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August 2005 Vol. 20, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
What's this?

Is Digital Imaging Photography? Part II

master manipulators of advertising

from the August, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

What really chaps my butt is when blatantly altered images are published and the public is invited to believe they are real. At Fathoms, we do not publish manipulated photos since we believe that the truth of a photographic image needs to be preserved as it occurred in natur . . . not in some software program. (Actually we did publish two manipulated images. However, they were promotional art posters for the IMAX film Coral Reef Adventure and the caption explained they were not real photos.) Other magazines don't have similar policies.

How often have you noticed "photos" in the dive press that just didn't smell right? Well, your nose was well tuned. Some images have appeared illustrating articles that were egregiously altered to the point of inserting Indo-Pacific fish species into Caribbean reef scenes. Others are far more understated but equally deceptive. I think the public deserves a little more respect and that altered images should not be passed off as real. At the very least, a disclaimer should accompany them. Otherwise, we're going to have a generation of new divers thinking that clownfish species that only exist in Papua New Guinea are also found in Grand Cayman.

And how about the gross image manipulation in many print ads? Over/under shots that supposedly depict the active reef scene in front of a resort belies the fact that no such reef exists there. Ads for the Little Cayman Beach Resort come to mind. What offends me more is that a lot of photoshopping is done so poorly, looking like a sloppy job of cutting stuff out with scissors and pasting it together. At least I can appreciate the skill of a professional art director who can seamlessly deceive me. That's little comfort however.

I'll cite just a few ads from one issue of Sport Diver as examples. In the December 2004 issue, the inside front cover features a Rolex ad with David Doubilet surrounded by fifteen reef sharks. Look closer and you'll have a few suspicions about how those sharks all ended up in that scene. And how about the bad edge detail on Doubilet's figure so a few other nasty sharks could be dropped in around him. Why not just use one of Doubilet's own wonderful photos for the ad?

We find a double-page ad for Scubapro that depicts two divers in sharp focus swimming merrily in a pod of dolphins, all in soft focus. Try not to consider that this dolphin species will not tolerate such intrusions by bubble-spewing divers. But hey, it's only an ad, right?

Hey, Rolex. Why not a real Doubilet photo?

Hey, Rolex. Why not a real Doubilet photo?

An ad for SeaLife cameras depicts a diver supposedly reacting to a turtle. Interestingly, the turtle is lighted from the bottom right with a strobe while the diver who is supposed to be a few feet away is lighted, miraculously, by front lighting slightly from the left. And, there's yellow sponge behind the turtle's flipper that somehow was lighted perfectly with no shadow from the turtle's body swimming in front of it! You'd think a camera manufacturer might do better depicting its product.

In the back cover ad from Scubapro we see a Pacific humpback whale shot in Hawaii with a snorkeler dropped in the foreground. Both whale and snorkeler are in perfectly sharp focus despite being at least a hundred feet apart. You show me a lens that will capture this sharpness from foreground to distant background and I'll buy it. Oh, by the way, the action depicted is illegal in Hawaii and never happened.

Using the New Technology... the Old Way

My own perspective is conflicted by my pragmatist hunger for the wonderful tools that digital technology brings to the table, while simultaneously being true to the photographic art. Here's the balance that I have achieved: I shoot about half the time with professional models of digital cameras, most often the Nikon D100 series. But I shoot my digital systems the way I shoot my old film cameras. I use manual exposures with all strobe pictures and compose the shot as I intend to use it. Occasionally I'll use the auto-focus features for fastmoving action like sharks. More typically, I'll focus manually to avoid the "hunting" of so many auto-focus lenses when presented with low-contrast focal points. I eschew any aftereffects or manipulations other than slight cropping as was traditional with film.

Now my conscience is clear to revel in extraordinary advances that digital cameras afford. I shoot in RAW format files that allow more than a hundred quality images on a 1 gig card. I can view and edit stuff underwater to ensure that the exposure and composition are correct. The color LCD screen shows me what I shot instantly while underwater and lets me make adjustments. I can discard unwanted shots and restore more "frames" to the card. This way when six whale sharks suddenly appear at Malpelo Island off Colombia, I have a virtually unlimited arsenal of shot storage. I can also change ISO settings on the fly to accommodate variable light conditions. I used to dive with at least three cameras to provide enough frames. Now one camera in a compact Subal housing lets me accomplish the same objective.

One thing digital has down cold over film is its ability to shoot effectively in almost impossible low ambient light conditions. I recently shot a double page spread for Fathoms in an ancient skull cave in Papua New Guinea. The cave was totally dark, and I used a couple of kerosene lanterns and a few strategically placed candles. Yes, candles! The result was haunting and would have been just about impossible to capture with a traditional film camera.

Chasing the Technology

Of course, no matter what you buy, it will be replaced by something with more resolution and more features about a week after you plunk down the bucks. In early 2004, I invested nearly ten grand in a couple of D100 Nikons and a custom underwater housing by Subal. Guess what? Nikon discontinued that model a month later. That's okay, since you're looking at a guy who still uses 30-year old-Nikonos III camera bodies. I'll probably be content for years with my D100's since they have enough resolution to meet my needs for publishing. I really don't need to join the chase for every new digital camera that ups the meg rating. In fact, I'm buying discarded D100 bodies for a fraction of their original price while their old owners ante up for the $5000 Nikon D2X. I'll buy those from them for a couple hundred bucks when the next edition comes out.

" I wasn't hurt, other than being hit in the
chest with the plastic cover when it blew."

Some Closure

Let's welcome Chris Newbert back. "Al Giddings spoke of new, ultra high resolution video cameras that will enable the operator to extract individual frames of a quality comparable to a 35mm slide. With this, the death of photography will be complete. Gone will be the skill to capture the decisive moment that Henri Cartier- Bresson popularized. Just let the camera roll on a subject, go in after the fact and select the perfect frame, and fix all the technical errors in Photoshop. While you're at it, add or subtract subject matter to pump up the shot, and present it to the world as your 'photograph.' Not only am I not buying it, I fail to see where the photographer gets even a hint of satisfaction and reward that comes from struggling to get the perfect image on film."

Nonetheless, the technology is exciting and the applications are endless. For purists like Newbert and me, we'll always harbor some suspicion when we view a dramatic shot that looks too good to be true. But I'm hooked on digital for the right reasons.

Ethan Gordon makes a good point when he argues that cameras have continually evolved and only gotten better. I'm sure that Matthew Brady (the legendary Civil War photographer) would have bought a digital model and discarded his old ponderous daguerreotype view camera if he had the chance. I doubt if he would have "Photo-shopped" a stock image of John Wilkes Booth with one of Lincoln at Ford's Theater to "create" a print of the president's assassination. But, had he, you can bet that some newspaper would have run it!

The author of this two part series, Bret Gilliam, founded Scuba Times and Deep Tech magazines, and now publishes Fathoms Magazine (www.fathomspub.com).

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