What is Straight Photography?

I was reading recently reading an article on the PetaPixel website in which an argument by Marc Levoy, a computational photography pioneer, is put forward to suggest that “straight photography” is a myth.

I had never heard of the term before, but it refers to creating a photograph of a scene with sharp focus, with lots of detail, by a camera. Sometimes referred to as “pure photography”, the technique, in theory, stands apart from other methods of capturing a scene, such as drawing or painting, in that it is “true to life” and “realistic”.

Levoy, who it should be noted is an Adobe VP and Fellow, argues that the idea of straight photography perhaps grew out of Ansel Adams and the f/64 club that he founded in 1932. He, along with Paul Strand and Edward Weston added weight to the philosophy of capturing an image that is accurate to one seen by a viewer with their own eyes. He believes, however, there is “no such thing as a straight photograph or natural processing”.

He goes on to add that “any digital processing system adjusts the colors and tones it records, and these adjustments are inevitably partly subjective.” I found it particularly interesting he was a key player in why images from Google Pixel phone cameras have a dark, contrasty look. Apparently Levoy was a “tastemaker” at the company and was inspired to give the phones’ images that particular look due to a liking for the paintings of Caravaggio.

All this means that no matter how much a user of a Pixel phone camera might think they’re in control of the image they’re creating, the phone is in fact doing a lot of work under the hood to create a particular look for that photo. Pixel phones have the ability to shoot in RAW format, but this high contrast image processing is even baked into the RAW file – it can’t be turned off!

Even though our eyes are vastly superior to any camera, scanning the environment in 3D and able to constantly adjust for varying light levels, they still piece together massive amounts of information with our brains interpreting and filling in any gaps. We’re all familiar with how optical illusions can fool us into seeing things that aren’t really true, so in some ways we can’t even see the world accurately with our own biological equipment.

So I would tend to agree with Levoy. Photography is an art and will always be subjective to an extent. No image will be straight or pure, because there is no such thing; every recorded representation is just an approximation of a particular scene at a particular time. Furthermore, the photographer can choose to embellish their image in the way they edit and present it, to include elements, or feelings of a scene that they may have seen at the time of making the photo, but that were not possible to include in the image by simply capturing light alone.

Anyone who has seen my post-processing videos will know that I’m not afraid to try out any tool or technique that might help me to create a better image. The final result is the main thing that matters, and I don’t see much point in pursuing the unrealistic goal of creating a straight or pure image.

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