Icehole won a gold award at the Australian Professional Photography Awards this year and it is a composite image. This means that it is not real. A composite Image is a picture that is made from the combination of multiple images merged into one. It is a constructed creation.
The two images that were used to create Icehole were taken in Iceland whilst running a tour with Luke Austin and Adam Williams (The Light Collective). The iceberg was photographed at Black Sand Beach near Jökulsárlón and the ‘Icehole’ that frames the subject was photographed just outside an ice cave, also near Jökulsárlón.
Image Manipulation and Composites
All arts have always involved some level of manipulation; be it painting, writing, drawing, stone carving, they all involve manipulation. Creation involves choices, decisions, and interpretation.
The issue of Image Manipulation has been debated for many years, since photography was born in the 1830s and actually, the history of the making of composite photographic images and image manipulation relates to the methods of Pictorialism (1885 – 1915).
Pictorialism is the name given to an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no standard definition of the term, but in general, it refers to a style in which the photographer has somehow manipulated what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph as a means of “creating” an image rather than simply recording it. It emphasizes photography’s ability to create visual beauty rather than simply record facts.
Pictorialism began in response to claims that a photograph was nothing more than a simple record of reality, and transformed into an international movement to advance the status of all photography as a true art form.
A Two-Step Process
For me photography is a two-step process: the capture and the post-processing, and post-processing is not something that was invented with the digital sensor. Before computers, photo manipulation was achieved by retouching with ink, paint, double-exposure, piecing photos or negatives together in the darkroom, or scratching Polaroids etc.
Photoshop is a great tool of modern photography and allows me to process and enhance an image I had previously captured and edit it to match what I had witnessed and felt or in the case of this particular image, it allows me to create what I had visualized before even flying to Iceland.
The concept of previsualization in photography is where the photographer can see the final print before the image has been captured. Understanding then the significance of this approach is of high value for photographers of all kinds, as it has the potential to unlock greater creative vision.
Before even flying to Iceland I had some ideas and I had already visualized in my mind what I wanted to photograph and create. Iceland has been photographed to death and to create something new and original is difficult. My idea was to photograph some of the iconic locations and frame them inside ice. I started to try this idea at Kirkjufell (see images above).
‘Icehole’ was created using a photographic technique called focus stacking. Focus stacking is a digital image processing technique which combines multiple images taken at different focus distances to give a final image with a greater depth of field. This way the image appears to be in focus all the way from the foreground to the background. I took 8 shots of the ‘Icehole” focusing manually between the foreground and the background using an aperture of f11. I then I merged the eight images with Helicon Focus.
I normally shoot aperture priority mode and I never go above f11. Each lens has a sweet spot and you should not push the aperture higher than f13 as this will create an optical issue called diffraction which will make the photograph softer. Therefore, although f22 will get you the maximum depth of field, using f11 or f13 will actually create a sharper photograph. I always use a tripod, mirror lock-up and a cable release to avoid vibrations of the mirror and when touching the shutter-release button.
Post-processing the two images separately
I processed the image of the hole using Helicon Focus and then I did some minor adjustments (curves, levels, and exposure) and left the processing of this image for the composite image.
The image of the Iceberg (below left) was exposed for 1.3 seconds at f/11. As it was an overcast afternoon I didn’t really need any filters to blur the water around the icebergs. Of course, I was using a tripod but the waves were quite strong and the tripod moved so sometimes the horizon line wasn’t perfectly straight (as in the original shot).
I liked the shape of the big Iceberg and how the rocks and the small icebergs were located within the frame so I spent quite a while at that spot photographing it. In fact I took 50 images at this particular location until I got two or three captures that I liked. The final image is a composite as well as I have merged exposures from other captures to create a more compelling and interesting image.
I have also increased the canvas size to give it more room (the original image is a bit too tight) and filled in the bits using the Edit>Fill>Content Aware option in Photoshop plus some additional cloning to remove the Iceberg on the top left hand side to provide a bit more room and make the image simpler.
Post-processing the final image
It took me hours to process this image and I ended up with many different versions. In the end, I decided to give it a warmer feeling and darken the ice framing the iceberg. I didn’t want it to look “Photoshopped”.
One of the most difficult things was to place the Iceberg within the hole. It was tight and it didn’t work compositionally so I had to use the warp tool in Photoshop to open up the hole to give more room to the Iceberg (‘pushing it up’).
The Iceberg was also modified using the clone tool so that it could fit in the frame as it was ‘touching’ the border of the frame on the right-hand side (see image below).
The final image was so sharp and with so much detail from corner to corner that I actually had to soften a bit the background to make it more real.
To have a bit of fun, I included an Aurora that we had photographed the day before. Some colleagues and friends told me that this image looked more realistic but I think it’s a bit much on an image that is already strong, to add an Aurora is a bit of an overkill. What do you think?