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Fine Art or Not Fine Art: That is the question!

big sable lighthouse under the northern lights in Michigan
Big Sable Lighthouse - Tracked/Blue Hour Blend

Lately I've pondered the question, "what is a photographer?" Surprisingly, this question is not a simple as it sounds.

All you have to do is look anywhere on the internet and you'll find different "camps" of photographers. From cell phones to high end mirrorless systems, there is a wide array of people enjoying photography.

Eventually you'll come across these two vocal camps: The Purists, and the Fine Artists; and some stuck in-between, like yours truly. What do I mean by this?

Well, the Purist is as it sounds. This is a person who does not believe in editing. Or if they do, it is not much at all. A few slider swipes in Lightroom will suffice. These are people who tend to live in the world of photojournalism (albeit, not always). A discipline that captures events as they happen. While basic compositional skills do apply, this is not the primary focus. Capturing the unfolding events in the priority. Some landscape photographers subscribe to this philosophy, as well. You'll find these photographers using ND filters to help capture a sunset or sunrise without having to employ the HDR (High Dynamic Range) techniques.

Northern Lights over the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan
Aurora and the Mighty Mac. Single Image Exposure.

The Fine Artists are a group whose main focus is storytelling BUT with the additions of evoking emotion and creating scenes that borderline on fantasy. They build upon what is already there and enhance it. For this group, compositing is perfectly ok. Some take it as far as combining elements from several scenes into one. Others stick to simple "tricks" such as HDR, or combining multiple exposures to push more drama into a scene. (I.e. several ocean waves into one master ocean wave image). I know several astrophotographers (including myself, in some circumstances) that have fully embraced compositing. They have a vision, and this vision will sometimes require images taken at different times of the day, combined into one. Some add in clouds, or other elements that were not there on that day, but on a different day. The Story trumps all!

Aurora Borealis and the Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City, Michigan
Aurora and the Mighty Mac - This time with a focus stacked foreground, Starting to stray a little from the Purist idealology.

Mackinac Bridge and the Northern Lights from Mackinaw City, Michigan
Aurora and the Mighty Mac - Blue hour focus stack and color graded. Straying even further from the Purist idealogy. But closer to the vision I personally saw and felt.

These two groups tend to get into heated debates, as the Purists do not believe that heavy compositing counts as photography. However, if all the elements were taken with a camera, by that same person, what else would it be? Some argue it's digital art. I could see that IF completely fabricated elements were added. My reasoning behind this stems from the heavy digital manipulation widely used across all forms of advertising campaigns. From human models to car ads, you will find liberal use of image manipulation.

Also, Astrophotography in and of itself is a mastery of compositing and processing images. So, this muddies the waters further. When you are dealing with subjects that are invisible to the naked eye, having more data to work with is essential. You are now using trackers, modified cameras, and even different filters to gather all the information you want! Then combining those - sometimes with flat, darks, and bias frames to create a best possible outcome. You now have NO choice but to composite the landscape, since using tracking devices move with the sky, blurring out the foreground.

Monument Valley, Arizona under the Milky Way with white flowers in the foreground
Flowers at night are very difficult to work with, as any light breeze moves them! A work-around consists of taking the foreground during "blue hour."

This is where I find myself struggling a bit - as I see both sides to this argument. Personally, I've always been one to try to be truthful and showcase a scene as it mostly was, using techniques like focus stacking or HDR to bring out the finer details. However, lately, I've been diving deeper into the depths of image making - use of color grading, cleanup, and use of images taken at different times of the day to convey the emotion I felt the day of that photo. This all flies in the face of photojournalism.

The problem here is that I find myself internally struggling with these two competing voices. Sure, a Milky Way is a Milky Way, and it looks the same every night - as long as you are taking the images from a relatively close location. But even then, the average person would never know if you took a sky from Colorado and used in a scene from Michigan. Eagle eyed astronomers will be able to tell, though! This temptation is really hard to stave off when you come back from a trip and has nothing but cloudy skies. So, what do you do? Create the image anyways? Or go back another time? For some, going back is not an option, so they will choose the composite route. I have grown to accept this, as one who has experienced weeks of cruddy weather. As long as the artist is truthful about it, then I don't see an issue.

However, many are NOT truthful, and this is typically the cause of grief online. Although not immune to criticism, since let's face it: most don't bother reading.

What are your thoughts on this matter? Do you even care? With Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) entering the chat, this opens up yet another proverbial "can of worms." Personally, I believe if there wasn't such an emphasis on creating viral content all day, every day, there would be less arguments. Some feel that the "fake" images take away from their own hard work, since these manipulated images use colors and elements that are pleasing to our feeble little brains. Something that a raw image may be lacking. For this, I don't have an answer for. Other than taking the monetization away. Which we all know that is not possible! Feel free to add to the discussion in the comments!

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Nice write up. I feel your pain, angst, concern? I think you sum it up nicely that whatever you do, be honest with anybody viewing your art in how you did it. I like taking night photos as well. The camera sees far more than my eye. Should I make the sky black in my photos or leave the green airglow? The airglow is real but I sure don't see it with my eyes. We've come a long way from painters looking up at the night sky and painstakingly putting oil or water colors to canvas. Now we have cameras that you can just set up press a few buttons, walk away and come back hours later with phenomenal photos…


Awesome article - you have brought up some very good points! As someone who majored in biology and art and has some photojournalist experience I find myself about in the "middle" as well although I have been pushing myself artistically! When it comes to fine art photography I don't believe in rules, it is all in your personal vision! I definitely am not a fan of AI, that is where my open-mindedness comes to an end! Love your work!!


AI will prove to be a great disrupter--especially to all artists, be it writers or photographers or. . . . The answer for me and perhaps you is: To thine own heart be true. Pursue with laser focus your own instincts. As for the fakesters, the frauds, the click baiters, ignore them. Collectors of true beauty, the ones with knowledge and the money to fund and to collect the work of worthy artists, already know the difference. They are intelligent. Your appeal is to that market. So, stand your ground. I am sure the frauds, the fakes, etc. are not making a dime. At the end of the day all they have is 10 billion likes--and not mu…


All I can say is you AMAZE me!

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