Escaping Realism in Digital Photography

Traditional black-and-white photography offers an abstract view of the world, which in my view helps it to be seen as an art form in some quarters, particularly in the US. Modern digital photography offers a greater range of possibilities and gives us the power to take a scene and do what we want with it provided we have sufficiently good software and enough knowledge. Why should we be stuck with realistic portrayals?

For weeks I have been looking at new beds of beautiful wild flowers planted by the local district council at the nearest major road junction to the studio (East Dunbartonshire, Scotland). They contain an abundance of blue, white and yellow flowers that attract lots of insects. Rather than record the entire flowerbed and show it’s setting within the street I decided to produce a more dreamy image. I did not want to portray the view which the passing motorist might observe. My aim was not to create a realistic picture on a dull and overcast day, typical of this part of Scotland. I wanted something more joyous which would depict the intrinsic beauty of the flowers and also communicate something of how I felt when seeing them up close.

In order to capture the scene I deliberately underexposed the picture so that the red channel  in the yellow flowers or the three channels in the white flowers would not be overexposed.

Who cares about realism ?

The image was captured in RAW file format and deliberately underexposed so that highlight detail could be retained in the white and yellow flowers. When capturing very bright yellows within a scene the red channel can be overexposed quite easily.

Wild flower picture underexposed

At this stage of RAW conversion the brightness and colour values were adjusted as shown below:

wild flowers after RAW conversion

There is a very simple way to make an image more dreamy and at the same time increase saturation. Using Photoshop I copied the image onto another layer and changed the blending mode to ‘Soft Light’. In situations where this produces too high a contrast the upper layer can be blurred with a Gaussian function. Alternatively very dark areas of the image can be masked off.

soft light blend with a blur

A crop was applied to the image above to remove some of the grass at the bottom. I always feel grass is fairly boring because it is almost ubiquitous and so should be limited in most photographs.

Where to stop processing an image is a matter of personal taste. Personally I like to use plug-ins that add more abstraction in the form of brushstrokes and also increase colour variability.

brushstrokes added to an image of flowers

The degree of abstraction can be increased by making the colour substitutions more variable and the ‘brushstrokes’ larger. I then add further ‘Soft Light’ blending and mask parts of  images that become too dark. I also wanted to add more contrast so used a  ‘Levels’ layer, in which the central gamma slider was shifted to the right. I then painted more contrast into parts of the image by using a white brush on a black layer mask.

larger brushstrokes used on an image

I accept that some people will want to make all forms of their photography realistic. I strongly feel however that some subjects lend themselves to a greater degree of abstract processing. Those who enjoy fine art within galleries will possibly enjoy more processed photographic images. In this case my personal favourite is the second last image, which is less abstract, although still significantly different from what some people might ‘see’.