Monday, September 29, 2014

Color Landscape Photography: Frederick's Hill

Color Landscape: Frederick's Hill

When shooting digital landscape photographs, color is the default option -- and a tempting one. It seems to capture the "real" look of nature. It's eye-catching and often inherently pleasing to the eye. Who doesn't like a pretty color image?

But not everything is as it seems with the apparent naturalism of color images. Color vision is a complex process, less an optical phenomenon than a psychological one. Our brains construct the color we see, providing us with a more or less stable visual environment in wildly different lighting conditions, all of which photograph differently. In addition, film doesn't have nearly the dynamic range of the human eye (neither does a digital sensor), so there were always tradeoffs. Professional film shooters required considerable technical finesse to match what their eye saw on slide film, juggling many variables, including the choice of film itself --each had its own characteristics that determined the final image. Hobbyists usually settled for what the processor gave them. It was a hit and miss proposition, often pleasing -- but rarely matching the original scene very accurately.

Things got even more subjective with digital photography. There is no physical reference copy, no one "real" rendition of a scene in color. How it turns out depends on the processing algorithms built into the camera, and those are all different. Most serious photographers do additional post processing in an image editor like Photoshop. They are trying to recreate the color palette they saw on a computer screen -- or deliberately distort it for creative purposes -- but in either case, it's a very subjective process. (In fields like technical photography and advertising product photography, enormous technical effort is expended in trying to create a more or less accurate color match -- but this still just reduces the subjectivity; it doesn't eliminate it.)

For all these reasons, color photographs -- including my own -- sometimes seem to me to say more about color itself, and the photographer's preferred way of seeing color, than the actual subject. This photograph records the way I saw Frederick's Hill in Branch Conservancy, Middleton, WI when I processed the file, based on my memory of the scene and how I thought it would look best in color. A hundred different photographers could have shot from the same spot with different cameras and processing techniques, and there would be subtle -- and not so subtle -- differences between all their photos.

"Realism" in photography remains an illusion, often a beautifully crafted illusion, but an illusion nevertheless.

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