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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The ethics of travel photography

On the weekend I had the opportunity to speak on a freelance journalist's forum held here in Cairns at the Tropical Writers' Festival.

It was a fun hour talking about the biz and afterwards I had a chance to catch up with quite a few aspiring travel writers, ex-students and readers of the blog.

One of the readers I had a chance to catch up with was Nikki, who alerted me to a bit of controversy I had stirred up between her and a friend. Well I hadn't necessarily stirred it up but this photo above had.

This is a Photoshopped image - a combination of three separate images taken at three different exposures. It's from my post about Kakadu National Park last week and was taken during the middle of the day - a time when the contrast levels are extreme to say the least.

Nikki's friend argued that by combining three images I wasn't conveying what another visitor to the area would see at that time of the day and I should have shown it how it was - in a single exposure. Nikki argued that I had the right to do whatever I wanted to. (Please correct me if I got the wrong end of the stick Nikki!) Here's my position on it because I think there's been a little bit of misunderstanding as to what I did and why I did it.

Cameras don't have the same ability to capture detail in both the highlights and the shadows at the same time in contrasty situations. Compared to our eyes and brains they are pretty simple instruments to record reality. If I had taken a single shot you would have had the right hand cliff face perfectly exposed and everything else an inky, black shadow. That is how the camera would have recorded it. But that isn't how you would have seen it.

Because your brain has the ability to record an amazing amount of detail in both the highlights and shadows, what I've actually done is combine the three images in an attempt to show what you would actually see if you went there. So rather than me trying to create a fiction I'm actually trying to go beyond the limitations of photography and show reality. This is how the scene appeared to my eye.

I have a good friend here in town who is an award-winning photographer. His art basically involves taking a photograph and manipulating the hell out of it until it looks like a Renaissance-era painting. It is, without a doubt, art. But for me personally it isn't photography.

He is always trying to convince me to fiddle around, combine sunsets with camels and whatnot to create interesting travel pictures. It's not my cup of tea. I want to show the world for what it is. I figure it's beautiful enough without messing around to improve it.

Whenever I think of my photographic inspirations they are the great documentary photographers. That is what I aspire to and I just don't fiddle with stuff. I will certainly combine exposures to overcome the limitations of the digital sensor, I certainly play with curves and levels and saturation to come up with how I remember the scene. But I don't add and subtract things or try to change reality. Any post-production computer work I do is to try and accurately represent reality as much as possible.

So while I agree totally with Nikki's friend that I should show reality, sometimes you have to acknowledge the inability of the camera to show that reality.

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