Is This Photograph a Lie?

I took this shot during our workshop at Nine Mile Pond. My goal was to capture the beautiful light in the sky, and it’s reflection in the water. I wanted to simplify the image as much as possible, but ripples on the pond made the surface choppy, and made the scene seem too busy. The solution? A long shutter speed. I placed a Neutral Density Filter on my lens to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor, and set my aperture to f/8. A shutter speed of 30 seconds removed any trace of the ripples on the water – leaving the surface smooth and soft.

So – just to stir things up a bit… what do you think? Is it ever OK to “manipulate” a photo? In February, one of our students came to me with a question. “Isn’t processing a photo using Photoshop a ‘manipulation’?” he said. “Isn’t that tantamount to removing the integrity of a photograph?” Let’s put aside for a moment the general lack of knowledge that led to this question. To be fair – this student had very little background information to draw from, and didn’t know how a camera processes a JPG photo, or even the difference between a JPG and a RAW file. His question wasn’t meant to be offensive – though I’m sure many of you are cringing out there.

Still – it’s a loaded question if I ever heard one. It used to be that you weren’t considered to be  a “real” photographer unless you developed your own film, and printed it in a darkroom. Sending it off to a lab was the sure sign of an amateur. (Now, there’s a whole different argument there, I know! And for the record – I don’t believe it’s true.) So, by that logic – does it make sense to say that one who processes their own photos using a digital darkroom – the RAW converter or Photoshop – is less of a photographer than one who allows the camera to choose the settings? Is a photographer who puts in the extra effort to finish an image doing something wrong?

All right – so, what does that have to do with this photograph? Well – the fact is, I manipulated this scene. But not in Photoshop. I manipulated it in the field. The scene didn’t look like this in reality. The colors are true to my recollection – but the surface of the water was certainly not smooth. I used a Neutral Density filter and a long shutter speed to completely alter the reality of the scene. So, is this any different than manipulating reality in the dark room, or in Photoshop? Is the photograph a lie? Or is it simply art? No more and no less.

For me,  the answer is simple. My photographs are just art. And that simplifies things even further. When you are making art – the artist gets to make the rules – and worrying about what others think is just a distraction. So I’ll continue to make art – with a little help from Nature. 🙂 But, what do you think? Is it “fair” to manipulate an image? Does it make a difference if the manipulation happens in-camera or in Photoshop? I’d like to hear what you have to say. Seasoned photographers and amateurs alike. What do you think?

As always, these images are provided for personal use as computer wallpaper or backgrounds ONLY. Copyright belongs to the photographer, and photographs cannot be used, redistributed, or recreated in print or on the web or on any other medium without written permission from the photographer.

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.

  • Hi,
    I just stumbled across this even though it was written years ago. First of all I am all for post processing, anything you do to make your vision true is ok. But calling long shutter speeds manipulation is, I think, to go a bit too far. This would mean that there are some shutter speeds that do not manipulate reality, and a limit somewhere between the two. You use 30 seconds to smooth out the water. Therefore the water does not look like it does in reality, so the reality is manipulated. Well, say you photograph a running person or animal at 1/30th of a second. You get motion blur from the moving legs. This is the same effect, but at a different time scale. So where is the limit between manipulation and reality? No, as I see it, the manipulation starts the moment you press the shutter. If you freeze the motion of a breaking wave, isn’t that a manipulation of reality? The very nature of the wave is in the motion. Break the motion and you break reality.

    I love discussing these topics, and I have a couple of blog posts about them over at Unfortunately I write in Norwegian there, so you won’t be able to read.

    • Exactly, Hans. Photography is a manipulation of reality – just creating a 2D image from 3D reality is changing it. So, why are we all so worried about manipulation in post processing? Why not just enjoy the art form and let it be what it is?

  • I love this question 🙂

    “Manipulated”. Everything around us is ‘manipulated’ to suit our needs, or just to please us. The house, the food, … all our environment. Even our pets: they surely don’t live true to their nature. We are on top of the pyramid. Yes, we get to decide.
    The Greater Artist does manipulate colors. Every 5 minutes a scene changes tones, even to the point of revolution. Every 3 months the whole landscape has been painted, moved, re-dressed, enhanced… like a woman using some make-up and beauty accessories (excess never been good though). Aren’t we allowed to play with our toys? What’s the raw material of a photographer? 🙂

    Except photojournalism. I think they are not supposed to manipulate their images, hehe.

    • You make an interesting point, Diana! We do live in a manipulated world. Thanks for the thought-provoking response! 🙂