How does landscape photography work? You go somewhere, see something and by pressing the trigger of your camera you can make others see the same. But what if you created something that you could not even have seen with your own eyes? Is this still acceptable?
As photographers we strive for taking others on a visual journey by having them viewed our images. But do these images have to show the pure reality or could they be hyperreal scenes, so-called composits, as well?
What is a Photography Composite?
This is basically a picture consisting of different images that do not necessarily need to be taken at the same place and time. Such an image has to be created in digital processing, often under great efforts both in time and technical skill. In my opinion, we can distinguish between two kinds of composites: realistic composites and surreal composites.
You may have heard of Focal Length Blending before, meaning the final image is merged of multiple single exposures using a different focal distance.
They don’t show the scene in the exact same way we’d see it with our own eyes, but it is still realistic due to the fact that the single images are all (mostly) taken at the same place during the same time. You just use the different focal length to give a specific part of the image more attention. I.e. enlarging a mountain to make it appear more dominant, or increasing the size of some smaller plants in the foreground to accentuate their importance in your composition.
The artist decides where to put the focus.
Same with Time Blendings; a kind of composite that requires a careful proceeding as the single images normally show the exact same composition. They are taken at the same place but over a bigger period of time.
With this method, it is possible to combine different moments in one photo, for example, the transition between night and day, from the last stars in the night sky to the first rays of light hitting the surroundings. This is definitely not how we are able to witness the scene in real life but it gives us the possibility to show a larger part of reality at the same time. It exceeds our imagination and creates something new.
Besides that, we can use composites such as Time Blendings to enhance the image quality of our photographs. A well-known practice is combining an image from the blue hour with a night shot:
Let’s say you shoot a Milky Way image with some rock formations in the foreground. In the middle of the night, it would be quite difficult as you need a very long exposure for the foreground (and probably a higher ISO plus bigger aperture) because it is way too dark to bring out all the details. During the blue hour, you can’t see the stars but you are able to take all the required images for the foreground. This saves a lot of time and quality and doesn’t harm the plausibility of your shot. Thus composites can even help to improve, to get the most out of our visual work.
All these images allow the photographer to picture the real landscape he or she physically has been with a bit of own scope in terms of space for personal ideas.
What I Don’t Consider Composite Images
What I clearly DO NOT consider a composite is an image with the help of Focus Stacking or Exposure Blending. These techniques have nothing to do with ‘faking’ an image but are very useful, and often necessary, to achieve the best results in terms of image quality and correctness.
Even with the latest state-of-the-art technology, it’s not always possible to capture the full dynamic range of a scene with just one photo. Same with tracked Milky Way images and night shots. Critics often consider them Time Blends as well but everyone who already has some experience with night photography knows that it’s just not possible to collect all the needed detals within one moment.
Are Surreal Composites Morally Justifiable?
But what about surreals composites? What about creating an image by combining various single shots from different places and different times?
I’ve recently tried and done that myself using a night image showing some trees and a Northern Lights shot. The first one was captured just a few steps away from my front door in March 2015 during a clear night and the second image with the northern lights was shot in January 2019 in Norway.
So I basically brought together two images taken in different countries and different years, which means that there wasn’t the slightest chance to see this scene in real-life. Why did I do this then? I just felt like experimenting and creating a new visual outcome.
Now here’s my crucial question: is this still photography or pure cheating?
I think it’s both.
Many people criticize that composites do not own any connection to nature but they forget that the material you use to create a composite has to be shot in real life first. This means that it is necessary to put the same effort into getting these ‘basic images’ than normal single shots. Thus the reference to real nature is definitely given.
But why not even pushing the boundaries beyond reality? Photography as an art has the power to do so, it is possible to create something entirely new, it is an enrichment. Photography can be so much more than just documenting our noticeable reality and environment. Art begins where we let it begin, we decide what we do and what we don’t do, there’s no right or wrong.
All kinds of art are subjective, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So why not giving it a try? Why not boosting our creativity, our fantasy, expanding our horizon and improving our technical knowledge and skill? At this point we return back to the question we began with – is this still acceptable, is this morally justifiable?
The keyword is transparency. Claiming a digitally created composite for real is cheating. It is not okay to make the viewer believe what he or she sees is real when it’s not. I appreciate real images more than surreal composites but when you clearly communicate the truth, I do not see any problem.
As you may already have noticed, I’m not an opponent of composites and I even consider them an enrichment for our art. However, I find it way more fulfilling to capture something which is really there.
Nature has so much to offer that getting away from the computer would be worth it, isn’t that experience what we as landscape photographers thrive to experience?
In the end, I came to the conclusion that composite images have a good right to exist and stand for their own. They are digital art but not landscape photography. Both have their value.