Velvet Elvis in the Sky

Honesty in Weather Photography

Fellow weather and outdoor photographers: I have a simple request. Be real.

An ever-increasing proportion of weather “photos” online are deliberately manipulated so as to be untrue (see earlier rant). This includes high-dynamic-range (HDR) processing, saturation and contrast enhancement well past the real and natural. I cannot and will not promote online, recommend to publishers, nor “like” on Facebook, overprocessed, oversaturated digital art presented as photography. The concept is so simple anybody should be able to grasp: if it’s unnatural, it’s not natural! Duh…

Sad thing is, most such images don’t need to be saturated to the hilt or slammed with HDR contrast-enhancement–the spectacular scenes would stand on their own anyway with minimal HDR or other processing. [Notice I said “minimal”, not “no” processing. Do not overlook that key nuance!]

This isn’t a criticism of making a photo look the closest possible to how it really did. “Photoshopping” for that purpose, or to clean off artifices like dust, scratches, glare spots, vignetting, unnatural granularity, distortions introduced by the equipment or scanner, etc., is making the image more real, not less. Great! Please do such improvements! I also have no problem with drawing out shadows and softening highlights (whether digitally or via filters) to overcome the camera’s innate inability to range light like our eyeballs, thereby rendering the truest possible image.

Therein lies the photographic fitness test. Is that the closest possible to how it looked to your eyeballs and those of other observers very near? If not, you’ve gone too far, or (in rare cases) not far enough.

How do you know you’ve gone too far? If your weather “photo” looks like it could be served at Baskin-Robbins, it’s not natural.

How do I know you’ve gone too far? It’s not hard. Sometimes, I’ve been very close to you, on the same storm. That makes it slam-dunk obvious to me. I’ve seen unreal enhancement of images taken from at or very near my own locations, starting with some well-known images of the 9 June 2005 Hill City tornado and continuing through the 10-11 May 2014 storms in Kansas.

Furthermore, the fact I wasn’t there in other cases is moot. I wasn’t born yesterday, nor did I start shooting the sky last week. Over three decades, I’ve seen hundreds, perhaps over a thousand supercells and even more shelf clouds, in all kinds of light, day and night, and from every angle imaginable. I simply know what’s natural and what’s not. I just do. Maybe you can pull the wool over some weather-ignoramus news editor or BLOGger in New York, Washington, London or San Francisco, who doesn’t know a supercell from a Duracell…but not me. I don’t have the time or interest to be “photographic police”; but I will cold-bust obvious offenders opportunistically from time to time.

Over-enhancement simply is inauthentic–digital art created from a photo, not an actual photograph. Such processing zealotry renders unnatural saturations and color distortions the likes of which would seem better suited for 1970s night-glow disco murals than photography. Alas, the disease is spreading like wildfire.

Before anyone whines, “I’ve got the right to do whatever I wish with my images!”, don’t bother. Yes, you do have that right and I’m not trying to deny it. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of expression. You even have the right to alter the hell out of a picture, then lie and call it a photograph. Get this: the same First Amendment guarantees my right to call out your lie, if you present that image as actual photography after it’s been soaked with digital food coloring and/or contrast-enhanced to sharpness that makes a surgical knife seem as rough as a grinding wheel.

Besides, I am not talking about rights. I am talking about honesty. Don’t tell me some deeply Photoshopped, HDR-overcompensated image is a photograph, or “what I saw today”, when that is simply not true. If it looks like the atmospheric version of a velvet Elvis, nobody truly saw that, or ever will.

Again, create all the digital art you want. Just don’t mislead and deceive others by calling it a photograph. Such images are digital art, not photography. Label it accordingly, right there and upfront. Otherwise, I reserve the right to go onto comment boards for sites and stories where such images are posted, or contact the editor(s) of the publication or website involved, and blow the cover clean off the ruse.

Want some examples? Here’s what I mean, using my own imagery in order to (for now) benevolently avoid trampling the toddler-fragile egos of the guilty. For now…

The top image of each pair is the photo, rendered as close as I could to the scene seen. The bottom is the overprocessed digital art.


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