Friday, July 20, 2012

Whose Reality is This, Anyway?

"I don't pretend reality is the same for everyone." (Diane Setterfield)
“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” (John Lennon)

For her birthday last November we gave our painter friend, Holly, the gift of computer-generated phone calls that might ring at any time day or night. Not your typical gift, but then she's not your typical artist. Holly loves everything astronomical, and the gifted phone calls are alerts to let her know when the Northern Lights are forecast to appear in her area.

Of course, her area is also our area.

Northern Lights over Lake McDonald
in Glacier National Park, Montana (c) John Ashley
Northern Lights over Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, April 2012

On April 23rd, Holly emailed at 6 pm with exciting news about one of her first phone calls. And by 11:30 pm I was set up in the dark on the south shore of lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, looking northward into a dim orange glow. It was a wide orange arc, centered slightly east of north, and didn't look at all like any Aurora Borealis I'd ever seen in person or in pictures. Around midnight, I started shooting.

The colorful arc was maybe 140 degrees wide, and I was trying to shoot a 180 view. I was really hoping to shoot with a 50mm lens for two reasons. First, the wide f1.4 aperture would mean I could use one full ISO lower than with a 2.8 lens. Second, stitching images together is oh-so much less frustrating when there is no wide-angle distortion. But after one sweep of 10 overlapping images, I knew I didn't want to stitch together 30 images. I had to get wider.

I fumbled around and found my favorite landscape lens at the bottom of my camera bag, a Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 DX lens - my only non-Nikon lens. (15mm on a D7000 DX sensor is the FX equivalent of 22mm.) Now I'll only have to stitch six or eight images together, but my low ISO plan is out the window and I'll have to fight the distortion in post. I mounted the lens by braille and turned around to look for my tripod in the dark.

And that's when the light show started.

From the dim orange glow early on, the horizon slowly turned to the familiar greenish hue, sort of waving and pulsing low on the horizon. Punching through these, narrow beams of vertical light started slowly sweeping back and forth, fading in and out in different parts of the sky.

I didn't have time to shoot test frames, and focusing/alignment in the dark is not something you normally want to do in a hurry. But then, how often do I get to photograph the Northern Lights in Montana? Only once so far. (I saw them twice while working here as a biologist, but I wasn't carrying a camera.)

My first guess was spot on. ISO 1600, 30 sec at f2.8. Stitching together six images (two rows of three) allowed me to do two things. First, I could go much wider than a single frame. But more importantly, I could hide some of that noisy 1600 ISO by creating a larger file and then downsizing. It's a great way to shoot landscapes that you might want to print rather large, but it can get a little disorienting in the dark.

I kept shooting row after row while the colors and shapes pulsed and swayed, but the height of the show was also the point in time when I began to question reality.

I was shooting in RAW format, and the review images looked different from what my eyes were reporting to my brain. The green glow looked dark and somewhat dull to my eyes, but the camera was recording a brighter and more saturated greenish-yellow. The vertical beams of light looked to pulse between white and a very slight magenta. But the RAW files were recording a beautiful, saturated magenta.

I wondered which reality was THE reality - the camera's purely mechanical capture of photons, or my eyes' chemical capture and brain's emotional interpretation of what I was seeing? The answer was, both.

The scene as interpreted by my brain was one reality. The cumulative capture of light energy during a 30-second exposure was also real, just something that my eyes were unable to see in real time.

But now I had a dilemma in post. Is there a "correct" version of reality? Do I edit to what I saw or what the camera saw? I ended up compromising. I kept the final edit closer to the RAW files' color balance, just tweaked a little to bring the night sky back to dark blue. But I brightened the image to separate the mountains across the lake, which also brightened the light show colors and made them more visible than what I saw. Finally, I desaturated a little bit, altering the camera's reality to make the print look a more like my reality - and more like the colors people would expect to see because they're just using their eyes.

And still, I know that at every art show I will hear, "Did you Photoshop that?" and, "Is that what you really saw?" Yes, I "Photoshopped" this image, but not in the way that you mean (I shoot in RAW). And no, this print is not exactly what I saw using my eyes. But it is real none the less.

Using my camera as a tool to record light energy, in ways that my eyes cannot, is not forgery or or some sort of ethical lapse. It's called "creativity." And creative photography is a great vehicle for exploring your own private reality.

I highly recommend it.

"Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans... If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn't we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others?” (Philip K. Dick)

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