Not enough or too much? Information in the digital age

Posted by R Thomas Berner on May 21, 2013 

As part of my morning routine, I browse the digital version of the New York Times on my computer. (I read it later on my iPad.) One feature I especially is the News in Pictures. As a budding photographer, I’m interested in anyone’s photographs and I like to see what the Times considers publishable.

I was browsing News in Pictures the other day when this caption on a photograph in the travel section caught my eye:

This image was created using high dynamic range, or H.D.R., a photographic process in which frames at different exposures are combined to create a composite photo. In this case, the photographer shot three separate frames of the landscape in Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve at three different shutter speeds and combined them using computer software.

As someone who has programmed his camera to shoot H.D.R. and as someone who owns three software packages that enable me to combine the multiple exposures into one, I started wondering what constitutes information the viewer needs to know about a photograph. The problem arises because we have been led to believe that photographs represent reality even though we now have proof that some iconic photos have been posed and we certainly don’t know a lot about many others, although we can guess.

Beyond that, what represents reality in a photograph? There’s so much that goes into taking and processing a photograph that I would argue we should view all photographs with a grain of salt because there is so much that goes into the taking and the processing of a photograph.

For example, start with the camera. Was the camera a basic point and shoot or was it a high-end digital single lens reflex? In the pre-digital world, you could ask about film type and speed. You can still ask about speed. Then there’s the exposure and depth of field. Was flash or other artificial lighting used? You can set your camera to make the background fuzzy and the foreground sharp or to make the entire photo sharp. You can freeze the action or take a photo that shows motion through the blur of moving parts. One photographer’s rendition of a scene will not always be the same as someone else’s. Consider where the photographer stands to take the photo, to begin with.

Some people wonder what was done to a photo in Photoshop? Among other things, you can color correct. You can sharpen a photo, which most of my instructors have always said you should do with digital files. And you can crop a photo and use just part of it. Just because I am restricted by the lens and the sensor doesn’t mean I have to use everything in the in the frame. After all, I framed the scene to begin with, why can’t I reframe it by cropping it in Photoshop? I have cropped distractions out of photos so the eye goes to the main subject and stays there. Is that dishonest?

In some photo groups, photographers routinely share all information about a photo, right down to the type of camera and lens. That’s inside baseball and wouldn’t be of any use to non-photographers. And, frankly, I’m not sure if any additional information would be of use to non-photographers. As long as news photos are not staged and items removed, perhaps people don’t need any information.

What we need is an implicit warning: Viewer beware.

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