Have you changed that image in Photoshop? (Part 3)

In the first part of this article we established that photographs are not objective representations of reality and in the second part that the preparation of an image for display in any medium inevitably involves manipulation (frequently, but not solely, to correct for deficiencies caused by the equipment used to capture it).

Complaints from critics of photo manipulation generally overlook these inevitabilities however and focus more on issues such as compositing, colorisation, micro contrast enhancement or the removal of elements of the image. Mea culpa. I am guilty of all these ‘crimes’.

Let’s look at those techniques and why we (or I) might apply them, beginning with compositing. The only time I have ever composited is to replace a dull sky with a more interesting one; I’ve only done that a couple of times. It is not generally a technique of huge use to landscape photographers, but for fashion photographers and wedding photographers it can be a regular practice. For documentary photographers the technique is entirely off limits. Documentary photographers can harm the lives of people through photo manipulation; but, I would contend, sticking a few clouds in a boring cloudless blue sky, or creating some texture in a blown out sky, is hardly a crime against humanity if it turns a good image into a great one. I fully accept that others may differ on this though.

Colorisation of an image ranges from increasing the vibrancy and saturation of an image, or the opposite, draining it of colour to give a muted look. The latter is all the rage with Hollywood at the moment it seems. I often increase the saturation of sunset photos. A sunset shot is a sunset shot; nobody wants to see a boring one. Colourisation, in the sense of a colour shift in the shot, has been common practice since film days. Images were, and still are, shot through coloured filters or, more dramatically, film was processed with the wrong chemicals, chemicals intended for a different type of film. This can lead to quite dramatic colour shifts and the process is now replicated and extended in software. If such a manipulation suits an image then I may very well use such techniques.

Microcontrast enhancement brings out details in an image, sometimes in a slightly unrealistic ‘hyper real way’. For example, the loss of overall contrast in HDR images is often compensated for by the enhancement of micro contrast and this contributes to giving the more extreme and over processed examples of this technique their distinctive look. It is something I use a great deal to bring out detail in textures but it is not something that I tend to push too strongly in other areas.

Removal of distracting elements is something that I do not hesitate to do if it significantly improves a photo. Lens flares, footprints in sand, blurred flying birds, discoloured grass etc are all fair game as far as I’m concerned, as are bigger objects such as cables and people. Strongly coloured or brightly lit objects near the edges of some images lead the eye away from the subject of the image. I feel no shame in removing them or applying vignetting to darken the edges of the image. If I feel that a composition is improved by widening a scene and thereby including a distracting element that I know I can remove later then I will do it. Other photographers may differ and prefer to narrow their composition so that a problem element is never there in the first place and I respect that. Each to their own.

What is emerging here is a dichotomy between the notion of the photograph as a documentary record of a scene, and the image as an artistic interpretation. I am not generally a documentary photographer; certainly the images that I put on nomadlens are not intended to be an accurate record of what I saw (as if, for the reasons already discussed, such a thing were even possible).

For me the taking of an image is only the beginning of a process, a process at the end of which hopefully I will have created a beautiful image. With enough experience of taking and post processing images under my belt now I generally find that when I capture an image I do it with the post processing that I intend to apply to it in mind. This won’t always be the case, and I may not process the image in the way I initially intended, but largely gone are the days of semi randomly clicking trying to find something that looks good.

Without descending into a discussion of post structuralist disregard of authorial intent, I don’t think that taking a picture without a clear idea of how you wish to process it later removes the right to call it art but my photographic vision is improving and that vision only begins with the image capture; it ends in Photoshop.

Others will have to judge whether what I produce can be called art, but I have no hesitation in shamelessly admitting that all the images you see on nomadlens have been Photoshopped. I make not attempt to hide it; quite the opposite in fact, I broadly explain what I have done and provide a before/after comparison. Problems arise, I think, only when a photographer attempts to deliberately conceal or deny that they have manipulated an image.