Pushing the Limits

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Around ten years ago, I participated in a discussion about whether a particular photography website should welcome digital art. Inevitably, the ensuing discussion turned to definitions of photography, definitions of digital art, and where to draw the lines. I put forward the possible criterion that photographs had to be single recordings of incidents of light transmission – once you started digitally combining multiple pictures, it was too manipulated to be considered strictly a “straight” photograph.

These were in the days before I was at all versed in the world of digital imaging. Nowadays, I’m aware of techniques of digitally combining multiple exposures that I do, indeed, consider to be strictly photographs. In fact, I consider them valuable photography techniques; and I use them regularly (about 3% of my photos). These techniques allow me to push the limits of what is possible to photographically capture, with my photo equipment, beyond what I could’ve done, before.

Here are a few examples:

© Mike Spinak

I made this photo on my last birthday, of El Lobo, my friend and frequent photography companion. We were exploring a lava tube called Indian Tunnel, in Craters of the Moon National Monument, in Idaho. This is at a spot where the roof of the cave had collapsed, letting light stream in onto the pile of rubble, below. The contrast ratio of the scene, from the brightest light streaming in through the oculus, to the dark shadowy reaches of the cave, was beyond the range my camera could hold with sufficient detail in a single picture. Thus, I took two pictures – one exposed for the darker portions of the picture, the other exposed for the brighter portions of the picture. Then I combined them into a single image.

© Mike Spinak

I made this photo of The Gates of the Valley/ Valley View in Autumn, in Yosemite, several years back. The scene I wanted to frame was just slightly taller than my widest angle lens available could fit into the picture. So, I took two pictures, one for the upper part of the picture, and one for the lower part of the picture. Then I stitched them together, into a single picture.

© Mike Spinak

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I made this photo of a roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) – a carnivorous plant – catching and eating a fly, in Butterfly Valley, a couple years ago. The subjects in this photo are very small, and I photographed them at greater than life size. Depth of field was extremely shallow; I couldn’t get everything I wanted within the depth of field, in a single picture. So, I took a number of pictures, each with slight incremental changes in focus distance.Then, I “focus stacked” this picture; I took the focused parts from several pictures, and I composited them into a single picture with the parts I wanted focused.

High dynamic range imaging, photo stitching, and focus stacking, are all examples of techniques to combine multiple exposures, which I still consider straight photographs.

The point I had in mind, when I proposed that criterion, was that I didn’t consider images to be strictly straight photographs when they incorporated elements that were in some photographed scenes and weren’t in others, into a single composite. For example, If you took one photo of a wolf baying, another photo of a full moon, another of a silhouette of a chevron of geese, and another of a lightning strike, and you combined them into a single image, with a silhouetted chevron of geese flying in front of the full moon, while a wolf bayed at the moon, as lightning struck in the distance – I considered that to be digital art, but too manipulated to consider strictly a photograph. The reason I didn’t (and still don’t) consider this kind of composite to be strictly a “straight” photograph is that is is a fictionalization, showing something that didn’t actually occur. Such photo-composited digital art differs from the kinds of techniques and purposes shown above, which use processes of digital combining to show recordings of real incidents of light transmission of real scenes – just those which were otherwise beyond the available technological limits to capture.

Later on, in this discussion I had, years ago, I advanced a different kind of criterion: I suggested that strictly “straight” photographs had approximate isomorphic relationships with the scenes that were recorded. In other words, each thing in a photo had a one-to-one correspondence with something that was in front of the camera during the exposure. This criterion captures the point I had in mind with the “single picture” criterion, while avoiding some of the pitfalls. It’s probably a better yardstick to use. Notably, the scientific community routinely uses HDR, photo stitching, and focus stacking in their reseach, without hesitation. They consider pictures made by such techniques to be real enough photographs to withstand the rigors of science. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

Why does it matter what’s a straight photo and what’s digital art, but not a straight photo?

In the case of the discussion, years ago, it was largely a category matter. Making visual recordings of scenes which actually happened is a fundamentally different kind of artistic enterprise than making up visuals which originate from imagination, and were not actual incidents – regardless of similarities of origin, tools, appearance, or historical use of words. People on a forum dedicated to the former were trying to figure out whether their community should accept a shift toward the latter – just like an antique collecting forum might question having their community turn into a baking forum.

In the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t necessarily matter, depending upon context. If one wants to make digitally manipulated art from pictures, s/he should feel completely unfettered in her/his means of artistic expression, and should go ahead. None of the discussion, ten year ago or today, is meant at all as a slight upon digital art. Good art is good art, regardless of the techniques involved with creating it. When it matters is when it is presented as being a recording of a true incidence of light transmission, instead of a fictionalization of an event that never actually occurred. This can convey false information. It’s dishonest to present fictional images as true photographs. People understand, interpret, and react differently to one than to the other. Take a hypothetical example of a digitally manipulated art image showing lightning striking the gravestone of a genocidal dictator. If people believed it was a straight photo, they’d likely react with astonishment that you managed to capture that picture. Perhaps those with certain spiritual inclinations might interpret it as some kind of sign. However, if the same people understood that they were looking at a fictitious occurrence, a digital illustration, they would not react with astonishment. They might see the illustration as an ironic, or vengeful, or funny, or sad statement.

In my case, my nature pictures show real stuff. Part of the power photographs can have, when they show beautiful or amazing things, comes from the understanding that what they are showing are true. As in the gravestone example, above, the impact of the real is lost when it’s known to be a fiction, instead. (Though, non-real images can have other kinds of power.) I hope to bring viewers of my pictures to a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world. Thus, it’s important to me to stick to pictures which I consider authentic in their depiction of the natural world. That doesn’t mean there’s no role for the interpretive, but I want my pictures to show real scenes, so that people develop appreciation for the real natural world.

The addition of such digital techniques as HDR, photo stitching, and focus stacking, don’t take away from the reality of the scene; they add to my ability to share it with viewers. Therefore, I’m glad to add them to my repertoire.

These kinds of techniques require an additional investment in time and effort. Hence, they’re not right for everyone and every situation. But when the circumstances are right, they’re a wonderful aid to sharing what one sees with others.

Give them a try.


El Lobo, Indian Tunnel, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

Gates of the Valley in Autumn, Yosemite National Park, California

Roundleaf Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) Catching and Eating a Fly, Butterfly Valley, California


All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.

  • Alexander - I enjoyed reading the article and the photos are lovely too!ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thank you, Alexander.ReplyCancel

  • Jonathan Kibrick - As always, enjoy your shots and perspective. Being a scientific minded kind of guy, HDR/focus stacking/stitching are just perfectly reasonable techniques or tools to capture reality (or make art too for that matter in the case of a lot of HDR).

    Any recommendations or experience as to software to accomplish said tasks? I’m also interested in making immersive, spherical landscape panoramics too for that matter. Seems photomatix is #1 in HDR (and I’ve tried the pro and it is pretty good).ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thank you, Jonathan. I do these just with Photoshop, so I can’t really make an informed recommendation of the best specialized software for these techniques.ReplyCancel

  • Susan - Amazing photos, however you did it.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thank you, Susan.ReplyCancel