The Digital Truth

'But isn't that cheating?'

This was what a friend of mine said when I explained to him how I had merged three separate exposures to make a photograph. It is a common question that looms over the world of digital photography like an ominous rain cloud.

Whenever there is a significant advance in technology, there is always the danger of becoming overwhelmed by what is possible and thus distracted from what you are trying to achieve. I believe that the fundamental power of photography lies in the ability to accurately record what you witness, but in digital landscape photography, you sometimes see pictures that have had improbably large moons pasted into the sky. To me, this kind of 'fuzzy felt' fabrication breaks the strong link that photography has with reality, the link that has the power to awe the viewer with the realisation that such a scene, such a moment, actually existed.

When I became a digital photographer in 2006, I was determined to maintain this link with reality in my work. This does not mean that I avoid Photoshop, but rather that I use it to make photographs that are as close as possible to the experience of being there at that moment. For example, here's the photo I was describing to my friend:

This is made up of 3 separate exposures of exactly the same scene: one for the headland, one for the sea and one for the sky. It is a technique I use a lot and in answer to my friend's question, I do not think it is cheating and here's why.

When I used to work on film, I was always restricted by the limited range of tones that the film could capture. It was nowhere near the tonal range that my eyes could see in reality and so the results would often have deep black shadows or burned out white sky. There were ways to work around this, using filters for example or shooting only in soft light, but this led to a working practice based on avoiding what was not possible. The photo of Worm's Head would have been hopeless if taken on film. It would have needed a stack of clumsy filters to hold the detail in both the dark cliffs and the bright sky, which would inevitably have led to a bright orange hexagon of lens flare as I was shooting into the sun. The result would not have been how I saw the scene in reality, in fact I probably wouldn't have bothered even trying to take the picture.

What digital capture has allowed me to do is to develop techniques whereby I no longer have to avoid what can't be done. Instead, my current working practice is to see what inspires me and then work out how to capture it in a way that reflects how I see it. The result is often far closer to reality than I ever used to achieve using film. It is what I call The Digital Truth.