Dangerous ground

December 09, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

What image manipulation is acceptable, and conversely unacceptable?  It's a question that cuts to the heart of modern photography.

This a a composite shot of two photos, creating a larger depth of field than is possible in a single image.

The variety of available image manipulation tools seems to compare with the number s stars in the sky, and offer seemingly limitless scope when altering or creating content.  Running counter to that trend is a strong purist culture that argues that work should be as it comes "Straight Out Of Camera" (SOOC).  This harkens back to film where once you exposed the film that was that.  However when you look at the reality of the situation, I think the SOOC approach to photography is weak for three critical points:

1.  Regardless of whether an analogue or digital camera is in our hands, before we push the shutter release button we've already made many decisions and judgements about how the image should look:

  • Technical decisions like camera type, shutter speed, aperture, focal length, focal point, ISO speed and others can completely change the resultant image.
  • Non-technical decisions like, composition of the image, time of day, natural lighting conditions, etc. can render the same scene in ways that will invoke radically different responses from viewers.
  • Artificial influences: artificial lighting, filters, motion effects etc.

2.  Right from the origins of photography, manipulation was prevalent and necessary.  Creating an exposed film means nothing if you don't process it into slides, negatives, prints etc.  Each processing point involves human influence in many ways (exposure time, chemical choice and amount etc).  In fact, many of the modern manipulation tools and techniques are digital equivalents of those used film processing: dodge and burn being the obvious example.  By the way, dodge and burn were made popular by Ansel Adams: a (film) photography legend and pin up boy for the uninformed in the SOOC camp.

3.  SOOC is meaningless.  Seriously!  Most digital cameras will record the image data in either JPEG or RAW format.  If the SOOC advocate is taking JPEG images off the camera, then what they're not acknowledging is that the camera has already done a heap of post processing to convert the camera data into a JPEG including: noise reduction, colour balancing, sharpening, brightness and contrast adjustments, dynamic range compression, colour space mapping etc.  That's a lot of processing, and to my mind having a camera do it automatically is much less desirable than having a skilled person with insight into the individual shot managing the process.  Further, if you're taking the RAW image files of the camera, all you've got is a dump of the sensor data (which is absolutely the most versatile starting point).  However you've still got to do at least most of the things the camera did in the JPEG conversion, to convert the image into something actually useful for printing or distribution.

So "SOOC" is a fairy tail: it never existed.  So why is so much energy spent by photographers debating it?  The answer is both simple and complex, and there's a lot of room for opinion.

Some in the SOOC came even disparage cropping. Try shooting birds in flight with that philosphy.

There are two simple mindsets that are worlds apart:

1.  It's photography - it should be about the most true, pure, accurate realistic rendition of the subject possible.

2.  It's art - completely open to manipulation and interpretation to suite the story telling purpose of the artist.

Personally, I think both are true for every photo we take! As humans we cannot help but bring our bias and personalities to bare any time we process information.  Our individuality is wonderful and should be celebrated.  At the same time, we do have largely common ways of thinking, morality, social values etc, and do hunger for real truth and fact.  It's important to acknowledge that individual subjectiveness and universal commonality occur at the same time - amazing!  However, where in the enormous space between the photography / art extreme mindsets an individual image falls is absolutely critical.  The most critical factors that dictates where an image falls in that rage is: purpose.

If the purpose of the work is to convey beauty or grandeur, to invoke emotion or wonder in my viewers, then I will acknowledge that I think more of the work as art.  Landscape, portrait, event, and travel photography are all obvious contenders for this category.  In these situations surely the manipulation is entirely up to the photographer, and then its the subjective experience of the viewer that determines as to whether it was effective.

If the purpose of the work is to convey the details of something as it really is, then obviously the manipulation of image and especially pixel painting is on rocky ground.  There's a plethora of photography genera in this category also: forensic, product, scientific, wildlife (more on this later), journalism, portrait, and many more.  However even where the purpose is to render a true representation of the subject, significant manipulation (including pixel painting) may be acceptable: e.g. removing an inconsequential distraction from a background.  Then again it may not.  It just depends on the purpose of the shot.

Purpose is symbiotic with viewer expectation.  If the purpose of the image is to show evidence in court, then clearly the viewer is expecting the most accurate, honest rendition of the subject possible.  If the image is a specimen in a field guide on birds, then the expectation might be that it is representative of the species and useful for identification etc.  If the image is to be used in advertising then, rightly or wrongly, there may be a higher expectation that the image has been tweaked.  However expectation is subjective and we need to acknowledge that some viewers will simply have unreasonable or unrealistic expectations with regards to the degree of acceptable manipulation.

Purpose and expectation tie into morality - again subjective.  Photo manipulation can clearly be immoral.  Doctoring evidence is an easy example.  However, in this subjective world of shade of moral greys, where is the line?  For me if an image has been manipulated to the point where reasonable viewers would reach a different outcome or realisation in relation to its purpose, then a wrong has been done.  The photo has been manipulated to bring you to a decision, assessment or appreciation different to the one you would have had you been presented with the "real" unaltered version.  In other words, the manipulation is ultimately of the viewer.  The photo is just the conduit.

Photography, like all art is ultimately a communication between the creator (photographer) and the observer (viewer).  Like any communication, there can be distrust and deceit between the parties.  However there can be honesty, beauty and openness as well.  People deeply care about photography, both as photographers and audience (note that photographers are often also passionate viewers of each other's work).  Words like "fraud", "deception", and "lies" carry strong negative conotations, and photographic manipulation is often described as such.  Photographers should be mindful of this simple truth: generally people want to be able to trust what they see.  The reassurance of this simple though: "If I didn't see it, it's not real", crumbles away if I do see it, and it's not real.

In a hypothetically, perfect world we'd all like 100% of our shots to be perfect SOOC, but when shooting difficult subjects, with imperfect technology, in difficult environments, and hard time limits, adaptability is just common sense.

So how does manipulation apply to my work?  First, I think the idea behind SOOC is admirable: get the best possible image in camera and minimise post processing.  When I'm shooting wildlife, the primary purpose is to create images that are representative of the subject.  I will do pixel painting to remove distractions (especially from backgrounds), and I sometimes will actually create background if the image isn't framed as I would like.  I try to ensure that colouration is accurate, though I will add a subtle level of saturation if I think it's needed... though I've found that my judgment has changed over time, which I hear is common as photographers gain experience.

I actually really like manipulation rules defined by perhaps Australia's premier wildlife photography contest, ANZANG:

17) In all sections of the Competition except the Interpretive Photography section, Entries taken with film cameras or digital cameras must not be adjusted beyond a level that would be applied in conventional optical printing techniques. This means image adjustments in all sections of the Competition (except the Interpretive Photography Section) are only acceptable if limited to levels, curves, colour, saturation and contrast work and minor cleaning work. The integrity of the original subject with its form and (if applicable) its behaviour must be maintained. Compositing is not allowed but in-camera HDR that results in a single image is allowed provided that it is disclosed at the time the Entry is submitted. Sharpening is allowed. Cropping is allowed. Stitched landscape panoramas are allowed in the Landscape, Monochrome and Junior categories, provided that all original images can be provided on request and stitching is disclosed in the statement. There are no adjustment restrictions for the Interpretive Photography section.

It's a pity that last years winner created so many justified doubts (I share them), and prompted a review of rules.  More on contests in a future blog entry.

When it comes to landscape, event, or portrait work, I'm less constrained with manipulation.  I'll use HDR, healing, stronger alterations to colour balance or saturation, whatever adjustments make the image pleasing to me, and hopefully all viewers.  However, I tend to like very natural looking shots, though I have noticed I do like the colours a touch more vivid sometimes, depending on the subject and mood of the photo.

First Apostles, VictoriaHDR example

I can easily define situations where I think manipulation is OK, and where it is definitely wrong.  However there's a lot of grey in between and that gets tricky.  An acquaintance of mine was talking about digitally removing ID bands off the legs endangered birds they'd photographed.  It doesn't change the bird, but it definitely does change the significance of the shot amongst birders.  These were still wild bird, but part of a management program.  This happened years ago, and I still can't get off the fence and say if I think it's OK.

In one of my field guides there is a photo is (I think) been overly colour staurated.  It's a photo of a vivdly coloured snake, and it's almost glowing.  The photographer failed to notice that the desert foliage in the shot was also overly saturated.  I have a problem with that because this guide is a tool that people use as the basis of identifiy which species an individual belongs to.  Distorting colouration weakens the trust in all the photography in the book for that purpose.  This shows that you can still cross the line into unacceptable manipulation without having to do pixel painting.

No one approach can work for all photographers, or even all the work of an individual photographer.  However anyone serious about photography should think about these issues every so often, and be prepared to engage in conversation about how manipulation relates to their work.  We should be able to discuss it with humility and open minds...... but simple minds require simple solutions to complex issues.

Finally: some recommended material on the topic:


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