Keeping a Photograph Real vs Enhancing its Aesthetic – Where’s the Balance?

February 15, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

This is a picture of the front façade of the old Co-operative department store building in my home town. The store has been closed for many years now but before that, “The Co-op” gave Dartford over 50 years of valuable service. Behind the façade, much of the lower level structure has been demolished. However, there are plans to develop the site. These plans include retaining the front, which stands within the town’s conservation area. The image was taken early on a recent cool, clear, sunny Sunday morning. 

When I got the picture home and uploaded it onto my computer, I knew I was going to have a ‘problem’ with it. To overcome this problem, I needed to think back to the moment I was standing in front of the building on Spital Street, on the exact spot from which this shot was taken. I needed to be clear about why, exactly, I took this picture and why from that particular viewpoint? *


To answer the easier viewpoint question first: I took the picture from there simply because this spot gave me the best, most defined shadow line across the middle of the building. I chose it after I’d walked up and down the path across the road several times.


The more involved question, as to why I wanted this photograph, is answered in two parts. What drew me to the scene initially wasn’t the façade itself but the light and colours. In particular, the relative colours of the light on the building with those of the clear, cool, morning sky and the close-to-matching blue of the building’s street-level shutters. It was like a large blue sponge cake with a golden cream centre, sitting half in shadow, half in sunshine. Simultaneously, the way the light struck the upper half of the building, highlighted the grandeur of the weathered but still strong, proud Art Deco architecture. These two things together made me want to capture an important part of Dartford’s history which, in that moment, looked resplendent.


All very ‘arty’ and nice, but herein lies the crux of the problem. If I was initially drawn in by colour and light and yet became captivated by how the architecture appeared, how would I decide between accentuating the picture with a more creative vision versus maintaining the image with an emphasis on the building’s real features? How much did I want this to be a true historical record – of the structure as photographed in January 2020 and how much an artistic-leaning, enhanced tribute to a grand, timeless piece of local architecture caught in beautiful golden light? 


The truth is, after looking at the raw image file for a while, walking away from it, giving it a little thought over tea and cake, and having another look at it, the problem wasn’t really that big. I wanted a realistic reflection of what I recalled from standing on my viewpoint. But, I needed my ‘realistic reflection’ to include a little of the ‘wow’ factor that I was lucky enough to enjoy in the moment, which comes from seeing something bathed in such beautiful light.


My ‘real’ with a little ‘wow’ interpretation is what you see attached. 


To keep the image ‘real’, I retained what many photographers might consider distractions to be removed – too much of the neighbouring buildings; too much sky; the top of the bus shelter in front of the building; the disabled parking sign; the yellow lines parking restriction sign; various building alarm fittings and lights; wires (bottom left) heading across the street; and a neighbouring building security camera. Also, some would even consider removing the pigeons perched proudly on the building (top right). 


But then, to help include some of my ‘wow’ factor, I used some moderate-only Lightroom edits, including:

- cropping slightly and straightening the edges (I failed to hold the camera 100% horizontal)

- reducing highlights but lifting shadows

- increasing contrast

- reducing saturation but lifting vibrance

- introducing a tiny level of sharpening in the details

- applying standard lens corrections

- adding a slight vignette in the corners to help draw the viewer’s eye towards the centre.


As a final photograph, it shares with the viewer both what I actually saw and, to a degree, what I felt. For me, the picture presents the balance I initially had trouble identifying. 


Is my choice of balance in this image ‘correct’? Yes. Well, it is for me at least. But will it be to every viewer’s liking? Almost certainly not. 


Some people despise any form of photographic manipulation. What you capture at shutter press is what you get. All subsequent editing makes the truth a lie. Others, though, will argue that shots straight out of camera must be manipulated. If not, the image is simply what the camera manufacturer says the picture should be, not the photographer. Also, the camera can’t ‘see’ how we see and so can’t interpret a scene. Additionally, the camera can’t feel a scene as we can, can’t connect with it emotionally while in the moment, so can’t share a vision.


So, where does the balance lie between keeping a photograph real and enhancing its aesthetic? The answer is simple: exactly where you, the photographer, says it is.


* I was in Dartford seeking images for my planned photo-book on Dartford town centre, its roads and buildings in 2020. I’ll advise more about this project in a future blog. This building must, of course, be included in the book and I captured other images specifically for that purpose.



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