Opinion: Developing Dilemmas in Post Production

peter cairns puffin

Nowhere on British roads can you drive a car at more than 70mph. Why then can we buy cars that do twice that speed? If you have a tool – in this case a throttle pedal under your right foot – you’re bound to use it. Why wouldn’t you? That logic is starting to creep into nature photography with a whole suite of software tools that will blend, super-saturate and create images far removed from reality. The tools are there so why not use them to their full potential? So when does a photographer become a digital image-maker? When does he or she ‘break the speed limit’?

On a personal level I see the attraction of digital software, but if I’m honest I feel threatened by its capabilities. A few weeks ago I was leading a landscape tour for a group of Americans. On location, whilst I stressed evaluating the tonal range of the scene in front of me and slaved with the fine positioning of filters to enable me to capture all the information in one frame, many of the group simply strode forward, banged off five bracketed frames and sat looking smug in full knowledge that post production software would do its magic. And do you know what? It damned well does do magic. The resultant images are punchier and more attractive to the casual viewer than anything I can produce in camera.

peter cairns puffin
The colours in this image might be a tad insipid by modern standards, but it’s straight out of camera and besides, last time I looked, puffins don’t have neon-coloured feet.

So what’s the problem? Well, the images just don’t look right. And perhaps more crucially, they don’t feel right. That’s not to say they’re not appealing but somehow they just don’t cut it for me. What’s perhaps more disturbing is that we seem to have entered a period where the digital darkroom is where the image is manufactured and engineered; conceived even. The ‘nature’ in nature photography seems to be taking a back seat all of a sudden.

I don’t know about you, but I got into nature photography to be out in nature, not to be sat behind a computer. It’s harder work of course; it means getting cold, wet and frustrated but despite these apparent shortcomings, I like to think that whatever skill I have developed is exercised in the field not in the office. I hope that this will ultimately show in my images. The trouble is that our audience is easily seduced by super-colour and super-detail – just look at the cover of any fashion magazine – and in producing imagery that perhaps doesn’t conform to that contemporary expectation, am I, or we, disadvantaging ourselves? I think the answer is probably yes, but just as a quick spin down the motorway at 95mph might provide an immediate adrenaline rush, it is illegal and therefore not sustainable. Manufacturing images in the computer is, in my view, conforming to a short-term fashion. I could be wrong, but even if I am I still want to sleep at night. Besides, I get very nervous at anything above 70mph.


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Based in the Scottish Highlands, Peter Cairns is a nature photographer with 15 years professional experience. Tooth & Claw, Highland Tiger, Wild Wonders of Europe, and more recently 2020VISION, are all projects that have been an integral part of Peter’s career. He is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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