Trawling through a friend’s blog the other day I came across an article discussing some aspects of a topic with which my thoughts have been much engaged recently… image processing/manipulation.
“In the downside, I mentioned one of the problems is image manipulation and this may well come as a surprise to some, photographic images have always been used by the media to show and reinforce articles to the viewer/reader this really happened on the adage that the camera doesn’t lie and now images can be very heavily distorted and easily, but it is not just image manipulation that is an ethical problem. What the photographer shoots in the first place has an impact on the viewer, the saying “a camera is a window to the world” is very wrong as it is only looking at a fraction of what is in front of the photographer, let alone the world. The process in framing the image in the camera, the decision on what to leave in and what to leave out, all has a bearing on what the viewer understands to what is being described by the image.
Cropping after the image is taken and done in post production also has a distinct way of changing the image and can be manipulated by an editor of a publication to change the meaning, yet again, to put a direct slant on a story and is a common occurrence in newspapers often done to make the image fit the columns width of text.
Corrections of image exposure, white balance and contrast are also hotly debated amongst ethical discussions by documentary photographers as some feel there should be no need, others argue that they are keeping the image to how it was seen originally by the photographer and are keeping the image true to how it was when the photographer clicked on the image.
Posing is also a not an option in ethical photographers book, if you are going to pose your subjects you may as well set up a knife or gun attack as you would get higher sales, portraits are often naturally done as if the photographer was not there”
(Read the full article here)
Thanks in no small part to the encouragement of this same friend (he of the aforementioned blog) I became interested in digital photography a couple of years or so ago, the main attractions being the “instant” nature of the entire process (permitting the immediate viewing of photos just taken, which in turn facilitates the equally-as-immediate diagnosing and remedying of technical defects in the shot – exposure, colour balance, framing etc) and the ease with which modifications can be made to the photograph afterwards using nothing other than a bog-standard PC and a halfway-decent image editing app.
Both these features were of fundamental concern to me as some years previously I’d ventured into the realms of film photography and in very short order found I was a complete incompetent. And the learning process simply didn’t happen as the time-lapse between taking the photographs and having the developed prints returned to me by the processing laboratory was such that I couldn’t recollect the camera settings I’d used when examining a given shot (and didn’t know enough about the technical aspects of the subject to take a stab at guessing them), so couldn’t really effectively diagnose the cause of defects.
(Anything as basic as taking notes at the time of the shooting was of course way beyond my comprehension, or inclination, at the time!)
Admittedly I went some way toward overcoming this problem by mastering darkroom techniques and beginning to develop my own film, but by that time the initial interest in the whole thing had gone… so I gave all the kit away and vowed never to touch photography again!)
Well, here I am some 25 years later, and once more dabbling in photography.
My first revisit into this realm was with a Konica-Minolta point & shoot, and I discovered another bonus of the digital version of the art. No longer was one hampered by the limitation of 16, 24, or 36 exposures to a roll of film. With digital take as many shots as you like (up to the capacity of the available memory of course) then immediately delete the rubbish ones and carry on shooting.
That particular technique doesn’t smooth out the learning-curve of course, but at least it means that statistically you’re bound to end up with at least some half-way decent shots.
And so it was. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the K-M to be a particularly inspiring camera so didn’t really become “hooked” at that stage.
But it was sufficient to cause me to wonder whether I’d benefit from treating myself to a slightly better camera, so I invested in my very first DSLR, a Canon EOS400d (otherwise known as the Digital Rebel… and I can’t think of a more apt description of myself!).
Suddenly I had all these extra settings to play with, and I could almost instantly see the results of any changes I made (somewhat misleading of course, because the LCD screens on these cameras aren’t all they’re cracked up to be). But with the ability to record camera settings for any given shot (via the metadata/exif info feature) and “tweak” the end-product on a PC (technology with which I’m well familiar) I was off, like the greyhound after the hare, and the camera went virtually everywhere with me.
But here I encountered my first major hang-up. I found I was a mite uncomfortable conscience-wise with too much image manipulation!
Shooting off at a tangent for a moment, my previously-mentioned friend (soon to be erstwhile if this carries on!) had also introduced me to the wonders of Flickr (the extremely popular on-line photo-sharing site), which I found to be quite addictive.
However, in browsing other folks’ photo uploads I gradually came to the realisation that many of the photos I was looking at were quite obviously heavily post-processed (manipulated in one way or another after the original shot was taken) to enhance their appearance. Whilst acknowledging the visual superiority of these, I nevertheless found myself drawn more to the “authentic” images (as I thought of them) that appeared to be virtually straight off the camera, “as shot”. In some way they seemed to me to be more “honest”, and certainly more revealing of the photographer’s skill (or lack of it – as in my case) with the camera.
Absent any conscious mentation I’d sort of classified all the identifiable post-processed and cropped images as “cheating”, and thus dismissed them.
(On reflection I suspect this topic feeds into another debate entirely… that of whether photography qualifies as art or not. But I’ll save that for a future post.)
This meant that, to remain true to my convictions, then necessarily I must restrict the post-processing of my own shots. Such was my position until fairly recently, when a change in my thinking was catalysed by a rather unfortunate photo session in which I ended up with virtually 100% rubbish photographs and, if I were to share any of them at all on Flickr (told you it was addictive!) some fairly extreme post-processing was called for.
I say “catalysed” because this need crystallised out numerous random thoughts which (I realised) had already begun to bubble away in the murky depths of my mind.
And these thoughts were all related to a developing analytical view of my innate aversion to post-processing which, I now feel, may have been somewhat hypocritical.
It (currently) seems to me that the task of producing a photograph is a process rather than a single stand-alone act. And that a distinction between pre- and post-processing is simply one of convenience rather than one that addresses the “authenticity” of a given shot.
The ultimate intention surely is to render a final image that adheres as closely as possible to how the photographer saw a given scene in his or her mind at the time, or, perhaps more accurately, how the photographer remembers the scene.
The ability of the camera to reproduce a scene as the photographer sees it can be fairly extensively modified by such pre-shot techniques as adjusting exposure, white balance, focus/depth-of-field, and so on. All of these settings can have a major impact on the end product, and alter it quite dramatically (as I’ve – unfortunately – discovered!).
Is it not then equally legitimate therefore (in the process of producing the final image) to seek to remedy any “incorrect” initial camera settings by the use of whatever off-camera tools are available to us (the equivalent, in fact, of what used to be done in the developing laboratories of old)? For is not post-processing merely an extension of the processing that occurs before the shot is taken (by selecting a particular shutter speed, ISO, and indeed the use of specific types of lenses, filters etc)?
And by the same token is not moderate cropping simply a refinement of the initial composition achieved through the viewfinder?
Or is it all simply a means whereby lack of skill in using a camera, or insufficient attention to detail initially, can be fairly effectively masked?
Where I do find myself with what may be regarded as a residual hang-up is in relation to the actual subject-matter or intent of the photograph.
Although I’ve mellowed (or matured maybe?) quite considerably in this matter in relation to what I think of as “scenic” shots, where I’m beginning to regard even extensive post-processing to enhance the image as legitimate, I still balk at applying the same principle to shots of (for want of a better description) “newsworthy events”. In other words (and this was the lever that catapaulted me into photography once again), the sort of shots that fall within the remit of the citizen journalist.
Where these are concerned I’m still very much of the opinion that the end-product should be virtually straight as it comes off camera, with maybe just a tad of white-balance and exposure adjustment if necessary.
Discussion’s welcome, as my thoughts on this are by no means comprehensive, final or fixed.
Example of a really rubbish photograph (from the session mentioned above) rendered just about bearable by the application of some very extensive (though basic) post-processing. (Just wait till I master the more sophisticated Photoshop techniques!).
(1/200 f/5.6 200mm)
Whilst superficially there may not appear to be much difference between the two aside from contrast and colour-intensity, in fact numerous individual tweaks were required to achieve the end result. A result moreover which, to my eye, is quite pleasing and certainly closer to how I remember the scene looking.
Virtually every photograph from that same session required post-processing to a similar extent. Can’t really understand why… lighting conditions for most of the time seemed almost ideal; I was under no pressure time-wise or otherwise of any sort. Everything should have worked out fine. And for the first batch of photos (some half-dozen or so) it did. But then somewhere it all went pear-shaped.
Here’s an example of a photo from the first batch of the session that required virtually no post-processing at all…