A Photographic Dilemma

I was out with the dog this morning, on one of our regular routes up the canal towpath. It was a misty day, so I wanted to make some black and white photos to try to capture the quiet, enclosed feel of a misty morning.

Here is one of the pictures I took.

Misty morning with jogger
Misty morning with jogger

This conjures up the feel of a morning walk on the canal: the ever-present joggers, the other dogs being walked, the quiet away from the busy roads. It also has that heavy attenuation of detail caused by the mist that gives a feeling of isolation from the world.

But that rubbish on the (iced-over) surface of the canal… It’s a distraction, especially the soft drink can and the jogger’s gloves that make overly bright spots that pull the eye.  Click on the image to see a larger version which makes the distracting elements more obvious.

So, the dilemma mentioned in the title is whether or not to remove those distracting elements.

(Actually, it’s not really a dilemma; it’s more of a decision, but ‘dilemma’ sounds better for a title.)

The question really boils down to one of purpose: what do I want to say with this picture? Am I making a documentary record or do I have a more abstract aim?

One the one hand, the detritus is a fact of life – the canal ices over, people throw rubbish on it. I don’t know why, but they do. So I should leave it in the picture.

On the other hand, if I’m trying to convey a feeling, a generalised impression of something, there is no compunction on me to keep everything exactly as is. In this, I become more like a painter, who can choose to include elements or leave them out; or even to exaggerate some parts over others.

This is the image with the distracting elements removed.

Misty morning with jogger (retouched)
Misty morning with jogger (retouched)

It’s no longer a record of that particular 1/250th of a second, but now it fulfils the purpose of conjuring the feeling of that moment and the eye is free to wander more loosely over it, rather than continually being drawn to irrelevant details.


On a different note, I took this picture shortly after the previous one.

Misty morning
Misty morning

It’s the same stand of trees on the opposite side of the canal, and it’s the same guy with his dog further down (the jogger has long jogged on). This has not been retouched.

The difference is that I have a wide-angle lens on the camera (17mm), rather than the longer lens (45mm) previously. So, although they are the same trees, I’m actually closer to them (and, thus, beyond that rubbish). The man and his dog look much further away, although they are approximately the same distance from me.

Note especially, though, how the mist looks much lighter and less oppressive. That’s because the wider angle of view brings in much more of the scene at the sides. This area is close to me, the proportion of the picture lost to mist is much smaller, and the effect is lessened.

Choose your focal length carefully, if you are trying to capture mist and fog.