Archive for August, 2012

Partnering with Lighthawk

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012
Partnering with Lighthawk

In 1998, I attended a conference about forest management issues in northern Minnesota. As the co-chair of the Environmental Law Society at the University of Minnesota Law School, I was interested in learning more about legal, policy and management issues related to timber harvesting on our public lands. The conference was a classic gathering of environmentalists, with participants sleeping in tents in a field, listening to presentations and panel discussions in large canvas tents. To further illustrate the tone of the conference, I met a bunch of people affiliated with Earth First!

I also encountered an organization I had not heard of before – Lighthawk. It is a nationwide network of pilots who lend their planes, skills and time to assist in covering environmental issues. Lighthawk’s mission is “to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight.” While a pilot is responsible for his or her own expenses – fuel, maintenance, and other costs related to the aircraft and certifications – Lighthawk provides support in the way of connecting the pilot with conservation partners and  flight planning and related logistics.  Lighthawk’s mission at the conference was to highlight clearcutting that was going on in the Superior National Forest. It’s almost impossible to see such cutting from the ground as the industry leaves “beauty strips” – buffers of untouched forest that hide the areas where cutting occurs.

Seven years later, I was living in Alaska, working as the official photographer for the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage. Lighthawk was in town for the conference to highlight the oil operations along the Swanson River, right outside of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. An editor from National Geographic was also along for the flight to view the Swanson River operations as a parallel to the potential for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  But at the time, this was a special trip for Lighthawk – there were no Lighthawk pilots based in Alaska.

Fast forward another seven years, and I was having an email exchange with the editor for my Bristol Bay book about potential project partners, particularly with regard to aerial photography. She asked if I had heard of Lighthawk, and I said yes, but did not believe that they operated in Alaska. So, I sent an email to Lighthawk and learned that they did. After a little bit of paperwork and some scheduling, along with a very favorable and lucky weather window, I was ready to go on an aerial excursion into the Bristol Bay region with Lighthawk.

My pilot, Tim Hendricks, flew a Cessna 206 Stationair. Based out of Colorado, Tim spends his summers in Alaska flying guided day and overnight bear tours over to Katmai and Lake Clark for Sasquatch Alaska Adventures Co. out of Homer. I met Tim over near the public fuel pump at Lake Hood – the first time I had ever flown a plane on wheels out of that location. I have flown many times with Rust’s Flying Service out of Lake Hood – in DeHavilland Beavers on floats. Tim was in his cockpit working on his log when I approached, and he came out to shake my hand, towering over me in a lean, tanned frame that stood at least 6’6” – I don’t know how he fits into the cockpit, I thought to myself. Instantly friendly and confident, with a broad smile, I knew we were going to have a great flight.

After a short taxi on the runway, we were headed south across Anchorage for a Turnagain Arm crossing.  Once over the Kenai Peninsula, we crossed west over Nikiski – in sight of its massive port and liquid natural gas (LNG) facility – and then over the Cook Inlet toward the Alaska Range.  Since this particular plane had turbo engines, which provided for more efficiency and power at higher altitudes, we simply crossed over the Alaska Range rather than following the typical route through Lake Clark Pass that most small aircraft follow from Anchorage to Iliamna.

I wanted to see if there were any salmon gathering at the mouth of the Pile River, which empties into Lake Iliamna, so I asked Tim to bring us on a low approach straight over that river.  I was also interested in the river because the proposed haul road for the Pebble Mine would result in a bridge being built over the river.  Michelle had on many occasions told me it was a beautiful river; she was right.  A combination of varying channel depths created by steady flows and flood highs, along with coloration from minerals naturally occurring in the soils and waters of the area created a luscious mixture of colors and silky textures that spread out away from the mouth of the river and well out into the lake.  We circled around a few times so I could capture the images I wanted.  During our second circle, I spotted one of Lake Iliamna’s most rare of residents – a fresh water harbor seal.  Lake Iliamna boasts the only such population in North America, and one of only two or three in the entire world.

We headed across Lake Iliamna, following the western shoreline, spotting isolated islands and white sandy beaches with lagoons along the way, making the landscape look more like the tropics than the far north of Alaska.  We passed the villages of Iliamna and Newhalen along the way, heading for the mouth of Lower Talarik Creek.  My goal was to follow the creek from Lake Iliamna and then head over to the heart of the Pebble exploration area.  Shortly after heading upstream, we saw something I had only hoped for – a creek littered with salmon-sized red shapes in the water; the sockeye were red and running.  We made several passes over the creek, spotting at least six bears at various spots, including a sow with two spring cubs.  I was only able to photograph two boars that were fishing in the middle of the creek.

We continued on up the creek, and then cut over near Sharp Mountain and headed into the heart of the Pebble exploration area near Frying Pan Lake.  There was an equipment staging area (sometimes referred to as “the camp,” but it is actually not used to house personnel), a few operational rigs, and other rigs that were either being set up or torn down.  We also flew over several sites where remediation was underway, and we noticed several metal poles in the ground marking capped drill holes.  There are over 1,300 holes in the area as a result of the exploration of the vast deposit.  It was challenging to circle around and capture the images I wanted because there were three separate helicopters operating in the area, hauling sling loads of equipment from the cargo staging area to the drill sites.  And since the helos did not utilize the standard air traffic communications frequency, there was no way to talk to them and safely coordinate our flying with their activities.  We just had to keep an eye on them.

After a while, we flew into Iliamna to refuel and take a break.  We had already been flying for three and a half hours; and while that time can go quickly, it can also wear on passenger and pilot.  Tim refueled the plane and we pushed it back to the side to have a tail dinner of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, apple and smoked & canned sockeye salmon from Naknek, courtesy of Aleut elder Violet Willson.  Before we knew it, we were rested and heading back out.

We did a few more circles around the Pebble exploration area – this time helicopter-free – and then proceeded down the South Fork of the Koktuli River.  It was my first time flying over the Koktuli.  Most of the aerial photos you see of the streams of the Bristol Bay region show rivers winding down with towering mountains behind them.  That is not how things look in this part of Bristol Bay.  Shortly after its headwaters, the Koktuli River sprawls out into a relatively flat plain between the hills and low mountains of the Pebble Prospect and the jutting mountains near the head of the Wood River and the area of Wood-Tikchik State Park to the distant west.  The other set of mountains in the area would be the Alaska Range in Lake Clark National Park and Katmai National Park to the east.

The Koktuli is in so many ways a classic Alaskan river.  It meanders across the tundra, working its way through patches of spruce.  It has numerous channels at some points and shows a history of changing course due to intense shifts in water flow.  It has several gravel bars that would make for great camping spots, and an assortment of debris – mostly stripped-bare spruce trees – littering channels and dry spots.  According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Anadromous Waters Catalog, it is home for all life stages of chinook, sockeye, coho and chum salmon as well as Arctic char.  We overflew a group of rafters a bit more than halfway down to the confluence of the Mulchatna River, which was where we turned around and started our way back to Anchorage.  A beautiful suprise of the flight was the confluence of the Swan and Koktuli Rivers, where we found two cabins and an incredible view to the north.

The visage of the Koktuli River would likely change with the development of the Pebble Mine.  It is estimated that Pebble would annually consume three times as much water as the city of Anchorage (population 265,000) in order to support its operations.  The Koktuli River would not only be a source of water for the mine’s operations, but the primary tailings pond would displace Frying Pan Lake, the headwaters of the South Fork of the Koktuli River, holding back its flows with a 700-foot high dam.   I could only wonder as I captured these images of the Koktuli River what it might look like after its flow volumes were impacted by the mine.

On our way back to Anchorage, we passed again over the Alaska Range and close to the summit of Mt. Redoubt, one of several active volcanoes in this stretch of the Alaska Range.  Behind the steam rising from its crater I could see another active volcano in the chain, Mt. Iliamna.  I hated to leave behind the wonderous views that this region of Alaska have to offer.  But, Tim and I made tenative plans to come out again in September before he headed back to Colorado, and I looked forward to a landscape altered by the golds, oranges and reds that will be covering the land as autumn progresses.

A new age of aurora viewing

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
A new age of aurora viewing

Back in 2002, I was only three years into being what I considered to be a serious nature photographer.  What was that dividing line, you may ask?  There were two things that happened that helped me to understand I was getting more serious.  One was beginning to truly understand how light affected film, and the other was switching from color negative film to color slide film.

I had only been living in Alaska for three years in 2002, and the experience was overwhelming.  So many new sights, new places to explore and photograph, new friends, new work obligations, and a relationship that was in a plateau just before it started its decline.  With a demanding day job, I lacked the time and leisure to be able to go out and chase after the aurora borealis, which was putting on some rather vibrant displays because it was the peak of the eleven-year solar cycle.  I could only live vicariously through the works of local photographers who had the time and knowledge necessary to go out and capture stunning aurora images.  All of those photographers were shooting film.  There was no Twitter, no Facebook, and no smart phones.

Aurora viewing had a certain level of popularity at that time, as it has through the centuries.  Japanese tourists in particular have been reputed to visit Alaska in the winter time specifically to view the aurora and make love under its magic.  The commonly-held belief among the Japanese is that conceiving a child under the aurora will bring good luck.  The Nunamiut of the Brooks Range of Alaska believe that if you whistle at the aurora, it will move to your tune.  They also tell their children that if you go outside without a hat on, and the aurora is out, it will chop your head off and play with it like a ball.  The Tlingit, along with the Kwakiutl and the Salteaus Indians, believe that the aurora represents the spirits of ancestors, while the Yup’ik Eskimos of southwest Alaska believe that the northern lights were dancing animal spirits, particularly deer, seals, salmon and beluga whale.

That fascination had also translated into a photographic fixation for certain photographers in Alaska.  Most notably, Todd Salat, who for many years has been a mainstay at the Anchorage Downtown Market & Festival (aka “Saturday Market”) in downtown Anchorage and at the Dimond Mall during the holiday season, was a busy and successful aurora photographer going into the 2002 solar peak.  Back then, he, like pretty much all other photographers, was still shooting film.  And how did you know the aurora was going to be out back then?  Well, there was some raw data to observe and then you had to be out there to observe the good displays.  Salat notes, “It used to be that after a good aurora show, mark your calendar for 28 days. That’s how long it takes for the sun to revolve around it’s axis and hopefully the same sunspot/coronal hole would be pointing toward earth (geo-effective) and, once again, would be sending life-giving energy into the aurora.”  There was no means of coordinating your efforts based on multiple sources of real-time data.

How different of a world it is now as we approach that next solar cycle peak.  Everyone has a digital camera now, with a few die-hards out there capturing the natural world on film.  (I, occasionally, will take along my Hasselblad and capture images on Fuji Velvia 220 film.)  And then there is the real-time exchange of information available through Twitter and Facebook.  Twitter offers several accounts to follow for current and near real-time data, like Aurora Alerts and AuroraNotify. On Facebook, several user groups have sprouted up, such as Aurora Lovers and Aurora Borealis Notifications, sharing real time data and the success of a good night of aurora through pictures and stories.  And there are countless photographers posting their own updates via Twitter and Facebook.  One dedicated aurora hunter has even gone so far as to post suggested locations using Google maps for viewing the aurora in the vicinity of Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, and Fairbanks.

The proliferation of the smart phone has had a particular impact.  Rather than being chained to a desk or laptop computer to monitor these real-time aurora and weather reports, the smart phone has allowed the intrepid photographer to be out in the field, closer to the locations necessary to capture great aurora images.  So long as there is cellular service, which is still quite sketchy in several areas of Alaska -even on the road system – the in-field photographer can react quickly to new individual reports or updates from NOAA.  There are also a variety of applications, such as 3D Sun and Aurora Buddy that offer yet another source of information to supplement the smart phone data access.

But even with all of these new, grand advances in technology, it’s still technology, which means sometimes it goes down.

Following a peak of aurora activity over March 7-9, 2012, then heading into another three days of activity on March 11-14, 2012, the Alaska Geophyisical Institute page that is famous for providing its aurora forecasts simply went down from too much traffic.  Charles Deehr is the dedicated man behind those aurora forecasts, having been inspired to create the forecast based on a particularly vivid display he viewed in 1989.

Even with the occasional glitch, the new age of aurora-hunting technology offers more benefits than faults, according to Salat.  “A perfect example just happened yesterday.  I woke up in my truck camper and saw it was snowing with a forecast for more snow in my area.  The space weather websites were predicting active auroras that night because of an incoming solar flare (CME).  On my iPhone I viewed dozens of weather reports for every town and city within 300 miles then made a best guess and took off.  At 4 am, 200 miles from where I started the day, I finally found a clear patch and had a wonderful aurora experience.  Thank you smartphone.”

But even with all of the claims that social media and new technology create social barriers in the real world, among real people, the current aurora craze certainly goes against that common belief.  A vivid display in March 2012 over Anchorage provides a good example of this.  Fueled by promising aurora forecasts, crowds of people headed up into the hillside above Anchorage, crowding trailhead parking lots and any pullover with a view to the open sky.  I, along with several other photographers, headed down the Turnagain Arm to a pullout at the boundary of the Chugach National Forest.  After the initial display, the Facebook and Twitter feed went crazy, with people sharing reports from Fairbanks down to the Kenai Peninsula.  I saw one Tweet from local progressive radio show host Shannyn Moore, and gave her a call – she was driving up the winding roads of the Anchorage hillside, looking for a spot to view the aurora.  When the next show erupted, I abruptly hung up on her and went to photographing.  The next day, she recounted the event on her show, The Shannyn Moore Show.

Todd Salat also agrees that the real-time, shared experience, creates an added dimension to the aurora experience.  He notes, “Scientists can model the flare and are getting darn good at predicting the actual time of impact (+/-).  We now know the minute a geomagnetic substorm is in progress. You can even get alerts emailed or phoned in to you. If you’re sitting warmly in front of a home computer, time to throw on a coat and get your eyes on the sky. If you’re out in the field it’s incredibly fun, educational and almost addictive to monitor a northern lights show while it’s in progress.”

In this brave new world of aurora viewing, people will be able to enjoy and photograph the aurora borealis unlike ever before.  I can only hope that the technology that fosters greater opportunity does not outshine the magic of the aurora itself.

Feel free to visit my Aurora Borealis gallery on my website.  I also have a prior instructional post on how to capture the aurora.

 

Pondering the question, “Is that Photoshopped?”

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012
Pondering the question,

One of the evils of the digital age is that professional nature or landscape photographers have to respond to the question, “Is that Photoshopped?”  There are two problems with the question.  One problem relates to meaning.  What aspect of Photoshop is the person inquiring about?  Does he mean to ask, “Is it a composite?”  Or, are they asking, “Are colors added to this?”  Or, perhaps, are they asking if basic enhancements have been made, such as to exposure, contrast, hue, or saturation?

The second problem with the question is the implication.  The question implies negative things about the image.  First, it implies disbelief that the image was originally good without manipulation, or that the scene could not have naturally looked as good as that.  Secondly, it implies that to make enhancements themselves is improper.

Most of all, the question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how serious photographers – artists – approach their medium.  One of the modern sayings is that a photographer can always “fix” an image or “get it right” in Photoshop.  I am going to go out on a limb and say two very profound things: Ansel Adams would have approved of digital photography and he would have been a Photoshop user.  But Ansel Adams would vehemently disagree with the notion that you can “fix” an image or “get it right” in Photoshop.

Ansel Adams and Digital Photography

I learned photography the “old school” way involving black and white negative film and the wet darkroom.  In fact, I learned how to process film long before I really understood how to expose it well.  In college, I took a class that focused on the Ansel Adams “Zone System” of exposure.  It was there, and through reading his three-book series “The Camera”, “The Negative” and “The Print” and his book “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs” that I came to understand and seek to emulate his philosophy on controlling an image through the entire creative process.

In his books, I read a few passages that, when I read them again years later, revealed an amazing foresight into where photography was headed:

“I eagerly await new concepts and processes.  I believe the electronic image will be the next major advance.  Such systems will have their own inherent and inescapable structural characteristics, and the artist and functional practitioner will again strive to comprehend and control them.”— Ansel Adams, The Negative (1981, xiii)

“I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.”— Ansel Adams, Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs (1983, 59)

Unfortunately, Ansel Adams did not live to see the development of true digital photography.  While the first digital camera was created in 1975, it was created as an exercise and not for production.  The camera weighed 8 pounds (3.6 kg), recorded black and white images to a cassette tape, had a resolution of 0.01 megapixels (10,000 pixels), and took 23 seconds to capture its first image.  The first analog electric camera to reach the market was  the Canon RC-701, used in the summer Olympics in 1984.  But even then, the analogs were expensive (up to $20,000 per model), of poor quality, and there were not printers available in the market.  In 1988, Canon released the RC-250 Xapshot and Nikon the QV-1000C, which produced a greyscale image of comparable quality to film and markted only to media outlets.  The first commercially available digital camera was the 1990 Dycam Model 1; it also sold as the Logitech Fotoman. It used a CCD image sensor, stored pictures digitally, and connected directly to a computer for download.  But, in the modern age of the digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, the first developed by a major manufacturer was the Nikon D1 in 1999, with a 2.74 megapixel sensor.  Ansel Adams died in 1984.

Given the format of film that Ansel Adams was accustomed to using – he captured his images on 8×10 inch negatives – he probably would not have cared for the quality or resolution of the images produced by the first DSLRs, but given his writings, he would have been pleased to see that the new world of the electronic image was finally taking form.

Ansel Adams and Photoshop

My philosophy is, “Get it right in camera.  Perfect it in Photoshop.”  This summarizes what was Ansel Adam’s philosophy as well.

Given Ansel’s belief that creation of an image continued in the processing of film and in the creation of the print, he would have been a Photoshop user.  In traditional film, there were three phases that were involved in creation of the image: exposure of light to film, exposure of that film to chemicals at a certain temperature for a certain period of time (developing the film), and then creation of the print in a darkroom (which involved shining light through a negative onto print paper and then exposing that paper to chemicals).  Ansel Adams believed that the artist could and should control the image at each phase.  The reason for this is simple: photography according to Ansel Adams was more than just documenting a scene.  It was about creating an emotional connection to the image.  And plus, cameras are simply incapable of recording light the ways our eyes see it, so a certain level of basic enhancement is required.

First, there is the creation of the image in the camera.  If a nature or landscape photographer stopped his or her work there, then they would be nothing more than a documentarian like a crime scene photographer.  So many elements have to come together in camera in order for the image to be captured “right” out in the field: composition, weather, luck, and light.

Understanding how cameras see light is one of the most fundamental elements of photography.  Light is measured in “stops” in the world of photography.  The opening of an aperture during exposure is referred to as an “F-stop” and represented by a number like 2.8, 4.0, 5.6, 8.0, 11, 16, 22 and so on.  Each of those numbers represents a “stop” of light – from one to the next is a single “stop.” Some lenses go lower, some go even higher.  Ansel Adams was part of a group commonly known as “Group F/64,” meaning, they were extreme landscape photographers who always shot at a very, very narrow aperture – f/64 – which created an incredible depth of field.  But cameras can not see detail in shadows in highlights across a wide dynamic range as well as the human eye can.  A human eye can see detail in as much of a dynamic range as 24 stops of light, while most DSLRs can only record 10-12 stops of light (the new Nikon D800 has a dynamic range of 14.4 at the lower ISO numbers).

Thus, when you are photographing a scene that has deep shadow and bright hightlights, you have to know that in most instances, your camera will not be able to record it in a single image without some help.  One way to give it help in camera is with a graduated neutral density filter.  This allows the highlights to be darkened to a certain number of stops while leaving the shaded area as it is.  Another method that was used in the old darkroom days was to take two images, and then combine the best exposures from the two images into one print.  (I’ll discuss later how that is done “nowadays” in the digital darkroom.)  Another common practice in black and white film photography was to add certain colored filters – red, orange, yellow, green and blue – to enhance the midtones of the image because certain colors look alike when converted to grey scale.   Using these filters allowed the contrast that those colors represented to print well in black and white.

But, for Ansel Adams, exposing the film was not the end, but just the beginning.  Using his “Zone System” as guidance, he would then manipulate the contrast of the image by how he developed the film – by changing the temperature of the chemicals and the speed with which he agitated the film during development.  It was also another way of manipulating the exposure – a slightly underexposed image could be fully exposed by adjusting the development.

Once that was completed, there was still more to do from Ansel Adams’ point of view.  Sometimes the darks were still too dark, or the highlights too bright.  These were corrected by “dodging” or “burning” the image – that is, blocking the light from reaching the print paper during the full exposure or making one part of the image get a longer exposure than the rest.  It was done not only to render detail, but to enhance the mood and contrast of the image.

In the digital darkroom – i.e., Photoshop – the two post-exposure processes have been combined into one.  There is no longer the opportunity to enhance an image while printing with a digital printer.  The image has to be print-ready when that “Print” button is clicked.  But all essential enhancements to an image in Photoshop have their origins in the digital darkroom.  The icons used in Photoshop even reflect this past – for example, the icon for “dodging” is a round object with a handle, which resembles what was commonly used for dodging in the wet darkroom.  And just as in the “old days,” the primary concerns are exposure, hue, contrast and saturation.

How each of us arrives at the point of a print-ready image varies.  For my basic digital workflow, I use a two-stop process that perhaps could resemble the development and printing phase of old.  My first step is to import the image into my library using Adobe Lightroom 4.1.  While doing that, I enter useful keywords, name the files and organize the images into my system.  Once imported, I do a quick look for sensor dust and then perform basic adjustments to exposure, contrast and saturation to make the image more rich, as opposed to the often flat look that a RAW image can sometimes have.  In this process, I am guided both by my memory and interpretation of the scene, and my examination of the histogram for the image – providing more contrast in the mid-range tones and ensuring there is detail in the shadows and highlights.

Once I have completed my edits, I select the image and then select “Edit in” and then “Open as a smart object in Photoshop.”  From there, my Photoshop launches and I am ready to make additional adjustments exposure, contrast, hues, and saturation using layers.  My objective here is not to create or add new colors that did not previously exist, but to take the exising qualities of the image and bring out the best.  I start with using “Levels” to make sure that the shadows, highlights and mid-range tones have the quality I desire.  Then, I work in the color channels to enhance the appearance of the dominant colors in the landscape and to minimize colors that are a distraction (and often the result of an imperfect white balance).  Sometimes it is necessary to increase contrast in order to improve the image, such as to reduce haze in the atmosphere or to minimize the impact of shooting through an aircraft window.  And then there are the touchups – doing the really fine-detail sensor dust control and cloning out an errant branch or blade of grass.  And with just a few more settings, it is ready to print.

Again, this process, like what Ansel Adams did with his images, merely takes the original capture and enhances its existing quality to create an image that reflects the artist’s interpretation of the scene and expresses that scene in a way the artist wishes to present to others. It also ensures that the image overcomes the limitations of what the sensor (or film) is capable of capturing.

As an example, I include in this post the processing steps of an image of commercial fishing boats in the boat harbor at Dillingham, Alaska.  Late evening light was casting warm colors on a canopy of clouds gathering in the sky behind a row of commercial drift boats, and I knew it would be a great image for my Bristol Bay project.  I also knew that the camera would have problems rendering detail in the boats since they were strongly back-lit.  So, I added a .09 Lee graduated neutral density filter (hard), lined up the filter to darken the sky, and captured the image.  That is what you see represented as the “RAW File” version here.  But when I saw the colors and exposure balance in Lightroom, it looked a bit “thin” to use film terminology – it lacked contrast, the boats were still too dark, and the colors were washed compared to what I recall.  So, using Lightroom 4.1, I darkened the highlights, brought up the shadows, and boosted the contrast and color saturation.  This is the “Lightroom” version as presented.  Still not fully satisfied with the colors and exposure balance, I opened the file in Photoshop through Lightroom.  There, working with layers, I selectively brightened the area of the boats, darkened the sky a little more, and then worked within the existing color channels to render both the boats and the sky as vividly as I recalled them.  This is displayed in the final “Photoshop” version.

Taking things a step too far for Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams likely would not have, however, approved of two other ways that Photoshop is often used.  He would have likely disapproved of the use of “composite” images – where you take elements from two or more different images and put them together.  For example, taking a full moon captured with a 500mm lens and putting it into a nighttime landscape captured using a 20mm lens.  A moon shot with a 20mm lens would be a glorified dot, but with a 500mm lens it is huge.  You’ve seen these shots before.  Or the caribou silhoutted against the aurora borealis – as if that caribou is going to stand still for you for 8 or 15 seconds while you capture the aurora.  He would have disapproved because those images could not be created in-camera, with the exception of a double exposure.  For me, I find that they can be useful and acceptable, so long as they are disclosed as being composites.  For example, stitched panoramic and HDR images are technically composites, as they combine two or more images to create one.

Ansel also would have disapproved of what is more accurately described as a “photographic illustration” than photography.  Sure, it starts with an image, or several images, and then becomes expanded, enhanced, tweaked, and greatly manipulated using a variety of software packages.  Again, it has its uses – especially when it comes to illustrating concepts and for marketing.  But it is not meant, nor should it be used, to pass off a print as a representation of something that happened in the natural world.  Some HDR images are so over-processed they often have the appearance of a photographic or graphic illustration.  Oddly enough, I have several times created both a natural-looking HDR image and a garish-looking HDR image, and so far, it is the garish images that stock clients choose to purchase.  But, like composites, an HDR image should be disclosed as such in captioning.

In the end, a photographer must pursue his or her own processes when creating art.  I follow the Ansel Adams approach, using modern tools to accomplish what he so masterfully did using his three-stage process.  But if you are using digital tools to go beyond that, then the ethical thing to do is to properly identify the image in captioning.  I follow the North American Nature Photography Association’s “Truth in Captioning” guidlines.