Tag Archives: art

A little less tech a little more art

A personal rant. Running around all these National Parks here in the US with a camera and tripod one meets and talks to a lot of other photographers. I guess as in all things life, some are great people and fascinating and inspiring…some not so much.

At Momument Valley I met 3 guys absolutely packed with very expensive gear complete with camera vests and survival gear. They couldn’t spot a composition if it was bended in neon for them so they spent all their time trying to outdo each other with gear talk boring me to tears. No, I simply do not care how much headroom RAW has nor do I care how much you are bracketing, HDR processing it, genuine fractals blowing it up etc. etc. 

It boils down to: it’s the photographer never the camera. Why are you shooting this? What are you trying to express? What made you choose that composition? How are you using the light, foreground, middle ground, background, leading lines, colours, contrast? What do you want your viewers to feel when viewing this? What are your favourite locations? The artistic not the technical side is the interesting part for me.

Monument Valley Totem Pole - blog Better post an image as well, this is what I shot while some of the gearheads in Monument Valley discussed bracketing and RAW headroom. Of course, they might have shot something much better, I hardly broke the world record for best composition (actually it’s stolen from Art Wolfe). But I at least kept quiet and enjoyed the sunrise while shooting.

Somewhat ironical this post comes right after I wrote a post on mirror lock up, purely technical – Not saying I am any better myself, just as boring! Still the next person to ask "what camera are you using" I’ll reply "Polaroid. It’s a polaroid!"

The Hawk Dreaming Aboriginal Art Experience

I wish to take you on a journey into one of the Hawk Dreaming rock art shelters and try and make you feel what it is like to travel back in time. It is a difficult task describing this in words (time travel is a bit hard too), but do come along on this illustrated trip as we explore a Hawk Dreaming aboriginal rock art shelter.

I am often asked how large is Hawk Dreaming and I don’t actually know, it’s not marked on a map of course. We’re only allowed access to a small area anyway but it is a significant and beautiful area along the East Alligator River with around 15-20 art sites included Bill Neidjie’s cave and important sites like the painting of the Warramurrauungi – the creation mother. All the paintings we can access are found around the large range shown here in my panorama:

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Hawk Dreaming Ranges Panorama
© Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

This is a stitched panorama shot from the river looking southeast towards the ranges. It was a hazy sunset but with good clouds and light above the rocks. I am trying to shield the camera as it was so windy on this night that I had to hook my backpack to the tripod to prevent it from blowing over! I managed to get some sharp exposures and I am very happy with this shot, it is quite successful I reckon at expressing the open expanse of the Hawk Dreaming floodplains and the ranges.

The art sites are found in shelters in these ranges. Look at the full size version of the panorama above and you see some of the shelters as horizontal lines along the side of the range. One of them is a large spectacular cave accessed through a bit of climbing. It has a huge collection of art on the walls and grind holes in the rock. It also offers a magnificent view North and if one was allowed to bring a swag up here it would offer a truly special place to sleep. I have attempted to capture the feeling of sitting in the shelter in the following panorama. This stitched pano required a lot of work in PTgui. It is shot at 17mm so I could include the cave as well as the view. But 17mm means distortion and a very tough stitch. In the end I got what I wanted, a pano of looking out of the cave:

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Rock Art Shelter Lookout Panorama
© Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

As you sit here in the rock shelter and lookout over the glorious landscape then think back tens of thousands of years and have a look around. There are grind holes on the floor from grinding paint and flour. There is still charcoal on the floor leftover from fires. There is absolutely nothing to break the illusion. You are back in time. No fences, no signs, no roads, no people! This is not a museum. This is real; this is authentic and you are right there in it, experiencing traditional living with the land lifestyle. Imagine a clan of Bunitj people sitting right next to you, laughing, eating, painting, sleeping. Living in this very shelter. It is a great place to live, the land here provides plenty of food and the natural shelters make for perfect homes. It is a slice of magical time travel.

Now. Look up and look behind you and what you see is this panoramic view:

Shelter art pano - 1000pix web

Tens of thousands of years of living here is documented on the walls in layers and layers of painting. Again; this is no museum. This is time travel; this is real. The paintings range from just having fun recreational paintings to very important sacred paintings. A lot of it is food sources and dreamtime stories and ceremonies. Very interesting are the paintings of encounters with white people and before that, meetings with the Macassan traders in the year 14-1700. I apologise for the large watermark but have to protect this image as it is sacred art and is something I shot for the present custodians of Hawk Dreaming. I’m afraid I can’t show you close-up of the art; you’ll have to visit and see yourself!

If you have visited other rock art sites in Australia I think you have spotted why this Hawk Dreaming experience is unlike any other. This is so real it becomes a time travel. Again; no fences, no crowds, no lines, no boardwalks, no signs, nothing that turns the experience into a museum like viewed from a distance feeling. Hawk Dreaming enables you to sit down in a shelter and take it all in with no filters between you and the authentic experience.

I trust you enjoyed this trip in Hawk Dreaming sitting in a Bunitj clan rock shelter. It defines the word special and I can only attempt to capture a bit of this in my photos. It feels like ‘my country’ like home to me.

In the footsteps of Bill Neidjie and the Bunitj Clan

Imagine sitting in a shelter, a large natural rock cave 30 meters above ground. Look out over the floodplains and you have a timeless uninterrupted panoramic view. No roads, no power lines, no people. Look down and on the rock you sit on are grind holes from thousands of years of grinding paint and food. Turn around and study the rock walls close up. Aboriginal art in several styles from up to 40 to 60 thousand years old grace the walls. No signs, no fences, no people. No sounds. Just you and the power of Hawk Dreaming; country of the Bunitj clan in Kakadu National Park.

Then the sun rises. The world awakens. Sounds of the wildlife of Hawk Dreaming fills your ears. I feel almost embarrassed to mix in the loud shutter sound from my camera. Sounds like a gun in this natural soundscape. There is nothing to distract you; nothing to remind you that the year is 2008. It might as well be 10,000 years ago and you really expect a family from the Bunitj clan to be there as you sit in their home and their shelter and watch the sun rise.

080920-IMG_7913

I have blogged about Big Bill Neidjie and Hawk Dreaming before and first visited this magical place in 2007. I wanted to return this year and further explore and photograph this area as I cannot image a more special and powerful sacred place in all of Australia. Nowhere else will you find a place with amazing floodplain landscapes and one of the highest concentrations of aboriginal art sites in Australia. Certainly no place with access to as there are probably more places like this in Arnhem Land but they are totally off-limits. Hawk Dreaming has it all.

I hired a private charter for 3 days (from now on this is the only way I’ll go on tours!) from the only company allowed to bring people into Hawk Dreaming – the super good Aussie Adventures. Les Thorne – known as “the white aboriginal” to his friends for his deep love and knowledge of aboriginal culture and history – was my brilliant guide and teacher. My aim was to shoot landscapes at Hawk Dreaming and see and learn as much as I could about the aboriginal art and history. I am extremely fascinated by and feel connected to aboriginal culture though I only know just a tiny bit about the incredible 60,000 years of history.

The 3 days were absolute magic and spectacular. With my own guide, teacher, mate and 4WD I got all the landscapes I wanted with 2 sunrises and 2 sunsets at Hawk Dreaming. I got to see the roughly 15-20 art sites that we were allowed to go to and Les kindly shared his deep knowledge. A personal highlight for me was sitting in Bill Neidjie’s cave where he lived from 1975 when the land was finally given back to the Bunitj people – Bill played a huge part in this – almost up to his death in 2002. In Bill’s cave you will see rock art and that is 10,20,30 thousands years old – and rock art that is perhaps 20 years old! Bill’s children and grandchildren would paint rock art and paint things they learned in school in the Oenpelli community such as the British alphabet and an image of Sydney Harbour Bridge! A strong and powerful place; an experience burned in my memory forever.

Adding to the magic; I was actually sort of on assignment. Every commercial photo from Hawk Dreaming has to be approved by Jonathon Neidjie, Bill’s son and the current custodian of Hawk Dreaming. Of course no art shots can be sold; not that I would ever do that anyway – that is not my art to sell! Les got me in touch with Dwane Baker, manager from the Djabulukgu Association, at the Bowali Visitor Center in Kakadu. Dwane had Jonathon on the phone and I showed a few of my shots from Hawk Dreaming last year (fortunate I had these in my bag). Dwane seemed to really like them and quickly asked if I would supply them with copies of the landscape files I shot and also help shoot and document the art sites? If so I could shoot and sell all the landscapes I wanted. They really wanted some landscape shots from Hawk Dreaming and also the art documented and I was more than happy to agree; I get my landscapes and I help Dwane, Jonathan Neidjie and Hawk Dreaming. Making a small contribution that way is an honour. Thanks to Dwane and Jonathon for all the help and setting up an agreement so smoothly and quickly in 15 minutes, something that I know from Les can usually take a long time. Very much appreciated, I know I was very very lucky and fortunate. Must be my amazing photography skills and country boy charm 😀

So I was on a mission and shot photos from dawn till dusk. Landscapes and art sites, rock climbed with tripod etc. to get pristine shots of the art sites for Dwane and Jonathan. I had a fantastic time; absolutely loved it! I have enough photos (the two featured here are quick and dirty previews) and stories from Hawk Dreaming to last a year so stay tuned on this blog.

I’ll end with my ongoing relationship with mosquitoes. Me and Mossies. We go way back. I donated quite a few liters of blood to the mossie community in the Kimberleys and continued my contribution in Hawk Dreaming to the fantazillion of mossies that call the East Alligator river (brilliant name you white folks; there are no alligators in Australia!) at Hawk Dreaming home. Standing by the river at dawn ready for sunrise and a wall, an armada of mossies attack me and Les. I empty a full can of toxic and highly flammable but effective Bushman mossie repellant on my body and clothes. Had I still been smoking and lit a ciggy I would have exploded, I was that saturated in chemicals. The repellant helps some. Little bit cheeky them mossies though. Climb under my shirt and get fresh blood! Les escapes to the Landcruiser leaving my blood as the only food source. So as you watch this sunrise shot from Sunday morning; know that I payed for it in blood!

Hawk Dreaming Sunrise 21-sep-08

Hawk Dreaming. home of the Bunitj clan.
I will return.
Feels little bit like your country is now a part of me!

 

Bill Neidjie

Rock stays, Earth stays.
I die and put my bones in cave or earth.
Soon my bones become earth, all the same.
My spirit has gone back to my country, my mother.
This story is important.
It won’t change, it is law.
It is like this earth, it won’t move.
Ground and rock, he can’t move.
Cave, he never move.
No-one can shift that cave, because it dream.
It story.
It law.
This law, this country,this people,
no matter what people,
red, yellow, black or white,
the blood is the same.
Lingo little bit different,
but no matter.

Country, you in other place.
But the same feeling.
Blood, bone, all the same.
This story,
this is true story.
My people
all dead.
We only got few left.
That’s all, not many.
We getting too old.
Young people.
I don’t know if they can hang onto this story.
But, now you know this story,
and you’ll be coming to earth.
You’ll be part of earth when you die.
You responsible now.
You got to go with us.
To earth.
Might be you can hang on.
Hang on to this story.
To this earth.
You got children,
grandson.
Might be your grandson will get this story,
keep going,
hang on like I done.

– Bill Neidjie

Crocs in the main street of Darwin! Sun drops into Timor Sea!

Food! At Mindil Beach MarketThe Mindil Beach Market is in every Darwin tourist brochure so you might think it’s overrated and over packed with tourists. But it really is good fun and in a way it’s what Darwin is all about in one little (not so little; about 190 stalls) market. It’s a big multi cultural melting pot of tourists and laid-back locals enjoying the atmosphere, checking out the many food and craft stalls, grooving to the bands, artists and well downright crazy performers performing – and everyone worshipping the sun drop straight into the Timor sea while eating $8 meals cooked by chefs like my mate on the right (yeah that’s right! I shot a photo of a non-landscape subject!). Everyone is friendly and determined to have a great time and the people are super entertaining. Tropical lifestyle at it’s best!

Mindil Beach Market I still felt tired and lazy and couldn’t be bothered walking the 4 kilometres to the beach in the tropical heat…so I hailed a taxi. Taxi driver was a character all right; sees my big camera backpack with tripod and asks “Off to shoot the sunset? You’re a photographer mate? Professional?”. “Yeah. Well semi-pro” I say. He asks “I got a digital camera too, how big is your memory card? I think mine can shoot like a thousand photos!”. “Hehehe, well mate” I say “I have about 40 gigs of CF cards, 320 gigs of external HDs, 1 laptop and blank DVDs. I don’t really plan on running out of memory!”. He shifts conversation to food and says “So much good food at the market, you like Indian food?”. “Yes I do” I say. “It’s SPIIIIICYYYYY” he then shouts like Jim Carrey in The Mask. Like I said, wildly entertaining people at the market and also driving you to the market!

Mindil Beach Market It’s hard to capture the atmosphere of the market in a photo. I’ve included a few quick and dirty edits from Lightroom with blown highlights, halos and everything! But they do sort of show you the blur of people walking back and forth between the stalls surrounded by palm trees and tropical sunset light. To see the sunset itself – read on.

Crocs on Main Street of Darwin!

Just had to throw in that headline. Since Crocosaurus Cove opened in the middle of Darwin a few months ago this headline has been featured everywhere! Crocosaurus Cove is a huge new croc zoo right on Mitchell Street. It is worth a visit, it’s really well made with some beautiful crocs in huge pools that feature super design. Like in some fish aquariums you can walk underneath the pools and see the crocs from all angles. Impressive, haven’t seen that before. Mitchell street is also backpacker hell with all the big backpacker hostels and therefore also all the big pubs. I reckon they should let the crocs out at night, cull the drunken backpacker population a bit!

Sun drops into Timor Sea! – and Australia and GND filters

Sunset at Mindil Beach in DarwinI don’t really use a lot of filters. I sometimes use a neutral density filter in Copenhagen to cut light for longer exposures. The ND filter you can just stick on and forget so it’s easy to use. Doesn’t get in my way. I rarely use a graduated neutral density (GND) filter in Copenhagen as the soft pastel light means I can manage without it and I find GND filters annoying to use. I’m not really that keen on tripods either. Or cameras for that matter. That’s why I loved the 617 viewfinder so much. I want as transparent a creative process as possible concentrating on composition and shooting many angles and hate anything that gets in the way. I would love to just swap one eye for a 50 megapixel 14-bit sensor with 2:1 aspect ratio and shoot by blinking!

In Australia the light and colours can be so intense even after sunset that a GND filter really is needed. A GND filter has a gradual cutoff meaning half the filter cuts exposure by for instance 2 stops while the rest of it is transparent. Means you can even out the light between the sky and the beach or sea for example. I still find GND filters a right bloody pain in the behind to use. Can’t see what’s going on, have to keep adjusting every time I change composition. But it means you can capture Mindil Beach dusk shots like the one above and this one (again, just quick exports from Lightroom) 

080831-IMG_6542-2

Aboriginal art

I am very fascinated by aboriginal culture and have by now seen a lot of rock art and paintings all over Australia. Darwin has what I consider the best artists and the best art galleries. The traditional old x-ray style of Arnhem Land in Kakadu National Park here in the Northern Territory, the Oenpelli region, is my favourite style; the style most people know are probably the new dot-painting style. There are several large and gorgeous aboriginal art galleries in Darwin, the Aboriginal Fine Arts Gallery is outstanding and features some of the best Arnhem Land artists. Djawida Nadjongorle is one of the famous Arnhem artist and his outstanding work can be seen here. If I had $6500 to spare the huge Mimi Spirits Hunting painting was coming home with me!

I’ve gone bush!

Finally; now the real work can begin; the real photography! I am fully normalised, sleep fine again and Wednesday sees me on a 14 day outback trip through the magnificient Kimberleys. I have very high expectations; hope to get some fantastic outback landscapes to add to my portfolio. I won’t be online for a while so see ya on the other side! I’ve gone bush!

Hawk Dreaming and Big Bill Neidjie

I have been preparing this story for some time. It’s a story of great importance to me. It’s a story of great meaning to me. It’s the story of one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited and the story of an amazing person. Maybe that’s why it has taken me forever to write this. I’m not much of a writer anyway so I have been staring at the blank screen many times without ever typing a single word on this story. I never seemed to get started, couldn’t find the perfect words and afraid to use my own ordinary words for this extraordinary story.

Well I suppose I will never pen the perfect words nor shoot the perfect picture. All I have are my words; my pictures. So here goes. The story of the Hawk Dreaming area in Kakadu National Park and of indigenous Australian Big Bill Neidjie, Gagudju Man.

Hawk Dreaming in Kakadu National Park

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Hawk Dreaming Wetland at Sunset Panorama
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Hawk Dreaming is a small closed off  area inside Kakadu National Park in Australia and no other landscape and place has had the impact Hawk Dreaming has had on me. This sacred place is truly magical for me and I was lucky enough to get to experience it on my own tour – just me and the great Andy from Aussie Adventures. That really allowed me to take it all in without the distractions of other people – just the way I like it, just me and the landscape.

Hawk Dreaming map Hawk Dreaming is a closed off area and there’s only one way to visit – on tour with Aussie Adventures, the only company allowed to go into Hawk Dreaming. I’ve already written about how I got my very own tour of Hawk Dreaming in August 2007, click here to read it. Perhaps you have visited Ubirr Rock in Kakadu National Park? If you stand on top of Ubirr Rock and look North you are looking at Hawk Dreaming! Click the map on the right to see large size, click here for Google maps link.

My Hawk Dreaming

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Hawk Dreaming & East Alligator River
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

I spend 3 days in this magical sacred land and I tried to savour every single second and take it all in – and shoot heaps of photos at the same time. What makes Hawk Dreaming so special is that it’s just you and the timeless landscape. It’s the complete opposite of Ubirr Rock. Ubirr is very impressive landscape and great aboriginal art, but it’s loaded with tourists, there are paved roads, the art is fenced off meaning you can’t get close etc. All of this is of course necessary to preserve and protect the art and the land but it does take away from the experience with all those people, signs, paths, roads, fences etc. I am constantly reminded of reality and can’t really connect to the landscape the way I would like. It is ‘touched’ landscape.

Hawk Dreaming is almost completely untouched. When you drive around Hawk Dreaming, when you visit the caves and see the art everything is pristine and untouched. No people, no paved roads, no signs, no fences. You are right there and there’s no filter between you and 60,000 years of history! It’s a humbling and spectacular experience. Hawk Dreaming truly is the crown jewel of Kakadu National Park. The following panorama is a wide view over Hawk Dreaming, the East Alligator river and Cannon rock. Ok, there is a small path made by the Aussie Adventure 4wds but besides that everything is completely timeless, untouched and authentic landscape. For me it’s like travelling back in time to thousands of years ago. The smoke in the air is from bush fires but even that is authentic. No bloody powerlines or paved roads ruining my view here:

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

View from Cave in Hawk Dreaming Panorama
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

As you can see Hawk Dreaming is also one of the places in Kakadu where you get more open savannah country (naturally there are a lot of trees in Kakadu) and this allows for longer open views of the landscape and the sunset as well. This particular Hawk Dreaming sunset is actually looking due South straight at Ubirr Rock:

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Pandanus Palm & Termite Mounds
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

No other place, no other landscape has ever had that great an impact on me. Yes I love Uluru and Kata Tjuta in the Red Centre very much but there are too many people and taken as a whole experience I would say that Hawk Dreaming has had the most impact on me on my 6 trips (so far) to Australia . This is partly because Hawk Dreaming is just magical and carries at least 25,000 years of history and partly because I had the whole place to myself so I could really take in the place and forget about the outside world. Like I told Michael and Alicia at the bush camp, all I needed was an internet connection and I could easily live and work there for the entire dry season!

Aboriginal art in Hawk Dreaming

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

The cave I showed you the view from is just one of the many caves in Hawk Dreaming with  aboriginal rock art. As I mentioned before, Hawk Dreaming is very special in that you get to climb the rocks to get to the caves and then study the art right up close and personal. The shot on the right is from the same cave as the panorama view above, the cave wall and art is a few meters behind me. The shot clearly shows you no fences, no signs, no people so you can really study the art up close and discover how very impressive it actually is.

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

The X-ray art (like the big Barramundi fish where you can see the bones etc) is very detailed and have beautiful drawn fine lines (and on rock mind you, not smooth paper). At Hawk Dreaming I had time – and the whole place to myself! – so I could really take it in and let the place and the art sink in. It does truly boggle the mind to sit there and think that people have lived here for at least 25,000 years. The pigments in the paintings have been dated by scientist to be at least 18,000 years old. It saddens me deeply to think how fast Europeans with no understanding of these people wiped out 65,000 years of indigenous history of living of the land and protecting the land. The first humans arrived in Australia as long as 65,000 years ago and aboriginals have lived in Kakadu for at least 25,000 years. That’s 250 centuries. Took less than 1 century for that to be completely changed after Captain Cook and his so-called ‘discovery’ of a country where humans had already lived for tens of thousands of years. Europeans arriving in Australia was inevitable but at least we could have acknowledged the indigenous people of Australia and tried to co-exist instead of declaring it Terra Nullis – uninhabited, which translated to “up for grabs!”. Which brings me to a very important part of the Hawk Dreaming story, a very important person.

Big Bill Neidjie, Gagudju Man

Big Bill is a legend and unique among the Aboriginal people for many reasons – and he grew up in Hawk Dreaming! Here’s Big Bill, as photographed by Australian photographer Mark Lang, click to see large.

Bill Neidjie

Big Bill Neidjie at Hawk Dreaming
Copyright Mark Lang

A big thank you to Australian Photographer Mark Lang for sending me this striking photo of Big Bill and letting me use it on this blog. Please check out Mark’s beautiful photography – some of it from Hawk Dreaming – at www.marklangscapes.com. Mark has spent 3 years with Big Bill at Hawk Dreaming and is currently working on a book. Mark’s gorgeous shots from Kakadu and Hawk Dreaming are also featured in the Gagudju Man book about Big Bill, more about that later.

Bill Neidjie was one of the driving forces behind creating the Kakadu National Park in order to protect and manage his land for years to come making sure that indigenous Australians govern the national park. Big Bill has been awarded the Order of Australia for his services to conservation. Bill himself returned to live in Hawk Dreaming area in 1979 and is buried at Hawk Dreaming – and one of the caves in Hawk Dreaming has a drawing of Bill’s hand as a child. Jonathan Nadji, Bill’s son now lives in Hawk Dreaming and carries on Bill’s work of protecting the sacred land. Big Bill is also a legend for arranging and attending his own wake! You can read a bit more here on wikipedia and there’s a great article about him here including the wake story – but you should really let Bill tell it himself by buying his book!

Gagudju Man book cover Big Bill felt that something should be written down about the way aborigine used to live, the history should be documented for generations to come so the book Kakadu Man was born. It was re-issued last year as “Gagudju Man” and you can find it on bookshops in Australia or order it online here. It is incredibly fascinating to read Bill’s stories about growing up in Kakadu, aboriginal law, how the white man changed their life and the book also features gorgeous photos from Mark Lang – see the cover photo on the right. It is a fantastic book and must buy if you have the slightest interest in this or have visited Kakadu National Park!

Photographing Hawk Dreaming

I shot hundreds of shots during my short stay at Hawk Dreaming trying to take it all especially in the very short golden hour of the tropical Northern Territory. The sun light is unbelievably bright during the day and you only have a very short time of soft warm light and then it’s pitch black – so work fast! I feel I got some good shots at Hawk Dreaming but I could spend months here shooting, I definitely only scratched the surface during my 3 days there and hope to return and shoot some more.

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Cannon Rock at Sunset
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Hawk Dreaming Savannah landscape
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

More shots from Hawk Dreaming in my Kakadu Gallery.

Epilogue

If you made it this far despite my feeble writing skills then I’m very impressed! Hopefully I was able to tell you this story and convey how special Hawk Dreaming is without boring you to tears or you falling asleep on the keyboard. There really is so much more to tell but this post is long enough already and I’m not a good enough writer to truly express how I feel about Hawk Dreaming anyway. I’ll end by saying that if you are in the Northern Territory then you really should go to Hawk Dreaming! It will stay with you forever!

Reality in a photo? Doesn’t exist!

I recently updated some things on my web profile and blog photography page about my approach to photography and post processing and I thought I would further explain my take on this in this post since I do tend to get into this discussion about digital processing from time to time. Digital post processing has become a bit of a dirty word, it is sometimes considered ‘cheating’ as if post processing was something new. Where did this obscure idea that a photo has to be ‘real’ come from anyway? Why is Picasso not held to the same standard – those Picasso paintings look unreal to me! Reality doesn’t exist. One of the worlds most famous landscape photographers, Ansel Adams, processed his shots like no other and his shots are not ‘real’ – but they are absolute masterpieces!

My point is this:

A camera or photo that reflects reality as you see it does not exist.

Explaining this is not so simple though, I’ll give it a go and also explain why the RAW format is the only way to go.

My use of post processing

No camera can capture an image like your eyes see it, so I use digital post production to make my photos more accurately reflect the scene as I saw it. I am not a photojournalist and I am not particularly interested in reality. I am interested in recreating how I saw and felt the scene when I shot the photo. To accomplish this I use digital post production to do what the traditional darkroom has been used for in the past hundreds of years: adjusting exposure, saturation, white balance, correct any colour cast, do dodging and burning, remove purple fringing and chromatic aberation, add contrast. I do NOT modify the visible content of the scene and I feel this is an important difference between photography and digital art (digital art is not ‘cheating’ either it’s just another art form). I do not add or remove content like clouds, cars, people, animals or people etc. I simply modify the look to make it more accurately reflect the scene as I saw it!

Have a look at my photo from the park ‘Søndermarken’ in Copenhagen, shot in October 2005 (please click to see larger on my web to truly see the photo):

Click to see large size on my gallery!

I love this shot. So does a lot of my customers, I have sold this many times. Some people who know Søndermarken love it but say “did you do stuff to this photo?” because they know nothing like this has ever been produced by their  own consumer compact digital camera. I usually reply “YES! I made it reflect the scene as I saw it and felt it when I took the photo.” But I didn’t alter the visual content (even if I was very tempted to remove the lamp in the top left corner). This is a unique shot of Søndermarken. I have been back many times and it has never looked quite like this. The sun is very low and provides lovely warm light from the right side (look at the shadows) and this lights up the brown/yellow leaves on the trees. I shot only one shot this day not discovering how fantastic it was till I looked at it back home. I have revisited this exact spot many times but it has never come close to matching this one day in October 2005. This is what great photography is about for me. Capturing the very special light in that unique moment.

Capturing real light in a box

The hard part about capturing and presenting this special light is that the human eyes and brain are a million times better at seeing things than any camera. For one thing your eyes can see at least 20 stops of dynamic range – the difference between white and black – whereas even the best cameras can only capture somewhere between 7 to 8-9 stops of dynamic range. This is why when you look against the sun (a scene with huge dynamic range) your eyes can easily see the details in both the sky and the shadows – but take a photo and it’s either one big dark shadow with no details, or detailed shadows with a totally overexposed sky. Compressing at least 20 stops of visual dynamic range into about 7 means a lot of information has to go. You have to decide where you want the details – in the shadows or in the highlights! On top of this your brain is an amazing image processor. Your brain automatically and in real time does white balance correction, colour cast correction, tilt and perspective shifting and correction so all lines look straight etc. Your brains visual centre will filter out irrelevant things like power lines and garbage bins and interpret the scene and the colours differently from person to person.

So what I have in my camera is nothing like reality as I saw it, far from it. The scene needs to be re-created to represent what I saw and felt when I was there and shot the photo. I shoot RAW exclusively so I do all my own post processing (like having your own dark room). Is this processing ‘cheating’? No. Or well if it is then everyone cheats! It doesn’t matter if you’re using film, slides or digital (in-camera jpeg or raw file) – reality does not exist and post processing happens. Ansel Adams was a master of the darkroom, do you find his landscape shots to be a ‘cheat’ knowing that they are heavily processed?

Post processing happens everywhere

If you use film or slides: the post processing happens on the film, the film has a certain built in white balance, grain level, saturation and contrast level. Fujichrome Velvia iso50 for example is a fine grain super saturated contrasty film for landscape photography – comes with built in saturation and contrast at about 5400 degree Kelvin white balance.

If you shoot digital jpeg: You let the camera convert from RAW to jpeg and add lots of processing. You probably have the camera on auto white balance meaning it tries to measure the temperature of white by itself – of course this often ‘fails’ since this is tough to do and there is no right white-balance anyway, it is an artistic decision. You have set the contrast, saturation, sharpness, brightness etc. parameters in the camera. When you shoot a photo the camera then takes the raw data from the sensor, tries to guess the white balance and adds the contrast, sharpness, saturation etc. from the camera settings, add heaps of digital noise reduction and worst of all – compresses the colours and the dynamic range into 256 levels of tonal range per channel and turns this into a compressed 8 bit colour jpeg file. Mega loss of data! This is why the jpeg is certainly not straight out of the camera, it is very heavily processed! A jpeg file straight out of any digital camera is certainly not reality and is certainly not how the scene actually looked.

If you shoot in RAW format: You actually have the real “straight out of the camera” file! The raw file is just that – raw data straight from the sensor no processing. But a RAW file is certainly not reality either. If you have seen a RAW file unprocessed you will know that it is a very flat under-saturated dull and boring looking thing. This demonstrates how heavily processed jpegs from a camera are – ‘cos here you have the raw file next to it. You have to do all the work with raw files, you have to set the white balance, contrast, saturation, white and black level, sharpness etc. – and then convert it to a readable format like 16-bit tiff. But the work is worth it, with raw files you have at least two major advantages: you can change the white balance with no loss of quality and you have the full 12-bit colour range of data from your digital sensor. 12-bit vs. 8-bit is a mega difference! 12 bit has 4096 levels of colour per red, green and blue channel! 4096 levels per channel! 8-bit has a mere 256 levels. 256 vs 4096 levels – RAW files rule!

Photojournalism – and digital art

Digital art is when it stops being photography and you actually alter the visible content. You remove or add people, you change the sky and bring in clouds from another shot, you add some sunshine etc. It’s not ‘cheating’ it’s just another art form, but I do feel that you should make your viewers aware that it is digital art you’re presenting so they’re not mislead.

Photojournalism is something else entirely of course and here the authenticity of the visible content is the most important factor. You cannot alter the content at all and if you do then that is definitely ‘cheating’ and faking it. You’re showing a photo on the cover of a newspaper for example and people take this as fact and it should be – with regards to visual content anyway. Lot’s of famous fakes have been discovered and reporters fired because of it, here’s a great post from Photopreneur about the world’s most famous photo fakes.

conclusion

Reality doesn’t exist! At least not in a photo.

I am not interested in reality necessarily anyway. I am an artist, a landscape photographer and I will process the image to make it reflect how I saw it. I do not alter the visible content, but I alter the look. If you feel this is cheating so be it, you’re very welcome to your own opinion. I just wanted you to understand that the heavily processed 8-bit jpeg out of a digital camera is certainly not reality either and is just as much ‘cheating’!

I’m off to capture some more light – not reality!