Digital Manipulation — How Much Is Too Much?


“The camera never lies,” goes the adage, and for a long time we almost believed it. While photographs could never lay claim to being entirely truthful, there was a sense that an image recorded on film was as close as we could get to a freeze-frame of real life. Photography has long been seen as way of expressing the poetry and finding the meaning, some might call it truth even, in the reality that surrounds us.

It’s not that film photography was ever completely free of visual trickery. Think Man Ray or the Russian propagandist Rodchenko. But it was rarer, if only because convincing transformations were more difficult to achieve. Most film-based photographers, especially photojournalists, confined themselves to adjustments that could be made in the darkroom — tweaks in contrast, tone or saturation.

With the advent of digital technology, however, image manipulation became easy. Mere configurations of ones and zeros, photographs are now infinitely malleable. Data, unlike a chemical reaction to light, is simple to re-arrange. A click here and a click there, a careful selection of this or that, a well placed cut and paste and within seconds a picture can be transformed.

As it has become easier to manipulate photos, so the credibility of the photographic image as a faithful representation of reality, and the camera as a purveyor of “truth,” have waned.

Armed with tools like Photoshop, it is easy for photographers to get carried away. Who, after all, can resist the allure of making a good picture look even better.

Wouldn’t my picture look so much nicer without those electricity pylons in the way? And what if that ugly cardboard box were to disappear from my otherwise idyllic rural scene? Even if the cardboard box was there when I took the picture, it’s not as if it really belongs there.

These are just some of the justifications photographers may make to themselves before re-arranging their pictures with the aid of some digital wizardry.

So just how much manipulation is too much? Where does the invisible frontier lie before photography, stripped of its credibility, sinks into the digital oblivion of irrelevance?

One answer is surely that the dividing line is more moral and ethical than technical. If you claim a photograph is an honest representation of reality, meaning you’re categorising it as editorial (or informational), then it would clearly be dishonest to manipulate the image so that it looked real without faithfully portraying what was actually recorded at the moment you pressed the shutter.

The case of landscape photographer David Byrne is an interesting one. He was recently disqualified from the U.K.’s Landscape Photographer of the Year competition in 2012 because the Photoshop work on his winning pictures was found to have broken contest rules. It was revealed that Byrne had added clouds and cloned out certain physical details of his image. Read more about Byrne’s disqualification here.

Lindisfarne Boates by David Byrne — the photo disqualified from Landscape Photographer of the Year 2012
Lindisfarne Boates by David Byrne — the photo disqualified from Landscape Photographer of the Year 2012

Interestingly the competition organizer, Charlie Waite, didn’t accuse Byrne of trying to cheat but rather of inadvertently breaking the rules. For his part Byrne asserts that he hadn’t read the rules properly noting that “I don’t think what I have done to the photo is wrong in any way.”

“I have never passed off my photographs as record shots and the only reason this has come about has been due to my openness about how and what I do to my images. The changes I made were not major and if you go to the locations you will see everything is there as presented,” he continued.

The issue relates partly to expectations. Is the viewer expecting the image to describe reality? Or is the purpose of the image, which is nothing more than a two dimensional representation, to illicit a response from the viewer at an emotional level, to create an understanding or to intimate a meaning much as any work of art might do?

If the photograph is art what does it matter that a cloud looks a little different? The clouds look different every day, every second of the day even. What does it matter that a small physical element might have disappeared from an image if that element does not change the essential meaning of the image? Are we being mislead or deceived by such changes?

After all, when Magritte painted a realistic representation of a pipe and wrote under it “this is not a pipe” (ceci n’est pas une pipe), was he not reminding us that all images are “unreal”? That we are perhaps being best deceived by images which look most real because we are most tempted to believe them.

Byrne seems to argue that though he broke the rules of the competition he entered, his work does not try and present reality exactly as we might see it with our own eyes. The very fact his images are shot in black and white using HDR techniques gives them an appearance which sets them apart from reality. So perhaps it is only a small and harmless step to start removing clouds and other physical elements that were present at the time he took the original picture.

The problem here is that once you start down that particular metaphorical road where do you stop? And once the process has begun whereby all photos are mere starting points for digital manipulation, then what credibility can the photograph have as a tool of witness – which has, after all, been its primary function for photojournalists.

Perhaps what matters most is context and intention. Digital manipulation is fine when the context in which it is taking place is self evident. We don’t expect commercial images to be truthful — so go ahead and manipulate them. Their purpose is to manufacture message, not to report. And when a picture is purely art, then surely digital manipulation is no more deceitful than the whims of an artists brush. Art is not about reality or, more precisely, not about reproducing it faithfully.

Where digital manipulation seems most harmful is when it is applied to photographs whose sole claim to credibility is the truthfulness of their representation. Photographs that purport to describe reality, that bear witness, that report, must be built around truthfulness.

This does not mean to say that they should not be artful or poetic, nor that they should aim for hum drum neutrality by being purely literal. Even journalistic and editorial photography comes with a point of view — as all photographs must. If the credibility of photography as a means of reporting is to be preserved, however, strict limits must be placed on the use of digital manipulation techniques.

A good rule of thumb is to compare the manipulation of an image to what might have been achieved through normal darkroom techniques — lightening, darkening, increasing contrast, etc.

Of course the clouds in a darkened photograph might not have actually looked like that, and may have been darkened expressly to produce an effect. But at least the viewer should be assured that those clouds were recorded by the photographer along with every other physical element before the lens at the moment the shutter was pressed.

There is an ethical and moral core of truthfulness to this approach which must be maintained if the credibility of editorial photography is to be sustained. While photographers like David Byrne may choose to remove clouds or other elements from their photographs for the sake of their art, it is essential that they be truthful about their approach. If not, the saying that “camera never lies” will be as devoid of truth as the photographs that march before our eyes each day.

This article first appeared on the blog of Lighrocket, a cloud solution of photographers and developers whose first hand experience of the digital workflow helped shape a platform that is easy to navigate and offers a comprehensive range of features.

  • Andy Umbo

    There are members of the photographic community that should never be allowed to extend PhotoShopping beyond the norms of color balance, density, etc., anything that would have been done in a conventional darkroom without any problems, the photo-journalistic community certainly falls under these constraints. After that point, the question becomes whether it is a “photo” or not.

    I have a friend that does some occasional judging of photo contests, and he immediately disallows anything that has changes in it such as over-sharpening to a degree never do-able in film. He says the amateurs turning the stuff in, don’t “get it” and just slide the sharpening scale all the way up ’cause they like it. Ditto for juicing the colors, or saturation; when you do it, it would be the same thing as turing a retouched photo into a photo contest 30 years ago: not acceptable. Just ’cause computers make it easy to do, doesn’t mean it’s “photography”.

    This may open other venues for overly retouched photography, such as calling it “photo-illustration”, or having imaging shows where everything is allowable, but again, in this day and age, just ’cause it originated with a light-tight box with a lens on it doesn’t make it photography, anymore than taking a photographic image as a base and painting completely over it…

  • Must confess I’m terrible at manipulating images. And probably too lazy. Rather spend the time snapping life than adjusting files.

    Nevertheless, the question is whether a manipulated image is “less” real than a “realer” image. Or like in Kurosawa’s famous Rashomon: everyone is part of the same story, yet everyone recalls a completely different story.

    I guess as long as facts are not deliberately distorted and “reality” is not manipulated to convey a different, specific message, as long as manipulation is confined to what pleases the eye we shouldn’t be to obsessive about Photoshop or not.

    Everything humans do is an attempt to look better, just to mention clothes to enhance style and character, makeup to make look more beautiful… Yet I prefer a woman’s face without makeup. As I prefer “original” photography as compared to the pepped up “wow stuff” that never happens in real life.

  • I think some “wow stuff” happens in real life, and (personal opinion) a good photographer does his/her great job by being in the right place at that right moment, using his/her gear to capture it. I understand the need of post production, also the one that I call exagerated, completely transforming the model for some fashion magazine (though I usually pass over those images).
    I don’t like at all the idea of adding clouds to a sky. Why? Just wait, some clouds will eventually roll in the sky. If not, that photo was not meant to be taken by you.
    Electric poles are in the background of the rural photo I took today? It’s a pity, but I prefer to leave them where they are: perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I would feel somehow “guilty” if I’d erase them.
    Perhaps it all depends on the purpose of the photo. Leaving aside customers asking for the perfect body/face, the most shiny car or whatever “most” you can think of, in this case there were rules that the author didn’t follow or broke, thus he has been disqualified.