well, no matter how they choose to create.
In the end, when I am looking at other photographers' work, what interests me most is when I can get a sense of the photographer in his or her photographs, not if this is exactly how reality looked. I like to see the reality of the photographer, not the ordinary and superficial way of habitual seeing. I do not care to see the mundane in a photograph, I'd rather be surprised.
As always I would like to express my gratitude for your interest in my photography and writing. Thank you! I aim to keep writing these essays without sponsorships from third parties to keep my integrity and stay autonomous, but of course writing them takes a lot of time and effort and if you feel compelled to support my work, please consider buying a print or my eBook The Magic of Forest Photography. Prints are now available for many more countries in the EU. If you would like to buy a print and can't find the image in my print shop, please let me know and I'll try to make it available.