When is a photo not a photo?

When I first starting making composite photographs back in 2014 they didn’t do particularly well in competitions. Judges were often dismissive “someone has too much time on their hands”, baffled “I don’t get it” or freely admitted they simply “didn’t like composites”.

A debate raged nationally on whether composites were even photographs at all, with some photographers demanding they were “digital art” rather than photography. I’m sad to say that in some sections of the photography world composites are still frowned upon and seen as somehow “less than”. It makes me furious.

What constitutes a photograph?

I looked up the word “photograph” in the Collins Dictionary and it states:
noun 1. A photograph is a picture made using a camera.

In photography competitions, the rules inevitably state that the image submitted must be taken entirely by the photographer and he/she must retain the copyright. This means no clip art downloaded from the internet, no fake rain added by a Photoshop brush, no textures added from Topaz (or any other software). Every part of your picture must be an image taken by you with a camera and if that is the case a composite most definitely fits the Dictionary definition of a photograph.

Every part of this image, including the rain and lightning, is a photograph taken by me.

Is Photography Art?

I also looked up the word “art” in the Collins English Dictionary and it states:
noun: art; plural noun: arts; plural noun: the arts
1. the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

There is no question that photography is an art form. Photographs tell stories, convey emotions and translate beauty onto film (or SD card!), and the resulting images are shared with others just as you would share a painting. Photography is most definitely creative by nature.

Why, then, are creative fine art photographs so frowned upon?

Composites aren’t ‘pure’ photographs

We live in the digital age and most of us edit our pictures. It may be something subtle like bringing out the shadows and toning down the highlights, or it might be something more drastic such a skin retouching or reducing reflections in someone’s spectacles, but we inevitably end up with a picture which isn’t the one we actually took. Is this ‘cheating’?

Is stacking together a landscape panorama, which can’t possibly be captured in one shot through the lens of your camera, ‘cheating’?

Is focus stacking a fly, which can’t possibly be sharp throughout if taken with a macro lens, ‘cheating’?

Is cloning out a distracting object, and altering your image entirely, ‘cheating’?

Is using artificial lighting, rather than natural lighting, ‘cheating’?

Of course not. All of the above are considered perfectly acceptable photography and editing techniques. Even the most ‘pure’ genres of photography, namely wildlife and photojournalism, allow for some editing of your image, which alters the actual picture you shot.

Yet because creative fine art images are composites they aren’t considered ‘pure’ photographs. It’s such a double standard.

Composites aren’t real pictures

I was discussing this topic with a colleague, who said “yes, but at least my subjects actually exist, unlike yours” and I didn’t understand his logic. While it’s true I create fantasy composites, every single photograph I include in the final image existed. I often use myself as the main subject, and I exist. The birds and animals exist. The woodland exists. The sea exists. They don’t all exist in the same space at the same time, but does that mean there is no room for creativity in photography?

Here is an image I took with a fish eye lens. The scene doesn’t look like this in ‘real life’, so does that mean it’s digital art and not a photograph?

The image below was light-painted. The room was totally black, light was painted on small sections of the subjects with a torch which resulted in dozens of individual images, then these images were stacked in Photoshop to create the final picture. Is this photography, or not? This image couldn’t possibly be created using a strobe or window light. It’s not ‘natural’. Does that make it digital art or a photograph?

The definition of art is creating a visual medium for others to enjoy and I fail to see how creative fine art photographs don’t fit the bill.

My concession

The one area I sympathise with in the composite image debate, is passing a composite image off “as shot”. I know what it takes to capture a stunning landscape at dawn. I know what it takes to capture a sporting scene. I know what it takes to capture a wild Heron feeding. Cutting and pasting a sky into a landscape picture, or moving the ball in a sporting scene, or adding a fish in the Heron photograph, and passing these off as if they were taken like that is wrong on every level. But that’s not what creative fine art photographers do!

All my composite images are clearly composite images (unless you know of any giant sized Flamingos, or miniature people 😉). I am not trying to fool anyone that the photographs which make up my final image were shot like that in camera. They clearly weren’t. And that’s the crux – they clearly were not shot like that in camera. But then, neither were any of the examples above, yet they are all classed as photographs!

Where’s the skill?

These days, every mobile phone possesses a camera. I’ve seen some stunning images taken on iPhones, with the camera doing all the work and absolutely no skill required by the image capturer at all. Our all-singing, all-dancing DSLRs overlay rule of thirds grids, auto-focus on someone’s eye, allow for hand shake, auto focus stack, auto panorama stitch, auto HDR……..they virtually take the shot for us. How many of our shots actually require photography skills these days?

We’re now so used to seeing stunning pictures of subjects such as Kingfishers, sitting on mossy branches dutifully eating fish, that they’re almost old hat. They are, of course, inevitably pay-per-shot images where money has exchanged hands to take pictures of semi-domesticated ‘wildlife’ from a purpose built hide, where the subject is habituated to show up every day. You set up your tripod beforehand, have time to set your shutter speed and aperture, and can even pre-focus on the mossy green branch – all that’s left when the subject arrives is to press the shutter button. No fieldcraft or particular photography skills are involved, yet these images score stupendously well in competitions.

You can also pay to go to a studio, where a model is provided and the lighting is perfectly set up and end up with some gorgeous portraits. No knowledge of exposure, flash speeds, or light shapers needed!

Composites, on the other hand, require a detailed knowledge of photography. Lighting is crucial and must be planned and thought through. Good composition is vital. Lens choice and perspective are critical to making the end picture believable. Most composites mix genres, so I personally take people portaits and wildlife portraits, landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes. There are then editing skills needed (and editing is a skill) to bring each carefully photographed image together to create something believable. I’ve learned more about photography while doing composites than I have from any other genre.

Conclusion

I don’t understand the snobbish reluctance of many leading photography organizations to accept creative fine art composite photographs. The Sony World Photography Awards, for example, until very recently shunned creative composites and magazines like Amateur Photographer hardly ever discuss the creative fine art genre.

I can understand that composites might make some photographers nervous and fearful. If you’ve spent years perfecting your skills as a landscape photographer and suddenly find yourself competing with someone who has added in a sky to improve their picture you’d be well miffed. But that’s not what creative fine art photography is all about, as I explained above.

Luckily, composites aren’t allowed in most nature and wildlife competitions, so at least skilled wildlife photographers don’t have to compete with faked nature shots, although they do still have to compete with pay-per-shot hides or baited subjects which seems incredibly unfair.

Creative fine art photography is a separate genre, just like sports and portraits are separate genres, and I really am baffled why some photographers and photography organizations aren’t embracing it. If creative fine art is going to be shunned, it needs very careful thought. Where would you draw the line? Only taking ‘record’ shots? No editing at all? No stitching, no panoramas, no focus stacking, no fish eye lenses?

The Photographic Alliance of Great Britain, FIAP and the Photographic Society of America all embrace creative fine art for the most part, although there are still some judges who will never rate a creative fine art picture as highly as a standard landscape or portrait which is frustrating. One thing’s for sure, the digital age isn’t going anywhere and those who hanker for the ‘old days’ are in danger of being left behind.

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