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Photo editing is what I love, and I hate who's against it

It always happens. I always find someone who thinks photo editing is a toy for kids, and serious photographers stick with what the camera produces. This is the first rant of my blog, and I’ll write exactly what I think of them. They’re ignorant.

Why do I think they’re ignorant? Because they ignore photography history, ignore what photo editing actually is, and ignore what photography itself is. I hate when someone looks at me from above and says, with a presumption of superiority: “Ah… so you do image editing…”, implying my photography can’t be that good.

Photo editing expresses your vision

If you’re a vision driven photographer, image editing is always good. You make images because you want to express your vision, because you want to interpret the reality. Retouching is a means of expression, and you can do whatever you want with it. Just like a painter, the photographer can “draw” whatever he wants. In fine art photography, everything is allowed, because personal expression isn’t documentary.

The problem seems to rise when we talk about documentary and photojournalism. Picture editing is allowed even there. You just have to put some boundaries to avoid breaking in the deception field. You can’t remove photo editing from your toolbox.

As far as you don’t mislead your audience, you can do whatever you want. In photojournalism, it isn’t ethically correct to manipulate an image in such ways that change the meaning of the picture. That said, you shouldn’t add or remove things from your image, but why should’t you optimize contrast or colors?

Once there was film

The reality has always been modified by the camera and the film inside it. At the beginning, there was only black and white film. Black and white is intrinsically a photo manipulation. The world is in color, and every reproduction of the world without color is a manipulation of reality.

Color film isn’t different. Every film brand and model has a peculiar reaction to light waves. Kodachrome 64 reproduces colors in an extremely different way than the way Fuji Velvia does. That’s why photographers always have their favorite film. That’s a first stage of image editing. The photographer chooses a film for the interpretation of the reality it produces.

In film development there are dozens of ways of altering the look of a picture such as push development, cross processing, bleach bypass, and so on.

In the printing process too, photographers used, and still use, a whole arsenal of tools to retouch their images. Think of dodge and burn, and look at the images of Mario Giacomelli, just to cite one. He extensively burned his pictures. Almost every notable photographer did it, some in a more prominent way than others.

Then, the printer can choose among a plethora of printing processes and mediums, such as silver, uranium, platinum, palladium, and so on. Each giving the image a different tone, contrast and, consequently, mood.

A notable example of photo manipulation in printing comes from the 1954 picture of Dr. Albert Schweitzer by W. Eugene Smith. Besides the tonal adjustments, Smith added in the lower right corner a silhouette of hands coming from another negative. That was to reinforce the figure of Dr. Schweitzer in an almost holy figure, due to the work he was doing in Gabon.

W. Eugene Smith - Dr. Albert Schweitzer Marking Timbers during Construction Project -1954

Copyright © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith (Courtesy of Masters of Photography)

In his explanation, Smith said:

This is the way I see it… that photography has very little of reality in it, and then only on the lower level of simple recognition. Beyond that, in the transmission of inner feeling, I feel that everything that is honest to the situation is honest to the photograph.

Image editing exists since the beginnings of photography

Detractors of picture editing always think this is a modern practice, and a direct derivation of digital photography. I say that digital photography has changed the means of photo editing, but the substance is always the same.

Positive and less positive cases of image editing are recorded since 1860, with a photo montage of a picture of Abraham Lincoln. The image from W. Eugene Smith from above is another example. Then there is the 1982 case of National Geographic putting a manipulated image of the pyramids on the cover of the magazine.

Also, the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii comes to mind. It was 1908 when Prokudin-Gorskii used a complex procedure to make color images without automatic color film. We could say that Prokudin-Gorskii images are a photo manipulation used to represent reality more closely than black and white could do. Is it unethical?

Alim Khan (1880-1944), emir of Bukhara

Alim Khan (1880-1944), emir of Bukhara by Prokudin-Gorskii - Public domain

You can’t be a sheep and shoot RAW without picture editing

It seems the detractors of picture editing focus against digital manipulation, but really, where’s the difference?

The digital era isn’t that different. By now, there are two main types of digital recordings of digital images: RAW and rasterized images ( JPEG, TIF etc.). While RAW is a raw capture of light in front of the camera, rasterized images are an interpretation of that light.

Rasterized images are, in a way, similar to what film does, except it happens in digital form and on fixed parameters. The camera always works in RAW, but when it produces the JPEG, it interprets the data based on some parameters.

RAW images itself are flat and ugly. They have little contrast, turned off and uncalibrated colors, and a low sharpness. To really appreciate an image, you have to process it by means of a RAW processor. This tool does the same the camera does when shooting JPEG, except for giving control to the photographer.

Some months ago a fellow photographer told me the heinous phrase: “Oh… so you do photo retouch…”. I asked if he did, and he proudly told me that he didn’t. Naturally, I asked him if he sets his camera to shoot in JPEG, and he horrified said: “Nooooo, I shoot RAW, because it has a wider dynamic range!”. WHAT? Are you stupid or what?

Don’t be a sheep. Don’t shoot RAW just because everyone says you should do. If you want to shoot RAW—and you should—you have to post process your images. If you are against photo editing, shoot JPEG (and let the camera do post processing for you). That’s a fact.

Photography itself is misleading

We have to distinguish intervention form deception. These are two different but overlapping concepts. Deception happens when the photographer manipulates the image in such a way that makes the viewer believe in something that isn’t real. Intervention happens when the photographer manipulates the image to give his interpretation of, or reinforce the reality.

The problem is: when intervention becomes deception? There isn’t a clear border line. The W. Eugene Smith’s image from above is a clear case of ambiguity. Is that deception or an intervention of the author?

Although I don’t use such manipulations in my images, for me it is an interpretation. It is an interpretation because it doesn’t make the audience believe in something that does not exist. Smith’s manipulation reinforces an idea, it doesn’t change it.

Photography is misleading by itself. Photography doesn’t reproduce reality, it interprets it. The photographer has a great control in this process, but he can’t avoid interpretation. The mere framing process is a manipulation of reality. Choosing to exclude or include something in a composition is an act of intervention. Selective focus is an act of intervention. Can we call it deception?

There are many levels of intervention in an image. Some are subtle, and some are not. Think of flash strobes. They are a means of image manipulation. If a photographer adds light where it doesn’t exist, he is manipulating the image. Is it deception? Has it more dignity than photoshopping? Why?

It seems to be more acceptable if the photo manipulation happens in camera than if it happens out of camera. Also, it seems to be more acceptable a photo manipulation made by old means rather than modern ones. This is stupid.

We have to trust the photographer

After all, we have to trust the photographer. He has the power of deceiving his audience in such subtle ways one can never be able to notice. A photographer has to build trust in his audience, making them understand that he interprets his subjects, but he doesn’t deceive his viewers.

We have to embrace photography as an art. As art, photography is of interpretative nature. It is a vision driven means of expression, and as such, every tool serves the purpose of transmitting what the photographer sees.

Photo editing is a formidable power, and “a great power comes with a great responsibility”, as the uncle of a strange man in tights once said (yes, that’s a citation I use a lot). By the way, that man in tights was a photographer.

I want to clarify that picture editing isn’t an excuse to be sloppy with your camera. You always have to make the effort to produce the best (digital) negative you possibly can. Photo editing is a means of reinforcing your vision, but it isn’t a means to systematically recover bad images just because you can.

Now go out there and start transmitting your vision to your audience. Don’t deceive them, but make them understand your images are your own vision, they’re not the reality.

What do you think of photo editing, is it a means of expression or a deceiving tool? Are you against it (attracting my hate)?


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