Acceptable manipulation.

This is one that rolls on and on. And on. What is an acceptable degree of image manipulation? Well just to clarify, I’m not entirely sure.

Just this week I’ve been included in a circular e-mail about the ‘manipulation’ scandal and how one photographer in particular, is ‘duping’ both editors and readers of a well known Dutch magazine, and is gaining an ‘unfair’ commercial advantage. I’ve also been running a workshop during which one guest showed a number of images that he’d produced using the controversial ‘HDR’ technique. Whilst undoubtedly striking, some of them had an ‘unreal’ appearance. So what is a step too far?

Well that depends on context. If you view nature photography as a means of biological recording, then accuracy in content and aesthetics are paramount. If however, your perspective is more creative, then the criteria is much broader and arguably, anything goes.

Perhaps the important word here is integrity. Rather than dwelling on what’s right or wrong, perhaps we should resist trying to mislead our audience, be up front with how our images are produced and let consumer taste run its course.

For the record, the image below of the Summer Isles at sunset has had the following treatment:

1. A 10 stop ND filter to slow shutter speed and blur water.

2. A reduction in colour temperature.

3. A slight deepening of the blacks to increase definition.

Is it ‘straight’? Probably not. Is it ‘acceptable’?

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7 thoughts on “Acceptable manipulation.

  1. Pete,
    Why is this such an individual problem to photographers. Artists, the paint, canvas and crayon type, have been “manipulating” their work as long as the work has been being created, adding things, shifting things and changing colours.
    An image, however created, should be judged on the impact it has on the viewer not how it has been created. Extreme use of techniques like HDR, sharpening etc. will probably be appreciated by only a few and will gradually disappear as HDR becomes more mainstream.
    By the way I like your “manipulated” photograph.

  2. As a photographer who learned his craft in the b&w darkroom, ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ the light that created my images by inserting my hands into the light path to ‘manipulate’ my images, I have to laugh. I did ‘digital manipulation’ way back in the 1970’s – my fingers being used as the main tools in my arsenal of image-making devices. Nothing has changed.

    You can be sure that around the Lascaux caves in France or the kopjes of South Africa, our artistic ancestors endured a real ribbing from their peers because the daubs on the wall “ug ug look nothing like the bison out on the plain ug ug, reds are too vivid…ug”.

    Nothing has changed, except the pace of change.

  3. Hi Pete,

    It is good to see you are keeping the ball rolling on this topic! You know my view on it. I think it is clear that everyone manipulates images and have been for years and years and…, I think the point that most people miss is that not all photographers are honest and open about it.

    Regarding the picture above, point 1, is (in my opinion) technique and has little to do with ‘bad’ manipulation, by that I mean digital and/or post manipulation. Points 2 and 3 are for sure manipulation, but it is acceptable for two reasons: 1, because you the photographer has decided that it looks better that way as a finished piece of work and 2 because you are honest about it.

    An acceptable level of manipulation will never be found, why? Well quite simply because there isn’t one. In this day and age anything goes. And to be quite honest I find it crazy that people are not more honest about their SKILLS in Photoshop. I am sure that most people who read this blog have at some point dabbled at some level with Photoshop, it ain’t easy to do the stuff some of these ‘cheats’ do. There are several magazines that sell millions of copies world wide that are based purely on image, manipulation in Photoshop.

    My personal opinion is this; nothing is ever going to change until attitudes change, image manipulation is not a bad thing, if it means I can enjoy my Scottish Highlands Calender that my parents send me every new year that little bit more then Huuuraaaa! But to the people that care about these things, I bet they would look at an image and its related article/message with more intensity (with want for a better word) if they knew to what extent (if any) the image was manipulated. I certainly do, I think of it as the behind the sense bit at the end of David Attenborough programs, and I love that bit!

    I think this is my first official rant, sorry it ended up on your blog Pete, it was certainly not intended!



    PS no one was interested in the behind the sense bit at the end of David Attenborough programs until they were told about it. But it is always the bit that gets the layperson hooked!

  4. I agree with the thrust of earlier replies. For me, the techniques you have used in this image are well within the bounds of what has been considered acceptable even in ‘straight’ photography since long before digital. They simply contribute to making the impression you are seeking, and they do not distort reality to a degree that isn’t somehow inherent the vast majority of the images we see every day.

    I suspect you could have achieved something very similar to this look on transparency film ‘out of the camera’ by using the right amount of ND filter to get the same shutter speed, selecting the film stock for color/contrast characteristics, letting the overcast sky produce cool tones on the daylight white balance of the film (a white balance adjustment!), and exposing for the blacks as you have set them in this image. Would that have been more ‘acceptable’? Would anyone have considered discussing it for an image of this sort in the film days?

    The more obvious examples (compositing one image into another without disclosure, presenting a captive animal as wild, etc. etc.) are a very different matter from an integrity standpoint, but I don’t think anyone other than another photographer would care (nor understand) about disclosure of this level of photographic technique.

    I follow and enjoy reading your blog (thank you), but am not usually one to post replies. However, I am reading a book called ‘Wild Soundscapes’ by Bernie Krause, and came across the following passage which brought your blog post back to mind. Krause is a very well known and respected recordist of natural sounds. I don’t know anything about sound recording, but it would have seemed to me a field where ‘straight’ is ‘straight’. Yet, Krause writes: (Footnote 1)

    “The prime goal of any recording is the creation of an illusion that conveys an honest sense of place. This may seem like a contradiction, but remember that the recording will never be the same as what you hear in the living soundscape. Sometimes you can accomplish an honest sense of place by simply setting up a mic in a spot and letting the tape roll. Often, however, the final result will need some editing, and, dare I say it, mixing. In either circumstance, serious editing has taken place.”

    And shortly goes on to say:

    “A dozen or so editing choices comprise any recorded soundscape. Therefore any CD that is hyped as being “pure” or promoted by a producer who considers himself or herself to be a “purist” simply ain’t so. The voices of the natural world are at once eloquently sensual and lyrical and any recording is, at its very best, a successful abstraction. Look for quality work that expresses the dynamic power of the illusion.”

    Substitute in the passage as necessary to translate ‘sound recording’ into ‘photography’ and you have a good summary of the matter from my point of view.

    (1) Bernie Krause, ‘Wild Soundscapes, Discovering the Voice of the Natural World’, Wilderness Press, copyright Bernie Krause 2002, 2nd printing April 2004, p.117.

  5. Hi there Peter

    Being their is reality and we can never capture reality – any form of visual media capture normally involves some form manipulation. Just how much is acceptable I suppose largely depends upon the authors intent and the prevailing ethics in any given market sector.

    Regards, Geoff

  6. It is pretty simple: if it is journalism, you can (probably) crop and correct colour balance. The further you get from journalism, the more you can do with the image.

    It is up to the people who publishes the images to decide how far they will allow the processing to go.

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