Realism in a Photo

The sun is bright and when you look toward it, your eyes can’t see any detail in it. It is “blown out” in your eyes. Is this any surprise? No. Shocking information? No. Well then why do we as photographers complain when our photos show the sun as a feature-less blown-out highlight? It is, after all, what you would have seen had you been standing there behind the camera isn’t it? Of course it is.

Let’s say you’re standing in a dark ravine looking up with dark rocky outcroppings all around, but a bright sun shining above. Do your eyes see detail in the shadows? Of course not. Surprising? No. Something wrong with your eyes? No. It’s a high-contrast scene and this is what your actually seeing. So why do we as photographers when we look at the photo later, feel as if we’ve failed somehow because the shadows in our photo are black without much detail. It was, after all, exactly what we saw when we were there.

How well can you see details on the horizon? Are treelines perfectly clear to you? No. What about the haze in the air. Do those distant tress or mountains look perfectly clear? No. Could they be a little out of focus to your eyes? Sure. When we get behind the lens though, we want everything to be sharp and clear – but clearly not how we actually saw it. Why?

Why indeed! The above are only a few examples of how we can go wrong as photographers when we stray too far from reality. By this I mean that we have to make great photos – don’t get me wrong – but not at the expense of them looking realistic.

I push my post-processing to the limit where I can safely maintain reality, but increase the color and clarity. The “line” or limit is a subjective one, but I always know when I’ve exceeded it because I’ll look at the photo and realize that it isn’t what I saw. It just looks “wrong.” So, I’ll make adjustments and get back to reality with it and move on. It’s not about what I wish I could have seen as much as it is about what I actually saw. And, I’m criticized for it when I post my photos in photo forums with such comments as

  • “That’s not clear front to back. Your mountains in the background are hazy and a little out of focus. Increase your clarity.”
  • “Nice photo but your sun lacks detail and is blown out.”
  • “There’s not enough detail under those dark rocks in the foreground.
  • “The foreground lacks detail because of that bright sun.”

I mostly ignore these types of comments because they come from a misguided idea that every photo has to be more than what was actually seen. They are annoying though. I can’t control the sun! The sun really is bright and blown out – “try looking directly at it”, I say to myself when I read comments like those above.

I believe that you can never go wrong by focusing on capturing reality in your photographs. Keep this in mind when you’re post-processing your next photo, or when you’re tempted to fret over a blown-out sun, or darkness under a rock!