Image Manipulation - Guilty as Charged

By Bill Chambers ©

Image manipulation seems to be a touchy subject these days.  Immediately, thoughts of misrepresentations come to mind. One prime example is the rather infamous war image a few months back where the image was obviously, and very amateurishly doctored.  This is particularly unfortunate occurrence for a couple of reasons.  One, that was photojournalism, where accuracy is more important than artistic style.  Two, it gives the general public the impression that all images are doctored and manipulated.  There's a big difference between touching up a senior portrait or a wedding image and doctoring a piece of journalism.  That difference is what I want to chat about today. 

 

Another type of image manipulation that comes to mind are the wildly exaggerated colors and tones that sometimes gain notoriety in artistic circles today.  With the onset of digital imaging I guess the inevitable questions and assertions of image manipulation should have been expected.  In fact, there seems to be an overall inclination among patrons to assume an image is digitally enhanced well beyond what the scene actually was.  This is sad, but perhaps somewhat deserved.  It does seem that the world of nature photography has become subscribers of the adage "If a little does a little good, then a lot will do a lotta good"!   Perhaps this is just part of the learning curve and the trend will reverse itself naturally.  I hope so.  It seems I, and every other photographer, gets asked continuously "Is that image manipulated?",  but it grows very tiresome after the thousandth time.   The answer I give is simple and quick - "That depends on your definition of manipulated".

 

It is my contention that all images are manipulated to some degree.  Before going any further, I guess I should clarify my definition of manipulation. My definition is pretty straight forward.  Manipulation includes any thought, idea, action, method, or process used to create the desired end result. Therefore, the mere act of pressing the shutter release is, in some form, manipulating the image.  I'm not talking about adding an image of Elvis into a group photo, or changing the color of the moon from white to purple.  I'm talking about optimizing an image to it's fullest potential, and that process starts long before we open an image in Photoshop.

 

Manipulation starts when the idea for a shot first enters your brain.  That can be months ahead of when you actually shoot the image, or as few as a couple of seconds before shooting.  Immediately the process of manipulating begins as you consider what angle you should shoot from, high or low perspective, where's the light, what's the background look like, what time of day would be best, or even what season would be best, what feelings do you want the image to evoke, and on and on.  Many times, if not most times, these thoughts and decisions take place before ever picking up the camera.  I'm sure most of us are thinking these thoughts and planning our shoots long before we actually arrive on site, even though conditions usually modify those plans somewhat during the actual shoot.  In my mind, this constitutes manipulation just as much as tweaking something during post-processing.

 

The process continues with the actual process of shooting.  Choosing your desired shutter speed to blur or freeze the subject, choosing the f/stop which will deliver the desired depth of field, and the ISO selection which will make the previous combination of elements work correctly.  Do you need fill flash? How about removing that piece of paper from the scene?  Most photographers I know are not above performing a little "gardening" to remove extraneous small branches and leaves that are blocking the shot they want.  In fact, a cheap pair of hand clippers reside in my camera bag just for that purpose.  Understanding the technical aspects of photography, and putting those aspects to work for you can certainly be considered manipulating the image because they have a far greater effect on the final result than Photoshop will ever have.  After all, if the image is poor to begin with, all the Photoshop tweaking in the world is not going to revive it. 

 

After the planning and the shooting, the real magic begins.  Post processing is where you can make a good image better.  It's also where you can ruin a good image if you're not careful.  Post processing is what most people think about when the term manipulation is bantied around.  It's important to remember that post processing manipulation isn't a new "trick" that came along with the digital age.  Post processing manipulation has been around as long as photographic processing.  I get tickled when I hear someone talk about the "purity" of Ansel Adams images, etc.  Beautiful, yes!  Pure? Give it a rest!  These people obviously don't understand how many hours Ansel Adams had to spend in the darkroom to turn out one of his "Pure" images.  The magic in Ansel Adams' images are not due to his impressive compositional skills, but are instead due to his equally impressive exposure skills and mostly to his incredible darkroom skills!  From developing the negatives to printing the image, Adams mastered the least sexy and exciting part of the photographic process, and he was rewarded with masterful images.  The equation is the same today.  The only difference is today's sophisticated computer systems have made the process so much easier and quicker.  What took Ansel Adams hours and hours can be accomplished in minutes today. However, it still takes a deft and skillful hand, and it has nothing to do with trickery or fraud, only optimizing the image to it's fullest potential.  This was the same as Ansel Adams did back then, and the same as you and I try to do today.

The next time you're asked if your images are manipulated, hold your head high and proudly proclaim "You bet'cha".

Finally, the Florida I love is about community. In this instance I’ll only concern myself with the photographic community. Where I live and shoot, I seldom cross paths with another photographer, and that’s the way I enjoy and prefer it. I’m naturally shy and anti-social to a large extent, but I do stay in touch with other photographers through NPN, email, and by phone. I’m constantly encouraged by the general tone and attitude I see and experience. On the whole, I have observed photographers making a positive impression, and I’m proud to consider myself part of that community, both here in Florida, and worldwide. Yes, I love Florida. The contentment I derive from this soil and water is both real and physical, and brings to mind a morsel from another Floridian who is one of my favorite authors and whose love for this land has inspired me for years.

"I do not understand how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to." — Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

 

Bill Chambers is primarily a landscape photographer based in Gulf Breeze, Florida. He enjoys shooting the swamps and marshes of northwest and north central Florida, as well the beaches where he lives. His work is exhibited in local galleries and establishments in Florida and Alabama. To see more of his images please visit www.enchantedlightphotography.com.

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Text and photography copyright © Bill Chambers. All rights reserved.

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This article was used with permission of my friend Bill Chambers.  My watermark and below copyright are automatic features that I cannot turn off - PLEASE IGNORE.