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Truth And Reality In Photography

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

The concepts of truth and reality in photography encourage investigation and critical thinking amongst fine art photographers.

One day I may end up writing a book about such things. But, for now, let's explore the concepts of truth and reality in photography through a photo exploration of the old town of Bruges in Flemish Belgium.

Most folks still buy into the myth that a photograph is a factual rendition of reality. It's not!

“A photograph is about what you see and how your life’s experiences effect how you perceive what it is you’ve seen.”

— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

As no two people are exactly the same we must, therefore, all see the world differently.

As a consequence the photos we make must also be different to those made by other people.

On one level a photograph is a two dimensional visual representation of the world around you.

So where’s the value in a photo and why is photography so important to so many of us?

While, on one level, your photography deals with what you see, fine art photography is really more about how you feel about what you see.

And, please, I don't want you to consider that as a throw away line.

Cameras are tools and people make photos.

That makes the photos you make unique, which is important given the billion of photos that are created every year.

The Democratization Of Photography

We’re living during the great digital revolution. Many wonderful advantages are coming our way but, as you know, there’s also negative aspects associated with the amount of data being shared these days.

The great democratization of photography, for all its benefits, has resulted in the likelihood of your photos being submerged in the sea of images posted online.

Nonetheless, it's still possible for the concerned photographer to produce art imbued with meaning that celebrates the following:

  • The beauty of the Human Condition.
  • The wisdom of ancient cultures.
  • The power and wonder that exists 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. They just get it, but why?

  • Their work is often less formularized and more intimate.
  • They know what it’s like to be a surfer or a mother.
  • They understand, from their own experiences, the good days and the bad and they can empathize with those they photograph and also with the mothers (i.e., customers) of those they photograph.
  • Because of these shared experiences a certain level of trust is established. This can lead to more personal, character-driven portraits; more intimate moments; and more uniquely conceived and engaging candid and action photographs.        



A highly detailed door, framed in stone, at the Conservatorium in Bruges.

A highly detailed door, framed in stone, at the Conservatorium in Bruges.


How To Structure A Good Photograph

Please remember you're not just recording what you see but, more importantly, how you feel about what you see.

What’s more your feelings should absolutely influence how you approach the photos you’re creating.

The decisions you make will determine the success of your photo and the story, or particular reality, you’ve decide to explore.

The tools available to you include the following:

  • Lens choice (e.g., wide-angle or telephoto)
  • Angle of view (e.g., 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
  • Subject gesture and movement
  • Time: whether you choose to record a moment, frozen in time, or explore time as it unfolds before you
  • Compositional elements such as line, shape, texture, balance, color, light and shadow
  • Time of day, weather or season


Fun And Games In Bruges, Belgium

The photo at the top of this post was made after a long and exhilarating night photographing in the old city of Bruges, known as Brugge in the local Flemish language.

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 young adults 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 necessarily appreciate, compared to the one I've presented above.


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How The Photo Was Made 

The image at the top of this post is partly a result of HDR (i.e., High Dynamic Range) photography techniques and processing.

The inherent contrast, or scene brightness range, within this scene was so high that there was simply no way of recording details in the brightest highlights and deepest shadows within a single exposure.

Back in my days as a film-based photographer I may not have taken the photo at all. You might call that the ultimate editing decision, literally yes or no.

Back then you learned and understood the conditions under which you'd be able to make a successful photo and, over time, you learned to disregard everything else.

Digital photography is far more inclusive and represents, to my way of thinking, a greater level of freedom compared to film based photography.  

How I Made Photos In The Days Of Film

When using print film I commonly chose a film that was relatively low in contrast, to help record details within inherently high contrast scenes.

Some traditional techniques relating to film photography revolved around the following maxim:

Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.

In the case of the above image I would have overexposed the negative/print film so as to produce more shadow detail.

I would then underdevelop the film to ensure important highlight detail wasn’t blown out or overexposed.

By manipulating the film, both in camera and during development, you were able to produce a relatively realistic representation that, at the same time, explored your experience and response to the location depicted.

Of course there were also a number of other techniques available to you when processing prints in your own darkroom.


Artificial light illuminates this brooding walkway at night in Bruges, Belgium .

Artificial light illuminates this brooding walkway at night in Bruges, Belgium.

What Is HDR Photography

HDR is a relatively simple and easy to implement workflow that helps photographers deal with the age-old problem associated with photographing under high contrast conditions.

You’d be amazed at the amount of extra detail that can be extracted from deep shadows and bright highlights in a HDR workflow.

I can only conclude that folks who don't like the idea of such intervention just don't understand the following:

“Photography has always been about a constructed reality.”

— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

Photography Is Your Chance To Make A Difference

The reality is that, as artist and creator, you are responsible for what you photograph, how you go about making those photos and the quality of the images you produce.

Photography opens you up to the world by allowing you to do the following:

  • Record, share and celebrate.
  • Alert, educate and influence.
  • Become a conduit of experience and, in some cases, bring about meaningful change in the lives of others.  

Bruges Is A Visual Delight

The old town of Bruges offers museums, architecture and, just a few blocks away from the tourist crowds, everyday life in an historically rich and thriving UNESCO world heritage centre.

Narrow streets and canals abound and, because driving in the old town of Bruges is restricted to certain streets and limited to local residents, the sense of calm and history is maintained.

I loved my time in Bruges and hope to spend a month or more in this lovely part of Belgium at some stage in the future.

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