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The World is very Flat....and very saturated20/10/2010 - 8:29 AM
Landscape is one of those genres of photography that attracts dedicated followers, dedicated in that they put all their time into doing very little else. It’s easy of course to see why this particular category should be a magnet for so many. It’s relatively cheap, particularly the lenses in comparison with telephoto primes, it’s accessible and it gets you out in the countryside. Landscape Photographers will tell you that they enjoy photographing the landscape so that others can see and appreciate what they saw through the camera lens, so why are we seeing a sweeping change to oversaturated, flat, over-processed portrayals of the world we all apparently live in.
Alright, so I’ll slow down and look at some current trends and break it all down. I’d love to link to some examples but I don’t want to start an email fight. What started me off initially was a eulogizing Facebook link to a seascape. Having read the gushing entry I simply had to see the work of wonder and was faced with a flat, drab photo of some rocks and a bit of swirly water, totally lacking in any tonal contrast or even a splash of life saving colour. What made it worse was that apparently several people had paid to be taught by the photographer, presumably how to replicate this drabness.
So here we have two problems. Landscape photography, in my view at least, should not just be about subject and colour but about light and the way that light plays with the land. Anybody who is involved in this type of photography has felt that moment when the dreary scene before them has suddenly been transformed by the arrival of the sun and it’s this instant that we should be capturing, not the moment before. Even good examples of landscape photography taken in pre-dawn light or post-sunset will display a good tonal range at the very least.
You cannot escape the fact that Landscape photography, perhaps even more than all other forms, needs a certain quality of natural light – you cannot introduce that light at any point in the post process and still have it look like the real thing. Which introduces our old friend HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. Hands up, I use HDR and I also use ND Graduated Filters but light is light. You can take as many exposures as you like and tone map that baby till it bleeds but it will always lack light. You can use as many Photoshop plug-ins as you can find and process it until it finally breaks down in a saturated mush of over-dodging but you won’t create what you didn’t see.
“I don’t care all I want to do is create art”
Yes, you have to please yourself first and foremost; photography is all about what pleases you, especially at the hobby level and even the grand masters of Landscape Photography practised a high degree of post processing work in the dark room. That processing work was, however, to enhance and enrich, not to change and destroy. The great Ansel Adams spent more time in the darkroom than he spent getting the photograph in the field and he would by his own admission utilise whatever processing method and equipment he could to produce the final print, but they still resembled nature in all her glory rather than a frame from a Hollywood Armegeddonistic Blockbuster.
I think part of the problem is our need to always want drama. We’re never happy unless the sky is on fire and we can smooth the sea into an ethereal mist. On that last point it has to be said that images of the sea in its natural state are probably very few and far between. What’s missing is a degree of subtlety, an acceptance that occasionally nature displays light and colour at the more refined end of the spectrum. Tone mapping to the nth degree and sliding the saturation scale to maximum is not always a requirement.
But there is this other trend of representing our world in flat, inert tones, devoid of contrast, where every element, every colour exists on the same plane. Where shadow and mid-tone live side by side in equal measure, where highlights vanish into mediocrity and colour, though saturated of course, has had the life squeezed out of it. We have become scared of shadows and highlights in our quest to have every element of the scene exposed at the same level. We have lost those dark mysterious corners while our skies have become dull expanses of grey tinted wool. Trees, buildings and mountain ridges exhibit a radioactive halo-like glow and pebbled beaches look like someone has scattered the Crown Jewels amongst them.
It has to be said that websites such as the likes of Flickr have to accept some responsibility for the trend towards fire and brimstone landscape photography or the Disney HDR Club – or rather its members do. Photographs of that type tend to catch the eye and seem to prove popular, although it has to be said that devotees tend to be the less experienced. It’s a subject I have touched upon before but it is a fact that photographic trends and fashions race away at break neck speed these days and propagate at such a rate that in no time at all web galleries are full of a particular style. Having said that I picked up this weekend the Landscape ‘Special’ of a well known photography magazine to be faced with photographs in which the reds and yellows had been pushed to the point of stupidity. I was willing at one point to blame the printers but there were photos in there where the over-saturation was not in evidence, so had to come to the conclusion that it was the photographer’s choice.
Hopefully this will die out as quickly as it started. The phrase “a duty of care” is currently very popular and one that perhaps we should take note of.
Checklist: 1. Have I inadvertently caught the Saturation slider as I reached for my coffee and pushed it all the way up to 100%?
2. Has my overly excited usage of Photomatix resulted in a cartoon-like appearance reminiscent of a bootleg copy of the latest Harry Potter movie?
3. Has the same use of the above caused halos the like of which have not been seen since the Immaculate Conception.
4. Have I tried to make that dull morning look like there was actually some light.
5. And finally – have I used my newly purchased Ten Stop ND Filter on at least 80% of my photographs.
Anyway, at the risk of upsetting a few people here is a link to a photograph that apprently illustrates how to achieve great landscapes using HDR.