It has been quite a hot topic of discussion of late, with some of the big names in the industry admitting to having edited or even ‘manipulated’ their photographs. While the purists are dead against editing or post-processing of images, the creatives don’t let go off that easily. Where do we stand? Here is what I think.
Photography has always been about manipulation ever since Niepce made his first photographic exposure. For those who have already started hissing at me, let me elaborate. The first photographic attempt required several days of exposure, which itself is manipulation of time. I bet the scenes never looked anything similar to what human eyes could see at that time. Again, a monochromatic print can never be the true depiction of the world we see in colour.
By choosing (or, at those times, using by the lack of choice) Black and White, you are eliminating the dominance of some elements in the scene by virtue of their strong colours, thereby reducing the scene into a uniform pastel of form and graphics. Isn’t it manipulation? Again, we choose a lens to manipulate the view, often distorting the perspective or playing around with depth-of-field. If that is not enough, we alter the White Balance, use filters to deepen the sky, choose a slow shutter speed to render a silky effect to flowing water. Do streams appear the same in nature? When we choose the golden hours of early morning or late evening for landscape photography are we really cheating the traveller who gets there by mid noon or early afternoon with all the haze and dust in the air and finds the place less charming?
Now let us take the case of film-based photography during its peak. Was there no manipulation involved in developing and printing the images? For those who are familiar with the processes, exposing the film was only the initial step of a series of treatments and fine-tunings. The finished print was often the result of pushing, pulling, cross-processing, burning, dodging and other such ‘manipulative’ procedures. Cameras have never been designed to produce ‘correct’ images straight out of the box, except for some instant cameras like the popular Polaroids. Remember, the camera is only an instrument. It can never bring out the colours that we see through our eyes.
So why is this manipulation more visible now?
During the film days, even the casual photographers had their negatives go through the above processes. However, these post-processing jobs were executed by a few skilled craftsmen toiling in the dark room under ‘scary’ red lights, whose jobs were later on taken over by the QSS (Quick Service System) machines. With digital photography taking over the reins, more often than not, the photographer himself has to do the job of a skilled post-processing technician.
So how much processing is too much?
It is not about how much, it is all about who you are. If I am a documentary or news photographer, then I would personally limit my editing to bringing out the detail in the image by means of lighting, shadow and highlights correction and basic colour correction. Anything more will spoil the purpose, which is to document what is happening. This brings us to the familiar image of Paul Hansen, that won the world press photo awards in 2012. He was criticised for ‘manipulating’ the image because it was a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image and the jury perceived it as a combination of multiple images. But in this case, the HDR was created using a technique known as HDR Toning, which created multiple versions from the same Raw image, with varying tonal ranges. This essentially produced an image that had much more details than a standard out-of-the-box image would have, without altering the composition or disturbing any element. I would consider this acceptable (Read the story here).
In another case, a Reuters freelancer was banned for altering his images from Beirut. He, in fact, used post-processing to clone more smoke into the image, which was of smoke rising from some buildings after an Israeli airstrike (Read it here). Another war photographer was banned for altering the position of a helmet in a battlefield. But in these cases, the scene was recreated, and that too, in a news photograph, which is supposed to document the reality.
Well, that brings us to the next point.
When is it alright to process images?
If I consider myself an artist and my intention is to create something that is pleasing to my viewers, I wouldn’t mind altering my images or downright manipulating creatively. However, even this has a limit. I personally like the end result to be as natural looking as possible. At least, I will make sure that any editing does not leave its traces (of imperfection) in the final image. But here your creativity is the limit, and I do admire those who create magic with their creativity.
So for all those who are for image post-processing, and for those purists who do not mind opening their minds to have a look at what post-processing can do to your originals, I will soon be coming up with something. Stay tuned.