Is it Ok to manipulate your photos?

Once in a Lifetime

In the days of film photography, photographers manipulated their images in the darkroom. Ansel Adams himself was very accomplished in the darkroom – and he wasn’t afraid to stretch the boundaries of possibility. I think we take ourselves entirely too seriously if we aren’t willing to let photography be the art form that it is. Of course, there are limits to what I believe is acceptable. First and foremost – I believe in honesty. If I adjusted an image in Photoshop, I believe it’s important to be honest about the changes I’ve made. And if I am presenting an image for documentary purposes – newspapers etc – then I need to make sure my photograph is true to the reality of the original scene. That said, as far as I’m concerned… there are no limits to what is acceptable when it comes to your art work.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that a JPG image directly from your camera is also a manipulation… it’s just manipulated according to the settings you select in-camera, and the algorithms that the software developers choose.

Film was very different… there were no built-in, digital algorithms. No JPG or RAW or PSD… and yet, photographers used colored filters to produce effects that are similar to what we can achieve in PS. They dodged and burned and cropped and rotated. They chose Velvia film to produce saturated colors. They used circular polarizers to enhance colors and reduce reflections.

A circular polarizer filter helped remove distracting reflections from the wet surface of the rock. A wide-angle lens makes the rock appear large and adds depth to the image.

They used kaleidoscopic lenses to create bizarre manipulations, and fish-eye lenses to create extreme distortion, and wide-angle lenses to mess with perspective, and long lenses to get close to faraway objects, and macro lenses to make little things look big. They created double exposures.

Double Exposure created in Photoshop from two images taken within minutes of one another.

They used soft focus, or a long exposure, or a narrow depth of field to change the look of the scene they were photographing.

A narrow depth of field eliminates distracting details from the background.

And they even used masks – carefully cut from dark paper, or even created with the help of a microscope – to build images that were not so different from what we can do with Photoshop today. If photography is art – then who decides what is right or wrong? The artist, of course!

About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.

  • I must say I agree with you on this part, and I’ve also written about it in my own blog. It’s an interesting subject. I personally feel that much of the critique on manipulation comes from people who don’t have the skillset to do their own manipulation in let’s say Photoshop, and therefore use it as a mean to attack those of us who have the skills. As you mentioned, manipulation is not new, and many of the great photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Anton Corbijn, Sally Mann and Morten Krogvold all manipulated their images in some way. The use of filters in the moment of capture is also a manipulation of the image. Who wants to hang a landscape shot with burned out skies, tons of reflection from foliage and dull colours.
    I think none of us who shoot images that is ment to convey a mood and feeling, try to capture a “true” image, but more express what we feel and experience at the scene. I know personally, that’s my goal when I shoot.

    As you mentioned with regards to news images, the ballgame is entirely different. The name of the game there is to as much as possible to capture a non-bias image of the event that is captured.

  • When I first started using a digital camera it was with the intention of SOOC, as is, regardless. It has taken some time and I now see processing digital in the same manner I did with B&W film. I overdeveloped, underdeveloped, burned, dodged, used filters, double exposed. This is the same but without the feel & smell of harsh chemicals. Even in my wedding & portrait work I used filters & produced double exposures.

    On the other side, if I am to provide documentary images, they are straight out of the camera.

    Thanks for your sharing your thoughts.

    • I understand your initial hesitation, Gail. I think many people don’t understand the darkroom process for film or the post-processing for digital images. I think my own experience in the darkroom helped me appreciate Photoshop. You mention leaving behind the harsh chemicals… I’m glad I haven’t spent years inhaling that stuff. And the save button. It’s great to be able to walk away in the middle of post-processing and come back later without ruining a print. 🙂

  • Patrick Patton

    I like your article. I dabble in photography as a hobby and many of my friends ask me if I do alot of photo editing and I tell them no. My reasons have always been that if I can’t catch the image I want with the camera then it isn’t fair to manipulate it. However I really like your point that you are actually manipulating it when using the camera. The other reason I don’t edit is that I don’t have time to edit hundreds of pictures – I am lazy :). I also like your point that you let people know if and how you have edited a picture. I think the real answer is it is acceptable if YOU as the artist are happy with the outcome, no matter how you get there. Thanks for you thoughts – it definitely has opened my mind to thinking about this differently!!

    • I’m glad my article got you thinking, Patrick! It took some time to develop my own feelings on the subject, so I understand where you are coming from! Good luck with your photography! 🙂

  • Of course it is okay to manipulate photos….Though we might not like the results. Actually the only thing that bothers me about photo-manipulation is when I take a true SOOC pic, that looks manipulated. When I take that rare red sky that really is that red, no one believes me. I even have a storm picture with sun underneath that I have to keep telling folks…. This is real this is real….

    Ps. I heard it said on a show the other day… and I agree… the only time manipulation is bad, is when we are dishonest about the process….

    • I know the feeling, Kirk. 🙂 It happens to me all the time. Part of the problem is that most people don’t see these locations when the light is incredible. They see them in the middle of the day, when the light is harsh and unappealing. If I take a shot of the same location at sunset – with big pink clouds and soft golden light – it’s going to look completely different. And then I hear “Is it photoshopped?” 🙂