The Trend Towards Authenticity

The Trend Towards Authenticity


A Guest Post by Rebecca Lily

A trend commonly has two definitions. The first is a “fashion, style or vogue”. In photography, we see certain cyclical trends that are alike to the fashion industry, for example. What was stylish 25 years ago becomes chic again at some point, a retro revival is born and introduces the cycle all over again. It usually takes a few daring individuals – namely, early adopters or trendsetters – to re-introduce what’s deemed “retro” to the modern world. They become the benchmark that the masses will follow.

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm 1.8G. Edit: Rebecca Lily Pro Lightroom 4 preset Nautica

A good example of this “fashion trend” in photography is the revival of retro film cameras. Film is “hip” again, and so are cameras like the Diana, Polaroid and Holga. This trend seems to be especially embraced by Generation Y (the generation beginning in the early 1980‘s) who have grown up in a digital age – and mainly due to heavy social online activity, take twice as many pictures as the average U.S. household.

For many of these trend adopters, it’s about rejecting modern (and ordinary-looking) digital equipment, opting instead for an old analog film camera that’s unfussy, not to mention unique and eye-catching. For others, it’s about the resultant retro look of the photographs, which is in style at the moment. One evidence of this are the massively popular smartphone apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, which emulate a retro film camera effect for modern phone snapshots.

There is a second definition for the word trend, which is described as “a general course or direction”. This is what I refer to when I talk about the trend towards authenticity, which I have observed taking place gradually over the last few years. I believe there is a general movement in photography away from overdone, fake, glossy, polished and plastic, and towards natural, simple, unpretentious, relatable and real.

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm 1.8G. Edit: Rebecca Lily Pro Lightroom 4 preset Color Me Dramatic

It’s not the same as retro-hype. It’s not like the film revival. It’s different because it goes deeper than what equipment or medium you’re shooting with; it’s about mindset. Its implications are much further-reaching because it is shaping society’s values, expectations and norms.

How has this trend towards authenticity affected the world of photography?

1. People look less fake

There is a current movement against the extreme Photoshopping techniques of the fashion industry. What used to be commonly acceptable practice of “retouching” is now being termed “fake”, “over-enthused” or “plastic”, where models’ physiques are so altered that they are not at all realistic anymore.

A very public media backlash has occurred, especially in the last year, where the public begins to verbalize their discomfort over excessive Photoshop alterations and demand change. An example of this: in early July 2012, ‘Seventeen’ Magazine pledged not to digitally alter body sizes or face shapes of young women in their editorial pages – because of eighth-grade Julia Bluhm’s campaign which went viral and resulted in more than 80,000 signatures from around the world.

Like Julia, many people are realizing the importance of natural, authentic role models for men and women alike. Coinciding with the public’s growing awareness in this regard, many celebrities have supported this movement and started appearing in photo shoots without makeup, and some are requiring published photographs of themselves to be un-Photoshopped. It’s all part of the trend towards natural – towards real – towards authenticity. Plastic over-smoothed skin and unattainable Barbie-like physiques are going out of style. Real photographs of real people start to be embraced.

Canon 5D + Canon 50mm 1.8. Edit: Rebecca Lily Pro Lightroom 4 preset Luminous.

2. Subject matter looks more organic

If you pick up a copy of Kinfolk Magazine, you’ll find a style of photography has emerged which celebrates the rudimentary, the casual and unpretentious. Despite the fact that most of Kinfolk’s images are set up (like the majority of images of interiors and tablescapes), the overall style that is presented as aesthetic in their photographs is something much different than what we used to see in House Beautiful magazine. Mismatched table linens and wildflowers in a rusty tin can are now a hip look, rather than gleaming china, polished silver and elaborate flower arrangements. Popular blogs like 3191 Miles also embody this simplistic, organic homey style, where interiors look lived-in and familiar rather than like elegant, stuffy museums. A stained tea towel next to a morning coffee invokes a cozy feel of home, as does fingerprints on a window or wine glass, or flour scattered over a worn kitchen counter. At one time we might have cloned these things out and made them “perfect”. Now, “perfect” becomes unnecessary, and the everyday – from the common to the rustic – is beautiful and comforting. We love to see relatable images, and to be inspired to find beauty in our own homes, no matter how simply they are furnished.

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm 1.8G. Edit: Rebecca Lily Pro Lightroom 4 preset Midsummer

3. Colors look more Natural

As the the trend towards authenticity continues to grow, so does the trend towards softer, more natural colors and delicate highlights and shadows – much more like what we actually see with our eyes. Many of us begin to notice over-saturated colors, fake skin tones, blown-out highlights and harsh contrasts in post work – where it simply doesn’t look at all real anymore. It’s typical now to see comments like “Over-Photoshopped” or “over-processed” simply because people are now more aware of what overdone post-processing looks like. After awhile some of us grow in our awareness that what we were doing before in our post work was simply too much.

Of course there will be those who argue with this and say that photography is art and post-processing is artistic expression. Regardless of how individual photographers choose to express their style, the predominant trend is moving away from these more extreme looks and towards something more true-to-life.

Here’s an example with my own work:

Original image (SOOC):

Canon 5D + Canon 24-70mm 2.8L

My post-processing 2.5 years ago:

Canon 5D + Canon 24-70mm 2.8L

My current post-processing:

Canon 5D + Canon 24-70mm 2.8L. Edit: Rebecca Lily Pro Lightroom 4 preset California

As you can see, my own personal editing has undergone a big change. The current post-process is still bright and whimsical, but the colors look nevertheless very natural when compared to the SOOC. One thing that is important to keep in mind is that SOOC does not necessarily equal “natural colors”. Camera manufacturers have their own color palettes, and many times these colors are simply not true to life. Case in point: my Nikon, as much as I love it, gives me too much yellow. Yes, it is possible to get close to true-to-life colors if you calibrate your camera (which many pro photographers do), but my personal goal in post-processing is not to get SOOC’s with realistic colors. It’s to recreate the look and feel of what I originally saw, in an aesthetic, natural-looking and pleasing way.

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8G. Edit: Rebecca Lily Pro Lightroom 4 preset Elixir

If you incorporate tools like Photoshop actions, Lightroom presets or ACR presets for editing, there are a few products out there that are designed for natural, timeless, aesthetic colors. But they are difficult to find. Most vendors have not caught up with the times yet and are still offering products that are simply outdated.

The majority of professional photographers do not want drastic effects, loss of detail or heavy alteration of original tones. They aren’t interested in a cotton candy color palette. They want subtle and versatile products that enhance their colors, produce delicate, detailed highlights and shadows and naturally beautify skin tones, but in a way that looks authentic and aesthetic – not fake. This is especially important for wedding and portrait work.

As a designer of post processing tools such as Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions, I work with the continuous feedback of many professional clients and pay special attention to the growing requirements for this type of product. Especially among fine art wedding and portrait photographers, there is a strong demand for subtle and natural looking, film inspired colors – and the ability to cohesively apply a consistent look to an entire photography session. This reflects the growing movement towards authenticity.

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8G. Edit: Rebecca Lily Pro Lightroom 4 preset California

So where does this trend lead us in the world of photography? Someplace better, I believe. As the trend towards authenticity evolves, it inevitably changes the mindset of society for the better. This is part of the influence that we have as photographers, and part of our responsibility. I am always delighted to see wedding and portrait photographers that spend more time learning how to capture a person’s real, natural beauty with good light and a flattering angle – rather than liquifying and plasticizing them in Photoshop. How we as photographers approach our subjects tells a story to the world – and to ourselves – about what we perceive as beautiful and acceptable, and sets a standard to those who are watching us.

I am hopeful when I stand on my tiptoes and look ahead to where the photography industry is going. I see this trend developing into a new and better way of thinking, of seeing. Publications begin to celebrate the everyday and the common in favor of the glossy. Models begin to look like real people. Homes begin to look lived-in rather than like museums. Nature begins to look like nature and not like Super Mario-world. Authenticity begins to shine.

And it’s about time.

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8G. Edit: Rebecca Lily Pro Lightroom 4 preset Retro Curve

Rebecca Lily is a professional destination wedding and commercial photographer under Bondshots, which she founded with her husband, Johnny Patience. She is also a designer of professional post processing tools such as Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions. Rebecca’s work and products have been featured both online and in print.

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Some Older Comments

  • Donna Martin July 20, 2013 04:14 am

    The very reason I joined this group. I'm one of the " holdouts" who is just now ready to embrace the techmogy available. ivequit looking at it as " cheating" lz!

  • Tim Roper November 28, 2012 03:07 pm

    Count me in!

  • Molly Mason November 27, 2012 01:34 am

    I hope that this isn't just a trend, but a return to seeing photography as an art, and not just a commodity. I think too many photographer's have devalued themselves and the industry by jumping on the digital "cd" bandwagon. I hope that this "trend" you write about will bring the value back to the work we do as artist's. LOVE Mike brent's comments and couldn't agree more.

  • mike brent November 25, 2012 02:43 am

    I was so depressed when I realised that film and darkrooms would become part of history, but that was ten years ago.
    I'm over it now and I am not impressed by the article because I am old enough to remember the frustration and time wasting while trying to get the desired result with film.
    Returning to locations with different stock or a different set of filters or lenses, and the inability to capture images quickly because of the struggle with the rucksack full of accessories.
    The sheer weight of a couple of Nikons plus lenses etc.
    Back to film? No thanks. Natural? Good luck.
    I could count on my fingers, (and a few toes), the images that I have been totally over the moon with during the last sixty years.

    But now? Bliss.
    I can do what I want, when I want.
    I can go back to my not quite right negs and trannies and make them right .
    Just because I have the ability to over-adjust, it doesn't mean that I will or have to.
    But if I want to make a completely unauthentic image, then I can.
    What the author is talking about is taste and that means something different to everybody.

    So forget trends folks. Trends are for lost people.
    And I know because I have seen them all come and go several times over the last seven decades.
    Waste of time.
    Images cannot be authentic in themselves, nor can they be 'natural' because they are just images.
    So create images that please you, whether digital, film, pinhole or plate.
    Stop agonising over authenticity because if your creative intention is authentic then the images will be wonderful no matter what techniques you have used to achieve them.

  • Guigphotography November 22, 2012 05:06 am

    I think there's a place for everything, though I felt reassured by this article. I certainly have a preference for more natural photos, unless an effect is the point of the picture. There's a lot in this article and I'll be re-reading it a few times and the follow up comments to date are helpful!
    This one was a candidate for a bracketed exposure and some treatment, but I opted to just stick with my first shot and am glad I did as I think the natural colour is glorious.

  • Dewan Demmer November 21, 2012 11:22 pm

    Trends are wonderful things. What I have also come to realise is that trends do not always cross the sea instantly and infact may never reach some shores. By this I mean that Continents, countries or even communities may never latch onto a common trend, and this I find very apparent when I look at American, European and English photos aimed at their markets, the differences are obvious. The trends that do make it across the seas and into the images are a meld and fusion of old and new and this by itself leads to new and interesting trends.

    I never know quite what trend is best, so I just take what I have take a bit of everything and find what I like. I do not know if its what the world likes, but I guess the only way to find out is to put it out the and let the masses decide.
    That set is probably my least interfered with set, processing was kept simple and clean, no old film effect or similar that I normally do.

  • Steve November 21, 2012 08:01 pm

    I certainly have made a transition from exaggerated for effect to authentic for realism in style and post processing. Now for me the less processing the better

  • Mridula November 21, 2012 06:37 pm

    Sounds like what I try most of the time! I loved reading this. Never associated the cycles with photography only with fashion!

  • Danny November 21, 2012 03:36 pm

    Authenticity...... Praise the lord.

  • Scottc November 21, 2012 09:48 am

    Glad to see this, though there are both many photogs who have been "practicing"authenticity all along and just as many who won't be hanging up their photoshop just yet......

  • Remco November 21, 2012 07:28 am

    Very nice article. It - and especially some of the images - reminds me of the "Dogma" movement in filmmaking (

  • Jai Catalano November 21, 2012 06:15 am

    I got an email the other day asking for more natural photos. I thought it was interesting because most people want to see themselves the best way possible. However, too much post processing can be confusing for those who don't realize it is happening. Women and girls sometimes get effected by it most. What is sad to me is that I have a daughter and don't want her to grow up feeling un-pretty because the world see something different on TV and in magazines.