Realistic Expectations

Dear Bubbles:
Congratulations on your recent photography exhibit. I noticed powerlines on the ridgeline in one of the photographs (the one with the rainbow from the Green River). I hope you won’t be offended by me asking, but why didn’t you remove them?

Dear Curious:

When I worked at Intel, we had a philosophy of “seek to understand.” That’s what you’re doing here, Curious. This question doesn’t offend me; it delights me!

So as I stood in the water, the thought of running up the ridgeline and pulling the powerlines out of the ground one by one crossed my mind. But I hadn’t had my coffee yet, the sky was about unleash a downpour, and I couldn’t find any other shoes to wear besides my Crocs—hardly appropriate footwear for such a trek. When the rainbow appeared, I called the power company and insisted they remove them immediately. They sincerely apologized but couldn’t honor my request in the 8 seconds I had to create my frame—or ever.

Oh, you mean why didn’t I remove them from the photograph. Right! Plain and simple: I didn’t want to.

When I set up my camera, I noticed them in my preferred composition (the one you see above–the towers are under the rainbow on top of the hill on the left). I attempted other arrangements, none of which felt balanced or satisfactory to my eye. The thought of removing them in the digital darkroom crossed my mind. Then I decided to keep them—on purpose. To remove a manmade object from this natural scene would work against my intentions for my show. In the introduction I wrote for my current photography exhibit, The Current Flows: Water in the Arid West, I suggested, “This photographic exhibit encourages you to consider your own relationship with the Colorado River. Where is the water you consume coming from? Where is it going? Who and what else needs this water? The river can live without us, but we can’t live without the river.”

I didn’t like seeing the powerlines in that beautiful scene. But they exist. They exist because humans have come to depend on electricity to live. In the Colorado River watershed, that power comes from water moving through dams like the Flaming Gorge Dam (upstream from this photograph), the Glen Canyon Dam on Lake Powell, and Hoover Dam on Lake Mead. I wanted viewers to first see the beauty of the Green River, revel in the storm and rainbow, feel the cool water against your shins and the soft sand squish between your toes, and then think, wait, why are those powerlines in the way? I wanted viewers to consider whether the manmade object should exist in that place (or in any place in general). I wanted viewers to think about how we could come up with better possibilities and solutions for humans and the river.

The fact that you noticed the powerlines—which, let’s be honest, take up a super minuscule part of the frame; good on you for noticing—means my grand scheme worked. Mwahahahahahaaaa! It triggered a reaction—or at least a question. That is the whole point of this photograph. That’s the whole point of all my work, to make my viewers feel something even if that something isn’t the same something I felt at the time I made the image.

My purpose as an outdoor photographer is to use my work to encourage appreciation for our beautiful wild lands and inspire others to enjoy adventures in the Great Outdoors. So in addition to making you question your relationship with water and electricity, I hope this photograph inspires you to visit Dinosaur National Park, specifically the Green River Campground, to see this remarkable place with your own eyes. As Jacques Yves Cousteau said, “People protect what they love” and they only love what they experience and know.

With that settled, let’s stir the pot. Bubbles is feeling feisty today. Flip the question: What if I had removed the powerlines from my photograph? If the message I wanted to convey in this frame differed—perhaps I wanted to present a straight celebration of the natural beauty of the Green River, free of human disturbance—I would have had no issue eliminating them in processing software and showing that image to the world. Let’s say you eventually ended up visiting the Green River Campground after seeing my powerline-less image, stood in the same pace I did right off the boat ramp, and saw powerlines on the horizon. Would you have then felt deceived by my “manipulated” photograph?

Attempting to accurately depict a scene in the visual arts started with the Realism art movement in the 19th century in France. (Merriam-Webster defines “realism” as “the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization.”) Around that same time and in the same place, newspapers began using photographs to communicate current events. Photojournalism, and its sister documentary photography—where faithfully reproducing a scene in photographs helped pass along information—were born.

As the art, craft, and technology of photography developed into the early 20th century, realism eventually influenced the work of nature photographers like Ansel Adams, Alfred Steiglitz, and other members of the famous Group f/64. They believed that straight photography was more “pure” than a competing art movement called Pictorialism which aimed specifically to deviate from reality. (Of course, these same photographers had no qualms about manipulating their images in the wet darkroom—and often did so without disclosure.)

Although there have been varying philosophies and opinions throughout photography’s history, no definition in any dictionary suggests a photograph of any kind must reflect any form of truthfulness or authenticity. Merriam-Webster defines “photography” as “the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (such as film or an optical sensor).” That hasn’t stopped viewers from expecting that a photograph should convey reality.

Do you remember in 1982 when National Geographic turned a horizontal image of the Giza pyramids into a vertical format so it would fit better on the front cover? The content of the photograph didn’t change in the transformation—two pyramids, three riders on camels, and a sunset—but some readers still lost their minds over this. They felt they had been lied to.

Some viewers held the expectation that a photograph should depict a form of the truth, a shared reality. That there was a right way and a wrong way to photograph (and later display such photograph) based on this joint understanding. That if someone were to visit Egypt and see these pyramids with their own eyes, they would not look like the photograph National Geographic showcased on their magazine in a squished format. In fact, National Geographic’s editor in chief Susan Goldberg later stated, after a number of other Photoshop mishaps including a poorly clone-stamped Milky Way, “We’ve made it part of our mission to ensure our photos are real.”

To help ensure viewers were getting the real deal out of photography, journalistic standards continued to evolve after the 1982 scandal and especially as the adaptation of digital processing software like Adobe Photoshop became more mainstream. Photojournalism organizations like the Associated Press (AP) and National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) maintain strict definitions and limitations on what is—and isn’t—permissible when it comes to manipulation in photojournalism and documentary photography. (For reference, read AP’s visual standards at and NPPA’s code of ethics at

National Geographic now adds a disclaimer anytime it or one of its photographers manipulates a photograph beyond basic exposure, saturation, and cropping. If my Green River photograph were headed off to a magazine or newspaper for publication, even a seemingly small manipulation like eliminating powerlines would not be appropriate. When you play in their sandbox, you play by their rules. (Similarly, if you choose to enter photographs in contests, where what is and is not allowed is defined in no uncertain terms, you will need to abide by their limits or risk reprimand.)

When a photograph is created and used as an art form, these restrictions fly out of the window. Merriam Webster states that art is “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects” and imagination as “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the sense or never before wholly perceived in reality.” Creative photography is rooted in the photographer’s imagination where they use existing visual elements—pyramids, rainbows, powerlines—to express their individual and unique emotions, knowledge, perceptions, and interpretations gathered over their lifetime. The end result is their own vision, their own reality. This isn’t lying. And it’s not blasphemy. It’s art. In art, anything and everything goes—including the freedom to manipulate.

Regardless of the distinction between journalism and art, can reality be conveyed through a photograph? Merriam-Webster defines “real” as “not artificial, fraudulent, or illusory.” Sure, visual elements like pyramids, rainbows, and powerlines are rooted in fact. How the photographer chooses to arrange the contents of a photograph are not. Composition evolves from a photographer’s attentions, preferences, judgments, and decisions. That doesn’t mean it’s a lie. A photograph is an expression, a representation, an illusion even.

If I had decided to remove the powerlines from my photograph for my art exhibit, a viewer who expected a depiction of reality might say, “Yeah, well your picture is deceiving because that’s not what the place looked like.” To which I’d reply, “Of course, it doesn’t!” And not just because I removed a few powerlines…

There was a campground on the left which I choose to omit from my frame. There was a farm with a pump behind me on the right which I also eliminated from my frame. Have I deceived you? Technically, I have but not with a malicious intent to trick you. I simply didn’t like either of them in my picture. And I didn’t have a wide enough lens to record them even if I wanted to.

As soon as I set up a composition and decide to eliminate certain parts of a scene from my image, I’m not giving an audience the full truth of what the scene looks like. How much of a scene would I have to include in order to be “truthful?” All of it—and then the photograph would still be misleading because:

As soon as I choose a wide-angle or a telephoto or a macro lens, I deviate from the normal perspective of the human eye (which is around 50mm).

As soon as I slow my shutter speed down to blur water and/or use a neutral density filter to further the effect, I’m showing the world an alternate view of what a person would see with their own eyes standing along the same shoreline.

As soon as I use a polarizer to eliminate haze, increase the saturation, and eliminate (or enhance) a reflection, I alter what someone without a camera would see.

As soon as I use a graduated neutral density filter to balance the exposure between the sky and land, I’m expanding the dynamic range beyond what a human—and camera—can perceive.

When I do all that, am I “lying” to viewers? And if so, what benchmarks are you using to determine what’s true and real?

Some may argue that the “truth” comes from what the camera “sees,” specifically from the RAW file or JPEG image produced when we click the shutter. (National Geographic and other editorial outlets sometimes ask photographers for the RAW files for this very reason.) I disagree with this notion. Even if we stripped out the use of accessories, if I switched from one brand to another, each camera employs its own algorithms and technology. In the name of veracity, are we ready to collectively agree upon which camera brand is the “best,” the one conveyor of all holy truths, the single beholder of the ultimate reality? Not likely…and even if we did, I wouldn’t willingly give that title to an electronic tool that requires batteries to operate. As Susan Sonntag wrote in On Photography, “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks…the camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses…”

Besides, what if manipulation makes the photograph appear more truthful? When I adjust the hue of cyan in the sky in Adobe Photoshop, I’m swapping the gawd-awful color my camera records with a more-pleasing, more-realistic cobalt blue I see with my own eyes using processing software with its own algorithms. But who’s to say the blue I choose is the true blue?

In photography—and in life—there is no such thing as a single shared reality, even when we can agree on some common elements as fact. If you were to visit the pyramids in Egypt, they would certainly not look like the photograph National Geographic published on the cover—squished or not. If you were to visit the Green River campground and stand exactly where I did, the scene would not have a rainbow, storm light, or the line of rocks depending on the water level. (In fact, I just camped there last week and it didn’t look the same…) Even when the aim is to communicate objective fact through a documentary photograph (and it’s not when it comes to art), the image offers the photographer’s reality at some place and moment in time—and that photographer’s reality alone. One person looking at a scene may interpret it entirely different than another person watching it from a different angle.

You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever been on a photography workshop, when a majority of the group stands in a relatively similar place, and then, when everyone shows images afterwards, people say, “I never saw that! I was standing right there!” This is the Invisible Gorilla effect, or inattentional blindness, in action. Human brains can’t see everything all the time—our heads would explode from over-stimulation. We have the capacity to pay attention only to so much based on stress levels, energy, expectations, and other factors. As a result, we don’t all pay attention to the same things at the same time and place. We look through too diverse of individual lenses based on how we digest our extensive sensory inputs and process them into unique judgments and meaning. Each of us sees the world differently.

To believe that we can convey a shared, definable “reality” or “truth” in a photograph, particularly ones created in the expressive vein, contributes to the mismatch in expectations between artist and viewers. To hold other photographers to your expectations of reality in the creation of their art defeats the very idea of self-expression, of creativity, of art. In my photography, I’m showing you my truth—my thoughts, my feelings, my ideas, my perceptions, my memories, and my connections. Who’s to say what goes on in my own head is fact or fiction? Who can judge the authenticity of my own thoughts? Even I can’t judge the validity of anything my two marbles are doing up there.

You don’t have to like my truth or even believe my truth, but it’s my truth nonetheless. And my truth may not be based in truth, but it’s certainly not based in lies. My photography is also not based in trying to represent the world exactly as it is. I convey my scenes exactly as I want to see it and how I wish my viewers to see my expression—with as much or little manipulation involved as I see fit. (Unless I submit my images to editorial outlets, in which case I abide by their guidelines.)

Make no mistake, I make no claims that my landscape photographs reflect any reality other than my own. If my reality differs from your reality, and you believe I should adhere to your reality in the creation of my work, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. I will not comply.

Nor should you when it comes to expressing your own reality in your own photography. If you want to take out the proverbially powerlines in your photograph, do it. If you don’t, don’t. If you want to add a bunch more in across the entire scene to make your point, clone stamp to your heart’s content. While you’re at it, nuke it with 100% saturation. Warp mountains around trees. Add a liquefy filter. Tilt the horizon. If you make a photograph in the name of self-expression and creativity—and this includes landscape photography—do whatever the hell you want to with your photograph.

Just because you make a decision or employ a particular technique does not mean I have to make the same decision or employ that same technique for my work. Just because I don’t care for 100% saturation or the liquefy tool doesn’t mean it’s not a right choice for your work. If it makes you happy, if it’s your truth, do it.

As you create your photographs, some viewers may demand an explanation of your methods and reasoning for your decisions in an attempt to confirm a non-existent truth and a non-existent reality (then possibly chastise you for whatever you’ve decided to do in the pursuit of your own expression…ugh…). Disregard these calls. We had another useful saying at Intel: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” You owe no one an explanation about your art or why you practice it the way you do. To twist Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote “What other people think of me is none of my business,” what other people think of my photographs is none of my business.

Whatever path you choose for your work, I encourage you to be deliberate in your technical and creative choices. Don’t just spray and pray. Be able to explain to yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. You’re the only one you need to satisfy.

While I don’t feel obligated to explain myself, I will to make a point: Consider my opening response for this column. You didn’t really believe I thought I could pull out powerlines all by myself, did you? You also probably didn’t believe I called the power company and that they answered the phone at o’dark thirty. When I scribed that opening, I used my imagination. I did so using “real” words you and I understand in a common way—nouns, verbs, conjunctions, etc.—in putting that paragraph together in the same way I use real visual elements you and I understand in a common way—trees, water, cliffs, etc.—putting together my photographic compositions in the landscape. I was trying to be entertaining and funny. I was not trying to be truthful. In writing, we call this fiction.

If we are able to discern the difference as readers of verbal expression then we should be able to do the same as viewers of visual expression. In other words, don’t believe everything you see, and don’t believe everything you do see is real. As Guy Tal wrote in his book, More Than a Rock, “Do not confuse what is visible with what is real: despite a degree of overlap, they are not the same.”

Be well, be wild,

Have a question about photography, art, and/or the creative life? Need some advice? Looking for inspiration? Send your question to Dear Bubbles at [email protected] to be possibly featured in a future column post. (If you’d prefer a different display name than your real first name, please include your preferred nickname in your note.


  • David

    Well said Bubbles. I couldn’t agree more. There are at least 4 dimensions . . . time being the 4th. Just the mere act of freezing a moment in time, we have altered what is real. This is particularly obvious when shooting events and trying to capture a pleasing moment of any speaker telling a story. In the audience we see a constant flow of micro-expressions that totality tell the story.

    The instant we snap a photo and maybe capture a speaker as they pronounce a hard consonant, perhaps a K, we freeze in time unattractive facial expressions that conveys nothing of the story they are telling and gives the viewer an impression that maybe the speaker is intense, angry, unpleasant to be around. Completely unedited, have we captured reality.

    And don’t even get me started on lens choice. A fireman standing outside a burning building shot down low with a 15mm lens tells an entirely different story from the exact image taken from standing position with a 100mm lens.

    Your display, The Current Flows: Water in the Arid West, at the Sangre de Cristo arts Center is stunning and hearing your tale of how that came to be was entertaining and at times inspiring.

    Thanks for sharing your talent.

  • Donna

    GREAT question! And as always, Bubbles, you’ve given us a thoughtful, thorough, enlightening response. I’ve been fascinated by this subject for a long time.

    I fear that those who think there is a right or wrong answer to how “realistic” a photo should be, keep photography in a secondary role to the other visual arts. It’s a question not asked of painting, for example.

    In the short time I taught photography to teenagers, I loved challenging them with these ideas. Added bonus was the opportunity to discuss marketing ads that utilized manipulated photos and how to look out for such.

    As you’ve pointed out, any decision you make while photographing is manipulation. Just by choosing your subject you’ve editorialized.

    One last thought… I treasure the little power lines in this photo. On a technical level I believe it adds a dramatic sense of scale. It’s also a bit of a Cracker Jacks prize. It reveals itself as you look at the image. Not to mention the story it tells.