Is Digital Image Manipulation a Lie?

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"Film tells the truth!" "What you see is what you get." "A transparency or negative contains a true record of reality." "You just can't trust a digital image!"

These are strong statements, but reflect the feelings of many film purists. On the other hand, people using digital imaging speak of the ease with which their digital cameras—and later their computers with Photoshop—allow them to adjust an image until it looks like what they saw when they took the photograph.

One photographer I know is unhappy with digital imaging because his images often lack the initial "snap" or contrast that a well-exposed Velvia slide exhibits. He refuses to adjust the digital images in any way, since that would alter the "reality" of the subject. He is a purist, and feels that his film images reflect a pureness of reality that no digital image can attain. Many others feel the same way he does.

A clearly manipulated digital image – Is this wrong?

So, is digital a lie, just because one can modify the image in many ways, in-camera, and in-computer? Let's consider a few points often overlooked by those concerned about digital image reality.

First, we'll look back many years to a time before photography as we know it. Think about the time of the oil painting as a means to record and remember people, places, and things. The artist, as a purist, would do his or her best to record a scene in an accurate way. A beautiful landscape would flow through the eyes and from the artist's fingers onto a canvas. Later, someone familiar with the real scene could attest that the painting was an accurate rendition of the reality. But, it was, nevertheless, an artist's rendition, not the reality. The artist would mix paints until they closely represented the color of the sky, trees, water, and objects. But, were they exact colors? Close, maybe, but not the exact same as the reality. It would be virtually impossible to capture the colors of light in the pigments of oil paint.

And then, as a paid artist, would you accurately paint the features of a rich client somewhat past the bloom of youth? Or, would you be inclined to leave out a few facial lines, darken the hair, and slim down the figure a bit? Would your brush allow you enough resolution to record the finest details in your subject? Probably not. As a purist, you might want to accurately reflect reality, but you would have various limitations in your ability to do so. You would do your best to make the image reflect what you saw when you made the painting, within the limitations imposed by the recording medium. But you, as the artist, would make the final decision as to the outcome of your image. It would tend to reflect your own sight and feelings.

Moving on up a few years to the birth of photography, consider the advent of recording a scene on chemically coated metal or glass plates and finally onto paper. At first, the images were made in black & white. If a photographer wanted to capture an image closer to reality, he or she would have had to take the picture, then use paint or pencils to colorize the image. Many fine images were made by those methods, but they were limited by the lack of real color and the interpretation of the photographic artist's feelings about the image. Later, real color photography came into being, and results moved closer to reality. Purism was more possible. But, think about it a bit. Which reflects more reality, a black & white print, or a Velvia transparency? Does either really represent reality? How often is reality not captured by the film medium due to limitations within the medium itself? How about 99 percent of the time?

Originally in color but converted to black and white

No black & white print contains reality, since we live in a colorful world. But, many proponents of black & white would argue that shooting without color makes one focus on the subject in a more intense way. Black & white images truly can be moving, can't they? But, in no way can it be argued that things really look that way to a normal human. The black and white images simply represent an interpretation of reality as seen by the photographer. But, what about color prints and slides? Don't they capture color in a way that reflects the reality of the scene? In a word...NO! As pure as the photographer may feel, the very film one uses changes the scope of reality. Ektachrome presents a beautiful image, as does Velvia. But, side by side each of them contains interpretations of reality as seen by the film manufacturers. Each shows the image in a different way and with different colors. Many photographers use a certain film for a specific type of photography, and change to another film for a different type.

If you are a portrait photographer, still using film, do you often use a hard edged colorful film like Velvia to take pictures of your clients? Not if you want to stay in business. Velvia is one of the sharpest films ever created, so it will show every line, wrinkle, gray hair, and bulge of your subjects. And the skin colors with Velvia do not reflect reality. So, instead many use films like Fuji NPS portrait film that is softer in focus, and much less colorful. Some photographers even go so far as to use lenses that deliberately defocus the image, so that a flattering image can be made of almost anyone. Not much reality there!

But, what if one is a nature photographer, where skin tones don't matter so much. Do you use Fuji NPS Portrait film to take pictures of those colorful flowers, birds, and landscapes? Not likely, since NPS does not "pop" the colors like Velvia does. Why is Velvia one of the most popular films ever invented? Is it because it accurately records the colors of the subjects? No way! Velvia saturates greens and reds and blues in a way that makes nature images look really great. Pure and accurate, no. Beautiful, yes! Each film manufacturer promotes their film for its specific interpretation of reality. As a photographer, a great many choices of emulsions give you films that reflect your feelings. But, each renders reality in a different way.

Have you ever put a filter on your camera? Ooops, you just bent reality. That polarizer that is omnipresent on your lenses for landscape photography changes the truth. Have you ever used a graduated neutral density filter to allow you to capture a landscape with dim ground and bright skies? Your eyes can see the full range of light, the reality, but the film can't contain it. So you have to modify the truth by holding back the brightness of the sky.

Did you ever use a faster film so that you could get detail in your image when there is less light? Of course you have. Your eyes can see the darker reality, but your slow film can't.

And we have arrived at the main point.

In all the things we have considered, everything is a manipulation of the reality. No medium can possibly reflect the reality of the images our eyes see. We have to use the tools we have available to create a copy of the image we saw with our own eyes. We all have different feelings about the images we capture, and use different means to capture them. The images become our own version of reality.

Light through a window – fine art reality?

With a digital camera, the tools to interpret what we see are in great abundance. And later, in the computer, with imaging programs like Photoshop or Lightroom, even more flexibility is available. In the camera, we can change the color balance from image to image to better reflect what we see. We can change the light gathering power of the camera by upping the ISO at any time. We don't need various film emulsions, because we can change the saturation levels of the color, either in the camera, or in the computer. We don't need neutral density filters. Instead, we can hold back the bright sky by taking two pictures, one of the sky, and one of the ground, then combining them with a computer into one image that reflects as much reality as we can muster. Is that bad? Is that a lie?

No it isn't! In fact, with a digital camera it is possible to capture the purest forms of visual reality that can be captured with any technology, including film. Only the eye can do it better.

But, what about digital photographers who choose to remove a distracting light spot, some ugly weeds, or a limb from an image. Is that bad? What if a digital photographer uses the "healing brush" and other tools in Photoshop to remove a blemish from a person's face or darken the hair of a portrait subject? Are these things bad? Well, that's up to you. If persons who shoot only film had the opportunity to do so, would they not take it? Of course they would, and did, and do, every day in wet darkrooms around the world. Wet prints often do not reflect the reality of the subject; it is just much harder to accomplish the manipulation.

There will always be "purists" who insist that only the camera should be allowed to make an image—nothing should be changed in the computer—and then they take their lovely images to the lab where they select the finest grade of paper so that their version of reality can be more easily seen. But, which version of the reality are they printing? The Velvia version, or the Provia version, or maybe even the Agfa version?

Do you get my point? Reality is relative to the creator of the image, and the tools he or she uses. And, it is completely open to the interpretation of the photographer/artist. With my digital camera and computer, I can make an image look the way I want it too and it's pretty easy to do so.

So, then, should we not use digital photography because it is relatively easy to remove flaws from images or even add things that weren't even in the original image? No, again, because an unethical yet skilled person can manipulate images in the wet darkroom or by sandwiching slides. If one chooses to be dishonest, there's always a way to further the dishonesty. Whether paintings, film, or digital is used to capture images, reality can and will be bent to the interpretation of the artist. That is life and the true reality!

A new form of expression arrived with the advent of digital photography. A joyous way to make images that either closely reflect your memory and feelings or wildly distort the images in any way you choose. Just because it is easier to manipulate reality doesn't mean that ethical people will suddenly become liars. In a way, those who feel snooty about older methods are rather insulting to honest digital photographers. In my opinion, digital photography has opened doors of self-expression to all of us. We now have the ability to control the creative process from the time we press the shutter, until we print our image out on nice archival paper for the next generation to gain joy from.

Don't try overly hard to be a purist, because, in reality it is impossible to do it. No matter what one does with a camera, reality cannot be accurately captured; only one's interpretation of it. But, if you insist on purism, please realize that digital imaging actually allows one to capture images more accurately than film does. Do not turn digital down, just because some will be dishonest and "create" things that never were. If you decide to modify your image, simply caption it accordingly, and go "make" some more images.

Release the artist within yourself. Don't believe the lie that digital photography "manipulation" is somehow wrong—other than in photojournalism where accuracy matters. Digital manipulation is merely a tool to be used by honest people to make some of the best images they'll ever experience. With a digital camera and knowledge of Photoshop, you will create images that are the greatest truths that ever flowed from within you. Release your ability with very few limitations. Use your digital camera to capture saturated pieces of time. Your children and their children will remember you for it.

Keep on capturing time...
Darrell Young



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