Relax its Only a Photograph

Low lying clouds, just above the sea and in front of a distant mountain range in IcelandCanon 5D Mark II camera and Canon 24-105mm f4 L series lens @ 98mm. Exposure Details: 1/250 second @ f8
I made this image on a lovely day touring around the coast of Iceland. My traveling companion, Joseph San Laureano, was snoozing at the time. I stopped the car, just off the side of narrow road, to make the photo. Within a few minutes we'd entered a series of long tunnels which took us through a mountain onto other very different views on the other side. The existence of these tunnels was unknown to us and the day as night experience of driving through the mountain was exhilarating.

As you can see the photo was made from above. This provided me with an excellent view across the water and over the low-lying clouds to the mountains on the other side of the bay. I employed Adobe Lightroom to extract a significant amount of shadow detail in the foreground. I believe this action has added a slightly more surreal feel to the image. Not quite the way I remember it, but a better result nonetheless.

Successful photographs often elicit strange comments. The "is that the way it really looked?" is a common response to an image that has moved far enough away from reality, in the viewers mind, to challenge their own perception.

Here's the thing, its a photograph. And a photograph cannot hope to compete with the beauty and awe of nature at its best. Shadow details, expansive mid tones and fully textured highlights can't be compared to the intense color and heat of molten lava; the exhilaration one feels when breathing crisp Himalayan air, or drinking the clear, sweet waters from a Tasmanian mountain stream. Not that I'm ever likely to be unmoved by the beauty of a finely crafted photographic print.

My point is that the two, the natural world and our 2D photographic representation of it, are worlds apart and, as such, require a different approach and an equally different form of appreciation. 

Its perfectly reasonable for the hobbyist to endeavour to use their camera to create so-called realistic representations of important events and journeys. It helps us to remember and re-connect with those experiences and how we felt at the time. And of course the photograph is the best way to share those memories.

We experience life and then try to use the camera to record that experience. But, while emotions such as joy, pain and love will be part of all our lives, the experience of these emotions (how we decide to respond to stimuli via our sense organs) is a uniquely individual experience.

Many artists, however, are not compelled to record reality as such. For them its more about their own, personal experience of that reality and the need to record and share that experience is what drives them. And, just as the wet darkroom did in years past, the digital darkroom allows the photographic artist the opportunity to take the original data recorded and adapt it to meet their current vision or needs.

So, next time you're asked "was that the way it really looked", here's a couple replies worth considering.

  • Sure, absolutely (of course that's probably a lie and not the answer I would choose to provide)
  • No, its not so much about what I saw, but how I felt about what what I saw
  • No, but its how I've decided to see (represent) it today


Whatever way you decide to handle such potentially tricky moments its good to remember, in a world overloaded with imagery, the fact that someone actually stopped to think and ask you a question about your work is a win for you. Try not to be offended. Try harder not to appear elitist in your reply.

We are all drawn to photograph what's in front of us. We usually do so because the subject or scene in question moves us emotively. But because our own response to what we see is unique and unlike any one else's, its not unreasonable that our photographs should also be different.

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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru