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Sunset Photography, to Fake - or Not to Fake?

An Image Explained

Polkerris Sunset 12-08-2021
Polkerris Sunset 12-08-2021

I love photography at sunset and after because as the Sun sinks towards the horizon, colours warm and soften. Harsh contrast disappears and fine details emerge. Reddish sunlight kisses the landscape or reflects from clouds above giving a show like no other. Sunset images have a special place in my heart.

But there is a problem. A big problem, in that the Internet is awash with sunset images each more vibrant than the last. Flaming red skies and intensely coloured images dominate garnering hundreds of 'likes' on social media. And of course, the more this happens, the more lurid they become. But they are fakes, at least by interpretation if not in actuality. Some are of course actually faked as it is so easy to do. This sadly is made even easier by the advent of AI in image editing. The Sky Replacement feature in Photoshop, Adobe's flagship program, has a lot to answer for. (Other image editors are available) The pressure on photographers to conform is also immense, not just from the public's avid consumption of such images, but also from within their own ranks. It is so easy to just crank up the saturation slider a bit more every time. It takes quite a bit of determination to resist such trends.

Another situation arises in Camera Club circles, where judges often demand unnatural levels of perfection. After all, they will have seen literally hundreds of such images before. So once again the temptation to fiddle with an image past the point where it is a true reflection of the scene that was captured can become irresistible. It is of course easier to do in the digital realm, although not impossible in the Analogue (film) one. That phrase above 'true reflection' has recently acquired some meaning in that a number of prestigious Landscape Photography Competitions have started to specify it in their rules. Images submitted are expected to meet that criterion and entrants may be compelled to present their original Raw, unedited, image for perusal. I think that is a Good Thing (capitals intentional) Why? because ultimately if we present ourselves as artists, we need to maintain our integrity so the public will maintain trust in our output. If we lose their trust, we become irrelevant and irrelevance consigns our work to the dustbin of history.

Real or Fake?

So, is the image above real or fake and does it satisfy that criterion by being a 'true reflection' of the scene? Well, first let me say that it has had some editing. And, I have used techniques at the time of capturing it to facilitate editing. Furthermore, they have altered the appearance beyond that which is usually captured by the camera. Yet I claim that it is a 'true reflection' of the scene. Why? so first let me list what has been done to it, then I will try and give my rationale why it is still a true photograph, rather than a digital creation.

  1. A Circular Polariser - attached to a Lee filter holder in front of the lens has reduced specular highlights particularly on the surface of the sea, reducing its brightness and increasing its transparency. The reduction in brightness enables the eye to rest more easily on the elements that I want to be prominent. Some colours will have become more saturated. I did reduce the effect by rotating the polariser slightly as I wanted some sheen on the sea.

  2. 3 Stop soft ND graduated filter attached as above. This has the effect of reducing the overall contrast in the image so detail and colours are rendered properly in the sky. Without it, I would have had to make a choice between the sky and the rest of the image as the overall brightness range was greater than my camera could render. With it, the sky and foreground are more, or less in balance.

  3. 6 Stop ND filter also attached as above. This reduces the light entering the lens by a factor of 64. To compensate for this reduction in light, I increased the exposure to 25 seconds. This reduces the amount of distracting detail in the sea which was choppy as a result of a strong breeze and together with the polariser, delivers a calmer, less frenetic picture. The clouds are also a little softer too.

  4. Editing in Lightroom to include minor overall adjustments to contrast, exposure levels, white balance, vibrance and saturation.

  5. Targeted edits in Lightroom to include brightening of dark areas so detail and colour present are revealed. Also a slight reduction in the very bright central area of sky and also a slight increase and shift in the colours of the sky

  6. Cloning out two small distracting rocks and removal of some marks caused by water droplets plus sharpening using a method called 'High Pass' then adding a drop shadow for presentation purposes - all in Adobe Photoshop.

And that was it. The purpose of my edits was to further reduce the overall level of contrast whilst still having some sense of drama and allowing the eye to explore the various areas of the image in the way it would naturally, if present at the time. Although titled as a Sunset, I purposely left the Sun OUT of the frame. It's presence can still be felt in several areas though such as the rocks to fore and mid ground as well as the distant green cliffs. These vital clues along with the warm sky tones tell us that it is sunset, so we do not need to see the Sun. Indeed, if the Sun WAS present it would as it always does, dominate the scene leading to an unbalanced image. To compensate for this dominance and re-balance the composition, would have necessitated much more extreme image adjustments resulting in an artificial look and possibly even artifacts of the processing. Of course, this is just my processing workflow and other methods are possible and equally valid. What I do want to stress is that none of the adjustments made were extreme and were all made with the intention of creating an image that will print well and look good when hung on the wall. That may well result in fewer 'likes' on social media, but I feel it is an image that does truly reflect the scene.

Thanks as ever for looking, liking or commenting. All feedback welcome, even harsh feedback, but you might get a brisk answer back from me if you do!

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