Photograph or Digital Art?


Art, often as dividing and controversial as the political landscape

You either get it, or you don't, you love it or you hate it, and so on. Every piece of art is in the eye of the beholder as something that can appear simple and mundane to one person but may hold deep meaning and stir thoughts within another.

Photography is an art form that can be easily overlooked, after all, we take pictures on a near daily basis and we wouldn't consider most of these snaps to be art. There are of course those that practice fine art photography by skillfully preparing a scene which challenges the mind or abstract photography which does much the same. Landscape photographers spend huge amounts of time and effort to perfectly capture a scene where the lighting is just perfect and complete, lifting the image to be more than a meer snap.

Do I consider myself an artist? I don't think so; I believe I am principally an engineer first and artist second, but something happened to me the other night that I am keen to share with you which may see me shift slightly more towards the artist side than the engineering side. 

Some of the more honest critics of my work would say that I over enhance my images and they are not the true reflection of the scene captured. Hands up, I admit that I do tweak and enhance my images to increase their visual appeal because that's what I want to do. I want to create an image that shows the scene at its very best, even if that is in my own opinion such as the Cambodian sunrise opposite. But, I have generally kept within certain limitations and not strayed into the realm of hyperrealism or outright fabrication. That is until now.

When editing my shots from Santorini I attempted to take the processing of one image a step further than I would usually by combining multiple exposures of sunrise to produce a totally unrealistic composite. This image would include the pre-sunrise sky, the sunrise and include the lights of the cave buildings before the sunrise. Of course, this is not a scene achievable in real life so would not be considered a 'genuine' shot, but it held some visual appeal in my mind and would test my editing skills, so I accepted the challenge.


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Untitled photo

Compositionally, I am very happy with the shots, but each has a flaw that numbs my excitement. For instance, I like the cool tones and contrasted with the warm sky of the shot above left, but it lacks drama. The breaching sun above right brings some drama to the scene, but the lens flare created by my 14mm prime lens is very unsightly and spoils the image.

knew there was some potential here if I tried hard enough, however after several attempts to produce the image in my head I felt like it was a losing battle. I couldn't quite get the layering as I wanted and was about to give up when I accidentally stumbled across something totally different. 

In an attempt to isolate only the lights of the blue hour layer, I used selective color to isolate only the lights, then created a mask to reveal them. My initial intention was to layer this directly over the image with the golden light on the buildings, but it just didn't look right despite all my attempts. To eliminate some of the guesswork and so I could see what I was working with, I introduced a layer of black beneath the light layer and the effect totally surprised me.

Not only were the lights captured, but also the areas that were cast in light but only very faintly. With this still being a raw image with no processing, it didn't look like a finished image, but I could see there was potential. This would be entirely experimental and would require some attention and patience, which I was in short demand of with some 50 odd images to edit, so I left the image open in Photoshop I'm favor of my comfort zone and returned to my usual edits.

Time to push some boundaries...

After a couple of days, the full set was complete and I was primed to publish, so I flicked back into Photoshop to close any live screens there and happened upon this questionable faint image and decided to have a play and see what I could do with it. In the essence of full disclosure, I am competent in Photoshop but far from what I would consider being an expert. I have mastered the basics, but anything beyond that is still trial and error which can be really fun but incredibly frustrating in equal measure! 

Kicking off my exploration with this image, it was evident that the presence had to be stronger, so I started by duplicating the layer which added brightness, contrast, and saturation. Now the hues were much more vivid, with stronger highlights. 

The masking had removed any area of deep shadow and replaced them with the pure black with the color layer I had placed underneath. This rendered a silhouette effect and made the buildings appear to float in darkness. Interesting.

I was very pleased with the appearance of the fore and mid grounds, but the sky looked dreadful. The sun and the luminance around it had been reduced to a colorless noisy mess which did not look particularly attractive. Furthermore, the dust spots produced by the wide depth of field of my lense were impossible to edit out because I was unable to replicate the conditions to cover them effectively. So the sky had to go. But I can't have a landscape image without a sky.

I could have left it black, but the image would have been missing something. So with a blank canvass I had a couple of options, edit an existing sky and try and bring the two together, or get creative and somehow develop a sky of my own that compliments the scene. Here I embarked on a 4-hour Photoshop expedition, applying different techniques purely by trial and error to replicate some form of sky.

I thought it best to compliment the colors in the buildings in a radial fashion with an engineered light source replacing the location of the actual sunrise. Using a radial gradient layer I knew that it wouldn't look exactly like a sun or moon, but would suggest as much and allowed myself this artistic license in order to complete the scene. 

I didn't know that there is an option to use noise instead of colors to create a gradient; the noise can be manipulated in terms of color and roughness which creates some very interesting effects. Once applied the colors generated by the noise create random sized lines of different color hues in a radial fashion emanating from the center of the radial which gave the appearance of faux star trails. This did look very interesting, but with the varying colors and sizes of the bands, the effect was very artificial and did not lend itself to the more calming effect I was seeking to achieve.

Untitled photo

So it was back to using complementary colors selected from the image and adjusting the length of the gradient. I didn't want to over complicate the sky, so went for a deep midnight blue hue fading from a short area of white, through the blue to black. It took various attempts to get the spread just right, but eventually, we got there.

The area of white still needed a brighter spot to really burst through and give the impression of a light source. To achieve this I created a second radial beneath the layer of the sky with a pure white to transparent radial, the area of white more condensed and shorter on the radius. Then, I took a layer mask and applied to the sky layer and with a very soft brush, gently brushed away the sky at the very center to allow the brighter white to come through. 

And there it was, an image like none I have ever created before. It holds such simplicity, yet was technically (for me at least) really quite complex to create. 

But something was missing, something that would add a sense of realism to my otherwise manufactured sky. The sky had been cloudless, which lacks interest and isn't my preferred look. So, its time to get creative again.

Photoshop has a filter that renders 'clouds'. Do not be fooled, it doesn't automatically add perfectly formed and fluffy clouds, or even dramatic stormy skies, instead it creates a monotone noise that resembles crumpled tinfoil. This can be rendered multiple times, but with each render, the form becomes tighter and tighter and resembles anything but a cloud. So I stuck with the initial rendering and slapped on a layer mask. Again, using a very soft brush and careful management of the opacity brushed away to form clouds in the locations I felt would most add to the overall scene.

A bit of tidying up here and there and this is it. A photograph that has been accidentally on purpose turned into something more like a digital painting.

Over Engineered, or Digital Art?

There is a reason for my telling you all of this because I've got a simple, yet burning question- is the picture any good?

With this being outside of my comfort zone and somewhat unconventional I would genuinely appreciate some feedback as to your thoughts on the finished article. Do you think the image works or was a complete waste of time? Is it worthy of being put into print?

The shot without the clouds has a simplicity about it, and the one with the clouds has more of a genuine feel about it. I am happy with both images and surprised with the results, but I'm not interested in my own thoughts, I need to hear your critique. Any and all thoughts you have are welcomed in the comments below!

In the meantime, I might develop this technique a little further in addition to my regular work as I did quite enjoy the process. Who knows where my next piece may lead me.

Of course, I didn't let it go. I wasn't going to let this image get the best of me, and after some tweaking here and there I got the image I was looking for. 

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