Nature photography has been around since cameras were invented, but in the past 20 years it has achieved new-found credibility as an art form. Before that, it had been largely relegated to the tourist industry, where second-rate nature photography was mass marketed on postcards and calendars. You certainly would not expect to find nature photography featured in galleries and on the walls of the well-heeled and tasteful.
Over the years, postcards and calendars began to improve in quality as nature photographers with real talent entered the industry. High quality posters of whales, wolves, elephants and spectacular landscapes from around the world were suddenly worthy of framing. Finally nature photography galleries began to appear and, more importantly, turn a profit.
When I opened my gallery in 1993, many people still felt that you could not make a living selling photography; that people would only buy paintings to hang on their walls. These days, new galleries are opening everywhere; some good, some not so good, and a few that have really hit the big time.
All this activity in the world of nature photography has inspired new generations of photographers to look at nature photography as a hobby or possible profession. These new nature photographers grew up in a very different world than the one I come from. Technology that was unimagined back then is now commonplace, and new photographers have more power in their hands than ever before. But what implications does all this technology have for nature photography?
Nature photographers must now decide how much they will allow their photography to be influenced by technology. In earlier days, good nature photography required a very simple approach; find a great subject, in the best possible light, and use your skill with a camera to capture what you saw. Today it is quite a different story. A nature photographer can (if they choose) find a decent subject, photograph it in whatever lighting conditions they happen to find, then go home and completely alter the colours, the contrast, and even the detail of the picture. The result can be an image that owes more to the marvels of technology than to the wonders of nature.
Each to his own. It is not for me to judge the creative decisions of another photographer. But the question that is in the back of your mind right now deserves to be asked; is this nature photography?
Every photographer is entitled to pursue their craft any way they choose. Of course skills with computer software are just as creative as traditional nature photography skills. However, the person who views a photograph deserves to know what they are looking at, especially if that person is a customer prepared to part with their hard-earned money.
I know many photographers get quite defensive on this subject. Camera clubs around the world continue to wrestle with the issue of judging natural photos alongside manipulated photos. Some clubs have tried to divide competition into separate categories, only to find people sneaking their digitally altered photos into the unaltered category for equal recognition. Understandably, 'software photographers' want their talents to be recognised on the same level as the 'in-camera photographers'. And so they should, but not in a way that ignores the difference between the two disciplines.
This is not an attempt to denigrate the skills of the software photographers. It just seems to me that the viewer, and in particular the paying customer, deserves to know.
Increasingly the public is becoming suspicious of good photography. Anything that is outstanding or unusual is now assumed to have been altered or manipulated using computer software. In many cases, it probably has. Unfortunately, this suspicion gives little credit to the traditional photographer (and there are still plenty of us out there) who prefer to do the creative work in the field, before they press the shutter, and reproduce what was captured on the day.
You can't imagine, unless it has happened to you, how frustrating it is to proudly display your best nature photography, only to hear people say 'These days it's all done with computers.'
For the record, my photography is as traditional as it can be in the digital age. Software is becoming essential to my work, as I go throught the process of scanning thousands of slides from my years of travel. Not to alter a photo, but to balance the colour and contrast to make sure the printed photograph matches the original slide. It is also an enormous benefit to finally be able to restore images that have been scratched or otherwise damaged by age.
I recognise that the trend towards using software to enhance and alter photos is not only inevitable, but just as legitimate as old fashioned nature photography. However, I continue to encourage people to learn true camera skills as well, so that the use of software to manipulate images is a creative choice, not a remedy for lack of ability. Thankfully, the demand for my ebooks suggests that there are plenty of people out there who feel the same way.