Photography and Digital Manipulation: Finding a Middle Ground

Photography and Digital Manipulation: Finding a Middle Ground
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Originally published at: https://naturephotographers.network/articles/photography-digital-manipulation-finding-a-middle-ground/

One of the most important topics in the photography world revolves around the use of editing, digital artistic manipulation (such as composites) and recently, the widespread practice of “peak stretching.” Just in this past year, I’ve come across extensive blog articles, listened to heated debates and scanned endless online commentary, all centered around these issues. I feel this is an important topic that greatly effects the world of photography and the future of the medium.

I feel like most of my images are somewhere in the middle ground of processing. But always with the goal of representing the original scene. In this case, the main change was moving the small circular cloud a little bit to the left so I wouldn’t have to crop half of it out.

Two Sides and a Middle Ground

On one side of the fence, many feel that a finished photograph should look very close to what came straight out of the camera. Maybe some exposure adjustment, some contrast, etc., but the image should be more or less left alone. On the other side, many modern photographers and artists use the image or images that come from the camera as a starting point. Those files are then worked on in various ways, and a piece of art is created on the computer. Sometimes it can look very similar to a “real” scene and sometimes not. Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Figuring out exactly where we stand on this topic and how we feel about the morals and effects on photography can be challenging. Many of my workshop clients have expressed feeling shamed or put down (about the editing choices they have made) by those who believe strongly one way or the other. As a pro photographer that fits somewhere in the middle, that is both pro-Photoshop and pro “real,” I thought I would share my thoughts on finding a middle ground and hopefully help others to make their own choice on how to handle the modern digital world of photography.

Here’s an example of an image I used very little editing on. Just a bit of cropping and basic adjustments in Lightroom. 

Pros for “Real” Photography

Figuring out what “real” photography is is a topic that can be discussed endlessly. After all, taking a 2-dimensional photograph in one direction, at one point in time, is hardly showing the multi-dimensional, 360-degree reality you were standing in while taking the image. Throw in odd focal lengths, both ultra-wide and extremely long; panoramas that distort and warp; and the simple fact that when we find a “perfect” clean, simple photograph, it is probably the exception to the very busy cluttered world that we live in anyway. “Real” and photography are not a perfect match.

That said, for me, while a photograph is certainly not 100% real, photography can give us a very close idea and approximation of a particular scene. It can show us elements that are close enough that our brain can fill in the rest and we can have an excellent idea of what a place might look like or be like in person. That is the real power of a photograph in my opinion, and that is why we love photography so much. The power is in that nearness to reality. The idea that the place you see in front of you is a place you can actually go, a place that you can actually experience in the real world.

An example of an image that has quite a bit of editing, including focal length blending. However, I feel like the scene is looks very close to how it did standing there in person. Anyone visiting this spot would not be disappointed.

I walked into an Indian restaurant a while back and saw a photograph on the wall of huge towering mountains over a stunning valley. It evoked such a strong desire in me to travel and see that place. It was the same feeling I had many years ago seeing an image of Machu Picchu for the first time. A time when I could hardly believe that a place like that existed. It inspired me to travel and to become a photographer. I wanted to inspire others to see and explore as well.

As it turns out, the piece in the Indian restaurant was a painting, not a photograph. While I love paintings, many forms of art, and have great respect for the talent, the second that I realized it was not a photograph, and not a real place, I lost all of the sense of wonder. An amazing piece of art, yes. But a place that I can actually go see… no.

Albert Bierstadt’s “Among the Sierra Nevada” is a great example of a painting that’s absolutely incredible. However, knowing that it is not a real place, at least for me, changes the emotions I experience while looking at it. And if it did actually exist, I would by dying to go see it. (Ironically, in the 1860’s it fueled the image of America as a promised land.)

This yearning to visit the places photographers capture is also evident on social media — such as Instagram photography hubs, where hundreds and hundreds of comments are filled with excitement about visiting the location of the photo. Often it is hard for non-photographers to discern whether or not a place really exists.

Example Instagram Location

We love photography because someday, we want to visit that incredible place that was shared. We want to see it with our own eyes. Somewhere out there. If we take photography to a point where it is no longer showing the viewer a place they can go, again, much of the power is lost.

But there is much more to the story…

Pros for Digital Manipulation

Photography is art (or at least the type of photography we concern ourselves with here). In my mind, it should not be limited by rules or laws or old school dogmas that say we must do this or that. One of the most frustrating things about photography for me has always been the limitations. Where a painter can create what they want, we photographers live in a world of compromise.

In almost every situation, even though we may have the artistic vision of how we want the image to look, we can’t physically accomplish that goal. You want to move to the left 10 feet to make the composition work, but there is a cliff preventing it. You need to get super low to make the foreground more interesting, but by doing so, you lose part of the background. Having photoshop to make adjustments to different elements of the scene allows us to be much more artistic, and enables more of your creative vision to come through.

Using photoshop is also a great way to bring an image closer to how you saw it. For example, when you shoot a scene with a super wide angle lens, peaks that are huge and dominate the view in front of you, become so small that you can barely see them. By using techniques like focal length blending or perspective blending, you can make the peaks closer to the size you perceived them to be with the naked eye. At the same time, you can keep the foreground close to how it appears. Of course, you can also do simple things like having both the foreground and background exposed perfectly which is much closer to how we see the world.

The images above are a decent example of using photoshop (in this case focal length blending) to actually make an image look closer to real. The first image was taken on a cell phone at roughly 35mm and even it shows the peak quite a bit smaller than it actually looked standing there. You can see the image on the far right taken at 12mm shows the peak much, much smaller than it actually was in real life. By using focal length blending and brining the peak in, the photoshopped image is closer to reality.

Finding the Balance

In my mind, a balance is needed. I believe photos should be based upon a real place and your personal experience of being there. This way, the power of the photograph can survive. Someone can see, get inspired, and then visit. However, at the same time, a large amount of editing should not be looked down upon. It can even be a great help in showing the place and your experience of it. Of course, at this point, everyone always asks: “but where do you draw the line.” How much is too much? For me, that line is not all that hard to find.

If someone can look at the photo, then visit the place it was taken and without a doubt see that it is, in fact, the same place, without significant differences in geometry, then in my opinion – nothing else really matters. If the mountains aren’t twice as big and more jagged in the photo than they are in real life. If there is actually a waterfall in the scene (as opposed finding out the waterfall in the photo is in a completely different area), etc. If the photo closely represents what you saw in person, I don’t feel like anything is off limits when it comes to Photoshop. If, however, someone shows up to an area and expects extremely tall jagged peaks and three waterfalls and then discovers that the area barely resembles the artwork they saw, the power of photography is gone.

Here is an example of image stretching, basically using something like the warp tool to drag mountain peaks up – completely distorting them and leaving reality behind. I personally don’t mind a small amount of warping, and even think it can be necessary for panos or when shooting with a wide angle lens, because elements like mountains are often flattened and a bit of warping can bring them back to normal. I also don’t mind a very small amount of warping for artistic reasons. But this comes back to if the overall image is altered to the point where it is no longer realistic to the original scene. Some of the stretching you see all over Instagram now is extreme.

Adding a Sky?

Of course, that leads to another big question. If you add a new sky (or milky-way) in from a different day or location and the scene is still recognizable… Is that still okay? After all, the scene still looks similar to real life – and often a similar sky “could” have looked like that.

In my mind, it is all about your experience. If you saw and experienced certain conditions making small photoshop changes that still represent what you saw, (as in possibly adding a few more clouds to a small empty area, where the overall look of the image doesn’t change much, but the balance is a little better), I believe that is ok. I also feel that anything captured over the course of time that you were actually standing at a location is entirely acceptable to blend into a single image (as you did experience it). Meaning, if over an hour or two you witnessed and captured different types of light, then blend them, you are showing the scene in the way you experienced it. In some ways, this is a more accurate representation of what you experienced then a single moment would show.

Again, it’s a middle ground between being creative and still being true to what you saw and experienced. If you add in a sky from a different place or time and it had nothing to do with the experience that you had, the authenticity of the photo is no longer there at all. Of course, finding the line, in this case, is more challenging, but still, I think there is a point that we know, “this” looks very close to what I saw, and “this” looks completely different.

An example of doing a little photoshop that made the image stronger artistically, where I don’t feel the experience of what I saw was changed. The small pink cloud in the red circle was blended in. Before adding it, there was a distracting open space above the peak.

What About Pushing Further?

In my mind, there is nothing wrong with entering the realm of digital manipulation. The only difference, in my opinion, is that if an image no longer represents a real place — it should be mentioned openly in one way or another. Why does this matter? Because as mentioned above, if people learn to assume that most photos are largely fabricated, photography as a whole will depreciate and eventually hold no more power than a painting.

Being transparent about the type of work you are creating is no different than disclosing whether a story is Fiction or Non-Fiction. We can easily understand the importance and reasoning behind identifying these categories of literature. Each can tell an incredible story from a particular perspective — and calling a book fiction lets the reader know what to expect and how it relates to the material world. Writers use the same sense of judgment when telling a story as we do when creating a photo.

“Fiction is fabricated and based on the author’s imagination. While parts of the story such as plot and setting are sometimes based on real-life events or people, they are used as jumping off points for a story. Non-fiction often uses many of the techniques of fiction to make it more appealing such as rich detailing of events, however too many fabrications in a nonfiction work can force that story to lose credibility.” -Bookriot, “The Difference Between Fiction and Non-Fiction

Here is an example of “Instagram hubs” using an artist’s image in a completely misleading way. They tagged the image as California and described the shot a real place in the caption. People eagerly asked for the location and some denounced it as fake. I’m not sure if the artist ever got a chance to explain that it was a composite. But I think this is a great example of why it is important to do so. (And to beware of who you let share your images).

Final Thoughts

Of course, the other thing to keep in mind is that we are talking about photography here. While many of us take it very seriously, and it can have serious impacts on our environment and lives – for many, it is a hobby and a passion. We need to keep it fun and make sure those who want to enjoy it still can. While I strongly encourage everyone to think about these topics, and even mention the ideas to others, please be respectful to anyone that doesn’t share your opinion.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that the issue is not so much about using Photoshop, but in how we choose to use Photoshop. For me, there shouldn’t be a list of things that are considered off limits or that shouldn’t be done, we need to either keep true to the reality of a scene or be upfront if you’ve created a dreamscape.

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Very good read here. I agree with what you are saying and hear and see so many comments bad mouthing some processing choices. It is a choice of the photographer on how they want to present the scene. Sometimes it works and other times it may not.

Personally I don’t add things to scenes that did not exist because it does not reflect what I saw while there. I have did a handful of sky replacements but usually opt for revisiting the location multiple times until I get the sky I want.

Sometimes you can’t revisit the scene as much due to location and then artistic license can be ok as long as it reflects reality. To me it is much more satisfying to get the real shot as you saw it and you won’t lose the emotional connection with it.

In the end it is a choice we are all faced with at times and to decide whether we cross that line between reality and fiction and how to present it to the audience.

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Dan: Thank you for a well presented article on a subject that is complex and often contentious. I really like a sentence in your closing paragraph:

Yes, agree completely and also agree about complete transparency about what was done in post.

I used to belong to a small group of photographers who would get together about once a month to review and critique each others work. We were all at different stages of life, different backgrounds and different photographic styles. I brought a print that I had manipulated heavily from a street scene to change the background building, change the tones and altered the lighting. One member of the group loved the image until I said what had been done, then the entire mood changed. I found that really interesting as it lead to him saying that it should be just like Ansel Adams and his true to life B/W prints. I couldn’t help but to laugh. To be clear, I LOVE great B/W images. But… When was the last time any of us were standing in nature and the scene before us was in B/W? Uh… never. That is just one form of manipulation that has been accepted, as it should. We now live in a photographic world where changing an image to B/W, and working the tones in that image can be done in a few minutes rather than the hours it took Ansel in the darkroom to create his magnificent works. My point is that using tools available today to achieve our artistic vision is not unlike the masters of the past. Study the original images from the great masters like Ansel and compare those to the last versions produced for a lesson in analog Photoshop.

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Loved the article. I always find myself in that dilemma, but I share your thoughts. As long as is close to real, I think is fine. I feel like responsible photographers should be more open with the processing. For me one of the things that struck me is when my 15 year old brother ( who is very into instagram) started to call my pictures fake just because I use photoshop to edit them. Even if I only change contrast and and a little DB he assumed that all pictures that are Photoshoped are fake. And I think that is a problem if the new generations stop trusting photography to be real and more like just pure art then the future is going to be better for the digital artist than for the actual photographer.
Anyway , thanks for sharing man.

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Years ago I belonged to the Palo Alto Camera Club which had monthly competitions that members participated in by submitting 2 slides in each category. On this particular occasion a visiting professional photographer came to publicly critique these submissions. As she looked carefully at one she realized that the sky was fake. The photographer had a blue cardboard ‘sky’ which they had placed behind the flower to provide the perfect background. I can’t tell you how embarrassed this person was at having being discovered of this ‘forgery’. I also believe that she had lost some of the respect of the members in the process.

The subject of this article is discussed fairly often these days. One of the more interesting ones is in Matt Payne’s podcast with guest Charlotte Gibb. Gibb does a fair amount of processing in her images, but she also visits a Yosemite valley meadow repeatedly until the light is just right and takes the image. She goes on further to explain that the problem she has with image manipulation is that she feels she is being ‘duped’. It’s the dishonesty that bothers her. By extension I imagine that ‘duping’ someone is also distasteful to her. So it’s really a question of intent, and her intent is to not dupe anyone. Tony Kuyper’s and now Guy Tal’s images are heavily manipulated but they’re up front about it. Their images don’t pretend to be anything else than what they are.

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Dan,

Although I agree with your basic premise that photography is art and as such is subject to the limitations or lack thereof of the photographer’s or should I say “artist’s” creative license, I disagree totally that is ok to make additions
or deletions to an image than say the image is “what YOU saw”. It is not what you saw. It may be what your minds eye saw but it is not what was really there. That said I don’t mind some dodging or burning or even exposure adjustment, especially in cases where
the photographer couldn’t quite get correct exposure either using bracketing or by waiting for the best light. For example blending two images because the sky would burned out or the foreground too dark, in my opinion is a no, no. I also understand portrait
touch up and image manipulation for commercial use. Other than that, I say make the best image you can, make a choice, sky or foreground, that is where the photographer has to make a judgement but don’t take two images one with great sky and one with great
foreground then blend them and try to excuse it by saying that is what you saw. Now all that said, everyone has a choice and it’s the photographer’s choice so do what you will but don’t try to convince me it’s photography. It may be art but you didn’t make
the image with the camera it was made with software.

Just my 2 cents and worth exactly that.

Great article Dan and an enjoyable read.

I like your point that photography isn’t simply a dichotomy. Just about all of us are somewhere in the middle.

I’m not sure that a fiction/non fiction flag would work. The word photoshop carries such a stigma that anyone flagging anything as fiction will be judged too harshly before their work has been seen. If artists are making fantastical scenes I think it’s appropriate that they don’t mention the place or their experience while it was shot. For me that’s enough.

I don’t consider myself a surrealist but I enjoy others work who are from time to time. It’s usually quiet obvious when there’s compositing etc. especially with Milky Way. A fiction flag would damage the experience. Imagine if you sat down to watch a movie and you received a disclaimer that the movie uses CGI

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Glad to see this article @Dan_Ballard. A little birdy told me it was coming and so I was excited to see it released. Very nicely done.

I’m sure you’re not surprised when I preface my comments… that I have a lot to say.

  1. In my opinion, the power of nature and landscape photography is not necessarily in its ability to approximate reality, it is its power to approximate experience . Obviously we don’t see the world at 14mm or 70mm or even 400mm, but we can use different focal lengths to showcase what it was like to be there. You can also use various post-processing techniques to do the same.
  2. Like you, I have no problems with extreme digital manipulation, but I do believe it is important to tell the viewer what you did and why. This is important because it tells the viewer two things - 1 - that they can’t experience this place, and 2- that their skepticism of photography is well-placed (we should be skeptical of all photography) but that it should not detract for the viewing experience. Additionally, it allows people that appreciate more purist pursuits of photography to move along and not waste their time in dissecting the image.
  3. There is a lot of human motivation, ego, and social-media driven behavior wrapped up in digital manipulation that often transcends the oft-heard excuse that all digitally manipulated photography is art. I’m not buying it. In my opinion, a true artist does not create their best artwork so that they can attract more workshop clients or to get more likes on instagram. They do it because they love it. The psychology behind digitally manipulated images is almost as fascinating as the techniques used. As I’m sure you know, I’ve written an article about this.
  4. Lastly, I know you know about this, because we talked about it in person, but we had a great podcast episode debate about this issue with Alex Nail and Erin Babnik which is worth listening to.

Thanks for writing this one, Dan. I really enjoyed it.

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I believe that photographic art is not made in the camera, nor after the camera. It is made before the camera. Photographic art is seeing art in the natural world and capturing it. You’re recording an artistic vision. Faithfully recording that vision is the photographic experience.

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This is a helpful contribution to this complex topic, Dan. My own practices fall pretty closely to what you described here. I think your most important discussion is the one about how photos that are grounded in reality hold the most power for the viewer. When someone finds out that a scene was manipulated beyond what exists in real life, the power of the viewing experience is significantly diminished.

Creating composites after the fact is a heck of a lot easier in a lot of ways than having everything come together while out in nature. This added challenge is one of the things that keeps me as the photographer engaged in this pursuit. Creating light, significantly altering a scene for composition, or adding a sky has always felt like the easy way out for photographers who want to present their work as “real” - they want the benefits of being seen as presenting an authentic scene while taking shortcuts behind the scenes.

Finally, one reason I personally enjoy black and white photography is that it allows for a much more unrestrained approach because it is an obvious departure from reality. There are few ethical considerations when presenting a photo in black and white because the viewer knows from the first moment that the scene has been altered and isn’t intended to be a presentation of reality.

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George: When saying that blending for a bright sky and dark foreground is not what you saw, you should really say it’s not what the camera saw. Our eyes are capable of a much greater dynamic range than any sensor or film so blending exposures may in fact be much closer to what one really saw. >=))>

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Bill,

I know that and thought about changing it but the point I was making is that a photographer has to make decisions about what is the most important aspect of the scene. There are trade-offs that have to be made but if your manipulate it
after the fact how can the viewer be sure the scene is true at all?

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An effective solution is to provide a ‘before and after’ collage of the image. This leaves no doubts as to how the final image was achieved. I do this frequently on my site, on social media posts, and in my essays. Here’s one:

I’ve been back to this a number of times and continue to ruminate. One thing comes through, and perhaps its a suitable refinement. After pondering the example photos I’d be more comfortable in retitling it “LANDSCAPE Photography and Digital Manipulation: Finding a Middle Ground,” even though there’s plenty of manipulation in other genre of outdoor photography.

To explain, we come from decades as professionals in a photoraphic world (contract/assignment) in which original capture is the emphasis, and submissions are originals otherwise unmanipulated unless specified (and paid for at high $) in the original contract. All manipulation was done by the AD’s and GA’s in the client’s stable after it left our hands.

Interesting enough, that’s representative of a big part of the broad photo world. Think about the documentary, editorial and evidentiary work being done. We’ve all seen the price paid by photographers and publications when documentary or editorial photographs were manipulated. But it runs deeper.

A good friend is an “editor” for evidentiary photography for a large district attorney office, in charge of supervising the photographic chains of evidence and documenting any manipulation of any photos to be used in court. The allowable manipulations are extremely limited and defined in great detail, all based on prior case law. He regularly attends technical conferences devoted to allowable manipulation and the legal process behind them. The presenters are mostly a mix of attorneys, photo editing professionals and reps from photo software companies . Illegal manipulation can be fruitful ground for defense attorneys, and your legal/photographic act had better be clean as a whistle if the case you’re working is to survive. He’s one of the most knowledgeable people I know in computer manipulation, mostly because he has to know what’s NOT allowed while documenting all manipulation in the finest detail.

Dunno what my ramblings add to the conversation beyond the insight that in the larger world, photo manipulation can be a trap if it’s your principal means of producing a great photo. Given the choice, I always opt for more field time and less computer time. I’m more impressed by photos with little manipulation than anything produced by hours in front of the glowing screen.

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My before and after examples leaves no doubt as to what was done to the image :slight_smile: They make it clear I am an artist and photography is one of the medium I use. Here is another one. Let’s call them exhibits A and B :wink: Notice the similarity of the color palette in this example and the one above, particularly in the orange tones, something I am known for.

Excellent, thanks for sharing.

Matt, that podcast episode was great. It’s such a complicated topic and, frankly, I don’t know that there will ever be consensus on how to label variations of photographic editing.

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