Truth and Reality in Photography

Cobbled street in Brugge, Belgium at night after a summer rain shower

Truth and reality in photography are topics I've been talking about over recent times. One day I may end up writing a book addressing such topics. Most folks still buy into the myth that a photograph is a factual rendition of reality. It's not. Its about what you see and how your life experiences effect how you perceive what it is you've seen. As no two people are exactly the same we must, therefore, all see the world differently.

At best a photograph is a 2-dimensional visual representation that, while having to deal with what you see, is really more about how you felt about what you see. And, please, I don't want you to consider that as a throw away line.

Despite the democratization of photography that's occurred over recent years, and the likelihood of your photos being lost within an ever wider sea of images, its still possible for the concerned photographer to produce art imbued with meaning that celebrates the beauty of the human condition, the wisdom of ancient cultures and the power present within our natural environment.

Great photographs elicit an emotional response. So why not take an emotional approach to your photography. I don't think it's a co-incidence that ex-surfers tend to make great surfing photographers, or that mothers tend to make great wedding and baby photographers. Why, they just get it? Their work is less formularized and more intimate. They know what its like to be a surfer or a mother. They understand, from their own experiences, the good days and the bad and they can emphasize with those they photograph. Because of their similar experiences a certain level of trust is established leading to more personal, character-driven portraits and more uniquely conceived and engaging action photographs.        

How to Structure a Good Photograph

So remember you're not just recording what you see but, more importantly, how you felt about what you see. Its decisions you make that determine the success of your photo and the story, or particular reality, you decide to create. Tools available to you include the following:

  • lens choice (wide-angle or telephoto)
  • angle of view (eye level, worms eye or birds eye)
  • what you exclude from the frame as much as what you include
  • subject choice and placement within the frame
  • gesture and movement
  • time (frozen or unfolding)
  • compositional elements such as line, shape, texture, balance, color, shadow, etc
  • time of day and weather


    The above photo was made after a long and exhilarating night photographing in the old city of Brugge, Belgium. The image depicts a cobblestone street leading, past shops and restaurants, towards the city square.

    It took a few minutes to make this picture. It was late and the streets were pretty much deserted, except for a few groups of kids wandering home after a night out on the town. One group of young guys approached me and offered to pose for a photo. One of the guys even dropped his trousers and, with his back to the camera, proceeded to touch his toes. I patiently explained that, while I was undertaking night photography, I wasn't interested in photographing the moon. You can see how that particular photo would have presented a very different reality, one the local tourist board wouldn't appreciate, to the one I've presented above.

    How this Picture was Made 

    This image is partly a result of high dynamic range (HDR) techniques and processing. The inherent contrast (scene brightness range) within this scene is so high that there was simply no way of recording details in the brightest highlights and deepest shadows within a single frame. In the days of film I may not have taken the photo at all. You might call that the ultimate editing decision, literally yes or no.

    Alternatively I would have chosen a film that was relatively low in contrast, to help record details within this inherently high contrast scene. Some traditional techniques relating to film photography revolved around the maxim 'expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights'. In the case of the above image I would have overexposed so as to produce more shadow detail and then underdeveloped the film to ensure sufficient highlight detail. So by manipulating the materials, you were able to produce a relatively realistic representation that, at the same time, explored your experience and response to the location depicted.

    HDR is simply an easy to implement, contemporary method for helping photographers deal with the age-old problem of recording details, in deep shadows and bright highlights, in a scene that is inherently higher in contrast than can be recorded by your camera's sensor.

    I can only conclude that folks who don't like the idea of such intervention just don't understand that photography has always been about a constructed reality. But it's a reality that you, as artist and creator, are responsible for and, as such, allows you to record, celebrate, alert, educate, influence and, in doing so, be a conduit for change.   

    Brugge is a visual delight. Museums, architecture and, just a few blocks away from the tourists crowds, everyday life in a historically rich, UNESCO world heritage centre. Narrow streets and canals abound and, with driving restricted to certain streets and only to local residents, the sense of calm and history is maintained. I loved my time in Brugge and hope to spend a month or more in this lovely part of Belgium at some stage in the future.

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    Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru