At time of writing, I'm sitting on a plane somewhere over the Pacific en route to New Zealand. Given that I cannot sleep on planes (believe me, I've tried) I thought I'd take the time to write about something that I think needs more exposure; photo "manipulation."
As I've showed my friends and family the polished photos I took in Iceland, a series of common yet disturbing questions and criticisms has often arisen.
"What did you do to this image?"
"How much of this is photoshop?"
"It looks fake."
"There's no way this is what you actually saw."
There's a stubborn and annoyingly pervasive misconception out there that "true" photography is unprocessed, ready to print/post the instant the photo's been taken, and that any work done to the image is unnatural, undesirable, or somehow cheapens or lessens its value. It seems that to many, working with photos in photoshop or any other image processing software is not photography, but manipulation. This is a myth I'd like the dispel in regard to fine art photography.
There can sometimes be a bit of a blurry line between what I consider "polishing" and "manipulating" photos, but I'll try to distinguish between the two as simply as I can. I consider the former to be bringing out the unseen potential of a raw photograph and the latter to be constructing a wholly new image that is radically different from its component parts (stock images) in terms of content and composition. This distinction between maintaining or substantially altering the content and composition of the raw photo is important and something I will make repeated mention of.
Polishing photos means working with the raw photo, or various exposures of the same scene, in order to bring out colours, even out exposures, enhance contrast, sharpen the image, remove spots on the lens or sensor, and so on. It works with what is already present in the raw photo. I would even go so far as to say that polishing can involve the removal or addition of certain features not present in the raw photo, to a point. For example, sometimes there are flecks of dust on the sensor or spots on the lens that create spots and smudges on the raw photo. Removing these spots is not, in my opinion, manipulation because it does not substantially alter the content or composition of the raw photo; they merely give effect to the scene the photographer was trying to create. I use the word "create" rather than "capture" because I believe photography is about more than faithfully duplicating the scene; it is about realising an idea.
Even removing or adding people, cars, telephone poles, or other objects that interfere with or give effect to what the photographer was trying to create is not manipulation, provided the removal or addition does not substantially alter the content or composition. For example, in one of my photos of a mountain valley, the raw photo contained a small area that had been cleared; a bare patch containing piles of logs and Earth moving equipment where I wanted forest. So I simply removed this small patch and replaced it with cloned bits of forest from the surrounding area to make it look like there had never been a clearing at all. However, had I added a skyscraper or an explosion to the scene, then it would be manipulation because it substantially alters the content and composition of the image. Therefore, so long as additions to or removals from the image are relatively minor and the core of the image remains intact, then it is not manipulation, but merely polishing.
It's a bit like writing a book; you never get it perfect on the first draft. It takes several drafts and many tweaks and changes, some big and some little, to produce a finished version that adequately creates what the author pictures in his head. Insisting that authors limit themselves to their first drafts would be absurd, even though doing so would probably bring the reader closer to the raw or original idea. But often the original or raw idea is inferior to the finished polished product by a significant degree. The original idea is almost never what emerges as the finished product as problems are found and corrected. The same principle applies to every form of art; the first attempt almost never realises the full potential of the creative idea behind it. Why must photographers be shackled to the raw photo while authors are free to change their works as they please when photographs and books are really the same thing manifesting itself in different ways; creative expression. It would be like telling a musician that his work will only be considered "music" if it limits itself to certain notes or telling a painter that he must limit himself to certain colours.
Polishing photos is nothing new. Photographers have been doing it for over a century. Chances are that any photograph taken by a professional has involved at least some polishing. With film, this work was done in the physical darkroom. Today, it's done in the "digital darkroom," such as photoshop or other image processing software. There is nothing different about the finished product. Everything that can be done in a darkroom with film can be done in photoshop or equivalent and vice-versa. I wouldn't say that one is inherently better than the other. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. They are just different means to the same end. I use digital because I find it more convenient and because I wouldn't know the first thing about using a physical darkroom. I'd say convenience is the major advantage over film, even though film still has its advantages in some areas.
Remember that I am talking about fine art photography. There are, however, certain genres of photography that I would say do not require much if any polishing, such as photojournalism. In these areas, the content of the photo matters more than its execution. For example, a photo of the Tank Man from Tiananmen Square is powerful regardless of how the photo was taken. From a technical perspective (sharpness, proper exposure, low noise, clarity, etc) the fine art print would be superior. But we don't look at a photo of Tank Man for the technical skill in its execution. We look at it because it shows a brave human being in a pivotal moment in world history. In this genre, it is not so much the photo itself that matters, but the man in it. This is what I call "content photography," where the execution does not matter as much as what the photo tells the viewer. I'd say that execution still matters, but not nearly to the same degree as fine art photography. In fact, hasty and frantic execution can add to a content photography scene in a way that careful composition and execution may lack, particularly in regard to emotion. It can provides an "in the moment" glimpse of what the photographer actually saw and can convey the emotion he felt at the time of exposure. This is great for content photography, but not so much for fine art photography. However, it must be stressed that some photos have had a lot of work, care, and polish put into making it appear frantic, hasty, and content based.
On a more philosophical side, I think requiring fine art photographers to simply duplicate the scene as seen by the his own eyes, leaving no room for improvement, unreasonably restrains what we as photographers can do. It is an unreasonable and unnecessary limit; a cap on the creative ambition that drives us to take photographs in the first place. As a fine art photographer, I am really only limited by two things; my imagination and the skills and tools I have to bring what I can imagine on to print or screen. Why should I limit myself and produce images that, though more faithful to what I saw, are boring and bland when compared to what they could be?
Consider this; many photographers resisted and objected to taking photos in colour when colour film became available. Monochrome had been the standard for decades and was seen as the only "true" photography. Colour photography was seen as unnatural. However, one could hardly argue that monochrome photos faithfully recreated the scene as well full colour could. Yet monochrome was seen as natural and colour was not.
When it comes to fine art photography, almost no photo has reached its full potential the instant it has been taken. I have only one or two photos that I did nothing to other than frame (i.e. put a black border and white stroke around the outside) and watermark. Such occurrences are extremely rare and not to be relied upon. So far as I'm concerned, a raw photo is not the end, but the means to an end. That end is to create something beautiful; something that realises its full creative and visual potential. In order to do this, changes will almost always have to be made to the raw photo. Sometimes those changes are small and other times those changes are big. However, so long as the image's content and composition are not substantially altered, it is polishing what is already there and not manipulation (as defined above.) While there are limits on what can be considered photography, those limits stretch far beyond merely faithful recording the scene.
However, I would stress that polishing and manipulation are both legitimate forms of artistic expression in their own right and simply lie on different branches of the overarching tree of art. Both take no small amount of skill, and sometimes luck, in order to properly execute and realise the artist's creative idea. I don't manipulate images simply because it's not what I want to do, not because I feel that it cheapens the image. I get satisfaction out of the process of taking and polishing photos whereas others get satisfaction out taking images and altering them substantially. I would hardly consider a photo more worthy of your attention over a manipulation simply because it is a photo.