Friday, June 25, 2010

The light bends untrue

When does a photograph stop being a photograph? The spread of Photoshop and other photo-editing software means that any photo can be tucked and tweaked into something the lens never saw. For me it’s really an issue of honesty and integrity – if a photo has been significantly manipulated, I believe the photographer should disclose that fact.

But the problem is that the issues of photo manipulation are often vague. “Post-processing” is a meaningless term in the context of digital photography, because every photo is post-processed internally by the camera. A black-and-white photo isn’t taken with a special kind of film, but only created by a computer. It’s unavoidable.

Obviously that’s a very narrow view. To my mind, a photo taken in black and white (as in, using a preset BW filter) is a real photograph. So are photos taken with a custom white balance to change the colors. These settings are really just mimicking the specialized film that photographers have had access to for decades. (Also, as with older film cameras, the viewfinders of digital cameras don’t reflect custom settings – that is, the viewfinder won’t show a BW scene when a BW setting is chosen. Newer SLR cameras have LCD live views that can replace the viewfinder and reflect these settings accurately, as with point-and-shoots. I disabled this option for my students and refused to teach them how to use it, because I think it’s a crutch for a new learner; using the viewfinder forces you to get closer to the action and focus on the composition of what you can actually see, rather than what you could edit into the picture. I certainly can see the value of the live view, but I want my kids to learn how to take pictures before they learn to play with editing. Unfortunately that’s often not an option for non-SLRs because the viewfinders are frequently blurry, poorly calibrated and feature built-in vignetting.)

Photographers have also always been able to post-process pictures through darkroom techniques – but in my head there’s a definite difference between physically altering a photograph with chemicals and specialized knowledge, and pressing a button to automatically fix color balance or sepia-ize a shot. One takes skill, the other does not.

Which is not to say that Photoshop requires no skill to use effectively, or that Photoshopped images are automatically trash. With a talented editor at the helm, Photoshop can produce beautiful and artistic pictures – but sometimes they’re really not photos anymore, but something else, and I think that difference should be acknowledged. Moreover, a basic level of photo manipulation these days truly takes no talent whatsoever. The following examples were edited with Picasa, Google’s photo-organizing software, which has basic editing features.

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On the left is the unedited photo of a Filipino boy; on the right, the picture after spending maybe a minute pressing auto-fix buttons and moving sliders in Picasa. The rub is that, honestly, the photo on the right more accurately reflects the colors and lighting as I saw them when I took the photo. My sense of artistry wants to say that these edits are justifiable for that reason – that I’m bringing the photo back to the reality of the scene – but it still leaves me uneasy, especially since that claim is unverifiable for a viewer. If I made these edits on a photograph I posted on this blog, I would explicitly say so.

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Adding or removing significant elements from a picture invalidates its claim to be a photograph. Even a small part of a photo – like the pole that breaks the horizon line in the Redondo Beach image on the left – is still emphatically part of the reality of the scene. I removed the pole by using Picasa’s “Retouch” feature, and it took perhaps two minutes. It’s a quick fix – in a bigger version of the photograph the artifacts from the editing are easily visible – but the same thing can be done better in Photoshop without spending much more time on it.

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I made three different edits to this 2008 photo of a Scientology protester in Philadelphia. First, I cropped it for purposes of focus. Cropping (and rotating) are edits that I’m comfortable with, because nothing in the photo is really being changed. (Ah, you say, but you’re removing elements of the original picture! Yes, but to my mind there is a difference between emulating a tighter zoom and actually hiding or inserting an element. Maybe I’m just trying to soothe my conscience, but I do sense a difference. Cropping and rotating are the only edits I’ve made to images I have posted on this blog, unless otherwise explicitly noted.)

Secondly, I BW’d it. In general I think images should be taken with a BW setting, just as film photographers must use BW film – they can’t take a colored photo and press a button to suck all the colors out. It’s rather too cheap and easy.

Last, I edited the contrast and lighting, again with those handy sliders. The result is a picture that – I think – looks much better and more striking than the original snapshotty photo. I just wish I had taken it like that in the first place.

The rise of digital editing has resulted in a thousand different opinions on photo manipulation. Fully half of my college photography course was dedicated to learning how to Photoshop images; printed photographs are almost certain to have been manipulated to some degree. There’s no kind of standard. Even National Geographic – whose photographs I revere – allows for some manipulation of submitted photos, though major edits are definitely bawal.

Adding to the issue is the unfortunate fact that photographic quality is lamentably linked to the quality of the equipment, which of course correlates directly to its cost. People (like me!) who can’t afford to upgrade to the newest lenses or camera bodies or flash units are, in some sense, limited. (That is certainly not to say beautiful photos can’t be taken with cheap equipment – as I stress to my kids, artistry and creativity are always more important than technology, and people do amazing things with Holgas and Lomos and other old cameras – but it does shut out some options.)

Perhaps at some point I’ll find standards I’m personally comfortable with, but for now it’s a constant worry. (Does that sound silly? It’s not if you actually take photography seriously as an interpretation of the world.) As a viewer, I hate looking at a photograph and wondering what has been changed, particularly of course if I like the picture. But photography as a discipline is not pure – and to be honest it never has been – and the issue will always be an issue. Best I can do is follow a personal sense of truth.


AnaVar said...

Great post! I have to try some of your tips on my photos!

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