Ever since photography went digital, a debate has raged on how much post-processing is acceptable. There have been strong debates – one that calls post-processing as creative freedom and the other calling it as manipulation. Here is a look at all the arguments about post-processing–both for and against–that I hear from people or read about.
The idea for this post came to me when I was working on one of my images. I was participating in a social-media campaign and was planning to use a landscapes images in it. I wanted the image to catch viewers’ attention and decided to pep it up with colours. See the before/after images here.
As you can see, the post-processed image appears more colourful and pleasing to the eye compared to the original image. I could have easily made it appear even more colourful if I wished to, but I decided to stop at this. But when is a good time to call it enough? How much processing is too much? Is it acceptable to process images at all?
Answers are not easy. Perhaps there are no right or wrong answers. Hence, here is a look at all kind of arguments without being prejudiced.
First, a look at all the arguments. I will leave my comments and thoughts for later.
• for: it’s about my creative freedom
A lot of photographers now call themselves artists. The very term helps them move out of inhibitions and limitations of a camera and allows them to do anything they wish with their post-processing tool. The argument here is really simple: some artists use canvas and colours to paint, while the photographer-artists use camera and a computer. They claim no authenticity of images being true to the geography of places or occurrence of events they are photographing. Hence, they don’t see a need to just replicate what they have seen, but create their own visualization as an artist.
Here is an example, where photographer Michael Leggero quotes his ideas on landscape photography. Click on the link to see some example images provided by the photographer, some of which even have clouds added to make the landscape appear more dramatic.
Adding clouds may seem a bit excessive to some people, but nature doesn’t always cooperate with us… Our imagination should be our only limit.
…it is my goal to overwhelm the viewer’s senses and get an emotional reaction when they look at my photo art. You can’t always portray that with landscapes by merely making simple exposure modifications. For instance: If you darken a sky it immediately adds a more mysterious and dramatic mood. If you take focus away from distracting objects by blurring them, then you can direct the viewer’s attention to the best and most important part of your photograph.
The only sense your viewer can physically use is their sense of sight when viewing your art… Can you make their hand come towards your art – the portrayal of the textures makes them want to touch it? Can you capture their imagination to the point where they can place themselves in the scene? Can you elicit a big emotional response?
• for: it’s not what the camera sees; it’s what the photographer sees
Cameras have their limitation compared to our eyes. To begin with, they have much lower dynamic range.
Our eyes can assimilate both brightest and the darkest areas of a scene in situations such as sunset – we can see the setting sun and the sky clearly as much as the details on earth. Cameras are not capable of seeing such wide variation of light within one frame/one shot. You can either capture the sky well and get a very dark representation of earth, or get all the details on the ground and risk a sky that has gone too white.
While this is one of the greatest limitations with cameras, there are many other problems to tackle. A camera may not have given you the perfect colours, perfect exposure or perfect contrast. What the photographer wants to show the viewer is what he saw with his own eyes, and not what the camera has managed to capture. And post-processing can help bring that awe back, which the camera wasn’t able to record.
Well-known landscape photographer Alain Briot explains his views about post-processing:
If you leave the image as it came out of the camera, what you have is how the camera “saw” and recorded the scene. In order to add what you experienced emotionally to what the camera captured technically, you must post-process the image, meaning you must use image conversion and image processing tools to express your vision.
The tonality, contrast, color palette, and image format of this photograph were modified from what they were when it was recorded by the camera. The motivation for these modifications was to express what I saw and felt when I experienced this scene. As an artist I see what the camera captures as a point of departure, not as an end in itself. The image is complete only after I have modified what the camera captured so that it shows what I experienced.
• for: post-processing has existed even in pre-digital era
A lot of people who shun post-processing call it digital manipulation, and often quote film-era as a time when images were not manipulated. Photographers come back to say that images were being modified for a long time now, even during film days. The most commonly offered examples are burning and dodging – photoshop tools named after processes in film development/printing that yielded similar results. In fact, Ansel Adams’ well-known Zone System provides an elaborate description of how films must be developed, providing strong reasons for exposing parts of the frame differently to get appropriate exposure across the frame.
Dodging and burning is actually not a Photoshop discovery; those who have a history with film will know that these are darkroom techniques replicated for the computer. Simply put, the dodge tool will lighten your tones (increase exposure) and the burn tool will darken your tones (decrease exposure). In the film darkroom, you would hold an object (usually a piece of black foam board on a dowel) to block parts of the negative from hitting your photo paper during exposure.
This essentially attempts to void the assumption that ‘manipulation’ began only when images became digital, and some degree of post-processing always existed.
• against: it’s not the real thing, it’s manipulated
Manipulation may be a strong word, but it is often used by people who complain about post-processed images. The buzzword of the digital days that comes out as a synonym to manipulation is ‘photoshopped’.
There are several cases in the history of publishing where publications were accused of manipulating images. A story from National Press Photographers Association [in USA] on ethics quotes about a photo manipulation in National Geographic Magazine that became very well-known and controversial.
There have been many cases of digital manipulation over the past 20 years or so, the first of note being the famous pyramids cover of National Geographic in 1982. National Geographic had a horizontal photo of the pyramids in Egypt and wanted to make a vertical cover from it. They put the photo in a computer and squeezed the pyramids together… They damaged their credibility and (as I said before) taste issues have a short life span, ethics issues do not go away. Here we are almost 20 years later and we are still talking about what Geographic did.
• against: they are lies
I guess there may have been times where photographs were accepted as evidence in the court of law, though I am not certain about it. But in several genres of photography, especially in photojournalism and wildlife photography, digital manipulations are shunned. There are instances of photographers loosing an award as they were later proved manipulated. There have been many controversies that created strong backlashes against publishers. A well-known example is about Time magazine altering a photograph of OJ Simpson. There was a strong criticism to this and the magazine had to issue an apology. The New York Times story on this says:
The cover portrait of a blurry, darkened and unshaven Mr. Simpson is actually a doctored version of a photograph made by the Los Angeles Police Department… The credit line, printed at the bottom of page 3 of the magazine, said, “Photo-Illustration for Time by Matt Mahurin.”
The cover has been criticized and discussed in newspapers and on television as well as in dozens of electronic messages on America Online…
Some critics said that by darkening the photo of Mr. Simpson’s face Time gave him a more sinister appearance and was thus guilty of racism. Other critics said the magazine had displayed poor editorial judgment.
As much as in photojournalism, ‘manipulation’ is heavily criticized in wildlife photography forums. As the Audobon Society website quotes:
The Grand Prize winner for the 2013 Audubon Magazine Photo Awards seemed to be a lock. But when the original file came in, the judges quickly realized that the photo of a majestic great horned owl that they’d fallen for was a composite. As Mark Jannot, Audubon vice president of content, notes in his editor’s letter, the photographer had broken the contest rules and was therefore disqualified.
Looking at all the above arguments, it is difficult to find anything wrong with any of them. You can’t fix boundary to an artist’s creation and at the same time, you can’t modify a photograph to portray a person to bring a different impression about him in a news magazine. It’s difficult to disagree with either parties. So what is the right thing to do? Here is my take.
• context is important
A landscape artist can possibly take full liberties to decide how his final image will appear. A fashion photographer may make his model look incredible, to a degree of perfection very unlikely in humans. A graphic designer who is designing a poster may create fanciful things using photographs as inputs and use it to convey a message to his viewers. In these situations, the questions of ethics do not arise as the artists are not attempting to document a place, subject or an event. The viewers of their works also understand that these works are not meant to portray reality, but are merely a representation of artists ideas.
However, it would be disastrous if a newspaper decides to print a manipulated image that shows spaceship arriving in their city and make a news story out of it. While this is an extreme and unlikely example, a newspaper does have to draw a line and decide what is acceptable and what is not. Similarly, in a forum that is meant for scientific study of wildlife, posting a manipulated photograph of a tiger eating zebra in the wilderness (they do not occur in same habitat anywhere in the world) can draw strong criticism.
However, image of a spaceship landing in a city, posted in a forum of graphic designers will probably draw some appreciation of the skills of the photographer/designer/artist.
In conclusion, it is perhaps unnecessary to impose universal code-of-conduct for processing/editing/manipulating images. But one must be aware that there are certain tolerances that apply, depending on the publishing platform where the image will be used.
• applying rules for a given context
When we establish the fact that some publishing platforms require careful consideration on image editing, the next question that comes is, how much is acceptable and who decides it? Unfortunately, there are no standards. However, there are several organizations and bodies that suggest what is acceptable. Nearly all major publishers have their own self-imposed code of conduct.
For example, National Geographic suggests how much editing is acceptable for their publications, competitions and their website. Several major news publications and agencies, such as Associated Press, World Press Photo have their own guidelines for what is accepted.
When in doubt, it may be worthwhile consulting such generally accepted guidelines from a leading organization.