There are two divergent schools of thought when it comes to photography and, in particular, post-processing.
One school, of which my tutor is clearly a proponent, says that the final image should honestly represent exactly what the camera detected at the time the button was pressed – sure, fine tune the exposure to ensure a clear image but don’t start moving things about or adding and deleting components.
The other camp, which draws me in with it’s shiny trinkets and boundless possibilities, takes the in-camera picture as a starting point and allows imagination (and Photoshop) to run wild. As put by photography podcaster Frederick Van Johnson, ‘Pixels were born to be punished’.
While I can understand the desire to honestly represent reality – especially when working in photojournalism or documentary photography, I see a place for those who want to exercise their creative instinct and this represents a journey I myself have been going on over the last few years as I continue to develop my photographic style.
I founded my love for photography in tandem with the pursuit of urban exploration; climbing into long-abandoned structures and recording the rarely-seen interiors as beautifully and dramatically as I could manage. As was encouraged by many of my peers (and even enforced in certain quarters), I attempted to faithfully represent what was inside the buildings as almost a historical document and, to some degree, this is still part of the appeal of my continued jaunts out to these places.
However, as I developed as a photographer, I realised the possibilities available to me. I took the all-too-common step of attempting HDR photography where multiple exposures are fused together to enhance detail…only to ham-fistedly turn all the dials up to 11 and create hyper-saturated ugly monstrosities.
I eventually toned that down but retained the lesson that it is possible to use software and various manipulation techniques to enhance or alter what is seen in-camera. These days I continue to make use of a technique which is essentially HDR; although the end results are much more subtle and not always recognisable as such.
I also have been pushing myself to learn many more techniques as I delve deeper and deeper into the murky depths of Adobe Photoshop and now try to prepare and capture photographs thinking of what is in-frame when I take the picture as well as what could be added or changed afterwards to make an even more effective final image.
It is with this new attitude that I approached the question of creating images with starry night skies. Although I have had some limited success capturing stars in-camera, I have found this one of the most difficult areas of photography in terms of getting the results I desire. I live in a big, light-polluted city with only a bicycle to get me out and away from skies far too bright for most stars to be seen. I also seem to have terrible luck with setting everything up only for the clouds and mist to roll in and ruin any chances.
One solution (or, more precisely, workaround) is to paint in artificial stars. This is something that, only a few months ago, I would not have considered feasible. But, as I become more and more comfortable with Photoshop and other software, I find myself having creative ideas which would have previously seemed impossible – at least in terms of the standard I strive for.
And so I went about joyfully experimenting; pushing the boundaries of my learning and of believable photo-manipulation (after all, anyone can manipulate photographs – the trick is in allowing the artificial aspects fly under the viewer’s radar).
After painting in the stars and making other adjustments, I found that applying some carefully chosen analogue camera effects helped to unite the artificial components with the original ones. I am a firm believer that anything you do to an image must have a clear benefit and I would extend that to the use of such vintage effect filters.
Only time will tell if I will look back on these forays into digital manipulation with the same derision I now apply to the overprocessed HDR I was once so proud of. I can appreciate the starkness of the processing used – It is not subtle and will certainly not appeal to everyone’s tastes. But it it appeals to mine …today, which is good enough for me. And, most importantly, a milestone in the ongoing process of learning and developing as a creative photographer. Now, what can I do next?