Pretty, but fake

A few days ago, I posted a picture on another forum, and mentioned in the post that it the picture was the result of quite a bit of digital post processing. Amongst the kind compliments (thank you, guys!), there were a few that made me stop to think:

  • No matter, it is a wonderful shot nevertheless!
  • Beautiful shot..even if it is tweaked a little..*s*
  • So for the most part it’s fake. Pretty, but fake.

While you can sometimes see the moon opposite the sunset, and you might be able to spot Venus early in the evening, not even rural Essex has skies filled with bright stars clearly visible when looking towards the setting sun. It just doesn't happen.

I guess we all like to get compliments, but I like it even more, when a comment makes me think about things.

While said in a kind tone, and undoubtedly meant as encouragements, the three examples gave the impression that post processing makes the resulting picture less “worthy” than if the photographer had simply stumbled over a pretty scene, pointed his camera roughly in the right direction, and then let it be up to the built-in automation to magically produce a pretty result.

It’s an old debate among digital photographers with one extreme view being that any manipulation after pressing the shutter release is detrimental, almost like cheating, and that one should always maintain a realistic representation straight out-of-camera. Playing around with sliders in Photoshop doesn’t match getting up early to seek out the right location and wait patiently for the right light to catch nature at its most magnificient, and then take a picture to show just how wonderful it was.

In reality, Charles does have two eyes. Honestly!

The counter argument usually goes along the lines of every photo always having been a manipulation anyway. From the photographer’s choice of what to include or exclude from the frame, via the choice of perspective and the focus or lack of focus, the type of film used (is black and white film capturing a true representation, with dark grey grass? or Kodachrome giving us those nice bright colors, the greens of summers, making us think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah!) or the dynamic range of the digital sensor used and the exposure settings, to finally producing a print on coated paper, selected for it’s contrast range and colour response, using a whole host of carefully mixed chemichals either as developer, stopper and fixer, or poured into small inkjet cartridges costing more per pint than the finest perfume or wine ever produced. So since it’s manipulated anyway, there’s no reason to not go the full tilt and be as creative as possible using all available tools.

The cross never existed. It's two water drops colliding, which happens to look like a cross from this angle. The colours never existed; they were created by a piece of red plastic in front of one flash and a piece of blue plastic in front of another. The black at the foot of the cross is genuine, that's the black bin-liner that I put over the baking tray before filling it with water.

There’s something to be said for both arguments, and if they are seen as the end points of a sliding scale from black to white, most of us will probably find ourselves being most comfortable with some shade of grey. Whether it’s a light grey or a dark grey might depend on the purpose of the picture, and what representation, if any, has been made about its likeness to “reality”. The police’s forensic photographers are meant to capture pictures of a crime scene as objectively as possible, and while photojournalists cannot avoid showing a bias simply by chosing what they photograph and what they ignore, they are also expected to produce results that are “not manipulated”. Advertising photographers and fashion shooters, on the other hand, make no secret of every inch of the scene being the result of careful choreography, and the final photo being the result of several days work by very skilled retouchers enhancing every pixel until the image conveys the client’s message as loudly and clearly as his bank account can afford. Being professional means being paid to do what the client want.

Looking through my photo collection, it becomes clear quite quickly that I’m not in the “get everything right in-camera and don’t do anything to it afterwards”-camp. One of my favourite subjects is night-time photography, and I find that the best night-time shots are not actually taken at night, but during dusk or dawn, also known as the “blue hour”. I’ve got many night-time shots of London, most  with reflections of some sort in the water. So the manipulation starts already at the point where I set off from home to get to location at the “right” time for the shot, through the capture , where I’d normally choose as long a shutter time as possible, to get the water smooth and thus get “better” reflections in the river. Without exception at all, all my night-time pictures have been post processed, often with the blues of the skies being adjusted and the contrast and brilliance of the scene being tweaked to look as “good” as I can make it, with complete and utter disregard for whether it is “photo realistic” (to use a popular oxymoron) or not.

When you take a picture of a person in front of a bright window, you either get the person as a black silhouette, or the outside of the house as a complete white-out. Or a mixture of both. Balancing the two is only possible by adding artificial light to the model.

Likewise, any modelling shots will normally be the result of carefully adjusted lights and reflectors positioned to emphasize, to the best of my ability, the “good” parts of the model and/or location and/or outfit and any makeup applied. Subsequent post processing will normally include some smoothing of skin (don’t we all want to have perfect skin?), increasing of the whiteness of the whites in the eyes and clarity of the iris, and often replacing catchlights with better-than-reality ones from a set of Photoshop stamps created just for that purpose. Being an amateur means doing things for the love of it, without having to worry about a client.

Photographer, writer and blogger Thom Hogan did an interesting test a few weeks ago. He presented an otherwise stunning picture of a bird with a bit of grunge in it’s eye, and explained that as it wasn’t possible to walk over to the wild owl and remove the grunge, this introduced the dilemma of whether carefully editing it away in post processing would mean that the picture was now a mis-representation of what the bird looked like. He received a lot of pros and cons in emails, but he didn’t reveal the punch line until a few days later, when he wrote that it was actually an eagle in captivity, rather than a wild owl! Mis-representation doesn’t necessarily mean Photoshop, it can be as simple as the captioning of a picture.

Although they ride close together, the three cyclists to the front left are not actually sharing the same bike. The apparent compression of the perspective is a result of a long tele zoom paired with the photographer standing quite a distance away.

Or take wildlife photographer of the year 2009 José Luis Rodriguez who won £10,000 for his extraordinary picture of a wild Iberian wolf jumping a gate. José had told the judges how he “couldn’t quite believe it when he got the shot of his dreams”. Often, things that appear to be too good to be true end up being exactly that, and José has since been stripped of the title and earnings, as the judges became convinced that the picture actually showed a tame wolf called Ossian that José had hired from a Madrid wildlife park.

Clouds are not created by leaving tea pots outside and waiting for the steam to rise to the sky.

Are Thom’s bird or José’s wolf lesser pictures now we know they showed tame “actors” rather than genuine wildlife? No. Knowing this doesn’t change the picture itself, but it certainly does reduce the amazement and awe we have when looking at them. It’s not what we see that has changed, it is what we think and feel, based on what we expect and have been told about the pictures.

Photographs have always been, and will probably always be, the result of a photographer making a great many conscious decisions in order to produce something that meets his vision. That is good; art should be about conveying something. It is not wrong to make those decisions, but it is unethical to deliberately misleed, lie or claim that things are something they really are not. Regardless of  whether it’s through digital post processing, subject matter selection or captioning.

The London Eye is not black. It is also not 4 times as tall as St Stephens Tower, home of Big Ben, which is also not black. Hollywood's Technicolor might be pretty, but it's rare to see the entire sky set ablaze by the setting sun. This picture was taken at 1:30 in the afternoon.

That was quite a lot of words about my thoughts of the subject. I would be very interested in hearing what you think about the issue, so if you have a view, please share it in the comments section below.

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3 comments

  1. I had to go back and check that none of those comments could be attributed to me!

    I have no problem with digital manipulation in post-processing; as a former Publishing student, I’ve done darkroom manipulation myself a time or two, fiddling with chemicals and playing with a negative to make different prints of the same image. I had quite a talent for it, apparently – one of the few things I was good at on that particular course, which I flunked out of after a year!

    I wanted to know what you’d tweaked and how you’d tweaked it because – to me – the manipulation lifted what was already a pretty damn good shot into a different dimension entirely. It added to the shot, rather than taking anything away from it – and that, surely, is the purpose of most digital manipulation, is it not?

  2. Interesting post – if it is for artistic reasons – anything goes; tweaks to make a raw photo look like it should have done in real life are also OK as that is not deception. Fraud is fraud I guess!

  3. Thanks Michelle and Katherine.

    I think the point about darkroom manipulation is very important as well, Michelle. Because you’re absolutely right, this is not a new thing invented with digital. It used to be the hallmark of a good photographer that he could tweak highlights and shadows in the darkroom, wave fingers and cut-outs over the picture during exposure to hold back the highlight and allow more definition in the shadows.

    And the removal of unwanted objects or even persons also dates back from clever darkroom technique.

    I guess the main thing that has happened is that nowadays, “everybody” can do these things, whereas it used to require skills that took years to learn. So it used to be the domain of the professionals, rather than the wild hoardes of us amateurs, as it might be.

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